R. J. Neuhaus on C. S. Lewis and the Public Square

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A blast from the past:

In 1998, Richard John Neuhaus wrote an article which touches on Lewis’ book Miracles. It was entitled “C. S. Lewis in the Public Square,” and you can read it here: http://www.firstthings.com/article/1998/12/002-c-s-lewis-in-the-public-square . Neuhaus speculates how C. S. Lewis would write and speak for the Christian faith were he to be living in the twenty-first century. Some things have changed since the mid-twentieth. Lewis could foresee that modern thinking would continue to wreak havoc in our society, but, in his day, he could still count on having a good deal of common ground with unbelievers. He could argue with them rationally – which he does in Miracles. He could also tell stories with meanings people would appreciate and do so with a measure of confidence that such things would echo as “true” in the minds of the public. Neuhaus spends time explaining how such a situation no longer exists in the thinking public square. People today feel the irrational is the place to look for meaning. Yes, I know that sounds crazy, but there it is. Multiculturalism has also deteriorated a common recognition of who we are as a people, based on the stories we tell about ourselves and the stories we have inherited from the past. This being the case, the public square is on a different footing from that which Lewis addressed and so we naturally wonder what he would do today.

Neuhaus’ conclusion is that Lewis would probably go on doing what he did anyway, with needful adjustments. Neuhaus says this because he recognises that the approach Lewis took in the past is still needed, in spite of its obstacles, and that Lewis would realise the same. Lewis would still argue with people about what they find as true in daily life. He would continue to speak to individuals as one human to another, trying to help them recognise what is true and real in the world in which they live; he would still appeal to common human experience. Also, Lewis would continue to tell stories; stories which reveal the truth in our universe. Though the stories of our world are being emptied, theoretically, of their worth, nevertheless the realities of our world are still there and stories still do their job in communicating them to people. People are still people.

Neuhaus also adds his own opinion of the great necessity of the witness of the Church to continue in life and liturgy (meaning, those liturgies that, in their drama, tell the story of Creation and Redemption, such as are found in the Orthodox, the Roman, and the Anglican Churches). While we seek to engage people with argument and story in the public square, we need the Church’s witness to point to as the living representative in our culture of the presence and reality of the kingdom of God; the historical presence of the Real Story of our world. I think he’s right.

You may want to keep a dictionary beside you as you read his article, but it is worth it. As for how it affects our study, we must recognise that the arguments Lewis makes in Miracles seem convincing enough to ourselves, who have a more absolutist and supernatural understanding of our world, but they may not be convincing to others. As a result, we must be creative in how we communicate the same things we learn in Miracles to the people around us.

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When it’s good to escape

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While reading “On Science Fiction” recently, I was intrigued with a paragraph in which Lewis talks about the kind of positive effect Sci-Fi stories can have on us.  He was answering the objection that people who read fantasy are reading it merely for the “escape.”  Lewis tried to show how the escape could be a healthy thing.

He described a man who was in a small cabin of a large ship, deeply involved with his mates in some sort of intense discussion about working on the ship.  If he were to take a break from the debate and go up on the deck, he would be confronted with a reality about their circumstances greater than what was going on in the cabin.  They were on a ship sailing in the midst of all the awesome sights and dangers of the ocean.  How great the contrast would be between the experience of the crew in that little cabin and what was going on all around them as they sailed the sea.  The experience on deck would surely affect the way this man thought about that debate.  Perhaps his greater view of their lives would affect the opinion he would have when he went back.  His escape from the cabin could yield an improved discussion in the cabin.  You get the point.

What intrigued me is that Lewis is here explaining the same concept Tolkien explains in his essay On Fairy Stories.  Tolkien compared the positive effects of fantasy stories to washing the windows of our minds.  They helped us see the world better.  It’s the same concept.  Lewis even goes on to quote Tolkien before the paragraph is over.

