I’ve been thinking a bit lately about how I approach literature, and specifically how I’m approaching this project on C.S. Lewis. I almost laughed out loud when I realized that many of the principles I’m applying come not so much from literature classes, but from church and Bible classes! I mean, it makes sense in some ways – the Bible is, after all, a piece of literature. But having internalized so many of those principles of Biblical interpretation comes in handy in analyzing Lewis. Principles like taking into consideration the type of literature involved. That wouldn’t be so necessary with many authors, but Lewis wrote such a wide variety of literature that it’s an important consideration. Poetry, novels, and personal letters have varying levels of symbolism, of weight – and I’ve seen people give far more weight than was merited by a joke in a personal letter. Taking that factor into account is so important when thinking through what an author intended or would have agreed with, whether or not it was at the forefront of their mind when composing the work, just seems basic – whether you’re analyzing the Bible or less-inspired writers.
Another important principle is that I’m trying to let Lewis interpret Lewis. There are so many, many different takes on him and his perspective on gender – and so many scholars who have opinions in direct opposition to one another that I just have to see what they have to say, and then leave it in the far back reaches of my mind and turn to the text at hand, with what Lewis said in other places much closer to the forefront. It’s easy in the scholarly world – and in the theological, for that matter – to simply focus on, build on, what others have said about your subject rather than on what the author himself says about a given topic. If I had set out to write about Lewis and gender and read what others had said, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have decided on the eldila as my starting point. It arose organically from the textual clues that this was important. And once I’d seen the idea, multiple situations from other novels sprang to mind that indicated that this wasn’t an isolated situation, but a principle that emanates from all his work.
Yet a third important idea I take into consideration is the time frame in which he said something, and his particular audience. One author who did a good job of this, at least in one instance, was Mary Stewart van Leeuwen (A Sword Between the Sexes?) when she discussed how Lewis’ more public works seem to encourage women to stay home, whereas his private correspondence takes no issue with the professional lives of the women he wrote. I think there’s a good reason for that! (Okay, I’ll go on a short rabbit trail. It’s just that I think opening your hands means, to some degree, accepting the culture in which God has placed you. And in the culture in which Lewis was writing, women were largely expected to be at home. It was the culturally feminine ideal, and for most women, opening their hands meant accepting that position. But I believe he recognized that God called some to professional careers, and if that’s what God called them to open their hands to doing, then of course he encouraged them in those careers. It’s like when Lucy went to battle – like Deborah and Jael. And Jane in That Hideous Strength was tired of her paper on Donne rather than being passionate about it. Whew. So much more to say. Caveats and explanations and examples . . . but I’ll save it for another post. Or several.)
Thinking about the link between my study of Scripture and my study of Lewis also made me think about how Lewis said he wasn’t a theologian. People tend to laugh at his admission, as though he really was and was just being modest about it. But I think I know where he’s coming from. He really wasn’t a theologian. He didn’t spend his time digging into Scripture or into the writings of theologians to try to figure out what God said and why. He accepted the teachings of the Church of England (of his time) and used those as the starting point for bringing Christianity to the level of the everyday individual, and to answer the questions of the academics. He was exceedingly brilliant, but he couldn’t do everything, after all!
I differ from Lewis in that I do see myself as a theologian. I grew up in a tradition that, according to its words if not always its practice, believes that the Bible itself should be the only trustworthy standard for faith and practice. And that meant you had to understand things like the type of literature and the context and the language and the personality and background of the various writers in order to get at what God was actually saying. And spending forty-odd years in churches and schools and reading books with that perspective makes for someone who is pretty theologically minded. I also want to understand – I want to get as close to the truth as possible for me with my limited understanding. And I want to understand so that I can apply the truth to my life. And I’m an insatiable reader. So I have studied a lot of that background information to develop my personal theology. And I’ve strayed, if you will, from that tradition on the basis of that principle of basing what I believe on the Bible itself.
So, while I have great respect for Lewis as a man with an amazing mind – arguably the best literary mind of the twentieth century – I have less respect for him as a theologian. And while I read The Problem of Pain and love his description of the difference between affection and charity (aka philos and agape), I disagree strongly with his emphasis on free will and his lack of confidence in a literal Adam and Eve. I take those same principles of interpretation that I apply to his words and I apply them to Scripture and come to disagree with him. For instance, in considering whether or not Adam was a real man – truly the first and only man rather than one among many (and, incidentally, whether the creation account is more mythological or historical), I consider that Paul’s argument in I Corinthians 15 makes no sense without an actual, literal Adam, who was truly the father of the race, and whose actions would affect all people. It also clearly indicates that there was no death before Adam sinned. And if Adam was fictitious/mythological, why wouldn’t we take Jesus the same way, according to that passage? They’re equivalent opposites. So I choose to believe that both were literal. Jesus also talks of Adam and Eve and Abel in the same way – practically in the same breath – in which he talks about Bible characters whose existence isn’t questioned. Extra-biblical sources only carry weight as they help me to understand the context of the Scripture, and to point out other related Scriptures. So I let the Scripture interpret itself as I let Lewis’s words interpret his words.
Another reason I say Lewis meant what he said about not being a theologian is that his words make it clear that he doesn’t really understand what a Calvinist means by total depravity. Sometimes I think the TULIP acronym is more confusing than helpful, because the terminology can be misleading. He never read Calvin, as far as I can tell, or any other Calvinist who actually explained what they meant by the term. (Lewis uses the term as though it means that everything about people is sinful. It’s actually referring to the idea that nothing in this world is completely free of sin. One says no good exists in man – the other says that sin is always present alongside the good. Big difference! I can see how some phrases in songs and prayers might imply the former, but if you study the theologians, you know the difference.) So when Lewis said he wasn’t a theologian, he was just stating a simple truth. He wasn’t a theologian. He was a Christian, a writer, who held to the doctrine of the Church of England, and who tried to make Christianity as he understood it understandable to others. He did ask for input from theologians of different denominations, but he didn’t dig into it like he did Dante or Scott. I want to add that I don’t fault him for that. I believe he was doing exactly what God had called him to do, in his time and in his place. Like I said before, he couldn’t do everything!
And so, when I am tempted to question who I am to disagree with such a brilliant man, or if other scholars will take offense at my position, I take comfort in the fact I’m simply being consistent in the way that I look at what Lewis said to develop my opinions on him, and the way that I look at what God says in His Word to develop my beliefs about who He is and what He would have me to do. I’m pretty sure Lewis would have scorned me as a scholar if I had based my opinion on, say, Jane Austen on what other people said about her works rather than on what she herself said in her works. So why would I elevate what men have said about God over what He said in His Word, as best as I can understand it, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit (“He will guide you into all truth”)? And so I think, perhaps, if we had ever had the chance to talk theology, he would respect my position and my reasons for holding it, even though he may have disagreed. But I’m sure one thing we would have agreed on is that none of us can have it exactly right, at least not as long as we’re here on earth. Maybe when we’re beyond the moon!
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