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Posts Tagged ‘Surprised by Joy’

C. S. Lewis, best known as the author of The Chronicles of Narnia, was also one of the most profound thinkers of twentieth century Christianity.  Along with J. R. R. Tolkien, he has inspired millions of people, include all of the authors at Lantern Hollow Press.  On Sundays we would like to take a moment to offer up a little Lewis for your consideration.

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We want not so much a Father but a grandfather in heaven, a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, ‘What does it matter so long as they are contented?’

–C. S. Lewis The Problem of Pain 

This is indeed symptomatic not only of modern Christianity, but of humanity in general.  From the very beginning of recorded history, we see that as a race we care first and foremost about getting what we want instead of doing what is right and best.  All too often, we project that demand directly back onto our expectations of God.

The examples are too many to examine in so short a space.  Consider only a sampling:

  • In the political realm, there is the battle between secular capitalism and socialism.  On the one hand, I demand the ability to work all things around me for my own good–even other people’s lives.  On the other, I demand that the government forcibly take from someone else to insure that I can have what I want.
  • In deism and atheism we see worldviews that demand people be absolute sovereign of their own destiny and morality.  Not only can I have what I want, but no one–least of all a non-existent or irrelevant God–has grounds to even express disapproval.  I am only held accountable to myself and a standard of natural law that rarely, if ever, enforces itself.
  • Moral relativism takes it even a step farther and declares that there is no standard by which what I want can be measured at all.  Since nothing is “right,” everything is.  It is, perhaps, the ultimate example of the grandfatherly indulgence that humanity has come to expect and demand.

The problem has only gotten worse since Lewis first wrote about it.  The idea of “grandfatherly Christianity” has spread like wildfire through western churches.  We long ago abandoned the idea of “meeting people in their need” (a good thing) to “giving people what they want” (a much more questionable proposition).  The end result is a castrated faith that, in many ways, bears a pale resemblance to what the world it imitates looked like five to ten years before.

And we wonder why people don’t respect the modern church?

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Interested in more about writing and reading from a Christian perspective?  Check out While We’re Paused–the official blog of Lantern Hollow Press.

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And so, little by little, with fluctations which I cannot now trace, I became an apostate, dropping my faith with no sense of loss but with the greatest relief.

–C. S. Lewis Surprised By Joy

Lewis, as a former atheist himself, understood something about that particular belief system* that many life-long Christians completely fail to grasp:  for many people, atheism feels good.  Converting provides instant and complete relief from the massive weight of what it means to be a believer, not only in Christianity but in any of the major world religions.  All of them make claims on your life.  All of them require that you conform yourself, your beliefs, and your actions to a set of standards that you have no control over.  Atheism instantly releases you from all those obligations and, in fact, does so much more: It makes you the sovereign of your own little universe.  That can potentially provide an unparalleled sense of temporary security.  After all, who better to trust with your future than yourself?

This also helps explain why many atheists are so loudly sure of themselves to the point of epistemological absurdity–emotion often sits at the center of their position while their reason provides cover.  Lewis was one of these types.  He came to hate the forced prayers and unjustified legalism of what he had been taught about the Christian faith, and so when atheism presented itself, his emotions led him to grasp at it in intellectual desperation.

Lewis later rejected atheism–though he had to be dragged “kicking and screaming” back into belief.  For Lewis it was simply a issue of truth:  he still believed that there was an external world that he must conform to rather than vice versa.  Through his association with J. R. R. Tolkien and Owen Barfield, he was gradually led to accept proofs that Christianity was true, and therefore he changed his mind a result.

For me, there is another issue that speaks against atheism:  knowledge of myself.  While it sounds like a fine thing to be the sovereign of my own destiny, the more I understand about myself and how little I truly know, the less comfortable I am exercising the kinds of power atheism in theory would grant me over others.  I become even less pleased when I think about others having that kind of absolute authority over myself.  I would think that the Twentieth Century–and the bloodbath than certain atheists like Stalin and Mao made of it–bears out that concern.

That is one reason I am thankful that God created humanity able to both think and to believe.  Properly understood, the strength of each keeps the excess of the other in check.  In Lewis, we see a good example of both.