This is no surprise!  Lewis thought Tolkein’s essay the best thing anyone had ever written on the subject.  I rather thought Lewis’ attempt at an image showing the value of escape very vivid and effective.  Especially if you have been on a ship like that.  You know the contrast between the air of a cabin and the weather over the waves.

Is it a better image than washing windows?  Perhaps.  I think I’ll want to remember Lewis’ paragraph the next time I do any teaching on Tolkien’s essay.

What do you think?  Is Lewis’ image of a sailor going out on the deck better than Tolkien’s washing windows?  Has there been a memorable time when a fantasy story – either in a book or a movie – has affected you like this?  Why not answer in the comments.  Thanks!

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The Shallower the Better

I recently read someone who complained of the shallowness of Dr. Ransom in Lewis’ science fiction novels.  It seems that Lewis kept him shallow on purpose.

In his essay “On Scieperelandraimagence Fiction,” Lewis says that, in a good sci-fi story, the character needs to be shallow.  In fact, the more shallow the better!  He says that good writers know that, if you are going to have your character in very unusual circumstances, then the character needs to be an ordinary sort of person.  Otherwise, the character clashes with the odd circumstances.  The result is too much oddity.

It makes good sense.  If you are reading a story about a strange world, your imagination is interested in the strange world.  You don’t want to be having to deal with a strange character at the same time.  This is especially the case when you are wondering what it would be like for any normal fellow to be in the strange world.  If the character is too odd, your imagination is not satisfied.  You are left still wondering what it would be like for a normal person to be there.

A logical counter that Lewis uses against an objection is that, if you want a novel with character development, then look for it in a novel which is written to tell the story of characters, not of far off strange environments.

I keep thinking about how this applies to Star Wars.  There is a real sense in which the Star Wars universe is not that strange.  The planets are not shockingly different from the varied environments on our own planet.  Indeed, they just shoot in different locations here.  They often are environments on our planet!  The means of transportation – the various ships and so forth – are not too very strange.  They are like our own battleships or destroyers – indeed, our own nautical names are given to them.  The fighters are like our “fighters.”  They look different and are fit for space travel – itself not a novel idea with us anymore – but we know what these things are and are for.  We are not confronted with some technological item that is completely foreign.  The primary difference of the universe is of distance and time.   It is long ago and far, far away.  That adds a feeling of strangeness and fascination to it.  But the actual circumstances are more “cool” than strange.

This being the case, while we are fascinated – especially at the beginning – with the technology of the Star Wars saga, we are comfortable enough with it that we are ready for some character development.  And, indeed, that’s what Star Wars becomes for us.  It’s a universe with which we quickly become familiar, wherein characters are developed that interest us.  Thus Star Wars stories quickly become stories of characters instead of strange worlds.  It seems Lewis would think that fitting.

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Lewis on “Scientifiction”

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I will soon be leading a discussion on what Lewis would have probably said – based on his writings – about aspects of the Star Wars saga.  The Facebook event page is here.  I thought I’d compile info about Lewis and the sci-fi genre here.  Enjoy!

Letter to Charles Brady, 29 Oct. ’44:
Lewis says the “real father” of his Ransom books was David Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturus.  Lewis grew up on H. G. Wells, but Lindsay combined sci-fi with a supernatural theme and Lewis especially liked that.  He said Lindsay showed him “what a bang you could get” from combining these two elements.

Letter to Arthur C. Clarke (yes that A. C. Clarke), 7 Dec. ’43:
Clarke had said that most sci-fi stories were on the level with cowboy stories for youth.  Lewis agrees, but says that the most important thing was the moral assumptions of a story.

Letter to John McCallum, 17 Feb, ’58
Lewis says the sci-fi stories of his day had become too “scientific.”

An interesting article by John Wright on the proposition:
“Arthur C. Clarke’s novel [Childhood’s End] was an answer and a rebuttal to OUT FROM THE SILENT PLANET and to THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH in the same way that C. S. Lewis’ novel was a rebuttal and an answer to FIRST MEN IN THE MOON by H.G. Wells.”

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