God in the Dock

I find that the more I read the writings of C. S. Lewis, the more I find myself admiring his skill as a writer and thinker. I do not know of another writer who is so good at getting straight to the heart of whatever subject he is considering and working out every logical implication of a position held by himself or someone else. Thus, I found this collection of essays by Lewis titled God in the Dock to be a special treat.

God in the Dock

 

These forty-eight essays written over a period of some twenty years and published in a variety of publications provide excellent examples of Lewis’s clear thinking and uncompromising defense of his Christian beliefs. Although there is some diversity of subject in these writings, the editor, Walter Hooper, has sorted them out into three parts and included a fourth part containing a few letters Lewis wrote. As he explains, the first two parts deal mostly with theology while the third has essays dealing more with Christian ethics or behavior. These essays are not so easily differentiated and Lewis is always as much concerned with Christian living as much as Christian beliefs. Ethics and theology blend together more than are separated in these essays.

 

Lewis does tackle a variety of subjects in these essays, but always he returns to the same themes.  He defends the concept of miracles against the idea that science disproves the miraculous by pointing out that science only studies the regularities found in nature. Given that the miraculous is not part of the regularities, science can tell us nothing about it. Lewis also argues against reducing everything to mechanistic naturalism. He insists that to study a thing is not the same as to experience it and one must not assume that either process tells us everything about the thing. A person in love experiences the emotion of love. A doctor studying his brain might perhaps learn something of the chemicals that produce the feelings of being in love, but cannot know what it is to be in love unless he actually experiences it.

 

C. S. Lewis defends dogma in religion against those who would do away with it in favor of a loose theism by pointing out that a religion with no beliefs is hardly worth the trouble. He writes of the difficulties of spreading the Christian message to a contemporary audience and of the necessity of speaking the common people’s language in order to teach them. The essay God in the Dock notes that unlike the pagans in first century Rome, most people today do not believe themselves to be sinners in need of repentance and instead of fearing the judgment of God, is more inclined to put God in the dock and judge Him.

 

One of the themes throughout C. S. Lewis’s writings is his contention that it is what is true that matters, not what is modern or progressive or practical. In Bulverism, he attacks the twentieth century fashion of refuting an argument not by proving it is wrong, but by attacking the motives of the debater. (Check your privilege?) He insists that a point is either right or wrong, regardless of the motives of the person stating it, and it can only be shown to be right or wrong using reason.

 

There is a lot more to this collection and I have only scratched a very shallow line on the surface of the profound riches to be found in reading these essays. I think that any follower of C. S. Lewis will find that reading God in the Dock to be a rewarding experience.

 

That Hideous Strength

That Hideous Strength, the third book in C. S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy is not much like the previous two books, Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra. It is about twice as long, the story is set entirely on Earth, though the angelic Oyarses, the rulers of the planets, make an appearance at the climax. Elwin Ransom is not the protagonist of That Hideous Strength but he appears midway in the story and plays an important role in it. The supernatural plays a far greater role in That Hideous Strength than in the previous two books and it might be classified as more in the realm of fantasy than properly science fiction.

First edition cover
First edition cover (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The story of That Hideous Strength centers on Mark and Jane Studdock, a recently, though somewhat unhappily married couple. Mark Studdock is a professor of Sociology at Bracton College, part of the University of Edgestow. He is ambitious, desiring most of all to be in the inner circle. He is delighted to be part of the “Progressive Element” at Bracton and supports their intrigues to sell some of the college’s land to the National Instituted for Co-ordinated Experiments. Mark is excited to meet Lord Feverstone, aka Dick Devine one of the antagonists from Out of the Silent Planet. Feverstone is both a senior fellow of Bracton and a leading figure at the NICE and when he offers to take Mark to the institute at Belbury for a possible job, Mark eagerly agrees to go.

