Tag Archives: Chronicles of Narnia

C S Lewis and the translation of medieval Creation-focus for today


OutOfTheSilentPlanetIt’s always hard to do the cultural translation necessary to benefit from the lessons of a past age. We are not medieval people. We don’t believe that lions are born dead and resurrected by the breath of their parents three days later, or that pelicans revive their dead young by piercing their own bodies and feeding their blood to them. Nor are we as ready to see God in every roadside shrine, storm, or twist of fortune. So how are we to appropriate the sense of the wonder and “livingness” of creation, and the sacramentalism, of that earlier age? At the end of the creation chapter of Getting Medieval with C S Lewis, I return to Lewis for answers

Finally, however, how are we to derive new practice from the age of unicorns and self-mutilating pelicans? Isn’t it a bit much to ask moderns to accept all this neoplatonic mysticism and fanciful symbolism? Once again we turn to our guide, C. S. Lewis. Lewis represented the medieval balance on creation nicely.

Lewis appreciated both the material world’s quiddity (‘thatness’) and its sacramentality (its quality of pointing beyond itself to another world). From his first Oxford friend, A. K. Hamilton Jenkin, he got, as he put it, an “education as a seeing, listening, smelling, receptive creature.” Walking about with Jenkin, he learned “in a squalid town to seek out those very places where its squalor rose to grimness and almost grandeur, on a dismal day to find the most dismal and dripping wood, on a windy day to seek the windiest ridge,” and so “rub one’s nose in the very quiddity of each thing, to rejoice in its being (so magnificently) what it was.” (199)

Not only was this quiddity of things something to be enjoyed, but it also pointed us to objective truth. The beauty of a waterfall was something inherent to the waterfall – not a trick of the subjective mind of a human. And Lewis was actually concerned for the souls of those who did not see this (in his Abolition of Man). He knew that when a person saw a he waterfall, they were seeing both water and something infinitely greater. Toward the end of his life he wrote to a friend about his aging and increasingly malfunctioning body: “I have a kindly feeling for the old rattle-trap. Through it God showed me that whole side of His beauty which is embodied in colour, sound, smell and size.”

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Getting medieval on matter – C. S. Lewis and “stuff”


This morning I’m going to try to knock out some C. S. Lewis material for the “creation chapter” in Getting Medieval with C S Lewis. Since Joe Ricke’s invitation to submit an abstract for the 2014 International Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo, Michigan came as I was working on this chapter, here’s what I shot back to him. In some form, it will work its way into this chapter:

When he contemplated the material world, Lewis appreciated both its quiddity (‘thatness’) and its sacramentality (its quality of pointing beyond itself to another world). He loved a good storm – and the stormier the better – just because of it being so marvelously what it was. He appreciated the beauty of a waterfall as something inherent and objective – and was concerned for the souls of those who did not (in his Abolition of Man).But he also appreciated that when he saw the waterfall, he was seeing both water and something infinitely greater. Toward the end of his life he wrote to a friend about his aging and increasingly malfunctioning body: “I have a kindly feeling for the old rattle-trap. Through it God showed me that whole side of His beauty which is embodied in colour, sound, smell and size.”

Lewis really did believe he could see God’s own beauty through his sense perceptions of the material. Continue reading

Ethically stunted? The moral morass of Evangelical America


Circles of hellOne of the chapters of my forthcoming Getting Medieval with C S Lewis pulls the threads of that 20th-century moral philosopher (for that was what he was, at his core) for his medieval and classical ethical sources.

Befitting a book that proposes to unpack for evangelical readers a “care package” from what most would consider a very unlikely source – the Middle Ages – I am doing my best song and dance to draw them in. Part of that is putting “Saint Lewis” on the cover. But another part is starting each chapter with a clear and compelling portrayal of “the modern situation” (if you like, postmodern situation) that we find ourselves in: the problem that needs fixing.

This is only classic marketing protocol: state the problem, then give the solution. I’ll let you judge whether I manage to do this well in this draft of the introduction to the chapter tentatively titled “The moral fabric of medieval faith”:

I had finished the first year of my seminary Masters program. Back home, my evangelical pastor pulled me into his office: “How can I address the character issues in my congregation without seeming legalistic? Anything I say on morality seems to pull against the Gospel message of grace!” The question was heartfelt. But after a full year in a church history program, I was at a loss for a helpful answer. 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

We must not abdicate the theological task – a word from C S Lewis and the medievals


Henry became a Cistercian under the influence ...

Bernard of Clairvaux united love of God and attention to theology: he was NOT the opponent of philosophical theology that many portray him as.

Another draft clip from the “passion for theology” chapter of my forthcoming Getting Medieval with C. S. Lewis:

So, Lewis sought wisdom through philosophy, and that wisdom led him on a path to Christianity. But he never stopped being a philosopher—even in writing his famous children’s books. One remembers Professor Digory’s exclamation in The Last Battle: “It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them at these schools!”

