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A Challenge to C. S. Lewis
By Peter Milward, S.J.
Cranbury, N.J.: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1995.
(138 pages; $29.50, cloth)
reviewed by Adam Schwartz
As the centenary of C. S. Lewis’s birth approaches in 1998, there likely will be a proliferation of books, articles, and conferences attempting to assess his significance. A substantial body of scholarship on his life and writing already exists, much of it biographical or dealing with his work as an apologist or fictionist. Peter Milward’s short book, though, seeks to “redirect Lewis scholarship away from an excessive attention to biographical details,” in the hope of promoting critical study of his former teacher’s ideas, particularly Lewis’s scholarly work, through the prism of his mentor’s religious beliefs: “I am for the first time surveying the academic writings of Lewis all together and exposing his deep commitment to the Protestant position.” Yet Milward’s analysis is deeply flawed. Although offering occasionally acute challenges to Lewis’s academic efforts, Milward’s exclusion of his fiction prevents a holistic appraisal of the topics he addresses. Moreover, his attribution to Lewis of what J. R. R. Tolkien called “the Ulsterior Motive” not only illuminates some areas of Lewis’s thought but also becomes a reductionist analysis at times, ultimately leading to a serious misreading of Lewis’s attitude toward modernity.
One of Milward’s chief challenges to his mentor’s scholarship concerns Lewis’s presentation of the Middle Ages. His arguments that Lewis gave insufficient attention to the revolutionary character of the Reformation and that he “draws the limits of his medieval model too narrowly” are provocative and generally reasonable. However, his conclusion that these interpretive disagreements mean that Lewis was not a true medievalist, that “Lewis’s real subjects of special study are not so much ‘medieval and Renaissance’ as ‘classical and Reformation’” ignores the centrality of the medieval ideal of a traditional, organic, hierarchical society to Lewis’s thought, as discussed in The Discarded Image and exemplified imaginatively in both the Ransom trilogy and the Chronicles of Narnia. By focusing exclusively and selectively on Lewis’s academic writing, then, Milward distorts this crucial aspect of his mentor’s outlook.
An equally serious misconception shadows Milward’s assessment of Lewis’s sense of the relationship between the transcendent and the temporal. Milward identifies and analyzes trenchantly a latent dualism in some of Lewis’s writings on Christianity and culture, but attributing this puzzling attitude to Lewis’s Protestantism is not persuasive. While there is a tendency toward the radical separation of sacred and profane in some varieties of Protestant theology, Milward does not present compelling direct evidence that Lewis shared this bent. In fact, Lewis condemned “a dreadful man named Karl Barth” and his followers, who, Lewis maintained, “don’t think reason or human conscience of any value at all.” (C. S. Lewis to W. H. Lewis, Feb. 18, 1940, in Letters of C. S. Lewis, [Harcourt Brace and Co., 1993], p. 340.) Hence, as in numerous other places in his book, Milward here makes Lewis’s Protestantism bear more explanatory weight than the evidence permits.
The most serious misinterpretation arising from this reductionism, though, is Milward’s occasional contention that Lewis was on “the modern side of the Great Divide.” This argument fails on two counts. Initially, the four traits that Lewis ascribed to the modern side of that cultural chasm in his 1954 Cambridge Inaugural—plebianism, industrialization, secularization, and cultural fragmentation—were all developments that he resolutely opposed in his scholarship, essays, and fiction. Whatever Lewis was, he was not modern. Secondly, Milward seems to equate “the Protestant and modern side of the Great Divide.” While it is plausible to argue that Protestantism helped foster the four traits that Lewis associated with the modern world (and others), it must also be stressed that to be a Protestant is not automatically to be a modernist. In this century, modernity has met dedicated foes in devout Protestants, such as Charles Williams, Dorothy Sayers, and Reinhold Niebuhr, and Lewis should be considered foremost in that company as well.
C. S. Lewis holds a distinctive place in modern Christian history for his ability to use the literary forms of his time to witness to the permanent things in ways that crossed denominational boundaries. In reminding current readers that his scholarship was part of this effort, that his ideas and imagination were shaped by a Protestant sensibility in certain ways, and that failure to question Lewis’s views does his memory no honor, Peter Milward raises some salient issues. His own challenge, though, remains insufficient, for, whatever criticisms one has of Lewis, it must be admitted that he celebrated what he considered the medieval virtues, that his Protestantism was not dualistic, and, above all, that he found modern beliefs and behaviors alien from and antagonistic to his vision of the noble life. Whether laudable or lamentable, C. S. Lewis’s chief legacy lies in his ability to communicate effectively and widely the conviction he shared with Christopher Dawson, that “All through the spiritual decline of the modern world there have been men and women who refused all compromise, and maintained the ideal of the Christian life in all its fullness. . . . The life of the saints was a witness against the modern world, rather than an example to it.”
Adam Schwartz is Assistant Professor of History at Christendom College.