Tag Archives: story

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

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

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

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

Why do postmoderns need saints? Sometimes we just need to hear stories


It’s hard to believe that my first book has been out for nearly a year. Though that quixotic measure of success, my Amazon sales ranking, has lately tumbled into the doldrums, I’ve been told the book will be given as a graduation gift this year to students in various Bethel Seminary programs and locations. How nice! And people around here are still regularly stopping me to tell me about their favorite bits. That’s a precious dividend for a five years’ investment of research and writing. It gives me a little lift as I work on the next book.

Back in August ’09 when Patron Saints for Postmoderns came out, CT editor David Neff gave me the opportunity to think out loud on the CT history blog about why I think reading the stories of dead Christians matters to the faithful in this “postmoderrn” 21st century. This was my response:

Why do postmoderns need saints?

Sometimes we just need to hear stories.

by Chris Armstrong

patronsaintspostmoderns.JPG

Well, it really exists now. My first book (beyond the dissertation, which is a whole different animal). It’s called Patron Saints for Postmoderns (InterVarsity Press), and it was midwifed by my unfailingly patient and encouraging editor, Cindy Bunch. I will spare readers the usual excited yelps and smug self-back-patting of the first-time author. But CT editor and co-blogger David Neff has invited me to talk a bit about the book this week, so I will.

David said I might ask and answer a question like this: Why do postmoderns need saints?

Well, many of us may not feel like it (many of my students don’t), but we’re all postmoderns, I suppose: We live in a secularized age in which all traditions, commitments, codes of life have been exploded and the bits lie scattered over our psychic landscape. The church hasn’t escaped this holocaust of traditions either, of course, and our church lives have a ramshackle, cobbled-together feel too. Continue reading

Lent, 1938: Dorothy L Sayers becomes a public theologian


How Dorothy L. Sayers became a public theologian and an apologist to rival C. S. Lewis (clip from my Patron Saints for Postmoderns):

During the season of Lent in 1938, Sayers wrote an article for the
[London] Times in Chestertonian mode: “Official Christianity . . . has been having
what is known as a bad press. We are constantly assured that the
churches are empty because preachers insist too much upon doctrine.
. . . The fact is the precise opposite. . . . The Christian faith is the most
exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man . . . and the
dogma is the drama.” From then on, she became something of a public
theologian, writing essays with titles such as “What Do We Believe?”
“The Other Six Deadly Sins” and “The Triumph of Easter.” Her opinions
were increasingly sought not just on detective fiction, but on matters
religious, and she found in this arena of activity something between a
vocation and a distraction. She wanted to awaken a sleeping church and
insist that it reclaim for its own the doctrines of the historic creeds—
strict in form, hallowed by usage and communicating powerful realities
that had been lost under layer upon layer of well-meaning but stuffy
“clergy jargon,” putting the congregations to sleep. But she frequently
protested that if the clergy had been doing their jobs, a layperson such
as herself would not have had to speak on such matters. Their failure to
proclaim the gospel clearly had left the people “in a nightmare of muddle
out of which [they] have to be hauled by passing detective novelists
in a hurry and with no proper tackle.”

Haul them out she did, though, both by writing her theological essays
and by answering the hundreds of letters laypeople wrote to her with
their spiritual questions. But she insisted that all this “theological writing”
was not her proper business. She was a storyteller who had happened
to have written a play or two representing a coherent, orthodox
view of the faith, and it was storytelling that was her true art and
vocation.

For more on Dorothy L Sayers as public theologian, see my Patron Saints for Postmoderns or, even better, the fascinating book by George Fox University professor Laura Simmons, Creed without Chaos: Exploring Theology in the Writings of Dorothy L. Sayers.