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*While atheism likes to style itself as a “lack of belief,” it is in fact its own separate religion. Modern atheism puts faith in what Lewis would later call the “Total System,” by which he meant the whole of the natural universe and the measurable phenomena which it produces. Since humanity is the ultimate expression of the intelligent side of the Total System, atheism usually (but not always) begins to treat the human race and its needs with an attitude that borders on mysticism.  This faith is often as blind as it is exclusive, and is also couched in a pseudo religious awe–remember, according to modern atheist thinkers “Forget Jesus.  Stars died so that you might live.”  In that sense, I see no particular difference between the basic fundamentals of atheistic belief and the “religions” they claim to critique.  Of course, this is too big a topic for a footnote!

Interested in more about writing and reading from a Christian perspective?  Check out While We’re Paused–the official blog of Lantern Hollow Press.

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I’ve decided that I will leave Spirits in Bondage aside for a while and try to get back into the basic process of working through Lewis’s letters.  I don’t think there will be a better (or more convenient) time for me to get back on the proverbial horse in the general process of reading through his letters.  Besides, if I use up all of my SIB content now what will I have to say later?  🙂

Picking back up from where I left off, Jack left Robert Capron’s Wynyard School and spent one term at Campbell College, not far from his home at Little Lea.  His father had moved Warnie to Malvern College and Jack to the nearby Cherbourg School.  At first glance in the letters it seems that Jack really doesn’t have much to say about his time at Cherbourg.  His is letters home from Cherbourg number, from start to finish, all of four (one letter per page).  In fact, on one page (Letters, vol. 1, 17), Hooper’s commentary (even in small print) takes up as much space as the letter itself.  From that, one might be tempted to think that Cherbourg didn’t matter that much.

An interior view of Chartres Cathedral. Impressive indeed.

And then we turn to Surprised By Joy.  There, Lewis calls Cherbourg “Chartres” after, as Hooper notes, “the most glorious cathedral in France” (Letters, vol. 1, 15).  In contrast to his few letters, he devotes two entire chapters (27 pages) to Cherbourg in SBJ.  That drastic of a discrepancy may indicate several possibilities, but I’ll mention two at the moment.  First and most obviously, it probably implies that he was simply too busy and excited with his self described “renaissance” to take the time to write.  Second and more seriously, it also likely marks a furtherance of the double life Jack  led.  He let his father see only one side of that life, while he lived the other with gusto.

This is a busy week, but I hope to reread these sections of SBJ and then take a fresh look at the Cherbourg letters.  I expect that some interesting comparisons will emerge.  I’ll have a new meditation post ready on Sunday and hope to post some more on this topic before next weekend.

Have a great week!

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My schedule through the end of November is insane, so I’ll be sneaking little snatches of my Lewis studies here and there until the blessed month of December when there will be a dramatic increase in sweetness, light, and chocolate (not to mention my waistline) and a corresponding decrease in my workload.  I’m planning on spending this break doing as little as possible for my current place of employment and devoting as much time to rest and distraction as I can as a matter of preserving my sanity.  Thankfully, I consider studying C. S. Lewis an eminently worthwhile distraction.

Tonight as I was reading a bit of Surprised by Joy (66), I was struck by a comment Jack makes in an almost off-hand manner.  He is discussing the chronological divisions into which he can describe his time at Cherbourg, and of the departure of his beloved matron, Miss G. E. Cowie.  He notes that her influence “had been the occasion of much good to me as well as of evil.”  Specifically, he states that,

…she had done something to defeat that antisentimental inhibition which my early experience had bred in me.”

This brought to mind something that had been hovering in the back of my thought since I started the project with Jack’s first few letters:  The serious, almost cold (at times) formality with which Lewis wrote at the time (see 1-16 of the collected letters, volume 1).  Much of what he has to say is purely informative–a simple statement of plain fact–and there are points in some letters where I felt that the writing itself was a formality.  Points of creative, personal light peek through, but, over all, Jack’s “antisentimental inhibitions” are plainly displayed in the letters.  At first I mistook it for an attempt to simply sound “grown up,” an air many children attempt to adopt.  On further reflection, though that may well still play a role, over all one gets the sense that Jack is presenting a formalized mask through certain letters, hiding his true emotions and thoughts.

