C S Lewis on Truth and Originality

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C S Lewis on Truth and Originality

[A version of this article first appeared in the Christian Writer magazine for Spring 2015]

C S Lewis article in 'Christian Writer' magazine

C S Lewis article in ‘Christian Writer’ magazine

“Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.” (C S Lewis, Mere Christianity, IV, 11)

This is very good advice for anyone seeking to write, perhaps particularly on C S Lewis. There are so many books about him and his thought already in existence and new ones being created all the time, that it can feel foolhardy to attempt to say anything new about him or his circle, the Inklings. However, since this is true about virtually all subjects, what is the writer to do, particularly the writer committed to non-fiction?

Lewis (1898-1963) revelled in being a “dinosaur” in his field, one of the last surviving examples of Old Western Man who read medieval and renaissance texts as if they were native to him, as he declared in his inaugural address as Professor at Cambridge University in 1954. He had already parodied those who tried to be original and up-to-date for its own sake in Pilgrim’s Regress, his first novel of 1933. Here he portrayed the fashionable modernists of the time who pedalled godless philosophies for financial gain and a privileged status in society as the intelligentsia. Lewis showed how Freudianism, Marxism, and most other contemporary ‘-isms’ were frequently illogical and ridiculous if taken to their logical conclusions and were more effective in oppressing individuals rather than in liberating the true self. Once Lewis became a Christian he particularly disliked attempts by liberal theologians to import worldly philosophies into Christianity, resulting in a pseudo-form of the faith, even though he himself was quite happy with some forms of biblical criticism and evolutionary theory.

But for Lewis it was the task of re-educating his fellow citizens on the forgotten core beliefs of the Christian faith that was really crucial. In the Second World War he was to get the chance to do this, not just via the written word but via the most up-to-date technology available, the wireless. In these Broadcast Talks the last thing he wanted to be was original. Arresting, interesting, engaging, yes – in the way he put across the basics of the faith. But the main elements of Christian belief were not his to tinker with and he had found salvation for his soul and meaning for his life by submitting to the classic Christian creeds. He got into a spat with the liberal theologian Norman Pittenger in 1958 on this very issue. Pittenger, who taught Theology at a seminary in New York, accused Lewis, in effect, of dumbing down the faith. Lewis was perfectly aware that he was not a professional theologian and that he was bound to be essentially a populariser in this field, more a translator of the work of orthodox theologians that had gone before him than an innovator. And in his gift for making the distant and complex exciting and accessible lay his strength. In his rejoinder, Lewis rightly defends the necessity of this task:

“One thing at least is sure. If the real theologians had tackled this laborious work of translation about a hundred years ago, when they began to lose touch with the people (for whom Christ died), there would have been no place for me.”[1]

So for Lewis, writing about the Christian faith was much more than an academic exercise, it was an act of “translation” of what already existed, in a way suitable to communicate with a contemporary audience who desperately needed to hear it. More than that, he was obeying the Lord’s command to speak His truth to all people, not just playing around with concepts and ideologies with the intellectual elite. Lewis was not interested in the kind of fame that came from being ‘original’, especially as he was so well-versed in the philosophies and literary styles of the past that he knew how often these tended to just repeat themselves and be anything but ‘new’.

He was also not averse to repeating himself, for example on the topic of truth and originality: in Membership he wrote: “No man who values originality will ever be original. But try to tell the truth as you see it, try to do any bit of work as well as it can be done for the work’s sake, and what men call originality will come unsought.” [2] And in a letter from 1942 he wrote against the need for so-called originality in poetry, not just in content but also in style, concluding “The pother about ‘originality’ all comes from the people who have nothing to say: if they had they’d be original without noticing it.” [3]

God is more concerned with making us new people: “If anyone is in Christ he is a new creation…”, “…be transformed by the renewal of your mind…”, and God is the one who says: “Behold, I make all things new…”. [4] God has made each one of us unique and so the uniqueness of our writing will come from us being true to our real selves as God has made us, not by trying to be something else. In fact trying to be ‘original’ and different and therefore something other than what we are could be seen as an affront to God’s own creativity. We reflect back the divine glory because of who we become in Christ, not in spite of it. Becoming our true selves and achieving self-realisation, which is the story arc of practically every Hollywood story and TV drama, is a free gift to the Christian. We become truly authentic as individuals and therefore as writers when we give ourselves up to Christ and let Him lead us into new life by His Spirit. Then we will truly blossom and achieve what Carl Jung called ‘individuation’. Then, if we are speaking or writing authentically we will be original and different by definition, for no one else can speak as the real you or write as the real you, other than… you.

