"The Pilgrim's Guide: C. S. Lewis and the Art of Witness" edited by David Mills

Angus J. L. Menuge
Thursday, July 5th 2007
Sep/Oct 2000

In spite of the flurry of new books on C. S. Lewis, few volumes offer really new insights and succeed in showing the relevance of Lewis's ideas for the issues that face Christians today. David Mills's fine collection is one of these rare exceptions. The focus of Mills's book is witness. It is divided into two sections. "The Character of a Witness" explores what it was about Lewis's life and work that made him an effective witness to orthodox Christianity in a hostile century. "The Work of a Witness" is a very broad survey of how Lewis witnessed. There are implicit subdivisions in this second section that could have been made explicit in the book's structure: Some of its essays concern the sources or antecedents of Lewis's views; others look at how Lewis tried to make Christianity comprehensible in a secular age; and still others deal with perhaps the most important apologetic task in a pluralistic age by showing how Lewis argued for the superiority of Christianity against its many competitors.

The audience of the book is "the serious general reader, though academic readers should find it helpful" (xi). This is very much in the spirit of Lewis. All of the chapters are well-written and most contain extensive footnotes, though some have fewer than a scholar might like.

Section 1, "The Character of a Witness," contains contributions by Christopher Mitchell, Harry Blamires, and Bruce L. Edwards. Mitchell seeks to explain why Lewis was willing to endure the opprobrium of his colleagues as the cost of his public and popular defense of Christianity. The key, according to Mitchell, was Lewis's sense of urgency about evangelism, given our very limited time on earth to influence the destiny of eternal beings. Blamires, who is at his muscular best, examines Lewis's self-perception as a dinosaur, a relic of "Old Western Man."

Edwards explores the extraordinary integration of Lewis's mind. He shows how Lewis is a role model for a public Christian intellectual, something desperately needed in a culture that seeks to silence any voice of commitment or discriminating judgment.

Section 2, "The Work of a Witness," contains the remaining 14 contributions. Michael MacDonald and Mark Shea argue that one reason for the importance of "mere Christianity" is that it provides a standpoint that allows "its participants to embrace the convictions of their distinctive traditions" (p. 48) and yet to fight together against "Secular Relativism/Hedonism/Materialism" and the "culture of death" (p. 47).

By contrast, two of the contributors look at Lewis's congeniality to specific denominational traditions. Kallistos Ware points out that, though Lewis was an Anglican, there are aspects of his thought that resonate deeply with the Orthodox. Doris Myers illustrates the distinctively Anglican style of Lewis's presentation in the Chronicles of Narnia, charting the Christian life from birth through childhood, young adulthood, middle age, and the last years. These sorts of approaches are sometimes unfairly criticized as attempts to co-opt Lewis into one's tradition instead of attempting to trace the proper doctrinal consequences of Lewis's work. The fact is that, from the objective stance of systematic theology, Lewis asserted doctrines that are Anglican (gradual growth in grace, as emphasized by Myers), Lutheran/Puritan (Law and Gospel, as argued by me in a recent Concordia Journal article), Roman Catholic (limbo and purgatory, and sanctification after death, as emphasized by Meilaender in The Taste for the Other), and Orthodox (the hiddenness of God and the apophatic way, as emphasized by Ware).

Several of the authors do the hard work of examining the views and trends to which Lewis's works are a response. James Patrick shows how Lewis came to support the classical ethical tradition of Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, and Hooker against the prevailing schools of utilitarianism (which tends to hedonism), Kantianism (which can find no credible motive of ethical action), and intuitionism (which, in practice, supports moral subjectivism). David Mills's essay shows that Lewis shared with George Orwell a concern about propaganda and its ability to make evil seem good.

Lewis's response to Gnosticism is ably explored by Thomas Howard. In That Hideous Strength, the literally disembodied head and the plan to sanitize the earth of biological life forms show the gnostic tendencies of modernism. They also epitomize scientism, the worship of science and human control even at the expense of what defines humanity itself. Thomas Peters traces scientism to the scientific utopianism of H. G. Wells, who clearly thought that man would supplant God in controlling his own destiny. Peters shows convincingly that Lewis's Space Trilogy is a direct response to "Wellsianism" (the Trilogy calls it "Westonism" after the demon-possessed scientist Weston), aiming to show its Satanic potential.

Three of the essays focus on Lewis's appeal to the imagination as a way of grasping truths that transcend the deceitful vale we call "real life." Stratford Caldecott shows that, for Lewis, myth conveys archetypal truths that can only be grasped by the imagination, not by the intellect, and it aids the mind in finding union with the beauty and goodness we seek. Colin Duriez explores Lewis's theological reflections about "romance," in the older sense of that word, as meaning a story or tale about imaginary characters. Story evokes the categories of Otherness, The Numinous, and Joy; it embodies subcreation and promotes healing. Stephen Smith goes further, exploring Lewis's view that the best stories are a kind of spell, not for enchanting us, but for awakening us from an enchantment of worldliness. In particular, Lewis used stories to help overcome the problem of belief in the supernatural, the problem of projection (modernists like Freud claim religious beliefs are mere projections of our hopes and fears) and the problem of syncretism-the temptation to believe, like the redoubtable Bishop Spong, that all religions are essentially the same.

This issue of the relation of Christianity to other faiths is taken up by Jerry Root. Root shows that Lewis, like Rudolph Otto, thought there were three main features shared by Christianity and the world's great religions: there is a holy being; he prescribes laws we do not keep; and we are consequently alienated from him. If, therefore, Christianity is true, then all of these religions have a significant amount of truth in them. At the same time, Lewis argued, Christianity is unique in claiming that only God can bridge the gap that sin creates between God and man. Also, in the Incarnation Christianity both affirms and denies the world, whereas other religions do either one or the other.

Another problem for Christian faith is the ever- unpopular doctrine of Hell. Kendall Harmon shows that, in Lewis's vision, Hell is a necessary consequence of human will and that it may be that God shows his love even to the damned by limiting the amount of damage they can do to themselves.

All in all, this is an excellent, fresh, varied, and thoughtful collection of essays. It contains, in my opinion, the best set of essays on That Hideous Strength ever published and some fine work on Lewis's response to difficult Christian doctrines. It would have been helped by a bit more internal organization, by a cross-listing of essays, and an index. Two nice touches are the provision of a time line on C. S. Lewis's life and an excellent review of major book-length treatments of C. S. Lewis by Diana Pavlac Glyer-a very useful shopper's guide. The exact source of "mere Christianity" from the work of Richard Baxter is also printed.

It is worth noting that Mills intends this volume to be the first in a series, the next volume being Worth Doing Badly: G. K. Chesterton and the Art of Witness.

Thursday, July 5th 2007

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