At the NICE, Mark meets a variety of strange characters including John Wither, the Deputy Director who seems only vaguely aware of his surroundings, Dr. Filostrato, a physiologist who has managed to keep the severed head of an executed murderer alive, and Major “Fairy” Hardcastle, the sadistic, lesbian head of security. At first, Mark is not sure what his new job is supposed to be, or even if he actually has a new job. He falls in and out of favor with the authorities at The NICE seemingly at random and is never sure where he stands. This is gradually revealed as a method to bring him further into the mysteries surrounding NICE. It turns out that the leaders of the NICE have been in contact with demons or fallen eldilla, though they are not aware of their true nature, believing them to be superior beings called “macrobes”.

Meanwhile, Jane Studdock while supposedly working on her dissertation on John Donne is dismayed to find that she has become merely a housewife. She has begun to have clairvoyant dreams. When she confides in the wife of her tutor, Mrs. Dimble, she is taken to a manor at St Anne’s where she meets Mr. Fisher-King, Elwin Ransom. Ransom has been much changed by his travels to Malacandra and Perelandra and is no longer the simple philologist he was at the beginning of the Space Trilogy. Because he has lived in Paradise on Venus, Ransom appears younger and no longer ages, though still bears a wound on his heel inflicted by Weston during their fight. Ransom has become the Pendragon, the heir of King Arthur and has gathered around him a small group of people dedicated to fighting the evil represented at the NICE.

Jane’s clairvoyant dreams indicated that the NICE is attempting to disinter the body of Merlin from his resting place in the land they purchased from Bracton College. Merlin is not dead but in a suspended state and the leaders of the NICE hope to make use of his knowledge of the ancient lore of Numinor to effect a union between modern science and ancient magic. Merlin, however has his own ideas.

In his review of That Hideous Strength, George Orwell said that the introduction of the supernatural weakened the story and that one always knew who would win in any fight between God and the Devil. I don’t agree. Leaving aside the fact that Lewis would not have written any fiction that was not infused with his worldview that contains the possibility of miracles, I did not find that the supernatural elements of the story in any way lessened the suspense. In fact, I can honestly say that That Hideous Strength was one of the few books that I couldn’t bear to put down, since I was desperate to know just what the villains at the NICE were up to. There is something of a deus ex machina effect at the climax in which the ruling oyarses of the various planets, identified with the Roman gods the planets are named after, descend to Earth to upset the plans of the NICE, but Lewis skillfully builds up to the climax. The repentance of Mark Studdock is also well handled as he realizes that everything he had been working toward isn’t really what he thought he wanted. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I think it is the best of C. S. Lewis’s fiction I have yet read.

 

 

Perelandra

Since Out of the Silent Planet, the first book of C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy, told the story of Elwin Ransom’s journey to Malacandra, the planet we call Mars, it is fitting that the second book, Perelandra, is the story of Ransom’s voyage to the planet Perelandra, which we name Venus. The two trips could not be more unlike, however. Instead of being kidnapped and taken into space, this time Ransom is given a mission by the Oyarsa, the angelic ruler of Malacandra. He is taken to Perelandra by the eldili in a coffin made of ice.

Cover of "Perelandra (Space Trilogy, Book...
Cover of Perelandra (Space Trilogy, Book 2)

When Ransom arrives, he discovers (in accordance with the science fiction tropes of the time) that while Malacandra is an older and dying world, Perelandra is a younger planet with a worldwide ocean. In fact, the first two people, the Perelandran Adam and Eve, had just been created. Ransom soon meets the Perelandran Eve, a green-skinned humanoid that he calls the Queen. She has been separated from her husband, the King. The King and Queen are unfallen and live in Paradise, like Adam and Eve, and like Adam and Eve, they have been given a commandment. In their case, they have been forbidden to leave the reed mat islands, which are their home and live on the only solid land on Perelandra.

Ransom is soon joined by his old enemy Professor Weston who comes to Perelandra in a spaceship similar to the one he used to take Ransom to Malacandra. Weston is not the same man Ransom knew on Earth and Malacandra. After speaking to him, Ransom realizes that Weston has been possessed by a devil, or perhaps even the Devil and he has come to tempt the Queen into disobeying the eldill and Maleldil, just as he had done with Earth’s Adam and Eve. Ransom calls this creature the Unman Ransom’s mission, then, is to prevent the Queen from falling. If he cannot persuade her, he must engage the Unman in physical combat, even at the expense of his own life.

