Tag Archives: J R R Tolkien

Storytelling ourselves back into a Christian ethic: C S Lewis’s approach to fiction


The Chronicles of Narnia

The Chronicles of Narnia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

C S Lewis wrote his stories to help readers imaginatively indwell a moral tradition. This is an excerpt of the “tradition chapter” draft from my forthcoming Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis:

Teaching through stories

Lewis saw literature’s purpose as “delighting and informing,” with a heavy (didactic) emphasis on the latter, I’d add!—this was famously the source of Tolkien’s low estimation of the Narnia Chronicles.

What Lewis did in his stories was to re-narrate the stories of our traditions, allowing his readers to indwell truths of the past, “Enjoying” them (that is, seeing the world by their light) and not just “Contemplating” them (that is, knowing the analytically and propositionally). This was his practical application of a principle he enunciated like this: “Reason is the organ of truth; imagination is the organ of meaning.” Lewis, like the allegorist Boethius, knew that if we are to pass the meaning of our faith from generation to generation, an excellent way to do so is through story. Continue reading

Where have all the artists gone? Protestant suspicion – and Catholic celebration – of the arts


English: Madonna and child, thought to have be...

English: Madonna and child, thought to have been damaged during the English Civil War, at St Mary’s Roman Catholic church, Brewood, Staffordshire, England. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the “creation chapter” of my forthcoming Getting Medieval with C. S. Lewis, after a brief reflection on the opposite-but-the-same Western tendencies that have crept into our Protestant churches – Gnosticism and materialism – I turn to the arts to see how these tendencies have manifested themselves there.

Evangelicalism and the arts

Let’s put a finer point on the issue by looking briefly at the evangelical Protestant churches and the arts. Where are the arts in modern orthodox Protestantism? One author looks at the century from 1860 to 1960 and finds only C. S. Lewis and T. S. Eliot practicing the creative art of literature to a high degree from an orthodox Protestant stance. During the same period, the Catholics produced an embarrassment of literary riches, from Tolkien and Flannery O’Connor to Gerard Manley Hopkins and Evelyn Waugh. All these, and many other Catholics, were “world-class writers,” and all orthodox Christians. The same seems to be true – perhaps even more so – in other fine arts. Similarly, few evangelicals have excelled in the worlds of television and movies. Indeed, “evangelical Protestants, especially, have not only not shone in the fine arts, they have often opposed such arts or valued them only as vehicles for evangelism, objecting to much of their subject matter.”[1] The author concludes that the problem for Protestants (and the superiority of Roman Catholics) in the arts stems from a difference in approach to Creation. Whereas Protestants often emphasize how fallen Creation and human society are, the theology of the Roman Catholic Church has proved more Creation-positive, and thus more likely to affirm and create images of the world, whether literary or in the visual arts. Continue reading

C S Lewis’s use of story to “train the heart,” per Paul Ford, in the latter’s delightful Companion to Narnia


The Pevensy children and the lamppost

This is me reflecting in my “Tradition chapter” draft (for the forthcoming Getting Medieval with C. S. Lewis) on Paul Ford’s understanding of how C S Lewis used story, in the Narnia Chronicles, to initiate readers into a traditional moral reality by drawing their desires into play. It supports and resonates with this post.

Paul Ford, Companion to Narnia, “Introduction” and “Story”

“Story, Stories” (pp. 412-13)

“The seven books of the Chronicles of Narnia are testament to the fact that Lewis valued stories and story-telling as the best way to transmit values down through the generations. The difference in quality between the New Narnians and the Old Narnians (as personified by Miraz and Prince Caspian) is faith. Miraz thinks fairy tales are for children and to be outgrown, while for Caspian the old stories are his salvation.” (412)

“Introduction,” sub-section “What Is a Story?

There is much wisdom here about story as moral education because it is a key way our emotions are trained. So too tradition: it is handed down as of immense value, it forms our culture’s “ways of seeing,” of “Enjoying” truths by indwelling them and using them to “see other things by”—like “looking along the beam” rather than “looking at the beam”—the latter being the analytical mode that Lewis calls Contemplating, rather than Enjoying.

The nature of the education that story gives us is described by Gilbert Meilaender, quoted at length in this section: “‘Moral education . . . does not look much like teaching. One cannot have classes in it. It involves the inculcation of proper emotional responses and is as much a ‘knowing how’ as a ‘knowing that.’ . . . The picture we get when we think of ‘knowing how’ is the apprentice working with the master. And the inculcation of right emotional responses [see “men without chests” image in Abolition of Man] will take place only if the youth has around him examples of men and women for whom such responses have become natural. . . . Lewis, like Aristotle, believes that moral principles are learned indirectly from others around us, who serve as exemplars Continue reading

How C S Lewis used story to initiate the reader into a traditional moral vision by awakening desire


Fairies RingThis rough clip is from the “Tradition” chapter of my forthcoming Getting Medieval with C. S. Lewis. The burden of the “Lewis introduction” of the chapter is that Lewis saw himself, vocationally, as a “traditioner” for a generation losing touch with its roots. This bit explores how Lewis sought to carry out that vocation (at least in part) through storytelling.

