Tag Archives: literature

C S Lewis as medieval moral philosopher – a snippet from my forthcoming Getting Medieval with C S Lewis


C S LEWIS IN THE EAGLE & CHILD - OXFORD

C S LEWIS IN THE EAGLE & CHILD – OXFORD (Photo credit: summonedbyfells)

Still working away today on the “moral fabric of medieval faith” chapter of my book Getting Medieval with C S Lewis. Having opened the chapter with a statement of the “modern problem,” I intend to turn next to Lewis.

So far the shape this “Lewis section” is taking is that I open with a brief reminder of Lewis’s development in ethical thinking, then move to his defense of objective value, then show how his highest and most lasting form of moral discourse was actually his imaginative fiction – and along the way indicate at every step the debts he owed to medieval understandings.

The draft is still much longer than it should be – unwieldy and circuitous. But posting these things here has always helped me work through them, especially as people have responded with comments. So this is an invitation: What works here for you? What doesn’t? Where can I trim, reorganize, compress? What is confusing or redundant?

Introduction [to lewis section]

Lewis walked cultural ground sown with the seeds of this modern situation: denial of objective value, lack of a coherent social ethic, moral passivity and blame-shifting, and a failure to pass on a moral framework to the next generation through the training of what he called the “moral sentiments.” He would point out to us, as he did to his own day, that it is no good skewering the younger generation’s failures when we, their elders, have failed to teach them well. “In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests [that is, well-trained moral sentiments] and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”

These are Lewis’s words in his seminal short essay The Abolition of Man. And the same analysis also echoed through the pages of his imaginative writings – yes, the Narnia Chronicles, but also, and more explicitly, the Screwtape Letters, the Great Divorce, and the Space Trilogy: Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength. In such works, Lewis worked out in the flesh-and-blood form of characters and events not just the moral problems facing modern society, but their solution: the graced renovation of the human heart. Indeed I would argue that in everything Lewis wrote, non-fiction or fiction, he wrote first of all as a (Christian) moral philosopher. Continue reading

AUDIO LECTURES: Which 10 books most influenced C S Lewis?


cs-lewis-pensiveI just read that I’m now a “distinguished guest speaker.” Checked quickly in the mirror: doesn’t look like I have any more grey hairs . . .

Anyhow, the Madison C S Lewis Society has just posted the audio of a tremendous series of nine top scholars, plus me, speaking at their Oct 2012 conference on the ten books that most influenced C S Lewis. I’ve got to say this was the most stimulating conference I’ve attended in a long, long time.

These were the books Lewis listed toward the end of his life in answer to a question from the American magazine The Christian Century about which books had most influenced his “sense of vocation and philosophy of life.” My assignment: to discuss how Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, of which the medievalist Lewis said, “To acquire a taste for it is almost to become naturalized in the Middle Ages,” influenced the Oxford don.

Appropriate to my activities these days in Bethel Seminary’s Work with Purpose initiative, in this talk I pay particular attention to the question of how Lewis saw his own vocation as a public intellectual attempting to preserve and recommend the Old Western Christian tradition.

The link is here. (In my bit, the talk is around 40 minutes; the lively Q&A at the end is perhaps the most interesting part: you may just want to skip ahead!) And here is the full list of books and speakers:

The Idea of the Holy by Rudolf Otto presented by Dr. Adam Barkman from Redeemer University College. 
The Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell presented by Dr. Paul Tankard from the University of Otago, NZ. 
Theism and Humanism by Arthur James Balfour presented by Dr. Charles Taliferro from St. Olaf College. 
The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius presented by Dr. Chris Armstrong from Bethel University. 
Phantastes by George MacDonald presented by Dr. David Neuhouser from Taylor University 
The Temple by George Herbert presented by Dr. Don King from Montreat College. 
The Everlasting Man by G. K. Chesterton presented by Dr. Donald T. Williams from Toccoa Falls College. 
Descent Into Hell by Charles Williams presented by Dr. Holly Ordway, Houston Baptist University. 
The Aeneid by Virgil presented by Dr. Louis Markos from Houston Baptist University. 
The Prelude by William Wordsworth presented by Dr. Mary Ritter from New York University. 

A new translation of “The Death of King Arthur”


Arthur and Mordred, The Boys' King Arthur

Here’s a ringing review and tasty samples of a new translation of “The Death of King Arthur,” done by Simon Armitage, from The Guardian [UK].

