Friday, September 30, 2016

The Genius of C. S. Lewis

Yesterday I conducted the following test on Facebook.  I asked:
Image result for c. s. lewis young

What can you deduce about the age, religion, and academic background of the person who wrote the following? 

"You ask me what a shee is: I reply that there is no such thing as 'A' Shee. The word (which, though pronounced as I have spelled it, is properly in Irish spelled 'Shidhe') is a collective noun, signifying 'the fairies,' or the gods -- since, in Irish these powers are identical. The common phrase 'Banshee' is derived from 'Bean Shidhe' which means ...'a woman of the Shee:' and the gods, as a whole, are often called 'Aes Shidhe,' or 'people of 'Shee:' and the gods, as a whole, are often called 'Aes Shidhe,' or 'people of the S.' The resemblance between this word 'Aes' and the Norse 'Aesir' has often been noted as indicating a common origin for Celtic and Teutonic races. So much for the etymology. But the word has a secondar meaning, developed from the first. It is used to indicate 'the faery forts' or dwelling places of the Shee: these are usually subterranean workings, often paved and roofed with stone & showing an advanced stage of civilization. These can be seen in a good many parts of Ireland. Who really builds them is uncertain: but scholars, judging by the rude patterns on the door posts, put them down to the Danes. Another set say that they were made by the original inhabitants of Ireland . . . "

So what can you tell me about this writer, just from the text?

People responded that the author of these lines was a "male professor of English," maybe at Oxford, in his 50s because of his vocabulary, "a very educated person in their 20s or their 50s," or "over 30 because he/ she sounds like a well-schooled academic."

In fact, they come from a 15 year old boy named Jack, writing to a friend named Arthur.  He was a young atheist or skeptic, who had never formally taught anywhere, still less at Oxford.

C. S. Lewis, as we know him today. 

Lewis was the greatest apologist of modern times, I think many would agree.   But his expertise is often attacked by skeptics, sometimes who have often only read Narnia or Mere Christianity, both in which he was deliberately making things simple for children, or for a popular radio audience in broadcasts with tight time constraints.

Recently I noticed a thread on Jerry Coyne (who doesn't seem to know that Lewis wrote a whole book on miracles) taking pot-shots at Lewis' 'puerile theology,' or straw men thereof. 

But even as a teenage atheist, who had never formally taught anywhere, Lewis was already a budding literary genius. 
Lewis' later letters, not to mention his academic writing and his adult fiction and essays, reveal his genius even more clearly.  In his letters, he converses with eminently accomplished literary figures often displaying a love of fun, but also prodigious learning worn lightly, and an authority that some of Britain's best poets and scholars are quick to recognize.  His forays into Shakespeare or Milton, the "discarded image," and his prodigious and vastly referenced volume in the Oxford History of Literature series remain classics of erudition and insight.  Though in his popular works, sometimes Lewis' very lucidity deceives readers who mistake simplicity and clarity for simple-mindedness, and who do not know the grounds for Lewis' opinions (Coyne) -- and there are almost always solid grounds, which Lewis does not always give.

To be blunt, I know of no skeptic, still less New Atheist who patronizes Lewis, who belongs on the same intellectual tier as Lewis, or anywhere near it. (At least not in the humanities, nor as a philosopher.) 
What does this matter? 
It matters in two ways. 
First, Lewis came to Christ through his love of great thought and literature in the broad western tradition -- including the Greeks and Romans, but also the "Celts" and Norse and pre-Christian Germanic mythologies as well as the rational tradition and modern philosophy. (His casual comments about India and China were often quite canny, as well, if limited.) 
Lewis was not a scientist, of course.  Though he had a keen interest in science, he cannot of course be held account for the latest in evolutionary theory, for instance.  But when Lewis speaks for Western Civilization, he should be listened to. He is almost always right, and usually notices connections that bear further investigation. 
His understanding of the relationship between Christianity and Western tradition is, I argue in my dissertation and some books, right on the money, theologically, and well-grounded, historically. (Though my own focus is on China.) 
Second, while Lewis' 3 L trillemma has often been mocked by skeptics and even repudiated by some Christians, his reasons for discarding the fourth L -- legend -- were articulated in several other articles outside MC, such as the brilliant essay "Fernseed and Elephants." I believe (and my Jesus is No Myth: The Fingerprints of God on the Gospels takes this argument further into empirical substantiation) that Lewis' insights into the gospels provide an inchoate but ultimately even stronger argument for the historicity of the gospels than the common historical arguments that our excellent modern evangelical scholars favor. When Lewis says "I have never read a myth or a hagiography like this, nothing else is like John," he gives us an Argument From Authority. My point is, Lewis' authority on this subject ought to be recognized as weighty indeed. Any skeptic who trots out talking lions in response, ought to be shot down and corrected. 
C. S. Lewis, talking on literature, ought to be listened to more carefully than (frankly) anyone else I have encountered. He is the greatest literary genius (reader, not just writer) I have so far been privileged to meet through his writings.