This might be especially obvious in his letters home from Wynyard:  He didn’t let his father see the turmoil, pain, and real thoughts behind the veil of a “stiff upper lip.”  I actually already hinted at this in my discussion of the Wynyard letters.

Of course, as time went along, I know that Lewis refined this into an art with his father, keeping Albert in the dark about many things in his life.  It will be interesting to compare and contrast this with his letters to Arthur Greeves as time passes.

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The final significant point of explanation C. S. Lewis offers in Surprised by Joy concerning his path away from faith and into unbelief is related to the pessimism I discussed in my post on Tuesday.  Jack’s father, Albert, had been in the habit, as perhaps many working men are, of repeatedly lamenting the hardness of the world and the difficulty of making ends meet.  It had reinforced Jack’s own pessimistic outlook and encouraged him to think of life as “an unremitting struggle in which the best I could hope for was to avoid the workhouse by extreme exertion” (64).  Even while at Cherbourg, Jack had already boiled all of life down to unavoidable drudgery.  As he said he described it to a friend, all they had to look forward to was “Term, holidays, term, holidays, till we leave school, and then work, work, work till we all die” (65).

Albert Lewis, Father of C. S. Lewis

Lewis later saw the same strand of laughable unreality in all this that he also saw in his general pessimism.  His father was quite comfortably and securely well off, especially by “our present tax-ridden standards” (64).  Really, he had no more business complaining about the difficulty of the universe than Jack did about the existence of Eton collars.

Of course, it’s easy to lose focus on the objective reality of what’s really going on around us when we’re submerged in the day-to-day grind of even generally enjoyable work.  That is especially true if that work begins to take on unreasonable proportions.  It devours your time, drains you, and leaves you feeling as if you have the weight of a very unfair world on your shoulders, particularly when it may seem that you have no recourse for relief.  I know I catch myself snapping unexpectedly at my family due to the stress I have had to deal with at work over the past year.  Even when I’m not being snippy, I find that I want to talk about the problems I face ad nauseum, because there is something in me that wants everyone to understand my plight and to sympathize.  Of course, I’m not so benighted as to think that there aren’t people out there who have it far worse than I, but it doesn’t always lessen my own particular burden to know that someone else’s is heavier.

We also have a tendency to overstate points to our children–I know I do.  We are so concerned that a stranger might kidnap Little Susie that we instill a pathological fear of all strangers in them when they are young.  (Not that it’s a bad thing…)  I suspect that at least some of Albert’s colorful descriptions of “real” life probably had their origins in a similar, kindly-meant motive.

Whatever the case, it is a reminder to me to take more care about what I say in front of children.  From Albert’s perspective, it was probably just a small thing–some complaining about work and a few strong words about the value of work–but it contributed to the complete loss of his son’s faith.  It prepared the ground for Jack’s pessimism, and his pessimism laid him open for what Jack himself calls atheism’s strongest siren song:  The “Argument from Undesign.”  He thought Lucretius put it well.

Nequaquam nobis divinitus esse paratm
Naturam rerum; tanta stat praedita culpa
Had God designed the world, it would not be
A world so frail and faulty as we see. (65)

And so, Jack Lewis, feeling that he had never truly met God in all of his forcibly manufactured prayers and certain that no good God could exist in such a universe, melted into a warm, contradictory haze of atheism, “dropping [his] faith with no sense of loss but with the greatest relief” (66).

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The Inklings (the writers group that meets at our house, patterned after the original) are incoming tomorrow night for the sixth annual “Dessert for Dinner” episode.  Presuming I survive the sugar and caffeine fueled antics, I’ll try to blog a little tomorrow too.  After that, I’ll see everyone again on Monday.


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No time tonight to really sit down, read, and ponder–I had to write this week’s contribution to While We’re Paused.  As a result of my studies over here, I decided to review John Cleese’s version of The Screwtape Letters (check out WWP Thursday for the review, if you like).

