Misc notes from Alan Jacob’s The Narnian

The Narnian is a recent biography of C.S. Lewis that I found to be quite interesting. I wrote about Lewis’s dissonant legacy among evangelicals here. These here are just the rest of the excepts I copied down while I was reading along. A few comments are included. Like all “misc notes” posts, it’s not at all comprehensive and some of the best parts were likely forgotten due to my notebook or computer being far away when I encountered them.

Here, Chesterton defends crappy fiction. Hopefully this would extend to kids who grew up reading Transformers fan fic instead of Proust.

Chesterton is half-puzzzled and half-offended by the alarm [about ‘penny dreadfuls’ pulp fiction]. He has no wish to defend the “dreadfuls” as literature, but he does want to defend them as “the actual centre of a million flaming imaginations.” To Chesterton, “the simple need for some kind of ideal world in which fictitious persons play an unhampered part is infinitely deeper and other than the rules of good art, and much more important. Every one of us in childhood has constructed such an invisible dramatis personae, but it never occurred to our nurses to correct the composition by careful comparison with Balzac.” In fact, he continues, “literature is a luxury; fiction is a necessity.” That is, while we can live without Balzac, brilliant though he may be the, the penny dreadful are truly vital to human well-being.

A marvelous passage from Surprised by Joy about the call of God:

The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape? The words compelle intrare, compel them to come in, have been so abused by wicked men that we shudder at the; but properly understood, they plumb the depth of the divine mercy. The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation.

In his poem Mythopoeia, Tolkien says that  trees are not “trees” until named and seen. But where does the name come from? I’ve dealt with this before here and also here. Here, Tolkien likens naming to “divination” – a sensing of God’s creative Word (capital W) behind the created thing.

The argument here is that when imagined unfallen beings – Tolkien does not speak directly of Adam, that was not his way – first named the things of this world, they did so by means of an instinctive insight into (a “divination,” a “deep monition” of) their natures. And the natures of things are primarily defined, always by their having been created, made by the commanding Word of God. (Likewise, in his Confessions Saint Augustine looks are the world and asks what it can tell hi about God, and everything “shouts aloud, ‘He made us!'”)

Fabulous quote from Owen Barfield here – this should be required contemplation for anyone who as ever used the phrase “the wrong side of history” unironically.

“You must find out why [a belief held commonly in the past] went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood.”

His students would invariables say that [Lewis] never made any attempts to impose or even “push” his Christian beliefs in lectures or tutorials, but it could not have escaped Lewis’s notice – or that of the more attentive students – that in laying the groundwork for an appreciation of medieval and Renaissance literature, he was also silently removing some of the impediments to an appreciation of the religion of those eras – which happened to be Christianity.

Laying this groundwork is super important and fairy stories help that happen. It matters little how refined our preaching is if the seed falls on hard ground, and heavier doses of theology will not till the soil further.

Several money quotes from the Abolition of Man:

St. Augustin defines virtue as the ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind of degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that he aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought… Plato before him had said the same. The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting, and hateful.

What we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.

I loved this anecdote on Lewis not being an ascetic.

When the London newspaper the Daily Telegraph did a story on [Lewis] in 1944, the writer referred to him at one point as “ascetic Mr. Lewis,” a description that made Tolkien splutter with incredulity and indignation. He wrote to his son, “‘Ascetic Mr. Lewis’ –!!! I ask you! He put away three pints in a very short session we had this morning, and said he was ‘going short for Lent.’ To any who might might criticize such gusto as unseemly for a Christian, Lewis could reply, “There is no good trying to be more spiritual than God. God never meant man to be a purely spiritual creature. That is why He uses material things like bread and wine to put the new life in us. We may think this rather crude and unspiritual. God does not: He invented eating. He likes matter. He invented it.”

When it is necessary to approach difficult questions, one must, Lewis believes, stick as closely as possibly to “the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.” This is especially important when such questions are raised in the presence of unbelievers, that is, in public: “I think we must admit that the discussion of these disputed points has no tendency at all to bring outsiders into the Christian fold… Our divisions should never be discussed except in the presence of those who have already come to believe that there is one God and that Jesus Christ is His only Son.” This is a very strict rule! Never discuss those divisions in public? But Christians’ failure to obey it seems to have done Christianity little good and much harm.

THIS right here. I’d read the quoted passage before, but hadn’t realized what Lewis was saying until Jacobs drew such attention to it. Christians should NOT discuss inside baseball where pagans can see us bickering with each other. It destroys our witness. We should present a unified front of the foundations. This is probably a key aspect of successful ecumenical movements. The deep desire of some denominational leaders and theologians (past and present) to score points for their team in public is only every destructive.

In this passage from the Screwtape letters, the demons to minimize our awareness of the worldwide church throughout history and to just focus on problems within our local expressions. Satan hates wide reading and diversity of friends.

One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as a army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans.

An “easy conscience” is precisely the problem, Lewis felt, with the “liberal and ‘broad-minded'” Christians of his or any other time: their self-satisfaction, their inability to sense that they need to be “obedient” to ANY particular teach of set of beliefs. Feeling no need to obey, they never discover that they CANNOT obey, and therefore never discover the need for repentance, conversion, transformation – the kind of transformation that would make them fit participants in the great assembly of the redeemed that John envisioned in his Revelation.

This gets to the heart of the problem with liberal theology quicker than just about anything I have ever read. When there is nothing to obey, you do not sufficiently discover that you CANNOT obey and your faith in man’s strength and cleverness and progress remains naively uncontested.

More on how “showing” morals is generally more powerful than teaching them explicitly.

What do children want? What do children need? It is better not to ask the questions at all. Let the pictures tell you their own moral. For the moral inherent in them will rise from whatever spiritual roots you have succeeded in striking during the whole course of your life.

A timeless and widely applicable quote from George Orwell:

“There is no argument by which one can defend a poem” – and by poem he meant any work of literary art. “It defends itself by surviving, or it is indefensible.”

Circling back around to the first passage about Chesterton and the pulp fiction, here Lewis asserts that children reading adventure stories are probably where the real action and learning (good or ill) is happening.

“Yet, while this goes on downstairs, the only real literary experience in such a family may be occurring in a back bedroom where a small boy is reading Treasure Island under the bedclothes by the light of an electric torch.”
p.295 (from an Experiment in Criticism)