Ralph Wood: Why C. S. Lewis is not a culture warrior

RALPH WOOD is professor of Theology and Literature at Baylor University and author of The Gospel According to Tolkien: Visions of the Kingdom in Middle-earth (Westminster John Knox Press, October 2003).

We must be ever so cautious not to turn this happy moment into an unhappy misuse of Lewis. Aslan will roar with real wrath if we make this movie into an occasion for Christian clucking. It is absolutely important that we not make a classic Christian story such as The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe into the latest weapon in the culture wars. The church of Jesus Christ is not a political party of either the left or the right. Christ calls us to offer the world—whether red or blue, whether black or white, whether yellow or brown or pink like me—a drastic counter-cultural alternative. Aslan forbid, therefore, that we Christians start saying to the secular world, with thumping self-satisfaction: “Look, we told you so long ago. We’re right, you’re wrong and now, with the overwhelming popularity of this movie, we can prove it. So get on board the Christian bandwagon and stop your whining about peace and justice and poverty. We Christians are running this country, and we have Aslan as our King, the Lion who will devour anyone who gets in our way.”C.S. Lewis himself rejected all such Christian triumphalism. He knew, all too well, that we Christians have been guilty of terrible sins, and he called for us to repent of them. He called therefore for some Christian to volunteer to write “the full confession of … of Christendom’s specific contribution to the sum of human cruelty and treachery. Large areas of ‘the World’ will not hear us till we have publicly disowned much of our past. Why should they? We have shouted the name of Christ and enacted the service of Moloch” (The Four Loves, 49). Moloch is the pagan deity whose worship requires the sacrifice of children.

In making this startling claim, Lewis has in mind not only the medieval pograms against Jews, not only the Crusades and the Inquisition, but also our own Protestant sins—not only Luther’s slaughter of 20,000 peasants and Calvin’s burning of Servetus at the stake, but also the Salem Witchcraft trials in our own country, as well as our Christian complicity in the German Holocaust and the Soviet Gulag. We Christians have blood on our hands, and therefore we have no business setting ourselves up as some pristine party of the pure and the holy.Lewis abominated all attempts to politicize his work, knowing well that all too many Conservatives would have been eager to make him their literary saint. When in 1951 the Tory government of Winston Churchill offered Lewis the extraordinary distinction of being made a Commander of the British Empire, he politely declined:"There are always knaves … who say, and fools who believe, that my religious writings are all covert anti-Leftist [i.e., right-wing] propaganda, and my appearance in the Honours List wd. of course strengthen their hands. It is therefore better that I shd. not appear there. "(Letters, p. 235)Though politically conservative, Lewis expressed his gratitude to Britain’s welfare state for providing a ground floor of economic security to every citizen, thus protecting the natively weak against the all-devouring strong. “Legal and economic equality are absolutely necessary remedies for the Fall,” he wrote in 1943; they are necessary protections “against cruelty.” “We Britons,” Lewis added, “should rejoice that we have contrived to reach much legal democracy.” He concluded, ever so tellingly, that “we still need more of the economic” kind of democracy (Present Concerns, 18, 20).Some wag has said that any person who is not a Marxist at age 20 has no heart, but anyone who is still a Marxist at 30 has no head. Lest we think that Lewis was soft in the head when he wrote his 1943 essay on equality, we should remember that he also confessed the limits of economic democracy. It provides a necessary medicine, he said, but man cannot live by medicine alone. Even so, he never relented in his critique of unbridled acquisitiveness. He feared that ours has become an irredeemably avaricious age, padding itself with pleasures and comforts.His final essay, published shortly before his death on November 22, 1963, was entitled “We Have No ‘Right to Happiness.’” There Lewis warns against a culture bent on material gratification, especially of the sexual sort. Lewis denounces those men who cast aside their wives when they lose their youthful good looks, preferring young secretaries and instant sexual bliss. How much more might he lament the state of our culture if he had lived to see the divorce rate rise to nearly 60%? Yet it isn’t the divorce disaster alone that Lewis addresses; it’s our fatal delusion that the purpose of life is to have a good time, to be immediately and perpetually gratified:"[That] fatal principle, once allowed [to enter the marital realm] … must sooner or later seep through our whole lives. We thus advance toward a state or a society in which not only each man but every impulse in man claims carte blanche. And then, though our technological skill may help us to survive a little longer, our civilization will have died at heart, and will—one dare not even add ‘unfortunately’—be swept away." (God in the Dock, 322)

We must never discount Lewis’s short fuse for the sins of the rich—and by the standards of the Third World, every person here present is rich. For while 40,000 people have been killed by terrorists during the last ten years, 40,000 children die daily from preventable diseases. Nor should we be surprised by what Lewis did with his very estimable royalties Walter Hooper, Lewis’s biographer, reports that Lewis gave away at least two-thirds of his wealth. Most of the gifts were bestowed anonymously, so that no one could congratulate Lewis for his philanthropy or name a building after him because of his benevolence.Though he became a wealthy man, Lewis continued to wear the same out-at-the-elbows coat and broken-down shoes. Nor did he ever change houses, living always in the same modest home called the Kilns outside Oxford. When Lewis married Joy Davidman in 1956, she was appalled at the ratty furnishings, not only the chairs and sofas but also the draperies: they were woolen blankets that Lewis and his brother had used to pull over the windows during the wartime blackout of the 1940s!

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