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 C.S. Lewis in the Dock 

November 22, 2005 
Forthcoming next month is a film of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the first of C.S. Lewis’s popular children’s stories of the land of Narnia. Lewis, of course, was a noted Christian apologist, Today's column is "C.S. Lewis in the Dock" -- Read Joe's columns the day he writes them. and these books are informed by religious allegory that drives liberals nuts.

So it’s about time for a new attack on the man, and sure enough, it comes in The New Yorker, where Adam Gopnik, often an interesting and intelligent writer, belittles Lewis’s work in a way I can describe only as catty.

Gopnik concedes that the Narnia stories are “classics in the only sense that matters — books that are read a full generation after their author has gone” — but he dislikes the author’s overtly religious books. So he harps on what he chooses to call Lewis’s “religiosity,” with its overtones of aggressive sanctimony.

In just his first four paragraphs, Gopnik writes of Lewis’s “conservative religiosity,” his “bullying brand of religiosity,” and his “narrow-hearted religiosity.” Would someone please send this man a thesaurus?

I’m not sure how a book can be “bullying,” but I’m sure the term hardly does justice to Lewis’s gently persuasive defense of Christianity in The Problem of Pain, Miracles, Mere Christianity, and other books. These are classics by Gopnik’s own standard: they sell millions of copies a full generation after Lewis’s death on November 22, 1963. If Lewis’s readers felt they were being “bullied,” why would they read him so eagerly?

It gets worse. Gopnik can’t stand Lewis’s “racism,” finds him “nasty,” a “prig,” a “very odd kind of Christian,” and so on. He speaks of his “weird and complicated sex life” with a “sadomasochistic tinge.” Lewis’s school days, Gopnik suggests, made him a “warped, morbid, stammering sexual pervert.” (In liberal discourse, only a heterosexual Christian can incur the charge of a sexual perversion. Ask Mel Gibson.)

Lewis conceives God as a “dispenser of vacuous bromides,” and Gopnik assures us that “believing cut Lewis off from writing well about belief,” for “a belief that needs this much work to believe in isn’t really a belief but a very strong desire to believe.” At bottom, Lewis had a “bad conscience” and an “uncertain personal faith.” The Narnia stories, “in many ways,” are actually “anti-Christian”; Lewis didn’t realize this, but Gopnik does.

I’m afraid Gopnik hasn’t read the C.S. Lewis millions of other readers have treasured. He has missed Lewis’s point — not a very difficult one, really — about the virtue of faith. Belief is something you have or don’t have; but faith is an act of will and fortitude, which is why we speak of “keeping” or “breaking” faith.

[Breaker quote for C.S. Lewis in the Dock: The charge: Christianity]A child may know perfectly well that the water is safe and that anyone can learn to swim, but still allow himself to succumb to fear of the water when he actually gets into it. The problem isn’t the child’s “beliefs” about the water; it’s his irrational panic. In the same way, Lewis explains in Christian Reflections, we may believe intellectually, but allow our moods and passions to weaken our faith when we are tempted.

When our faith fails, it isn’t usually because of any rational doubt. Reason isn’t opposed to faith; it’s opposed to the passions (the word is cognate with passive; we’re truly active only when we act rationally). In spite of all the clichés equating intelligence with doubt, the loss of faith doesn’t occur in the intellect, but in the will. Lewis understood this; but the clever Gopnik seems not to.

Nor did Lewis present God’s message as “vacuous bromides.” He saw it as just the opposite: a love so consuming that our natural reaction to it is shock, almost terror. Lewis specifically rejects bland and comforting bromides: God is truly our Father, though we might prefer him to be (I love this image) a kindly “grandfather in heaven, a senile benevolence who, as they say, ‘liked to see young people enjoying themselves.’”

God’s love is fierce, burning, and, like the love of any real father, troubling; he demands that we love him back with all of our energy. In truth, God loves us far more than we want to be loved. At times his love feels to us like hatred and tyranny. No wonder we’re tempted to hate him.

“Bromides,” eh? For my part, I can say only that in his quiet way, C.S. Lewis has, like no other writer I’ve ever read, brought home to me some frightening truths — frightening, yet also consoling. And in his Narnia tales, he found a way to convey them to children too.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2005 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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