Hat tip to Alan Jacobs of Wheaton College for bringing this to my attention on his tumblr blog.

The review is here.

And here is a sample of this newly translated epic:

The startled glutton glared gruesomely,
grinned like a greyhound with grisly fangs
then groaned and glowered with a menacing grimace,
growling at the good King who greeted him angrily.
His mane and his fringe were filthily matted
and his face was framed in half a foot of foam.
His face and forehead were flecked all over
like the features of a frog, so freckled he seemed.
He was hook-beaked like a hawk, with a hoary beard,
and his eyes were overhung with hairy brows.
To whomever looked hard, as harsh as a hound-fish
was the hide of that hulk, from head to heel.
His ears were huge and a hideous sight,
His eyes were horrid, abhorrent and aflame,
His smile was all sneer, like a flat-mouthed flounder,
and like a bear his fore-teeth were fouled with rank flesh,
and his black, bushy beard grew down to his breast.
He was bulky as a sea-pig with a brawny body,
and each quivering lump of those loathsome lips
writhed and rolled with the wrath of a wolf’s head.
He was broad across the back, with the neck of a bull,
badger-breasted with the bristles of a boar,
had arms like oak boughs, wrinkled by age,
and the ugliest loins and limbs, believe me.
He shuffled his shanks, being shovel-footed,
and his knock-kneed legs were abnormally knuckled.
He was thick in the thigh and like an ogre at the hips,
and as gross as a grease-fed pig, a gruesome sight.
He who mindfully measured that monster’s dimension
from face to foot would have found it five fathoms.

Neat series on John Milton’s Christian poem, Paradise Lost


English: Picturefirst published in the 1861's ...

Image from 1861 British edition of Paradise Lost

Found on Alan Jacobs’ excellent blog filled with snippets from the cyberworld, this neat series in the Guardian on John Milton’s Paradise Lost. A snippet (the one Alan presents, too):

By the time Milton reaches Book VII he has come to a kind of accord with his own frustration. All right, he says: I can’t get up to heaven, and if I try I “fall/Erroneous”. Writing purely about God, he comments, is like being an amateur rider on a particularly frisky winged horse. Humanity is the proper perspective for poetic endeavour; so he asks the Christian muse, Urania, to carry him downwards and deposit him safe in his “Native Element”. He will write now about the earth: about its nature, its making; about its creatures; about relationships and sex and intellectual curiosity and mistakes and sorrow and “the human face divine”.

This is most deeply God’s place to speak through his poet, he points out; singing amid violence; taking love into hell; readying himself for sacrifice, to be destroyed by the blind desires of an angry mob. The figure with whom he identifies in connection with this role is Orpheus, the prototype poet of myth. But, of course, he is thinking about Christ too, who in Christian theology is God suffering all that humans inflict on each other. There won’t be much explicit scope for Christ in Paradise Lost. But Milton sees his own position – surrounded by rabid Royalists, “fall’n on evil dayes”, slandered by “evil tongues” – as Christlike. In the face of violence, Milton too will sing.

C S Lewis is important, but “still not Jesus”!


Statue of C.S. Lewis looking into a wardrobe. Entitled "The Searcher" by Ross Wilson. Photo credit: "Genvessel" (Flickr)

H/t to my Baker editor Bob Hosack for passing along a Huffpost meditation on evangelical Americans’ obsession with C. S. Lewis. The article, by Princeton graduate student in religion Ryan Harper, is entitled “The American Evangelical Love Affair with C.S. Lewis: Why He’s Important But Still Not Jesus”:

The causes for Lewis’s influence are numerous. He grew up in the church, became an atheist and returned to Christianity. The Oxford don has sacred and secular imprimatur, carrying the inheritance of both the prodigal son returned and the wise Greek redeemed. His writing is charming and concise, tinged with a cool, incisive English wit that plays well in an American evangelical milieu that delights in the courtly muses of the British Isles. Churchill, U2, The Lord of the Rings, The Screwtape Letters: stuff evangelical white people like.

