The Euphemist

Reflections on Jewish Studies and many other subjects big and little, by a perpetual student who sometimes searches a little too long for just the right word ...

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Christian, truth seeker, husband, son, brother & uncle, Lutheran pastor, musician (cello, etc.), Jewish Studies grad student, intellectual historian, aquarium enthusiast & pet owner, philologist, astronomer, Norwegian-American, Ford pickup driver, buffoon.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

C.S. Lewis: Hottest theologian of 2005!!!

An essay in the current issue of Time about noted Christian author and Oxford/Cambridge Medievalist C.S. Lewis says "In 1947, a TIME cover story hailed Lewis as 'one of the most influential spokesmen for Christianity in the English-speaking world.' Now, 58 years later (and 42 after his death, in 1963), he could arguably be called the hottest theologian of 2005." Considering that Lewis' body has been resting in the grave for 42 years, a number of current theologians who thought themselves to be quite "hot" might be double-checking their own body temperature right now.

But since I have listed Lewis as one of "MY TOP TEN (OR SO) GREATEST INFLUENCES, OUTSIDE OF GOD AND MY FAMILY MEMBERS", I thought I'd say a few words. BTW, it's gratifying to see my new meme coming to life - check out Dave's list. Dave mentions a Deacon Michael Walker who was a witness at his wedding - Dave himself was at our wedding, and Dn. Michael's wife was my wife's matron of honor at our wedding.

Now, Lewis. He is best known, of course, for his Christian-oriented writings, which I appreciate very much. I haven't read all of The Chronicles of Narnia, though I enjoyed The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and am looking forward to the upcoming movie. I also enjoyed Mere Christianity, which I think was an early topic of study in a Bible study group which my family was part of during my teens. That study group left a big stamp on me, as it cultivated a type of Christian faith which embraced deep thinking and spirited discussion of issues, combined with a warm appreciation of the rich, colorful things in life - art, music, hot apple cider with cheese and crackers, the beauty of human relationships. C.S. Lewis was a part of all that.

I should mention that my college roommate Bryan, the Nicko-Mickeyan Ethics guy was a self-described "Lewis junkie."

Now, here's my soapbox. Lewis' "day job" was as a professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature, and I personally believe he was at his true best when he was writing in his own field. Alas, few have read some of his most carefully reasoned and witty works. One of my top ten favorite books of all time is The Discarded Image, subtitled "An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature," but what it really is is an introduction to the world view of Medieval times, what he calls the "Medieval Model" of the universe, the conceptual lens through which Medieval people looked at the world around them. He wrote the book to help people not to read into Medieval and Renaissance literature our own modern preconceptions. For example, people are always thinking that since the Medievals had a geocentric view of the universe, that that put earth and humanity at the most important point. In fact, we have that backwards. The Medievals saw the earth as being at the bottom, the "periphery", the "infernal dregs" and "offscourings" of the universe, and so being at the center of the universe put them, in their minds, at the least important place rather than the most important place in the universe. Lewis was lecturing on this stuff at Cambridge in the 1940s, and people still don't know these things.

Akin to The Discarded Image is his extended Introduction to his English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama, entitled "New Learning and New Ignorance." Again, he ably demonstrates that our modern conceptual lens can lead us unwittingly to misconstrue the meaning of writings from the past. He points out, for example, that we moderns tend to lump astrology and alchemy together as forms of "superstition", when in fact, to Sixteenth Century thinkers they represented opposite poles of thought. The astrologers, seeing our destiny in the stars, were Determinists; alchemists, seeking the knowledge and power to alter matter, represented a type of Free Will approach (ah, yes, the old free will/determinism debate! I learned in my first Spertus course that this debate was active even in ancient Israel - but that's for another post ...).

Lewis' English Literature in the Sixteenth Century was his contribution to a multi-volume set entitled The Oxford History of English Literature, OHEL for short. Lewis, not a pietist of the type who populate my church denomination, liked to pronounce that acronym as a two-word phrase. It seems that OHEL wasn't his favorite project. But I think it's some of his best writing. A book about literature, IMHO it's a piece of literature in its own right. I chuckle every time I read this quote, from page 24, in which he points out some pitfalls of the early humanists, who lofted the ancient Roman authors as the model of excellence, at the expense of poo-pooing perfectly good Medieval literature:

This desire to be very 'adult', as we now say, had some unfortunate consequences. The qualities which the humanists admired are, of course, to be found in Latin literature, even if less exclusively and continuously than they supposed. But few qualities are less suitable for imitation. Elevation and gravity of language are admirable, or even tolerable, only when they grow from elevation and gravity of thought [Excellent sentence! - The Euphemist]. To imitate them directly is to manufacture a symptom ... The gestures and accents of magnanimity, laborously reproduced by little men, clever, meticulous ... nervously avoiding what is 'low', make an ugly spectacle. That was how the humanists came to create a new literary quality - vulgarity. It is hard to point to any medieval work that is vulgar. When medieval literature is bad, it is bad by honest, downright incompetence: dull, prolix, or incoherent. But the varnish and stucco of some neo-Latin work, the badness which no man could incur by sheer defect of talent by only by 'endless labor to be wrong' is a new thing.

At the risk of making this post appallingly long, I'd like to end it with an extended quote from The Discarded Image, one that reads as if it could have been written in 2005 concerning Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code, except it was published in 1964 (and obviously written before Lewis' death in 1963). It contains some excellent points to consider before swallowing Brown's faux-history whole, as so many people have:

I have read a novel which represents all the Pagans of that day [Constantine's time, the 4th Century AD] as carefree sensualists, and all the Christians as savage ascetics. It is a grave error. They were in some ways far more like each other than either was like a modern man. The leaders on both sides were monotheists, and both admitted almost an infinity of supernatural beings between God and man. Both were highly intellectual, but also (by our standards) highly superstitious. The last champions of Paganism were not the sort of men that Swinburne, or a modern 'Humanist', would wish them to have been. They were not lusty extroverts recoiling in horror or contempt from a world 'grown grey' with the breath of the 'pale Galilean'. If they wanted to get back 'the laurel, the palms, and the paean', it was on the most serious and religious grounds. If they longed to see 'the breasts of the nymph in the brake', their longing was not like a satyr's; it was much more like a spiritualist's. A world-renouncing, ascetic, and mystical character then marked the most eminent Pagans no less than their Christian opponents. It was the spirit of the age. Everywhere, on both sides, men were turning away from the civic virtues and the sensual pleasures to seek an inner purgation and a supernatural goal. The modern who dislikes the Christian Fathers would have disliked the Pagan philosophers equally, and for similar reasons. Both alike would have embarrassed him with stories of visions, ecstasies, and apparations. Between the lower and more violent manifestations of both religions he would have found it hard to choose. To a modern eye (and nostril) Julian [the Apostate, the emperor who attempted a pagan revival after Constantine] with his long nails and densely populated beard might have seemed very like an unwashed monk out of the Egyptian desert. (pp. 46-47)

4 Comments:

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I just looked through the first six pages of The Discarded Image on Amazon and it looks quite good.

I remember your wedding quite well. It was my first Orthodox wedding. Actually, I've only attend two, and both were a combination of an Orthodox and non-Orthodox partners.

4:01 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Thanks, Dave! Our wedding was also our first Orthodox wedding, and still our only one! In America, at least, it seems that over 50% of all Orthodox weddings are between Orthodox & non-Orthodox partners. It was interesting providing documentation of my Christian Trinitarian baptism as a requirement for the wedding.

3:25 PM  

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