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.