Vinoth Ramachandra

Which C.S. Lewis?

Posted on: November 22, 2013

WordPress informs me that this is my 100th Blog post. Isn’t it ironic to be congratulated by a machine just after having written about surveillance technology?

I have also been reflecting recently on C. S. Lewis’s famous essay on The Abolition of Man.

Today happens to be Lewis’s fiftieth death anniversary. I discovered Lewis in my first year as an undergraduate student, and by the time I had graduated from university I had read all his Christian essays, poems and books, including his science-fiction trilogy and the Narnia Chronicles. Only his letters (collected and annotated much later) and his academic work on medieval literature eluded my voracious appetite.

I “outgrew” Lewis, especially after returning to Sri Lanka and finding myself confronted by a wholly different set of intellectual and practical challenges. While I retain a huge admiration for his writings, I am bemused by the cult of veneration that has grown up around him in some part of the evangelical church in the USA. The very people who shun Roman Catholic hagiographies have turned Lewis into a modern-day evangelical saint. If he were alive today, would they invite this pipe-smoking, pub-crawling, beer-swilling Anglo-Catholic to speak in their churches or teach in their seminaries? I very much doubt it.

Further, Lewis would have poured scorn on “inerrantist” views of the Bible. He would also never have read Genesis 1 or Job or Jonah as literal history. As a student of literature, he had no problems with recognizing truth as conveyed by myth and fable, extended metaphor and story, wherever these are found in the biblical writings. He understood also the importance of Church tradition in reading Scripture. He didn’t subscribe to the ridiculous idea that the Holy Spirit disappeared in the Patristic era and the Middle Ages, only to re-appear in the Reformation and the Anglo-American revivals. His view of salvation was not ecclesio-centric but inclusive without being universalist. Is a desiccated Lewis being read in American evangelical circles today?

Of all his writings, the one that I return to regularly, after a day or an evening spent defending, arguing and commending the Christian faith to others, is a little poem called “The Apologist’s Evening Prayer”. I carry it in my Bible. I think it should be enshrined on the doors of all those churches and institutions that place too much emphasis on apologetics and preaching “techniques”:

“From all my lame defeats and oh! much more
From all the victories that I seemed to score
From cleverness shot forth on Thy behalf
At which, while angels weep, the audience laugh;
From all my proofs of Thy divinity
Thou, who wouldst give no sign, deliver me.

Thoughts are but coins, let me not trust, instead
Of Thee, their thin-worn image of Thy head.
From all my thoughts, even from my thoughts of Thee,
O Thou fair Silence, fall, and set me free.
Lord of the narrow gate and the needle’s eye,
Take from me all my trumpery lest I die.”

I began Blogging in February 2009 and my first post drew attention to the war crimes being committed by all sides in the closing weeks of Sri Lanka’s bloody war. Four years later, those events are coming back to haunt the ruling regime. The latter’s lavish attempt to showcase Sri Lanka on the international stage at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Colombo last week failed miserably. The President’s smooth talk about post-war “development” was swept away by David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, who issued an ultimatum vis a vis a serious investigation of war crimes. The state-controlled media has fallen back on the usual rhetoric of “foreign conspiracy” and the hypocrisy and double standards practised by Western governments when it comes to talk of human rights abuses and war crimes.

I have said enough on my Blog about these hypocrisies and double standards, and the frustration we feel that Christians in the US and Europe are not more outspoken about these. At the same time, we are frustrated by large sections of the international media (and especially American TV channels like CNN and Fox) who, if they ever talk about Sri Lanka at all, narrowly focus on war crimes committed in the past and the lack of “ethnic reconciliation”. But the latter are only symptoms of the wider political malaise in which we find ourselves (nepotistic rule, emasculation of the judiciary, suppression of dissent and targeting of journalists and human rights activists) that I have chronicled, from time to time, on this Blog in recent years.

I often tell people that those who have had the biggest influence in my life are those, like Lewis, whom I never met. That is the simple power of the written word. It has an influence across space and time that the author never imagined possible. Lewis never travelled beyond the UK and Ireland. Perhaps the venerators of Lewis today can help us by wielding their pens (and computer keypads) as courageously as he did in exposing falsehoods, dispelling ignorance and opening up the imagination of their contemporaries to other societies/worlds that impinge on their own.

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7 Responses to "Which C.S. Lewis?"

Yes I have to agree. A lot of the people and outfits that are involved in what Chris Hedges describes in his book American Fascists – The Christian Right and the War On America are avid fans of C S Lewis. So too with with the people and outfits that have signed on with the Manhattan Declaration.

Thanks for your interesting post Vinoth.

You say that American evangelical churches:
‘The very people who shun Roman Catholic hagiographies have turned Lewis into a modern-day evangelical saint. If he were alive today, would they invite this pipe-smoking, pub-crawling, beer-swilling Anglo-Catholic to speak in their churches or teach in their seminaries? I very much doubt it.’
You can say the very same thing, but amplified many times over for the Northern Irish ‘evangelical/protestant’ church (the country C.S. Lewis came from). One thing the American ‘evangelical’ church has going for it is that it is not in a constant psycological (and sadly sometimes physical) battle framed against the Catholic church as its counterpart in Northern Ireland has been and still is. A case in point is Ian Paisley, only the unique landscape of the north of Ireland could create a figure like him, who formed his own church and political party (who deck themselves out in union flags but could not be more foreign to Britain and the British!). They are fundamentalist and proud to display it as a counterpoint to Catholics and a mark of their true ‘protestant identity’. Virtually all the ministers that form the shared government in Northern Ireland from Paisley’s party the DUP, are members of his Free Presbyterian Church, with its weird mixture of fundamentalism, flag waving, Orange Order marching, and veneration of the military. This is a situation that the even most hard right American from the ‘religious right’ could only dream of.

We must all be thankful, that so many prayers were answered in a lasting peace in Northern Ireland, but from that peace, has come greater entrenched divisions between the communities.

I have often wondered the same thing about the evangelical movement in the U.S. and its fascination with Lewis, but never put my thoughts into words. I suppose that´s one quality of a good writer Vinoth — the ability to put into words (so brilliantly) what others may in fact be thinking. You said: “I “outgrew” Lewis, especially after returning to Sri Lanka and finding myself confronted by a wholly different set of intellectual and practical challenges.” I would love for you in the future to blog about these different intellectual and practical challenges and how you are addressing them.

They are all in my books, Matthew.

Thanks Vinoth. Would “Faiths in Conflict” be a good start?

Yes, but also “The Recovery of Mission” and “Subverting Global Myths” engage with issues that are not found in Lewis (because they were mostly not part of his context- so no fault of his).

Thanks, for quoting that poem, Vinoth!

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