I believe, through Paul Ford’s Companion to Narnia, I’ve been led to the key to my chapter on tradition and Lewis’s relationship to tradition and our need for it. The key is how, through re-narrating the stories of our traditions, through narrative form, we are led to indwell truths of the past, Enjoying them (“looking along the beam” of sunlight, and seeing all things by it) and not just Contemplating them (“looking at the beam,” and seeing only the dust motes floating in it). This is what Lewis did in his stories, per Ford in his section on “Stories” in the introduction to his Companion.

It is as Lewis said: Reason is the organ of truth; imagination is the organ of meaning. Therefore if we are to pass the meaning of our faith from generation to generation, it must be done through story. Remarkably, Lewis succeeded in doing that, in even passing the meaning of faith to other generations—to the generation of children (like the kids he had staying with him during the Evacuation) by means of his stories. Stories do this—they allow us to indwell imaginatively a world of meaning, by showing us examples of it (of that meaning, ethics, spirituality) which train our affections, which give us new habituses in ways that mere doctrinal catechesis can never do. Continue reading

Jazz, entrepreneurship, and tradition


Keith Jarrett

As an enthusiastic jazz fan and an appreciator of business entrepreneurship, I enjoy watching folks make it up as they go along. Nothing affirms my sense of human beings as “co-creators” with God (a favored term of that great co-creator, J R R Tolkien) more than listening to the swooping, soaring melodic lines of a skilled jazz musician. Nothing hits me more powerfully with the great practical power of creative thinking than seeing an entrepreneur take the germ of an idea and spin it out into products, services, jobs that turn raw materials into something of value to the world.

But as a historian, I am reminded that when true jazz musicians hear an improviser who has not studied the traditions handed down through generations of jazz men and women . . . they shake their heads and turn away. And when veteran businesspeople see a young wannabe rushing out to potential consumers without proper understanding of their needs, or building financial castles without grounding in economic knowledge and financial principles . . . they wince, knowing the inevitable failure that will follow.

So why can’t the American church learn this lesson? Why do we keep rushing to and fro launching all our creative ministries, church growth strategies, and grand “missional” plans, unequipped with even a basic acquaintance of those giants whose shoulders we are standing on? What is it that, unlike any other craft or business on earth, leads us to think that we can ignore history and still succeed? Why do we think we can bypass 2,000 years of wise thinking (and lessons learned the hard way) about the Gospel, about what it is to Be The Church, and bring our fevered plans about how to “Do Church” to fruitful reality?

OK, flame off. As you were. I’m going to go think about New Years Resolutions . . . AND the Great Cloud of Witnesses.

And by the way: R.I.P. Dave Brubeck–one of the greats. And long live Keith Jarrett (pictured above), a living legend and influencer of a whole new generation of skilled, creative players.

The Intuitive Medievalism of C S Lewis (Kalamazoo 2011 paper)


Finally this year, I earned my keep at the International Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo, MI by presenting a paper. For as long as some folks remember, there have been slews of sessions on J R R Tolkien, and a resounding silence on C S Lewis. This seems passing odd, given that Lewis contributed more to the field of medieval studies than did Tolkien. My theory for the many Tolkien sessions is that so many medievalists first got into their field under the influence of the grand master of fantasy.

In any case, two sessions of three papers each were presented at Kalamazoo 2011 on the subject of Lewis’s and the “Discarded Image” (the medievals’ worldview as he presented it to his Cambridge students, published posthumously in the the book of the same name). Here is my contribution to the second of those sessions. As always, reproduction of all or any part of the following without prior written consent by me is strictly prohibited.

The Intuitive Medievalism of C. S. Lewis

Paper given May 15, 2011, International Medieval Congress, Kalamazoo, MI

Two words in my title require some explanation. “Medievalism” is the easier of the two, I take it to denote the ways people since the Middle Ages have appropriated, reframed, and selectively highlighted medieval culture, to fit their own questions and agendas. Lewis was, professionally, a professor of literature, and he spent much time reading, teaching, and producing scholarly works on the Middle Ages, both its literature and its culture. And of course we needn’t go far in the work of Lewis, or of such of his modern friends as Tolkien, Williams, and Sayers, to find that the varied versions of “the medieval” plied by these authors were full of distinctly modern, or more accurately, anti-modern, concerns. Continue reading

Story, the imagination, the sacramental: J R R Tolkien, C S Lewis, and Charles Williams


A fine essay in Colin Duriez‘s J. R. R. Tolkien Handbook (Baker, 1992) opens up the topic of the theology of story. Though the handbook focuses on Tolkien, this particular essay ranges richly between Tolkien, Lewis, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield, and even a bit of G K Chesterton. (Again, the following uses my typical abbreviations; “xn” is Christian, “xnty” Christianity, “T” is Tolkien.)

I appreciate in this essay especially Duriez’s keen grasp of the romantic underpinnings of the theological meaning of story and imagination for the Inklings, as well as the sacramental element in Williams’s and Tolkien’s thought (what Williams identifies as “the Affirmative Way”). My overall comment on the usefulness of this essay to my “Medieval Wisdom for Modern Protestants” project follows, and then the essay itself sprinkled with a few of my notes

[Duriez’s essay on Tolkien and Christianity, from the same book, is here.]

Continue reading