Perelandra is more spiritually or supernaturally oriented than Out of the Silent Planet, and Lewis presents more of his theology in it, especially his thoughts on the nature of evil. Lewis does not make the mistake, as some writers do, of portraying evil as exciting or interesting or intelligent. In Out of the Silent Planet, evil is described as “bent”, some quality or thing not acting or being used according to its proper function or role. In Perelandra, as well as some of his other writings, evil is shown to be a lessening of a person or thing. The person who turns to evil becomes less of an individual. Weston as the Unman is less than he was as the scientist who discovered how to travel through space. The Unman is clever and charming while he is tempting the Queen, but when off duty, so to speak, he lapses into imbecility and childish taunting of Ransom. Towards the end of their struggle, Weston seems to temporarily regain control of himself and tells Ransom of his experience dying and coming back to life. Ransom is never sure whether Weston actually was speaking or the demon was trying to trick him. In the end, Ransom decides that it simply doesn’t make any difference. When Weston and the demon turned to evil, they began to lose the qualities that made them individuals. Eventually all that is evil becomes indistinguishable.

Lewis will also have nothing to do with the idea of a fortunate fall, the idea that Adam and Eve were ignorant of evil in their innocence and that at least they gained knowledge. The Unman does tempt the Queen with the knowledge of good and evil, yet she and the King gain more knowledge of good and evil by rejecting temptation than by falling. The King and Queen inform Ransom, at the end of the book, that the people of Thulcandra, our Earth, are more ignorant of evil than they are, because of the Fall and our own evil deeds.

Perelandra is, if anything, even more entertaining than Out of the Silent Planet and is a worthy sequel to that book, although like all of C. S. Lewis’s fiction, it is as much a work of apologetics as story, and Perelandra is, as I have said more theologically oriented than that earlier work. The reader who does not agree with Lewis’s religious beliefs may like Perelandra less well, but I can recommend it.

 

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The Great Divorce

I have always considered The Screwtape Letters as my favorite of C. S. Lewis’s writings, but now I think that book might have to make way for The Great Divorce. I have just finished reading in and have found it to be even more insightful that Screwtape, though with none of the humor. The Great Divorce is a story about Heaven and Hell, perhaps similar in theme and intent to Dante’s Divine Comedy and others, though the Heaven and Hell that Lewis portrays is not much like the conventional pictures of Heaven and Hell.

 

 

The Great Divorce begins with the narrator, presumably Lewis himself, in a gray, dismal, rainy city of empty streets. This is Hell. There are no flames, devils, or torments. These things might make Hell interesting and Lewis makes subtly makes the point that while evil may be hurtful, it is also, in the end, boring. The streets of Hell are empty, not because Hell itself is empty, but because the inhabitants cannot stand each other. As soon as anyone arrives in Hell, he invariably quarrels with everyone around him and moves as far away as he can. So, there are miles, even light years between neighbors.

There is a bus for those who want to travel to Heaven to see what it is like. The narrator, along with a group of quarreling travelers boards the bus to Heaven. Most of the people from Hell don’t much like it there. In Heaven, they are revealed to be ghosts, while Heaven is real and solid, more real and solid than Earth. The ghosts in Heaven cannot lift a single leaf. Grass does not bend beneath their feet. The people of Heaven are bright, shining spirits.

The bulk of the book consists of the narrator overhearing conversations between the ghosts and relatives or acquaintances from Heaven, and the narrator’s own conversation with Lewis’s favorite writer, George MacDonald.  The spirits of Heaven plead with the ghosts to stay but the ghosts all have one reason or another why they cannot or will not.  As MacDonald explains, the one thing that the people from Hell need to do is to forget about their preoccupation with themselves and learn to love God. Once they have ceased to trouble about themselves, they will become more truly the individuals they were meant to be. But, they simply will not do it.

