Friday, March 7, 2008

C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis has come up in conversation a lot recently, and I have to admit that despite that he's the most loved theologian of the last 150 years outside of maybe JPII, I don't like him. Whenever I mention it I get accosted with gasps and raised eyebrows with threats of tar and feathering at Piazza Venezia at the next Italian manifestazione. I have reason for my dislike though, but before I dive into that I will admit that he's very insightful and quotable. He could rumble with the best of them in terms of one line zingers, but when it comes to content and depth he leaves too much to be desired.

The chief mark of great literature is subtlety. Dostoevsky never spells out his intent. One could read Tolkien their entire life and never get and inkling (pun definitely intended) of a deeper meaning to the text. When I read C.S. Lewis I feel like he has a great stone tablet with "suffering" or "loyalty" inscribed on the side, and he's bashing me over the head with it. Great literature should invoke emotions and cultivate virtues without the reader ever having to rationally articulate why. It should sweep the reader off his feet into a sea of imagery and description. G.K. Chesterton says in his Everlasting Man, "Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion…The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits…” C.S. Lewis is the logician unabashedly forcing the heavens into his head. His writings never illustrate the complexity of the problem, and they thus devalue the spectrum of human emotion and the complexity of human nature. Literature has always taken primacy in man's experience. Myths, literature and stories expressed the world in a way that math and science couldn't. Man danced with the stars long before he ever measured them through a telescope.

A critique of Lewis shared by Tolkien and Lewis' colleagues at Cambridge was that his books were too neat. He would encounter a problem that had plagued humanity since the dawn of, well, humanity, and would write a neat, 200 page exhortation of the Christian perspective and be done with it - one book on suffering, the next on joy, the next on grief, without ever fully grappling with the depth and intensity of the human struggle with these questions. He undoubtedly makes insightful observations, but without a deeper examination, observations simply float disconnectedly in the cosmos of literature for a weary student to find on google. Even in his fiction, Lewis' characters lack the complexity of a Frodo, Sam or Sarumon. Whether it was intentional on Lewis' part, I don't know, but it seems consistent with his non-fictional works.

Even more bothersome about Lewis is the attitude that he takes towards truth. He's proper where he should be tenacious, and tenacious where he should be proper. There are certain things in this world that can be understood, but truth ultimately remains ever-elusive. The proper way to approach truth in literature is to seduce it from the shadows - to paint alluringly and hope to draw it into the light. Truth requires respect and prostration, but once that truth is revealed it has to be dissected with the full force of the veracity of our mind. Lewis approaches truth with an entirely inverted attitude. He brashly and irreverently tries to tear truth from the shadows, but when he stumbles upon something, rather than diving to the heart of the matter, he treats it superficially and dismissively. He's impetuous, hollow and has a tinge of arrogance. C.S. Lewis is tea-time.

I don't mean to detract from an expansive body of work, because Lewis certainly should be mentioned amongst the great modern theologians. I simply don't think he deserves the overwhelming praise and widespread popularity that he has received. He's like a big chocolate easter egg that looks great and has you thinking you'll be satiated in chocolatey goodness for the next 3 weeks, until you bite into it and find out that it's completely hollow.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Nick says (and precedes his statement with an identification because he doesn't care to figure out how to identify himself with a website),

First, as a side note, you quoted Orthodoxy, not Everlasting man.

I agree. Lewis is a bit overrated and he simplifies too much for me. As far as one-liners go though, Chesterton totally has him beat; Chesterton is far more quotable than Lewis. Lewis has a lucid style that appeals to modern audiences but he's by no means so great a rhetor as Samuel Johnson nor as profound as Dostoyevsky nor as poetic as Nietzsche nor as lucid as Homer. His philosophy and theology always seemed to be a bit weak; he's no Thomas either.

Lewis tries to simplify what is supposed to be complex. One cannot slap an atheist with Mere Christianity and demand a conversion because faith is not that simple. Lewis's literature doesn't hold a candle to Homer, Dostoyevsky, Tolkein, or any other great writer. Other authors are so complex and for a reason. The Bible is perhaps the most difficult text to interpret, and though Christ may have taught with simple parables, the allegories were far more profound. Lewis's work is, in my mind, children's literature and teenage nonfiction for the average mind. More blessed minds can stick to Dante and the other greats, though, who recognize the complexity of the world.

Geometricus said...

Lewis is so darn useful though, when one is trying to make a point about this or that. He does lay things out in a more-or-less neat and orderly way without completely trivializing the subject, whatever it may be. And he does know his Greek and so uses big words that no one's ever heard of before.

If it sounds like I am damning him with faint praise, I must protest that I don't have the literary balls to damn anyone. My praise is just so faint, I probably shouldn't say a good word about anyone.

Steve Martin said...

wow um what to say what to say..... OH right Lewis is a baller. I must agree with you that Tolkien is so much more in depth with his characters. On the other hand Lewis is just a baller Tolkien looked up to lewis and put him in his book so therefore Lewis is Awesome.