That did put me to mind of something I’ve really been thinking about off and on this week: Screwtape prefigures Surprised by Joy in some pretty significant ways.  Much of what I read of Wormwood’s attempt to wrest his patient out of “the Enemy’s” grasp lines up almost perfectly with Jack’s own description of his fall from grace.  The feelings of intellectual superiority and the forced manufacturing of emotion as a sign of the efficacy of prayer are very clear points.  In fact, even the very language in one is reminiscent of the other.

That makes me wonder precisely how much of Screwtape is really disguised biography–though not in the postmodern sense.  Lewis used his own life as the theoretical springboard for much of the fodder Screwtape and Wormwood discuss.  That means that there is a virtual treasure-trove of insight into Jack himself hidden in the wit and irony that is The Screwtape Letters.

Of course, due to the method of production, that trove is hidden throughout a mass of completely imaginative information, and there may be no clear way to tell the one from the other at this point in time.  I don’t know of anyone who has made a specific study of the topic, but I think it would be a worthy one for the students of Lewis to consider–with care.  I know that when I first started this project of blogging through Lewis’s life, I didn’t not think of Screwtape as any more useful than I did Narnia for identifying specific biographical facts about Lewis.  That was clearly a mistake.

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Tonight’s examination of the next factor in C. S. Lewis’ original falling away from the faith will be relatively short, for the simple reason that there really isn’t much to say about it–legitimately, at least.  So, I’ll have to clam up after the explanation part of the discussion.  It has to do with Jack’s pessimistic outlook and how he came about acquiring it.  It is covered on pages 63-64 of Surprised by Joy.

Lewis notes that already at the ripe age of thirteen or fourteen, he had become convinced that the world was predisposed to making things difficult for its inhabitants, and that his pessimism was “much more of intellect than of temper.”  In short, he had difficulty believing that there was any significant power in the universe that wished anyone any good.  He had trouble communicating the idea, as it appeared to him ridiculous as he looked back on it, but at the time it was quite weighty glory.  For all his apologizing, I think his approximation quite good:

Perhaps I had better call it a settled expectation that everything would do what you did not want it to do.  Whatever you wanted to remain straight, would bend; whatever you tried to bend would fly back to the straight; all knots which you wished to be firm would come untied; all knots you wanted to untie would remain firm.

And that line of thinking, of course, would make Christianity seem more absurd by the day.  What hope had a negative universe of producing a positive savior or of sustaining a loving God?

The point of his life that he had reached with the writing of Surprised by Joy had given him some perspective, and there is a notable tone of embarrassment to his explanation.  After all, he is explaining why a boy, well-fed, well-provided for by his father, living at a good school that gave him many advantages, could look around at the universe and complain that it was being “unfair.”  Certainly the Eton collars they all had to wear were something to complain about (he did so, after all, by implication in the opening to The Magician’s Nephew), but there was nothing particularly significant in that.  All Jack could do in Surprised by Joy was apologize and insist that the feelings were, in some manner, very real and very effective in changing his outlook on his faith.

In this section Jack describes two factors that he thinks led him toward such a pessimistic view of life.  First, and perhaps most obviously, there was the loss of his mother at such an early age.  She had loved and provided for him, and her loss shattered his world, removing the supports he had expected to last forever.  Even before than that, though, he references his problems with his thumbs that made him clumsy as both a child and an adult.  It added another layer of difficulty to everything he tried, and, it may be that contributed to an expectation that everything must be out to get him.

All of that, of course, sounds perfectly reasonable.  And there, for now, at least, I think I must leave that point.  The historian in me constrains further wanton speculation for the simple reason that this is an entirely internal matter, entirely inside Jack’s own head.  It isn’t even a larger question of abstract truth–he isn’t arguing that he had proof for his pessimism, only that he felt it.  Therefore, the only evidence we can rely on is Lewis’s own explanations.  Anything more is simply uncalled for.  We should make no claims to know a man better than he knows himself, especially when so much time has passed.

As I progress, I can come back to this as new data becomes available–I can weigh Jack’s own words against one another; I can weigh his words against his actions; I cannot allow myself to weigh Jack against my own biases or against what I would have wanted him to be.

“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” –Sherlock Holmes, “A Scandal in Bohemia.”

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