Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Written During the Month of St. Clive (i.e., November)

This article first appeared in the Wall Street Journal. Nevertheless, there was a longer version lurking behind it (which didn't fit within the WSJ word count). So I'm posting it now (and, incidentally, it's a short summary of my new book on Lewis.)

CSL memorial in Poet's Corner, Westminster Abbey
C. S. Lewis was born and died in November (116 and 51 years ago, respectively). Despite his long tenure as an Oxford and Cambridge scholar of Medieval and Renaissance literature—for which he could justifiable be remembered as one of the great lights of English academics—he remains best known as a popular spokesperson for Christianity, with a fourth major film poised for production from his landmark fantasy series, The Chronicles of Narnia. His bestselling books (with millions of copies sold) defend Christian belief by answering questions that a doubting public might be struggling with. As Anthony Burgess once commented in the Times Book Review, “Lewis is the ideal persuader for the half-convinced, for the good man who would like to be a Christian but finds his intellect getting in the way.” Thus, for many, the patron saint of intellectual doubters is Clive Staples Lewis and November is the Month of St. Clive. 
            This brings me to a concern. Many might conclude that Lewis represented the Christian Answer Man, and more importantly, that these responses to struggles and doubts came effortlessly to his pen. However fluidly ideas emerge from his writings, I don’t believe resolving crises was painless for Lewis. Instead, in reading him for 35 years, I’ve learned each of those responses came through crises and pain. That is what makes him continually compelling.
      Debra Winger, who played Lewis’s wife, Joy Davidman, in the film Shadowlands, when asked to evaluate C. S. Lewis, replied: 
He may make difficult questions accessible. I don’t think he makes answers ‘easy.’ I don’t think he answers questions. He discusses them.
Lewis doesn’t ultimately give us answers—he invites our response.
      And so his readers learn to engage their questions, grasp Lewis’s resolutions and ponder their own answers. That’s why I think his words have spoken to—and continue to resonate with—millions of readers.
      The crises that Lewis faced were substantial—his beloved mother’s death when at age nine, being sent within several weeks to a series of boarding schools which he detested, fighting and being wounded in World War I, living through the Great Depression and World II, caring for his alcoholic brother and for Janie Moore (the mother of a friend who died in WWI) who slipped into dementia toward the end of her life, and finally, experiencing the death of his wife, Joy. For these reasons alone, Lewis had to work through the crisis of suffering and death.
      And how did he work through those crises? His stepson Douglas Gresham records about Lewis’s response to the death of his wife, 
He did what he always did under extreme stress. He sat down at his desk, and looking into himself and carefully observing what was happening deep in his mind where we keep our inmost secrets, he picked up his pen and an old exercise book and began to write.
      So write he did. He wrote about the crises he faced with atheism, with the Christian faith, and those he faced simply as a human being. The first category I will summarize briefly. The middle—especially his crisis with the Bible—might be the most surprising.
      Lewis tells us that he became an atheist around fourteen, but that his prickly, cynical unbelief wasn’t entirely satisfied because he sought something beyond this world. He called this Joy, “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.” Joy led him to conclude that nothing in this world could satisfy. 
If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy,the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.
He looked beyond this world and in his early thirties (recounted with pardonable overstatement) became “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.” The point here is that Lewis did not emerge from the womb as a man absent of doubt who glided gradually and effortlessly into prominence as a leading spokesperson for Christian orthodoxy. He struggled, and that struggle and resolution animate his writing.
      The middle set of crises easily deconstruct the misunderstanding of St. Clive as patron saint of easy answers to puzzles about Christianity.
      As he pondered conversion, Lewis had to grapple with his love of myth, which he spoke of as “at its best, a real unfocused gleam of divine truth falling on human imagination.” How could he believe in the Bible in light of all the other myths he treasured?
      As a literary scholar, he how to read a book and prized what books bring. “There is nothing in literature,” Lewis determined in his famous academic study, The Allegory of Love, “which does not, in some degree, percolate into life.” He read the Good Book full of narratives, meaningful stories. He believed the Bible “carries” the word of God and that derives its authority from the one Word of God, Jesus Christ. He was by no means a fundamentalist, who believed every word from Scripture contained literal truth or that the Bible equals the Word of God. Instead, Lewis interpreted the Bible as a literary text, which is certainly not the same as taking the text literally.
      Finally, Lewis also took on crises that no human being can avoid—suffering, death, and what I call “the crisis of feeling.” The latter is that problem we face when emotions don’t lead us to contentment. Put another way, if life is supposed to feel good, what happens when it doesn’t? Feelings—particularly the emotional rush of life—remain for many the final arbiter of truth and decision-making.
    And yet Lewis found his own wisdom hard to take when his wife, Joy, died. The pain was excruciating and left him feeling “concussed.” Not only had he lost someone he cherished, but he saw his own life replayed—Joy had two young sons whom she was leaving behind at almost the same age as Lewis and his brother at their mother’s death. His anguish disturbed easy answers, and his searing honesty remains the most arresting feature of A Grief Observed, the book he wrote just after Joy’s death: 
Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him.
Yet as the book progressed, he resolved that even God himself does not respond to every inquiry: 
When I lay these questions before God I get no answer. But a rather special sort of ‘No answer.’ It is not the locked door. It is more like a silent, certainly not uncompassionate, gaze. As though He shook His head not in refusal but waiving the question. Like, ‘Peace, child; you don’t understand.’
Lewis himself did not receive every answer he longed for. And that, in the end, brought a resolution that transcended his understanding.

      So, if indeed November is the Month of St. Clive, and if Lewis has become a somewhat universal symbol of Christianity, let us not conclude that the best life can be discovered through the uncomplicated resolution of all crises, nor the easy answer to every problem. Instead, let Lewis model for us an engagement with crises and a life that lies beyond easy answers.

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