Lewis ended his broadcast talks during the war on this very point: that “our real selves are, so to speak, all waiting for us in Him…. the very first step towards getting a real self is to forget about the self. It will come only as you are looking for something else.” And that ‘something else’ is of course the Lord Jesus. Lewis then emphasises that the same principle applies in literature, art and all of life – you make a much better impression when you have forgotten about yourself and making a good impression. It is the divine principle of losing your life, one painful bit at a time if necessary, in order to gain true spiritual life. To try and gain a self for yourself and by yourself will bring you only to despair and ruin.

I can’t think of a better way of ending than to be entirely unoriginal and use Lewis’ own ending to his radio talks: “But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in” [5]… including originality.

 

 

NOTES

[1] Lewis in ‘Rejoinder to Dr Pittenger’ in Undeceptions: Essays in Theology and Ethics, edited by Walter Hooper (Geoffrey Bless, London, 1971, p183).

[2] Available in The Weight of Glory, and Other Addresses, edited by Walter Hooper (Macmillan, New York, 1980).

[3] Letter of 23 April 1942 to Martyn Skinner about his poem Sir Elfadore and Mabyna. Lewis was here particularly citing the style of Alexander Pope as one that was still valid, even though held in contempt by many of their contemporaries (Collected Letters of C S Lewis, vol 2, ed. Walter Hooper, HarperCollins, London).

[4] 2 Cor. 5:17; Rom. 12:2; Rev. 21:5.

[5] Lewis, Mere Christianity (HarperCollins, London, 1952, Book 4, ch 11).


A Narnian Christmas at Chatsworth House – Part Two

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A Narnian Christmas at Chatsworth House – Part Two

One of the most amazing things about visiting Chatsworth House this week was just the fact that we were allowed to take photos. Anyone who has been round the great stately homes of England will know that this is very unusual, so it felt like a triple privilege being able to take photos of such marvellous architecture and works of art, along with the staggering amount of special Christmas decor plus the magical Narnian theme.

Painted Hall

Painted Hall

A glory of Chatsworth even under normal conditions is the enormous Painted Hall with the main staircase. Virtually every inch is covered with murals and carving and sculpture. Those of us walking around the house had already begun to gasp as we entered each room, but this next one really took our breath away.

White Witch

White Witch

The White Witch had certainly commandeered the best spot, looking magnificent at the top of the main stairs with a cloak flowing down,

Turkish Delight

Turkish Delight

with the addition of a few cheeky boxes of turkish delight.

White Witch

White Witch

She was standing next to a very impressive throne that looked suspiciously like the silver chair.

Turkish Delight

Turkish Delight

Turkish delight was definitely a theme here, even nestling under glass domes on side tables.

View from balcony

View from balcony

It was possible to view the whole scene from a balcony on the upper floor and get an even more amazing perspective.

Tops of trees

Tops of trees

Here one could see the top of the gigantic Christmas trees.

Detail of decorations

Detail of decorations

Apparently it took the staff a week of solid work to decorate the house. I’m surprised it didn’t take a lot longer.

Aslan on the Stone Table

Aslan on the Stone Table

Even though the scene with the White Witch was impressive, the next scene, though on a smaller scale, was even more astonishing. We were suddenly confronted with a life-size Aslan on the Stone Table. He was bound with ropes in the classic pose and there were small white mice moving around on him as if helping to free him. They were animatronic of course but it looked surprisingly realistic. But the most surprising thing was that Aslan’s chest was moving up and down gently as if he had begun to breathe again and was returning to life. I don’t know if they didn’t want to present him as dead so as not to upset children or if this was a genuine theological statement! Of course Aslan, the true King, has given his life in exchange for Edmund, to rescue him from the White Witch.  I could have stared at this for ages but of course one has to keep moving and let other people see. The scene fitted remarkably well with the backdrop of the room chosen and felt august and solemn.