For us, on the other hand, the temptation is perhaps the opposite—having found Christianity, we see no use for a reasoned exploration of Truth. What Lewis and the medievals can help us know is that we evangelicals cannot content ourselves with seeking after the charismatic experience of the “beauty of God’s holiness,” or even with the practical pursuit of that holiness in our own hearts and actions. As the classical philosophers taught all subsequent generations, Beauty and Goodness are but two of our proper ends. The third is Truth. For ultimately a beautiful and good life can only remain so if we live it in the light of Truth. And since Christians would agree with all theists that God is the source of Truth, we must turn to God as the first and most proper subject for reasoned inquiry. Which is to say, none of us—even the simplest and most untutored—can abdicate our responsibility (and privilege) as theologians.

For most of us, this will never mean grasping the intricacies of philosophical theology; that is the job of academic theologians, as it is of the pastors they train to grasp at least the bones and sinews of theology (seminaries certainly have as their primary task the training of theologically intelligent pastors). But all Christians are theologians in other ways. First and most simply, as the Orthodox tradition has always insisted, to pray is to do theology.[1] Second, to do theology is also to listen carefully to our pastors and teachers and to read Scripture in the light of the Tradition they pass on to us—for most of us, this is the most important way we do theology.

If we don’t seek and have Truth in our “inmost parts,” then we have confusion, self-contradiction. We have a weak basis for life. And again, in the Western tradition in which most of my readers have been formed, philosophy has always been a way of life. So my argument to modern Christians in this chapter is: blow the dust off the theological tomes. Steal theological pursuits back from the academics, because those pursuits are about life. They are not about making a career or speaking only to others in a technical discipline. As Anselm of Canterbury was, we too must be about “faith seeking understanding.” And we could find much worse guides in that pursuit than such medieval theologians as Anselm, Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas Aquinas . . . and pointing back to these, C.S. Lewis as the self-styled “dinosaur”—the “native speaker” who  translates their medieval ideas for us.[2]


[1] The early “desert theologian” Evagrius Pontus is said to have put it like this: “He who is a theologian prays truly, and he who prays truly is a theologian.”

[2] By the way, by distinguishing Truth from Beauty and Goodness, I do not mean to divide what neither medieval thinkers nor Lewis divided. For instance, Lewis begins his famous essay on natural law and virtue ethics, The Abolition of Man, with a challenge against two textbook authors who claim that beauty is only in the eye of the beholder. He insists that on the contrary, beauty is actually present in objects, independent of our perception of them. There is thus, for example, a truth-telling quality of Beauty, so to speak, in a waterfall. And from that truth-telling quality, we can derive (and Lewis does derive, in that essay) the broader principle that there is also moral truth embedded in the nature of things. So here we have Beauty, Truth, and Goodness, all together. To paraphrase Robert Louis Wilken (from his wonderful The Spirit of Early Christian Thought), the great engine driving the search for theological truth, and even perhaps to a degree scientific truth, the early and medieval church history, is not idle or sterile intellectual curiosity, but rather is the desire to know how to live in the light of our Creator God’s love for his creation—the pursuit not only of the true, but also of the good, and indeed the beautiful.

C S Lewis and “medieval morality”


The following are some thoughts on how C S Lewis will figure as a “guide” into the look and feel of the “moral fabric of the Middle Ages,” and how that fabric differs from our own. It’s basically me grinding away at the grist for this Medieval Wisdom for Modern Protestants book.

My argument in this chapter is not that Christianity—either in the medieval period or any other period—has taught some distinctive morality, or even that it taught that morality in a distinctive way (although it did, from the earliest years of the church, as Robert Louis Wilken persuasively argues in The Spirit of Early Christian Thought). Rather, my argument is that today, Protestants, especially evangelicals, have fallen so in love with Luther’s (Augustine’s) message of grace, and have so spiritualized their faith (I almost said Gnosticized, and sometimes I wonder) that questions of morality have receded from view. So we need to hear again from a time (the Middle Ages) when Christianity structured not only people’s worship, but also their moral lives. Continue reading

Summary of chapter 8: The Incarnation and the embodiedness of the Christian life


In the second half of the medieval era, an age infatuated with the details of the Gospel accounts, no scene was painted more than the Annunciation: the angels’ announcement to Mary that the Son of God would be incarnated in her womb. What we miss today about the devotion to Mary that rose to new heights in that period is that it was first and foremost a devotion to the Incarnation as the key fact of salvation history. We tend today to skip over the Incarnation, seeing it as merely a necessary step to the cross and the substitutionary atonement. Late medievals, too, paid devotional attention to the crucifixion, but as with their devotion to the Incarnation, the focus here was squarely on the miracle that God, in his love, has become flesh for us, suffering all that we suffer, in solidarity with us. Continue reading