Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Christianity and Literature

Perhaps one should not be surprised that even after much searching online, I have not been able to locate the complete text of C.S. Lewis' 1939 essay entitled Christianity and Literature.  However, Walter Hooper reprinted this paper in a compilation of essays to which he applied the title The Seeing Eye.  One should probably be even less surprised that even as a Comparative Literature major at a Christian university, I was never once introduced to this seminal text.  C.S. Lewis' reflections in Christianity and Literature strike me as not only important, but indispensable to the Christian study of literature, as well as to the study of Christian literature.

There are points at which I disagree with Lewis' assertions, but there are far too many gems to extract from this essay to spend too much time in disagreement.  In Lewis' interpretation of the New Testament, Christians are commissioned to become "clean mirrors filled with an image of a face that is not ours," or in other words, pure reflections of the light of the Savior Jesus Christ.  "Applying this principle to literature," Lewis continues, "we should get as the basis of all critical theory the maxim that an author should never conceive himself as bringing into existence beauty or wisdom which did not exist before, but simply and solely as trying to embody in terms of his own art some reflection of eternal Beauty and Wisdom."

From this maxim Lewis keenly discerned and articulated, among other things, the following morsel of eternal Beauty and Wisdom: "The Christian will take literature a little less seriously than the cultured Pagan... But the Christian knows from the outset that the salvation of a single soul is more important than the production or preservation of all the epics and tragedies in the world: and as for superiority, he knows that the vulgar since they include most of the poor probably include most of his superiors.  He has no objection to comedies that merely amuse and tales that merely refresh; for he thinks like Thomas Aquinas ipsa ratio hoc habet, ut quandoque rationis usus intercipiatur (reason itself demands that the use of reason be interrupted at times).  We can play, as we can eat, to the glory of God."

"It is not hard to argue," Lewis concludes, "that all the greatest poems have been made by men who valued something else much more than poetry- even if that something else were only cutting down enemies in a cattle-raid or tumbling a girl in a bed."

If that "something else" happened to be, as Paul extols in his first epistle to the Corinthians, that which ought to be prized above all else, imagine the poems that might still remain to be written!

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