C.S.Lewis: Modern, Postmodern, and Premodern

John Bowen

Paper given at a C.S.Lewis Conference, LeTourneau University, March 2004

C.S.Lewis has been one of my most formative influences from the time I read Mere Christianity as a teenager. I was on staff with IVCF for twenty-six years, and the last ten of those were as a campus evangelist, giving lectures on Christian faith, particularly in relation to culture, on university campuses across Canada. Lewis was one of the models for how to address a secular, or at least non-churched, audience. I have been teaching evangelism at Wycliffe College since 1997, and I suppose being in a more academic environment has encouraged me to think about Lewis and his approach to evangelism, and how it relates to changes in culture, more critically than I had done previously. This article comes out of that ongoing reflection.

In current writing about evangelism, largely through the influence of Lesslie Newbigin, there has been much discussion of the relation of evangelism to culture, and an assumption–I think a valid and biblical one–that the style of evangelism needs to change according to its cultural context. Peter’s sermon to Jewish pilgrims on the Day of Pentecost is quite different from Paul’s sermon to the philosophers of Athens. The corresponding problem, of course, is that any given culturally shaped form of evangelism cannot be readily transferred to another cultural context, since its message will not be understood or received.

C.S.Lewis was a remarkably effective evangelist to the culture of his day, and Mere Christianity in particular still helps many come to Christian faith. Yet western culture has changed greatly since Britain in the first half of the twentieth century, not least in the ongoing shift from modernism to post-modernism. As a result, some today see Lewis as hopelessly wedded to a modernist culture and therefore unable to communicate to a postmodern world. One author who does so is Rodney Clapp: in his 1996 book A Peculiar People, he points to one aspect of what he considers to be Lewis’ modernism:

The foundationalist C.S.Lewis argued that there is for all persons in all times and places a singular and innate sense of fairness. . . . But today our society is sufficiently pluralistic . . . that different standards are indeed seen to be at work. Thus the prochoicer’s “decent behaviour” is the prolifer’s “murder.”[1]

In other words, Lewis’ kind of argument will not impress a true postmodern. Lewis assumes absolutes and appeals to universals in a way that many in our culture do not. Clapp seems to me correct in some respects. Certainly, Mere Christianity can be interpreted as modernist, in the popular sense that it seeks to argue people into belief in a linear, rationalistic way. For Lewis, Christian faith can only be based on sufficient evidence:

I am not asking anyone to accept Christianity if his best reasoning tells him that the weight of the evidence is against.[2]

–and his goal is to set out the appropriate evidence in such a way that the conclusion is virtually irresistible. An objective, non-perspectival, faith-free consideration of “the facts” is possible, and faith is a secondary step based on that rational consideration. In a postmodern world, where reason is relativized and distrusted, and where objectivity is considered impossible, this approach is hardly guaranteed to gain one a sympathetic audience. Even worse, of course, underlying all of Lewis’ apologetics is a metanarrative, bete noir of postmodernism. This is perhaps clearest in The Chronicles of Narnia, with their retelling of the Christian metanarrative from the creation (The Magician’s Nephew) to the eschaton (The Last Battle), but it is always assumed.

So is Lewis’ voice ineffective as an evangelist to a postmodern world? My argument is this. There may indeed be ways in which Lewis addresses his culture more appropriately than he does our own. This is the nature of good evangelism: it is precisely its timeliness that limits its timelessness. Nevertheless, I want to argue that Lewis in fact recognizes and anticipates the dangers of modernity and, in response, demonstrates approaches to evangelism which we might now label as postmodern.

Lesslie Newbigin, in his many books, has encouraged Christians to learn from those who have been involved in cross-cultural mission overseas in order to learn how to address what is increasingly a cross-cultural situation “at home.” Following this lead, I am going to make use of a 1991 missiology classic, Transforming Mission, by South African David Bosch. What Bosch does is to look at the history of Christian mission from New Testament times to the present day, with an eye to the many ways in which mission has adapted to culture. He considers how mission has been influenced by modernity, and how it needs to adapt to a postmodern context, and although his focus is on overseas missions, his analysis this seems particularly apt for our purpose.

Bosch’s first observation about modernity is that:

The human mind was viewed as the point of departure for all knowing. Human reason was . . . independent of the norms of tradition or presupposition.[3]

In these terms, Lewis’ appeal to reason in books like Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain, or Miracles might appear to classify him as a modernist. Yet Lewis is actually quite aware of the limitations of human reason and clearly relativizes reason in several ways.

