There was a little girl,
Who had a little curl,
Right in the middle of her forehead.
And when she was good, she was very good indeed.
But when she was bad, she was horrid.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
In my circles, everyone loves C.S. Lewis. He has much to offer, but my hope is that he will not be consumed too indiscriminately. I suppose he is not the black and white extremes of goodness and horribleness of the girl with a curl, but folks, there is some horrible stuff. I am not sure if others are able to overlook it and just hold onto the good or what–but, he was not exactly the paragon of egalitarianism or even slightly moderate complementarianism. In the twentieth century, there are perhaps other theologians ultimately more influential, but C.S. Lewis is a household name among evangelical Christians even today. And it scares me.
His book Mere Christianity was formative for my own faith. As a high school student, I read it as if it were the very words of God as I sought to learn more about Christianity. And I had read and reread The Chronicles of Narnia as a child, pondering more and more the allegorical significance and theology taught by these stories as I grew. Then in college, I read The Screwtape Letters, and I found them interesting and insightful to my own motives and foibles.
But that same year at college I also read The Four Loves. Yes, I liked the analysis of different types of love. I liked that he included familial love storge. But then I reached the chapter on eros. I was appalled to discover that C.S. Lewis did not believe men and women were equal. He believed that wives should be dominated by their husbands. I stormed down the dorm hallway and tossed the book on my friend’s bunk bed, and I declared a war against the person who formerly had been one of my favorite authors.
Since that time, I have also tried reading Lewis’ space trilogy. I say “tried” because I did not make it through the third book. It was just too insulting. APPALLING. All three books are terrible as fiction and replete with wildly inaccurate sexism. The first book portrays masculinity. According to Lewis, men are awkward, enjoy sports, competition, songs, philosophy, science, and they have friendship with one another. The plot of that book was so inconsequential, it’s not worth rehashing. The first book did have some moments of interesting reflection.
The second book portrays femininity. According to Lewis, women are graceful and beautiful, but amorphous and difficult to comprehend. Woman is on a quest to find her man. She is not competitive. Instead, she enjoys frolicking with animals and having conversations with men, but she does not have friendships with women. She is curious, but not really educated enough to master philosophy or science. She is constantly on the brink of being deceived, and she needs someone to save her from the wiles of evil men. A man is her savior. As for the plot, the redemption allegory of the second book was mildly intriguing yet twisted and evil (unless Lewis intended it only to be an argument for Britain joining the war). At the end of the book, there was a fascinating portrayal of Mars and Venus as equal yet different upon closer inspection, but the third book reveals that Lewis thinks women should be obedient to men. It kind of ruins the beautiful imagery of the second book.
Despite the amusing depiction of what it means to be a woman, the second book also had a couple of sections that were ABSOLUTELY AMAZING. Moments where it was like you got a glimpse of God and eternity, and worlds unknown unfold before your eyes. Yet, I am loathe to recommend this trilogy because, as I have already noted, the third book teaches that women are most happy when they are obedient to their husbands. I stopped reading the book when I got to the metaphor of an obedient mouse, happy to come to its master for cheese. Seriously? AH!!! Such sexism and disrespect to women renders me momentarily speechless with horror.
My fear is that the good portions of writing from C.S. Lewis will lull other believers toward patronizing disrespect toward the co-heirs with Christ who are called women –women made in the image of God. Sexism is not the only problem I have with Lewis’ theology, but I think it is the most destructive error contained in his work.
Moving on: Other books that I have since read include Surprised by Joy, The Problem of Pain, and The Weight of Glory. I liked his memoir. The story of how anyone finds God is always interesting to me. I liked that his feelings and inklings played a role. Because if God is real, I think our soul should have some sort of inner compass toward this higher being.
The other two books were more of a mixed bag for me. The Weight of Glory has some moral insights that I found quite helpful, particularly the chapter entitled “The Inner Ring.” He addresses our desire for community and prestige in a way that I found engaging, encouraging, and enlightening. But I am not so sure about his thoughts on our future glory in heaven–I am still considering his ideas.
As for The Problem of Pain, honestly, I read it during a January term in seminary. I sat near the window at the Retreat House in the seventies lounge chair with knotty pine arms, watching the snow fall and drinking a warm cup of coffee. I might have been eating a pastry from Panera, thanks to a floormate who would bring us contraband. Or maybe it was cinnamon toast. But the book itself did not make an impression. I remember thinking that the snow was really beautiful that day. Whoops.
The moral of the story is that C.S. Lewis is sometimes very, very good. And that C.S. Lewis is sometimes very, very bad. Horrid, actually. And sometimes, he is somewhere in between. Just be careful. Dance around the dog poo. 1
- To keep my metaphors consistent, I should have alluded to eating. Nevertheless, the aforementioned nastiness is a suitable metaphor. Lewis consumed ideas from the Bible, his church, his contemporaries, ancient literature, Freud, and so on. And he digested these ideas to become a part of his soul. That which was inferior became excrement of his soul, and that which was nutritive and true strengthened his being. Both fortunately and unfortunately for us, his soul is expressed through his writing. And it is left to our discerning eyes to distinguish that which is good and that which is a horrible by-product of Lewis’ upbringing. I suppose in this metaphor, I am urging us toward cannibalism…Let’s try a different metaphor. If our souls were fruit-bearing trees…I do not know farming and the biology of trees to finish the metaphor. I am not sure if a tree can produce both good fruit and bad fruit. But human trees do. This said, I would be honored to produce a sliver of the good things Lewis did write. ↩