O. Douglas Jennings said...

I enjoy this post. I've been thinking lately that the current social/cultural landscape in the West and particularly in the U.S. is fitting the themes described by C.S. Lewis in "The Abolition of Man", ie "men without chests" etc.

I've been a C.S. Lewis fan since my youth. To see a post about him that features an excerpt of writing that I had not seen before is a treat. And I agree with you on what you allude to in the way of the New Athiests' inferior intellectual rigor as compared to Lewis. For all their reliance on reason, they have a marked dullness.

I'd love to see what you think of the interaction and (what seems to be) mutual admiration between Lewis and Arthur C. Clark.

O. Douglas Jennings said...

*(what seems to have been)

David B Marshall said...

Douglas (?): If you haven't read Lewis' letters, I recommend them. They're in three volumes. The first volume, from which this is taken, is when Lewis is young, and most letters are to his friend Arthur or his father. Some of it is tedious, at least the early ones -- he's extremely precocious, as this shows, but also can be adolescent in his attitudes, a smart-ass, a prig, as he later admits. Volume Two includes a lot of brilliant and hilarious material, including letters to many leading writers, though also lots of "thank you" notes to generous Americans, whom I'm not very sure he likes. Those are tedious. I don't have Volume III yet, though I've skimmed it in the store.

tsmethers said...

Just an FYI: The Kindle versions of the Letters have been on sale for a couple of dollars each on several occasions, if interested.

Jason Pratt said...

David, did you mean to include a partial repetition up there around the Aes Shidhe sentence? (Purely as a sidenote, I haven't seen it spelled in modern writing as "shidhe", but as "sidhe". Also purely as a sidenote, Lewis might have well enjoyed Robert Jordan's epic if sometimes too plot-tedious mythic fantasy, The Wheel of Time, even if he rejected the half-assed cosmological dualism and the Crystal Dragon Neo Jesus ideas behind the story. {wry g} I mention this because the main magical group in the books are women called the Aes Sedai, which the author definitely borrowed from the Aes Sidhe although it's pronounced "seh-DAI" in the series; and this article reminded me of that. Digression accomplished!)

Back on topic: atheistic mockery of the "Fernseed and Elephants" address (a mockery oddly shared somewhat by N. T. Wright of all people), tends to ignore not only Lewis' personal history -- he grew up as a young man reading the sorts of liberal/sceptical attacks on the historicity of the Gospels which they like to think he was ignorant of -- but also his audience for the address! Namely, a bunch of Anglican clergy in training who had been drinking from that well for a while themselves, and whose dean had invited Lewis to come speak to them based on his remarks to the dean about the critical (non-)value of one of those de-mythologizing and de-historicizing authors.

For that matter, ironically, Lewis' famous Trilemma can be traced back to Keim, one of those authors of "higher criticism" Lewis is supposed to be ignorant of; but Lewis shows some familiarity with Keim's work, although Lewis repurposes it as an apologetic tool for a more conservative reading of Gospel accuracy than the mid-19th century liberal was intending. There's probably a graduate study topic somewhere in that! -- if anyone wants to use it, you're welcome. {g}


David B Marshall said...

Jason: I think I've seen the logic of the trilemma in play elsewhere, maybe in Pascal. I might ask Tim McGrew about the origins of the argument.

I too often wonder what Lewis or Chesterton or Tolkien would think of various fantasy writers today -- I was listening to one of George Martin's cheerier books on tape this past week, and wondering about that.