Lewis is careful to be sure that the reader knows that this book is only a work of fiction and most emphatically does not claim to be any sort of prophet or to have any real knowledge of the afterlife. In fact, the story ends with the narrator waking from a dream. Still, I think The Great Divorce shows a great deal of insight into the nature of Heaven and Hell, and of good and evil.

C. S.Lewis & Narnia for Dummies

I am not really a fan of the For Dummies books because I am not a dummy. Actually, I find the user-friendly features like the sidebars and the little icons to be a little distracting. I suppose I am old fashioned and am used to receiving my information in a more linear fashion.
Nevertheless, as a casual fan of C. S. Lewis, I was looking forward to reading Richard Wagner’s C. S. Lewis and Narnia for Dummies. I have to say that I was not disappointed. By a casual fan, I meant that I have read and enjoyed The Chronicles of Narnia, The Screwtape Letters, and Mere Christianity, and that I had a vague idea of the general outlines of Lewis’s life. Reading C. S. Lewis for Dummies made me appreciate Lewis’s life and works even more and made me determined to read some of his books that I was hardly aware of before.

Wagner begins the book with a general overview of C. S. Lewis, and devotes two more chapters to Lewis’s life and his literary friends, the Inklings. He moves on to Lewis’s fiction spending a lot of time,  about six chapters, on Narnia, giving a synopsis of the plots and characters of the Chronicles and exploring the deeper meaning of the themes of the series.  He spends perhaps too much time on the Chronicles of Narnia, to the detriment of Lewis’s other works. Still, with the movies coming out, perhaps that is the main reader interest.

 

Wagner goes on to explore Lewis’s other fictional works, with a chapter on The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, the Space Trilogy, A Pilgrim’s Regress, and Till We have Faces. He next moves on the Lewis’s non-fiction with a chapter on The Problem of Pain, Mere Christianity, The Abolition of Man, and other books. Wagner doesn’t spend as much time on Lewis’s nonfiction, which to me is unfortunate, since these are the books by Lewis with which I am least familiar. He has, however, written enough to interest me in reading them.

 

I think that C. S. Lewis and Narnia for Dummies has something for any reader of C. S. Lewis. Whether you are just starting to read one of his books, or a long time fan, you are sure to learn something new from Wager’s book and to finish it with a deeper appreciation and understanding of Lewis and his beliefs.

 

Fools Rush In

Where angels fear to tread. C. S. Lewis always acknowledged that his Screwtape Letters presented a lopsided picture of human life that ought to have been balanced by letters from an archangel to a guardian angel. Yet, he felt himself unable to write such a balancing book. As Lewis put it,

 But who could supply the deficiency? Even if a man-and he would have to be a far better man than I- could scale the spiritual heights required, what “answerable style” could he use? For the style would really be part of the content. Mere advice would be no good; every sentence would have to smell of Heaven.

Jim Peschke might perhaps be thought a fool for trying what a master like Lewis feared to attempt. He suffers from at least two disadvantages that should make a book like The Michael Letters a failure. First, Peschke, by his own admission, does not have the satirical wit of Lewis and is only a novice writer. Second, human nature being what it is, is more attracted to the darkness than to the light, and so the diabolical is inherently more interesting than the angelic.  Despite these disadvantages, The Michael Letters succeeds beyond all expectations. The correspondence between the guardian angel and the archangel holds the attention of the reader and the story moves along briskly. If this book does not quite come up to the level of The Screwtape Letters, it more than satisfies.

There are, of course, fundamental differences in the two works. The angels, unlike the demons are genuinely interested in the welfare of the human in their charge. Peschke shows this by giving the human a name and including details of his everyday life. Screwtape and Wormwood did not care about any such details. Their “patient” was simply food to them. The whole flavor of the correspondence is entirely the opposite. Unlike the demons who hate and mistrust each other, the angels willingly help and encourage their fellows. These and other differences make The Michael Letters a fitting counterbalance to The Screwtape Letters.