Probably Lewis’ own experience laid the foundation for this. After all, the experience of Joy in his life preceded any rational reflection on the experience. Further, when he describes the foundations of his own personality, he does not see rationality as primary. In a 1954 letter, he explains that:

The imaginative man in me is older, more continuously operative, and in that sense more basic, than either the religious writer or the critic.[4]

It may be significant in this respect that he saw himself first and foremost as a poet, and that his first published work was poetry.

From this vantage point, Lewis is able to acknowledge that reason is never autonomous, but that culture has a role in shaping how we approach truth and reason. As Lewis says of Uncle Andrew’s view of the creation of Narnia, “What you see and hear depends a good deal on where you are standing; it also depends on what sort of person you are.”[5] Our knowledge of the world is never unbiased, complete, or absolute.

This is clear in such places as The Discarded Image, where he acknowledges that no Model of the world can be regarded as ultimate truth:

Part of what we know now is that we cannot, in the old sense, ‘know what the universe is like’ and that no model we build will be, in that sense, ‘like’ it.[6]

He encourages us, therefore, to “regard all Models in the right way, respecting each and idolizing none.”[7] David Downing actually notes this as anticipating “contemporary post-structuralist historiography.”[8]

As so often happens, Lewis’ philosophical convictions are played out in his fiction. Thus it is not surprising that in the space trilogy, while reason plays an important part, it is strictly relativized. Reason occupies one seat at the table, but not the seat of honour. Thus in That Hideous Strength, McPhee, the strict rationalist (who, like Kirkpatrick “came near to being a purely logical entity”[9]), has an honoured place in the fellowship of St. Anne’s. The Director explains to Jane Studdock, “He is our sceptic; a very important office.”[10] Thus he can ask the difficult questions and challenge sloppy thinking. Yet his strength is also his weakness, and when it comes to confronting Merlin, McPhee is useless: “You can’t go, McPhee,” says the Director; “The others are heavily protected as you are not.”[11]

What then of the reliance on reason in books like Mere Christianity? One possibility is that it is chiefly strategic, based not on autonomous modernist foundationalism, as Clapp seems to believe, but on Christian presuppositions. Lewis’ 1941 letter to the BBC’s Dr. Welch suggests this:

It seems to me that the New Testament . . . always assumes an audience who already believe in the Law of Nature and know they have disobeyed it.”[12]

Although he will “mention Christianity only at the end,” that very strategy is a biblical one, reminiscent of Paul’s sermon at Athens. Perhaps this is an example of what James Como has in mind when he says that although Lewis “never deviated from his belief in Reason as the organ of truth,” nevertheless he “could adapt with the adroitness of a field commander.”[13]

Bosch deals at some length with the modernist view of science. He observes a new emphasis on objectivity in the modern period, which “separated human beings from their environment” and opened the door for exploitation of the environment and of others. Teleology has disappeared: “science cannot answer the question by whom and for what purpose the universe came into being.” Scientific knowledge is perceived as objective and value-free and all problems are in principle solvable.[14]

Lewis’ scorn for what he calls “scientism” is well-known. He distinguishes it from “real science” and “good scientists” since “the sciences are ‘good and innocent in themselves’.”[15] He is clear what this good science would be:

When it explained it would not explain away. When it spoke of the parts it would remember the whole. While studying the It it would not lose what Martin Buber calls the Thou-situation.[16]

Scientism on the other hand is by nature reductionist, finally undermining its own credibility by destroying the possibility of rational thought and human nature itself:

Man’s conquest of Nature turns out, in the moment of its consummation, to be Nature’s conquest of Man.[17]

The fictional form of scientism is seen in several places. At the creation of Narnia, for example, while most spectators are rapt in awe, Uncle Andrew, the scientist, is already thinking of how to plunder the scientific and economic bounty of this new world. His objectification of Narnia, of course, has the logical result that he cannot hear the music of the Lion or the speech of the animals; nor can he enter into their play.[18]  In other words, he becomes less than human.

