On Christian literature

For a long time, one of my guilty pleasures was reading the English novelist/Christian apologist/lit professor C. S. Lewis; my particular favorite was his novel That Hideous Strength, the finale in what’s usually called his sci fi trilogy. As guilty pleasures go, that’s probably not very shocking, and of course I’ve had lots of others that are worse. But it definitely qualifies for the guilty pleasure label. Through the 1970s, occasionally rereading Strength and the others provided me that mix of calm and distraction you want in any escapism product, along with the characteristic guilty pleasure unease– that feeling that I wasn’t living up to my better self, that I should have been using the time to improve my German or read Henry James or vacuum the house.

Plus there’s a fair amount in Lewis that an atheist pinko like me should feel guilty about enjoying. His novels tend to feature straightforward struggles between good and evil (no surprise, given his Christian aims), and they end with the good guys winning– late in the game, against long odds. Along the way, there’s plenty of old-fashioned, Oxford-style cultural snobbery (the good guys read Plato and study philology, the bad guys are social scientists and urban planners), plus some social conservatism that was extreme even in 1945, when Strength first appeared. There are swipes at feminism, even a completely gratuitous swipe at birth control, and at other claims about social equality; the possibility of racial equality doesn’t even arise.

All that’s before you get to the Christianity part, which is pervasive and absolute, even when Lewis doesn’t talk about it directly. He’s not only trying to convert you, but that’s certainly part of his program.

Yet despite all that, the novels have stayed with me, in amazing detail, and I’ve found myself thinking a lot about them these last few months. So what was the appeal back then, and why the sense of ongoing relevance? Especially now, when I’m even more set in my atheist pinko ways?

As with other second-string-but-real-artists, part of it was Lewis’s brilliance as a writer. He may have been writing fairy tales for adults, but he was the real deal as a novelist, completely able to draw you into his imagined world.   He wasn’t as good at creating characters, and he had a serious weakness for standardized types– the Traditional-Style Elderly Professor, the Ambitious-but-Confused Young Man, the Over-Earnest Young Woman, and so on. But he made even those stereotypes seem life-like, enough so that I remember them along with the plot twists.

But it’s not just the artistry and the fairy tale plots that grabbed me back then, and that have stayed with me now– it’s also Lewis’s ideas. That’s weird, given that I so completely disagree with most of his Christian and conservative premises, but I’ve come to see Lewis as a lesson in why Christian culture matters to us secularists, and why we pinkos should take even his conservatism somewhat seriously.

That starts with Lewis’s ideas about human nature, which he saw in ultra-dark terms, pretty much matching the visions proposed by Nietzsche, Freud, and all the other pre-1960 Euro-pessimists. Just like them, he saw us humans– all of us, at all times– as moved by angers and lusts, and capable of extreme violence. Also like them, he saw in us a fundamental, irreducible drive to destroy beings and things, even when doing so offers no personal advantages, even when it runs against our self-interests.

Thinking about Lewis makes you realize how rarely we hear talk like that here in the new millenium. In fact it’s pretty much off-limits, among both the believers and the secularists. Our Christians soft pedal the original sin stuff, and talk instead about God’s endorsement/cleansing of those He’s chosen; our post-Freudian psychologists mainly tell us about human improvement– in fact a Harvard professor has recently told us that “the better angels of our nature” have been steadily winning out since the Stone Age, and that the trajectory is all upward for the future as well. As I’ve suggested in some earlier posts, that ambient optimism has a seriously bad effect on how we handle the world. Here in 2017, there seems to be a bi-partisan consensus that only evil people do bad things, and that once we deal with those, the good times can roll again– hence the enthusiasm for locking up super-predators, assassinating terrorist leaders, deposing dictators, denouncing racist voters, and all the rest. We’ve been doing that for decades, and somehow the evil people grow more numerous, rather than less….

Lewis also had a surprising sympathy for what we’d now call the ecological perspective– he made a big deal about the claims that the earth and its non-human inhabitants have on us humans. The sympathy is surprising in that Christianity has tended to draw a bright line between the human and the animal realms (it’s still a Catholic heresy to think your beloved pet can join you in heaven), also because our contemporary Christians are so rabidly anti-ecology. Yet you can see the logic in Lewis’s view– God made all this nature, he’s saying, it’s beautiful, and it deserves our affection and respect, especially given what we know about our own scummy tendencies. Nature isn’t just here for us to use up and move on, whether to another planet (as suggested by our tech gurus) or to a post-Apocalypse New Jerusalem (as envisioned by many of our Christians). For Lewis, it has independent, sacred standing.

Last, Lewis offers an ideal of community as a fundamental good in human life, and not just as something that’s going to help you realize your potential as an individual. Here the guilty pleasure side of the story really protrudes, because Lewis’s portrayal of community includes so much visible wish fulfillment. In Strength, the good guys live together in one of those classic English country houses (not the grand sort you get in Downton Abbey, but not an early fifties suburban tract home, either), guided by a wise and attractive father figure, unriled by squabbles or boredom, everyone contentedly occupying the slot they’ve been assigned, everyone’s needs being met. So it’s definitely a fairy tale version of commune life, but it’s at least a version, and how many of those do we encounter nowadays? Today we’re occasionally told that communal ties matter for our personal well-being, lower our blood pressure and all that– but how often are we told that it’s a good in itself?

The late French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss told us that “myth is the imaginary resolution of real contradictions.” To me it’s one of the great social science one-liners, up there with the best of Marx and Weber, and it helps locate what’s important about Lewis’s brand of Christian literature. Yes, these are fairy tales. In real life, the good guys don’t always win, to say the least, and we don’t get to have wise father-figures like Lewis’s hero; for most of us, the neo-feudal, sexist utopia he offers isn’t even a possible answer to our modern ills. But Lewis at least posed the questions and identified some of the sore points, the “contradictions,” in Lévi-Strauss’s semi-Marxist language. We may not know how to achieve community or respect for the planet, or how to cope with our banal vicious impulses, but Lewis at least identified those as tasks we ought to be addressing.