17 Apr 2004

Book review: C. S. Lewis

This winter I read three books by C. S. Lewis: The Great Divorce, The Screwtape Letters and Surprised by Joy.

I’ve been introduced to Lewis before, when I was young. I read the first several books of the Narnia series, and I read the whole Out of the Silent Planet trilogy. Back then, however, I was looking for pure entertainment from those books, and although they delivered it, the religious level was also apparent, and detracted from their enjoyment for me.

I came back to Lewis through Tolkien, having read The Lord of the Rings several times now and wondering a bit about how much religion to look for in it. Lewis and Tolkien were friends and colleagues, and I knew Lewis wrote religious works, so I was hoping to gain insight into Tolkien’s religious side this way. So, this time around I was looking for the religious content, and curious about how Lewis approached it. I chose works that I was told were good examples of his religious writing.

I found that he emphasizes all the aspects of Christianity that I find most comforting. In fact, one of Lewis’ central ideas in The Great Divorce suggests the sort of therapy we could all use. In this allegorical story, the visitors to Heaven must let go of things that make life on earth more like Hell: an attachment to unhappiness and to fear. To hold onto these things, and use them for nourishment instead of their opposites, leads not to safety and peace (since to my mind they are intended as protection against hurt) but to a bland and bleak life, empty and devoid of beauty. To make this trade-off is not only foolish, it is Lewis’ definition of Hell.

Letting go of fear and anger, however, seems to me to be an issue on a psychological level, not a religious one. And I kept feeling this disconnect throughout all three books, as well as during a recent re-reading of Out of the Silent Planet. The real lessons kept seeming very earthly to me, suggesting attitude adjustments that could take place in the here and now, under one’s own power.

Almost like a self-help book, Lewis seemed to be instructing us about joy, something I think everyone already has a fully fleshed-out idea of, if only by contradiction to their own disappointments in life. He never draws a very convincing connection between this freedom from fear and God or Jesus. At one point in Surprised by Joy, which chronicles his own conversion in adulthood, Lewis, having tapped into a realization of God’s existence, and having learned how to let go and stop grasping at false images of happiness, he then began to “shop around” for a religion:

Where was the thing full grown? or where was the awakening? […] There were really only two answers possible: either in Hinduism or in Christianity. Everything else was either a preparation for, or else (in the French sense) a vulgarization of, these. Whatever you could find elsewhere you could find better in one of these.

Then, a few sentences later, after having rejected Hinduism as “coexistence of philosophy side by side with Paganism unpurged” he says of Christianity,

Here and here only in all time the myth must have become fact; the Word, flesh; God, Man. This is not “a religion,” nor “a philosophy.” It is the summing up and actuality of them all.

Lewis is a renowned Christian writer, and I am not dismissing his ability to explain or shore up the ideas of Christianity. The point I’m making is that when I read these three books, I did not find a very strong explanation of why Christianity and faith must play a role in setting the moral and psychological tone of one’s life.

I also did not find evidence either way as to whether The Lord of the Rings is a Christian work.

What I did find, however, was an excellent and inspiring account of the choice that one must make to be happy. In a way, happiness is the choice to be happy, and Lewis provides very insightful and persuasive images of what it means to make that choice, and why it is so easy to decide the opposite instead.