In Out of the Silent Planet, Weston and Devine, similarly, think of Mars and its inhabitants as objects of scientific and economic interest only. Their bias is revealed early in the book, when Weston complains of the boy they had hoped to take with them, that “in a civilized society [he] would be automatically handed over to a state laboratory for experimental purposes.”[19] When they arrive on Mars, it is not the physical scientists but Ransom, the linguist, who enters into relationship with the inhabitants, shares their sports, hears their poetry, and shares their grief.

In both instances, while scientific “objectivity” towards the environment may bring limited (and usually selfish) benefits, the person who is prepared to set aside such distance and enter into the environment, reaps far richer rewards. That Hideous Strength illustrates the logical end of this kind of “objectivity.” When Frost is preparing Mark Studdock for the (significantly named) Objective Room, he warns Mark that:

Resentment and fear are both chemical phenomena. Our reactions to one another are chemical reactions. Social relations are chemical reactions.[20]

The reductionism which is implied in objectivity leads to the mind of dehumanization which is at the heart of the NICE.

Bosch observes that in modernity the doctrine of progress meant that people “were convinced that they had both the ability and the will to remake the world in their own image.”[21] Lewis is not a fan of “progress.” He calls it:

the fatal serialism of the modern imagination—the image of infinite unilinear progression which so haunts our minds. [22]

In Surprised by Joy, however, he admits that he was not always a sceptic about progress. He describes his reaction on hearing that Owen Barfield had become an Anthroposophist: “‘Why, damn it—it’s medieval,’ I exclaimed; for I still had all the chronological snobbery of my period and used the names of earlier periods as terms of abuse.”[23] Later, he wrote of Barfield in 1936, “The friend to whom I have dedicated the book [The Allegory of Love] has taught me not to patronize the past, and has trained me to see the present as itself a ‘period’.”[24] As a result, Lewis was not a fan of the doctrine “lodged in popular thought that improvement is, somehow, a cosmic law”[25] nor of its offspring, chronological snobbery, “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age.”[26]

In The Discarded Image, he further disarmed the myth by suggesting that scientific “evidence” for progress merely followed on a philosophical hankering for progress. This is why, in The World’s Last Night, he says that “Progressive evolution as popularly imagined, is simply a myth, supported by no evidence whatever. . . . No-one looking at world history without some preconception in favour of progress could find in it a steady up gradient.”

Perhaps the most merciless pillorying of the myth of progress, however, comes in Out of the Silent Planet, when Weston tries to defend human colonization of the universe on the grounds that human beings are more “advanced” than other civilizations. Ransom’s childlike translation of Weston’s rant effectively reduces its triumphalism to meaningless folly. Thus Weston’s boasting of “our transportation system which is rapidly annihilating space and time” is reduced to we “can carry heavy weights very quickly a long way.”[27] It is significant that both Weston and Uncle Andrew in The Magician’s Nephew are punished with cold water on their heads[28], Nephew 123), as if their scientism has been a form of intoxication.

Finally, Bosch characterizes the modernist period as one when people were seen as “emancipated, autonomous individuals”, as compared with “the Middle Ages, [when] community took priority over the individual.”[29]

Lewis has a somewhat ambivalent attitude towards individualism. On the one hand, he fears the crowd, “the growing exaltation of the collective and the growing indifference to persons. . . . the general character of modern life with its huge impersonal organizations.[30] Yet he acknowledges that this emphasis on the collective ironically stems from an over-emphasis on the individual, “that quite un-christian worship of the individual . . . which is so rampant in modern thought.”[31]

On the other hand, Lewis is clear about the importance of the Christian community. He is quite explicit: “The Christian is called, not to individualism but to membership in the mystical body.’[32] In That Hideous Strength, if the NICE represents the parody of “family” that scientism brings, true community is to be found at St. Anne’s, with its strange mixture of the Cockney cleaning lady, the Scottish sceptic, the academic Dr. Dimble and his wife, the bear Mr. Bultitude, the enigmatic and austere Grace Ironwood, Jane Studdock, the would-be academic with second sight, and the director, the saintly Ransom. The group is bound together by philia, that is, the love which exists between people who “care about the same truth.”[33] St. Anne’s is in fact almost a microcosm of the Body of Christ.

