C.S. Lewis and the Church: A Review (Part 1)

Editor’s note:  We pleased to publish this review (in two parts–look for the second tomorrow!) by friend of Mere-O Dr. Thomas Ward. 

C.S. Lewis and the Church: Essays in Honor of Walter Hooper

Edited by Judith Wolfe and Brendan N. Wolfe

London and New York: T&T Clark International, 2011

208 pages, hardcover

$110.00

 

C.S. Lewis scholars and enthusiasts are indebted to Judith and Brendan N. Wolfe for editing (and contributing to) this fascinating collection of essays on Lewis on the Church. The quality of the contributions is, on the whole, unsurprisingly excellent, given the impressive list of contributors.

Worthy as the Wolfes’ work is, we are far more indebted to Walter Hooper, the man most responsible for preserving Lewis’s legacy over the 49 years since Jack passed out of the shadowlands. In his capacities first as Lewis’s personal secretary and then as his literary executor and editor of essay collections and the Collected Letters, no Lewis scholar is more deserving of a festschrift than Hooper; it is meet and right that he now has one. But, as Andrew Cuneo’s introductory essay persuasively argues, Hooper ought to be remembered not only as a scholar of Lewis but also as his dear friend.

When I was a student at Oxford and Head Resident at the Kilns, I had the pleasure to speak with Hooper about C.S. Lewis several times. I was struck by his generosity, kindness, and joy, and came away with a deep admiration for him. While the Lewis enthusiast in me is glad for the publication of this book, the Hooper admirer in me is glad that it is dedicated to his honor.CS Lewis and the Church

In thinking about Lewis and the Church, it is easy for non-theologians like myself to conflate two distinct kinds of questions. The first is whether Lewis’s theology and spirituality align him more or less closely with the theology and spirituality of this or that Christian church. The second is, what is Lewis’s ecclesiology? From this question derive questions like the following: what does he think the Church is, where does he think it is located, what is its job, what is the relationship between the Church and all the churches? and so on. When people ask, “Was Lewis a (crypto-) Catholic/Evangelical/Orthodox/Calvinist/Etc.?” they will usually have the first kind of question in mind. It’s worth asking this sort of question, but in as broad and generous a thinker as Lewis was the data are bound to yield conflicting results, as indeed they have. More fruitful approaches to this first sort of question are found in this book, for instance in the essays by James Como, Ian Ker, Kallistos Ware, Christopher Mitchell, and Philip Ryken, which proceed by way of comparison and contrast rather than by checklist.

However, the second kind of question is, to my mind, where the action really lies. For profitable answers here, look especially to the essays by Michael Ward and Judith Wolfe, along with Brendan N. Wolfe’s essay on Lewis’s ecumenism. The concurrence of Ward and Wolfe is striking: for Lewis, really and truly the Church exists only in heaven, and the churches here are at best training grounds for heaven, helping us through their negative example as much as their positive.

As exhilarating as Lewis’s picture of perfect communion is at the close of The Last Battle, the end of Perelandra, and The Great Divorce, Lewis’s picture of the earthly churches is starkly pessimistic. Lewis’s best portrayal of Christian community life here below, St. Anne’s in That Hideous Strength, meets not in a church but a house, and has not a pastor or priest but a Director.

In the following I offer brief descriptions of most of the essays, and delve a little more deeply into a few. The selection of these lucky few follows my own interests and should not be viewed as a slight to the others. The editors divide the essays into three parts, which is reflected in my use of subheadings.

Part I:  The Church in Lewis’s Life

 

Aside from the two sorts of questions with which I began, there are, of course, other kinds of relevant questions to be asked under the broad heading “Lewis and the Church,” The essays in Part I deal, in different ways, with Lewis’s relationship, not to the Church per se but to its literature. In “C.S. Lewis and Early Christian Literature,” Mark Edwards surveys Lewis surprisingly paltry use of the Church Fathers and offers some speculation about why this should be. In the most entertaining essay of the book, Francis Warner recounts in dramatic fashion the work of the committee whose job it was to revise the Coverdale Psalter. (Spoiler: Lewis and T.S. Eliot often disagreed about revisions, and Eliot was usually the advocate for the old renderings!)

In “You Must Throw Yourself in: C.S. Lewis and the Victorian Literary Church.” Jonathan  Herapath attempts to position Lewis as a twentieth century “legatee” of a Victorian literary tradition in which serious theological debate and reflection were carried out not just by academic theologians in journals and monographs, but in popular literary genres, including fiction, poetry, essays, hymns, and tracts. Like John Henry Newman and George MacDonald, Lewis believed that non-discursive literature was better suited than theological treatises for inculcating faith. Herapath adroitly anchors Lewis’s reaction against theological liberalism in this commitment to the imagination’s role in the believer’s life:

Arguably, it is its failure properly to appreciate this need for imaginative assent to the central narrative of Christianity (the ‘myth which became fact’) which lies behind Lewis’ dislike of liberal theology (p.50)

 

Part II, The Church in Lewis’s Writings

 

The four essays in Part II are gathered under the heading, “The Church in Lewis’ Writings,” and to my mind are the most significant pieces of Lewis scholarship in the collection. James Como contributes the cryptically titled, “C.S. Lewis’ Quantum Church: An Uneasy Meditation,” likening Lewis to a “quantum electron” with a “multi-orbit habitation” whose theology and relationship to the Churches is impossible to pin down. Brendan N. Wolfe’s brief essay, “C.S. Lewis on the Relations between the Churches,” is a commentary on the preface to Mere Christianity, in which he helpfully clarifies Lewis’s ecumenical strategy. In moving closer to the distinctive elements of our own communions we, somewhat paradoxically, move closer to unity.

In “The Church in C.S. Lewis’s Fiction,” Michael Ward distinguishes three senses of “Church” and describes Lewis’s portrayals of the Church in each. The senses are: “1) the mystical body of Christ; 2) the visible Christian church, of whatever denomination, as represented by its ordained ministers and their teachings; 3) the Church as manifest in its rituals and buildings (p.68).” According to Ward, for Lewis the Church in sense 1 has little to do with senses 2 and 3. Lewis’s fiction is more or less ambivalent about the Church in senses 2 and 3, leaning heavily toward sharp criticism when the Church is represented by its clergy specifically (think Strake, Busby, Doyle, Spike, Broad, Neo-Angular, and the Liberal Bishop).

It comes as no surprise then, that the Church in sense 1 is invisible or “super-sensible (p.85).” Riffing on Screwtape’s description of the Church as “spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners,” Ward looks to the descriptions of heaven in The Great Divorce and The Last Battle for Lewis’s fullest fictional accounts of the Church (in sense 1). Each description is notable for its total absence of anything associated with the Church in senses 2 and 3. In The Valley of the Shadow of Light and in Deep Heaven, “We know nothing of religion here: we think only of Christ.” In New Narnia old friends gather joyfully in the presence of Aslan, echoing Dante’s image of the Church Triumphant in Paradiso: the Celestial Rose.

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  • Adam

    Thanks Tom. I look forward to the second half.