Above all, Lewis means a lot to evangelicals because he argues against a number of “-isms” many evangelicals find troubling: atheism, secularism, humanism, materialism, naturalism, subjectivism and moral relativism. Continue reading

Tolkien’s Christianity: An insightful essay


If you are a J R R Tolkien fan, you owe it to yourself to pick up one of the several excellent Tolkien & “Inklings” reference books by my friend Colin Duriez. Colin has great insight into Tolkien, Lewis, et al. Here I’m posting his essay “Christianity, Tolkien and,” from the wonderful J. R. R. Tolkien Handbook (Baker, 1992) (the following uses my typical abbreviations; “xn” is Christian, “xnty” Christianity, “T” is Tolkien):

[If this topic interests you, may I also recommend the issue of Christian History & Biography I edited on Tolkien. It's available here. You can also browse previews of the issue's articles here. For Duriez's equally fine essay on the "theology of story" implicit in the work of C S Lewis, J R R Tolkien, and Charles Williams, see here.]

Christianity, Tolkien and

“According to Paul H. Kocher, T was inspired and guided on his way by the mythology of Denmark, Germany, Norway and especially Iceland (see MYTH; IMAGINATION). The Norse pantheon of gods was headed by Odin. This is particularly clear as embodied in the Icelandic Elder Edda and Younger Edda, and the Icelandic sagas. As a Christian, T rejected much of the Norse world outlook, but admired its imaginative power. Those elements that he could transform into xn meaning, he kept. Continue reading

Wisdom on our work and vocations, both secular and spiritual


Cover of "Leading Lives That Matter: What...

Almost every seminary president and board chair in North America receives the magazine InTrust, from InTrust, an organization dedicated to helping seminaries provide excellent theological education. For the magazine, which is edited by my friend from Duke days Jay Blossom, I reviewed two anthologies of wisdom on work and vocation from a Christian perspective:

Wise words: Voices from the church on vocation and calling
Chris R. Armstrong
In modern North America, the question “What am I supposed to do with my life and why?” is both focal and vexed. Our pragmatic society focuses on work and career so much that our first question on meeting a new friend is “What do you do?” Given this national obsession, it would be reasonable (but wrong) to expect North Americans to drink deeply from centuries of reflections about this thing called “work.” Continue reading

“The Incarnation is the most dramatic thing that ever entered into the mind of man; but if you tell people so, they stare at you in bewilderment.” Dorothy Sayers


Cover of

An excellent book on the theology of Dorothy Sayers–indeed the only such book that I know of–is George Fox University professor Laura K. Simmons’s Creed Without Chaos (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005). Simmons goes methodically through Sayers’s theological thought, stopping at one point to examine the writer’s handling of the Incarnation:

77: “The dogma of the Incarnation is the most dramatic thing about Christianity,” Dorothy L. Sayers wrote in October 1937, “and indeed, the most dramatic thing that ever entered into the mind of man; but if you tell people so, they stare at you in bewilderment.”One of the doctrines on which Sayers reflected perhaps more than any other was the incarnation. A proper understanding of Christ’s essence, character, and mission on earth was “the difference between pseudo-Christianity and Christianity,” she wrote in June of 1945. The relationship between the God who created the world and God’s Son, Jesus, who walked in it, was a crucial part of her theology. Continue reading

Glimpses of C S Lewis’s The Discarded Image


C. S. Lewis‘s The Discarded Image (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964) is a key text in my course “Medieval Wisdom for Modern Ministry.” Though it is studded with an erudite array of quotations and references that can prove daunting for the newcomer, this is a tremendous introductory survey on the medieval thought-world. The book’s central argument is that medievals held a certain idea of the cosmos not as a sort of random and trivial scientific fact, but as a living, pulsing image, worthy of allegiance and indeed love. He demonstrates this argument persuasively, and along the way challenges us to compare that image (which has the drawback of not being scientifically true, but a number of advantages too) with our own.

The following are quotations and brief passages I marked while reading the book. Continue reading

Beyond C S Lewis: Glimpses of 20th-century British literary Christians from biographer Joseph Pearce


Cover of "Literary Converts: Spiritual In...

A Christian literary feast

One of the more fascinating books I’ve read in the last 10 years is a sort of group biography by the prolific Catholic writer Joseph Pearce. Called Literary Converts (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2000), this sprawling account leads us through a surprisingly large and varied network of 20th-century British literary Christians. Here are G. K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Evelyn Waugh, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Ronald Knox, T. S. Eliot, Dorothy L. Sayers, and many more. They all play their part in the spread of Christianity in English literary culture after the spiritual doldrums of the 1910s and 20s.

Pearce weaves themes and connections that will grip any fan of those writers who shares their faith. His keen eye for the telling detail, the revealing vignette, and the colorful anecdote make this book both a rich resource and a pleasure to read, if you can forgive the Roman Catholic triumphalism that emerges here and there along the way. Continue reading