Veiled lady

Veiled lady

Next a statue of a veiled lady reminded me of the women weeping at the tomb of Jesus, and Susan and Lucy mourning Aslan, before they know of his victory over death.

Tiny lion clues

Tiny lion clues

All the way round the house were small lion toys to give the children clues to various questions for them for the quiz on the guide.

Lion Christmas tree

Lion Christmas tree

Now a whole tree decorated with lots of lion toys seemed to be giving the hint as well that perhaps the witch was not about to have everything her way and Aslan was on the move again…

 

Part Three concerns the victory of Aslan and the enthronement of the four children at Cair Paravel.


The Domestic Servants of the King of Heaven

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The Domestic Servants of the King of Heaven

The Works of George Herbert

The Works of George Herbert

Have you ever worried that you were choosing the wrong career path? Have you ever had friends and relatives trying to put you off your chosen path because they think it’s a waste of your talents? This can be particularly the case for those who feel called to serve God in some way. A call to ordination, for example, can feel like financial doom for those expected to earn high salaries in high-flying professions. Even though money is often the last thing on the minds of those with a vocation, it can still be an issue for loved ones and dependants. And the social standing of a church minister today can seem very low indeed compared to past centuries. At least, that’s what I had assumed. But reading the life of the great poet and priest George Herbert, I was amazed to find him with exactly the same problems – in 1625!

I picked up a beautiful copy of The Works of George Herbert for just a few pence, published by Frederick Warne and Co as one of their ‘Chandos Classics’ range. There’s no date, but it looks around 1880s to me. Now, I love looking in the back of old books to see the lists of the publishers’ other publications, many long forgotten. Along with the names of the great and the good that we are familiar with, there are often amusing names and eccentric titles, plus many examples that show how much we have changed in our interests and habits, as individuals and as a society. In this book, for example, the publisher’s list in the back advertises Manners and Tone of Good Society; or Solecisms to be Avoided, Society Small Talk; or, What to Say, and When to Say It, as well as Party Giving on Every Scale; or, The Cost of Entertainments, and The Management of Servants: a Practical Guide to the Routine of Domestic Service, all written by ‘A Member of the Aristocracy’.

All of these subjects would have been very familiar to the subject of the book itself, George Herbert, although three centuries earlier. He came from a wealthy, aristocratic background, gained a top job at Cambridge University, became a Member of Parliament, and was feted at the Court of King James I for his brilliance. He seemed cut out to be the highest of high flyers at a very young age. But then disaster. Two of his most powerful friends and supporters at Court died, then King James I himself, “and with them all Mr Herbert’s Court hopes”, so Izaak Walton tells us in this biography. So Herbert went to a friend’s house in Kent to retreat for a while and seek God about his future – whether to try again the “painted pleasures of Court life, or betake himself to a study of divinity, and enter into sacred orders.” He was at first very conflicted. A friend at Court advised him not to go in for such a low-status job – Izaak Walton tells us that all his friends considered it “too mean an employment, and too much below his birth and the excellent abilities and endowments of his mind.”

But George Herbert was able to reply:

“It hath been formerly adjudged that the domestic servants of the King of heaven should be of the noblest families on earth; and though the iniquity of the late times have made clergymen meanly valued, and the sacred name of priest contemptible, yet I will labour to make it honourable by consecrating all my learning, and all my poor abilities, to advance the glory of that God that gave them; knowing that I can never do too much for Him that hath done so much for me as to make me a Christian. And I will labour to be like my Saviour, by making humility lovely in the eyes of all men, and by following the merciful and the meek example of my dear Jesus.”

He was deaconed then made prebendary of Layton Ecclesia, a village near Spaldon in Huntingdonshire, in the diocese of Lincoln in 1626, and priested and made Rector of Bemerton, Wiltshire, in 1630. Though opting for that ‘smaller‘ life that many of his contemporaries despised, Herbert’s writings and example of the love and service of God and his fellow humans have inspired millions. Deo Gloria.