Like us here at Mere-O, Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen likes C.S. Lewis.

As an undergrad, she was drawn to his vision of a Christianity, which fuses intellectual robustness with piety and a lively imagination.  She found in him a subtle challenge to the dominant regime of physicalism, a challenge made all the more attractive because it did not slip into the morass of relativism.

In short, Van Leeuwen was–and is–a fan.

Intellectual biography, yes.  But it is pertinent, as Van Leeuwen uses it to frame her new book A Sword Between the Sexes, in which she explores Lewis’s most contested area of thought:  his views on gender.  Van Leeuwen positions herself as an insider, someone who understands Lewis’s appeal and appreciates it, yet has significant reservations about his approach to femininity and masculinity.

First, the textual analysis.  Van Leeuwen contends that over the course of Lewis’ life, the “stereotypical masculinity and femininity” that we see in That Hideous Strength (and it’s corresponding suspicion of the social sciences) receded to the background and was replaced by a more egalitarian understanding of the sexes.  By the end of his life, he is able to write of his wife Joy:

A good wife contains so many persons in herself.  What was [Joy] not to me?  She was my daughter and my mother, my pupil and my teacher, my subject and my sovereign; and always, holding these all in solution, my trusty comrade, friend, shipmate, fellow soldeir.  My mistress, but at the same time all that any man friend (and I have had good ones) has ever been to me.  Solomon calls his bride Sister.  Could a woman be a complete wife unless, for a moment, in one particular mood, a man felt almost inclined to call her Brother?

Gone is the essentializing of femininity, and absent is any hint of hierarchy.

Van Leeuwen quickly moves beyond, and behind, these texts to the sources that shaped Lewis’s thought, and the world that he inhabited.  Here she contends that Lewis was a “better man than his theories,” that his relationships with real women were quite collegial–even while he had “misogynistic tendencies” in his writings.   And she carefully and sympathetically articulates the Edwardian periods view of gender, and how Lewis actually liberalizes that tendency.

But she doesn’t stop there:  she also examines briefly the effect of Lewis’s work on our own time, highlighting the complementarianism/egalitarianism debate that has caught up evangelicalism the past decade and locating Lewis’ view within its context.  It’s worth pointing out that Van Leeuwen’s move here is anachronistic, and not free of difficulty.  It depends upon an explicit linking of Trinitarian theology with gender relations, a link that she never demonstrates Lewis to have made (and which there might be good reason to reject).

Which leads me to my other worry with Van Leeuwen’s book:  as I was reading I had a nagging feeling that I was in the situation of Mitya’s defense attorney in The Brother’s Karamazov:  “the overwhelming weight of the facts is against the defendant and yet at the same time not one of those facts will withstand criticism if it is examined in isolation, on its own.”

Even the above excerpt from A Grief Observed, as compelling as it is, fails to deliver a knockout blow.  There is a sense in which any self-respecting patriarchalist who allows plenty of room for the erotic expression understands the mutual equality that giving and receiving implies (see JP2 for more on this).  What Lewis expressed in poetic terms fits uneasily with patriarchy, but doesn’t eliminate it.  While Van Leeuwen makes her case carefully, it seems to be missing that one linchpin that would put the matter to rest, an outright and explicit repudiation by Lewis of his early views on gender.

But the criticism made, allow me to return to praise.  Van Leeuwen’s book is a provocative and thorough study of both Lewis the author and Lewis the man.  While I suspect it won’t prompt anyone in contemporary discussions to change their position, it should be read and considered carefully, for it serves an invaluable purpose:  returning us to the man and his works to read them again with fresh eyes, new questions, and an openness to the possibility that one of the patron saints of evangelical complementarians may not be one at all.

My thanks to the good folks at Baker for providing me a copy for review, and my apologies to the good folks at Baker for taking so long to get it up.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

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  1. Thanks for this review and your comments, Matt. Having read most of Lewis’ comments on gender in his writings, I am inclined to agree with Van Leeuwen that Lewis’ relationship with his wife may have brought a change in his thinking. His early statements on the sexes seem to me based more upon a traditional sense of order than with a robust, well-thought-out and experiential truth lived in actual relationships (and the nature of his probable relationship with Mrs. Moore complicates this fact). That Lewis never repudiated his earlier opinions I think is not an entirely fair requirement, since his relationship with Joy occurred so late in life. I’m not sure how he could’ve included this topic in his late writing…and maybe it didn’t seem so important in light of other matters?

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  2. Thanks, Bonnie.

    I don’t know whether Lewis’ views “stayed the same” or not. It’s possible to read them as a deepening of his prior views, and not a repudiation of them. After all, ‘Til We Have Faces is a “late work,” but its views of gender aren’t really all THAT different from his early work. They’re more problematized there, but can be read as still in the same vein of thought.

    But you’re right. I could be setting the bar simply too high for Van Leeuwen. I don’t know how we can determine that someone “changed their mind” without SOME explicit acknowledgment of the fact, and in the absence of that, she does a great job of pulling together the case. But there are weaknesses, like the above example.

    Best,

    matt

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  3. Matt, thanks for your response. I have not read Van Leeuwen’s book but, having refreshed my memory somewhat on what I have read, I would say that we have to specify just which aspect of gender/sex we are discussing when considering what he thought of it and what happened to his thinking over the course of time. You say, “It’s possible to read [his views] as a deepening of his prior views, and not a repudiation of them.” I would go further and say that his views matured, or were transformed. Did he, in a black-and-white fashion, “change his mind”? Perhaps not. Yet his understanding was transformed by love.

    This is why we won’t necessarily find a repudiation; unless he was asked, or if the subject had come up otherwise, he really had no reason to. He was not a dogmatist, and didn’t live long enough to write any more than he wrote. However, his comments on male headship (for example) in Mere Christianity are a far cry from those in The Four Loves. I have not read Till We Have Faces, so I can’t speak to that. I do know that Joy helped him write it, and that it is about love. The Four Loves is also, obviously. And in his Reflections on the Psalms, written during his marriage, he writes of marital sexual union as an allegory of the mystical union of God and Israel/Christ and the Church (which wasn’t new for him, but shows what he was thinking at that time).

    And there is at least one example of Lewis changing his mind yet not writing about it: his views on divorce and remarriage. They clearly changed, as evidenced by his marriage to Joy.

    Part of the problem in this discussion is, I think, the way gender is being characterized in the context of the complementarian/egalitarian debate. So many seem to see the issue as an either/or, an all-this-way or all-that-way, proposition, that we are losing sight of both nuance and the bigger picture (i.e., the truth). Both sides are being caricatured, much of their own doing, I’m afraid, and trenches are being dug deep. This is most unfortunate.

    (The debate has been raging among evangelicals for more than a decade, unfortunately…probably closer to four, at least in America. I don’t know about England, though there certainly is a long and far-reaching history to gender issues in both the church and world culture.)

    One more thought: Lewis was a cultural curmudgeon of sorts, in many ways for very good reason, yet in others, not so much–more due to his own idiosyncrasies, which we all have. In short, he was visionary, yet also human. Yet I think we can see, based on his later writings and especially his letters, that he was transformed by his relationship with Joy.

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