C.S. Lewis in the Dock
Forthcoming next month is a film of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the first of C.S. Lewiss popular childrens stories of the land of Narnia. Lewis, of course, was a noted Christian apologist, and these books are informed by religious allegory that drives liberals nuts.
So its about time for a new attack on the man, and sure enough, it comes in The New Yorker, where Adam Gopnik, often an interesting and intelligent writer, belittles Lewiss work in a way I can describe only as catty.
Gopnik concedes that the Narnia stories are classics in the only sense that matters books that are read a full generation after their author has gone but he dislikes the authors overtly religious books. So he harps on what he chooses to call Lewiss religiosity, with its overtones of aggressive sanctimony.
In just his first four paragraphs, Gopnik writes of Lewiss conservative religiosity, his bullying brand of religiosity, and his narrow-hearted religiosity. Would someone please send this man a thesaurus?
Im not sure how a book can be bullying, but Im sure the term hardly does justice to Lewiss gently persuasive defense of Christianity in The Problem of Pain, Miracles, Mere Christianity, and other books. These are classics by Gopniks own standard: they sell millions of copies a full generation after Lewiss death on November 22, 1963. If Lewiss readers felt they were being bullied, why would they read him so eagerly?
It gets worse. Gopnik cant stand Lewiss racism, finds him nasty, a prig, a very odd kind of Christian, and so on. He speaks of his weird and complicated sex life with a sadomasochistic tinge. Lewiss school days, Gopnik suggests, made him a warped, morbid, stammering sexual pervert. (In liberal discourse, only a heterosexual Christian can incur the charge of a sexual perversion. Ask Mel Gibson.)
Lewis conceives God as a dispenser of vacuous bromides, and Gopnik assures us that believing cut Lewis off from writing well about belief, for a belief that needs this much work to believe in isnt really a belief but a very strong desire to believe. At bottom, Lewis had a bad conscience and an uncertain personal faith. The Narnia stories, in many ways, are actually anti-Christian; Lewis didnt realize this, but Gopnik does.
Im afraid Gopnik hasnt read the C.S. Lewis millions of other readers have treasured. He has missed Lewiss point not a very difficult one, really about the virtue of faith. Belief is something you have or dont have; but faith is an act of will and fortitude, which is why we speak of keeping or breaking faith.
A child may know perfectly well that the water is safe and that anyone can learn to swim, but still allow himself to succumb to fear of the water when he actually gets into it. The problem isnt the childs beliefs about the water; its his irrational panic. In the same way, Lewis explains in Christian Reflections, we may believe intellectually, but allow our moods and passions to weaken our faith when we are tempted.
When our faith fails, it isnt usually because of any rational doubt. Reason isnt opposed to faith; its opposed to the passions (the word is cognate with passive; were truly active only when we act rationally). In spite of all the clichés equating intelligence with doubt, the loss of faith doesnt occur in the intellect, but in the will. Lewis understood this; but the clever Gopnik seems not to.
Nor did Lewis present Gods message as vacuous bromides. He saw it as just the opposite: a love so consuming that our natural reaction to it is shock, almost terror. Lewis specifically rejects bland and comforting bromides: God is truly our Father, though we might prefer him to be (I love this image) a kindly grandfather in heaven, a senile benevolence who, as they say, liked to see young people enjoying themselves.
Gods love is fierce, burning, and, like the love of any real father, troubling; he demands that we love him back with all of our energy. In truth, God loves us far more than we want to be loved. At times his love feels to us like hatred and tyranny. No wonder were tempted to hate him.
Bromides, eh? For my part, I can say only that in his quiet way, C.S. Lewis has, like no other writer Ive ever read, brought home to me some frightening truths frightening, yet also consoling. And in his Narnia tales, he found a way to convey them to children too.
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