It is true that Lewis’ ecclesiology is notoriously weak. Though he attended his parish church in Headington, he could hardly be called an active participant in the parish’s life. Yet he understands the importance of church as a place of community. Screwtape complains about church because “being a place of unity and not of liking, it brings together people of different classes and psychology . . . in the kind of unity the Enemy desires.”[34] His advice to Wormwood is to distract his patient from these realities by reminding him of the outward eccentricities of church members and the unintelligible liturgies, not to mention the singing of “fifth rate poems set to sixth-rate music.” Screwtape, like Lewis, knows the importance of church, and that, as Lewis says elsewhere, “personal and private life is lower than participation in the Body of Christ.”[35]

Conclusion: The premodern as key

In light of this, I would suggest that Lewis can be read with profit by both modernist audiences (of whom there are still many) and postmodern audiences (of whom there are a growing number).

How is it possible to do both? On the one hand, he addresses the modern world because he deeply understands that world. He was influenced by it, as all of us are shaped by the culture into which we are born. He uses the tools of that culture, not least the linear rationalism, and the assumption of shared values, to advocate on behalf of Christian faith, to great effect.

But, at the same time, because he is a Christian, that culture does not have the final word, and he can anticipate its demise without concern:

It is not impossible that our own Model will die . . . when, and because, far-reaching changes in the mental temper of our descendants demand that it should.[36]

In fact, because Lewis’ faith and his academic discipline have their origins before the modern era, his mind is also shaped by influences far broader than that of a single culture: his faith, indeed, his whole mindset, is a pre-modern faith. Some have suggested that the pre-modern has more in common with the postmodern than either does with the modern. This would explain why other sides of Lewis than the purely rational can still communicate powerfully in a postmodern world.

One of the features Bosch observes in a postmodern world is a realization that:

Rationality has to be expanded. . . . This recognition has led to a re-evaluation of the role of metaphor, myth, analogy and the like, and to the rediscovery of the sense of mystery and enchantment.[37]

This would suggest that the future of Lewis as evangelist may lie more in his fiction than in his directly apologetic works, in Narnia and the science fiction trilogy, in The Great Divorce and Till We Have Faces, those places where (to paraphrase Emily Dickinson) he tells all the truth, but he tells it slant.

[1] Rodney Clapp, A Peculiar People (Downers Grove: InterVarsity 1996), 144-145.

[2] C.S.Lewis, Mere Christianity (London: Fontana 1956), 120-121.

[3] David Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (New York: Orbis, 1993),264.

[4] C.S.Lewis, Collected Letters, Volume 3 (New York: HarperCollins 2007), 444.

[5] C.S.Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1968), 116.

[6] C.S.Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature  (Cambridge: Cambridge University 1964), 218.

[7] Ibid, 222.

[8] David Downing, Planets in Peril: A Critical Study of C.S.Lewis’s Ransom Trilogy (Amherst: University of Massachusetts 1992), 61.

[9] C.S.Lewis, Surprised by Joy (London: Fontana 1960), 110.

[10] C.S.Lewis, The Cosmic Trilogy: Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength (London: Bodley Head 1990, 539.

[11] Ibid., 587.

[12] Roger Lancelyn Green and Walter Hooper, C.S.Lewis: A Biography (Orlando FL: Harcourt and Brace 1974), 202.

[13] James T. Como (editor), C.S.Lewis at the Breakfast Table and Other Reminiscences (Orlando FL: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1992), xxvii.

[14] Bosch 264-266.

[15] Trilogy, 560.

[16] C.S.Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: HarperCollins 2001), 79.

[17] Ibid., 68.

[18] Magician, 103, 116-117.

[19] Trilogy, 15

[20] Ibid., 614

[21] Bosch 265.

[22] Abolition, 80.

[23] Surprised, 166.

[24] C.S.Lewis, The Allegory of Love (New York: Oxford 1966), “Preface.”

[25] C.S.Lewis,  “De Futilitate,” in Christian Reflections (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1995), 58.

[26] Surprised, 167.

[27] Trilogy, 120-121.

[28] Ibid., 116, 118.

[29] Bosch, 267.

[30] C.S.Lewis, “A Reply to Professor Haldane,” in Of This and Other Worlds (London: Fount 1989), 108.

[31] C.S.Lewis, “Membership” in Fern-seed and Elephants (London: Fount 1998), 24

[32] Fern-seeds,15.

[33] C.S.Lewis, The Four Loves (London: Fount 1988),62

[34] C.S.Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (London: Fount 1977), 81.

[35] Ibid.,13.

[36] Discarded, 222.

[37] Bosch, 353.