What We Believe
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The Reading Life: The Joy of Seeing New Worlds Through Others’ Eyes, by C. S. Lewis, edited by David C. Downing & Michael G. Maudlin. San Francisco: HarperOne, 2019, xvi + 171, $19.99.

The question “have you read this book?” would not have interested C. S. Lewis. He would want to know, “has this book read you?” The distinction is all important. For Lewis, a good book is not one you might have read and then set aside, but one that has transported you to another world, one that should be read over and over again. He was himself, of course, a superb writer. But throughout his works, often between the lines, he reflected on the joys of reading. This anthology of such reflections was waiting to be gathered. It is not certain why this had not been done before, but here it is.

This marvelous collection of insights into reading assembles fifty-two excerpts from Lewis’s œuvre. By rights we ought to be intimidated, not to say alienated, by someone as voracious a reader as C. S. Lewis. He apparently spent at least eight hours a day doing it. We have all met the immodest name-dropper who wants us to know how much he has read. Yet, somehow Lewis is never threatening nor snobbish about his rapacious talents. Indeed, in one of the brief essays here he decries boastful literary critics for their sense of moral superiority against such “rabble” as the common reader.

The reason reading is good for the soul is that it takes us out of ourselves, regardless whether what is being said might be true or empirically verifiable. Literature, he argues, is logos, admitting us to experiences other than our own. Good literature extends our being, frees us from the narrow confines of our own experience. As such it heals our wounds without denying our individuality. In a memorable quote, Lewis tells us, “Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do” (9).

For this reason, as he argues throughout, good art should be received, not analyzed. For one to be able to receive a great work, there is no sense in discussing its greatness before just getting out of the way, surrendering and not demanding (149). If this sounds like idolatry, it is not, though it does give us insight into the seductions of the idol. Idols are not so much bald-faced lies as they are deceptive counterfeits of the real thing. But the best literature draws us in, leads us, willingly or not, into worlds that we otherwise could not conceive, and makes us the better for it. At first, a number of these fragments may sound like the ultimate attack on the politically correct. They do occasionally take aim at the conformist and commonly held notions of the unliterary. For example, Lewis famously defends fairy tales, good ones, against the bromide “oh these are but fairy tales.” Adult literature, according to the modern critic, is writing appropriate to the reader having grown up and who is now beyond childish things. For Lewis, the real grown-up is someone who can still treasure the best of childhood practices. Becoming older may involve change, so that we can now enjoy Tolstoy or Jane Austen, but growing older should not be outgrowing good things (20). In a riff on the Pauline love passage, he confesses, “When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up” (19).

Lewis’s insights will charm many and no doubt madden others. For example, he cordially dislikes Alexandre Dumas’ the Three Musketeers. The story only puts you in “an abstract world of gallantry and adventures which has no roots—no connection with human nature or mother earth.” Dumas cannot show you the cities of Paris or London; it is as though he had never been to either (154). On the other hand, he loves Huckleberry Finn and The Hobbit, and even Beatrix Potter, for their ability to put you into another world and let you see through the eyes of the local inhabitant. He loves Tolkien’s concept of sub-creation.

There is a man in our lives my wife and I like to call Mr. Toad. He drives an expensive car and does not seem to realize the boastful countenance he exudes. He is benevolent, yet condescending, talented, yet needing an audience. Lewis muses on the choice of the toad in Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows. Why not a stag, or a pigeon, or a lion? “The choice is based on the fact that the real toad’s face has a grotesque resemblance to a certain kind of human face—a rather apoplectic face with a fatuous grin on it.” The toad cannot stop grinning because its “grin” is not a grin at all. “Looking at the creature we thus see, isolated and fixed, an aspect of human vanity in its funniest and most pardonable form …” (50–51). This is pretty much the character of our friend: he is ridiculous but also vain in a quite pardonable way!

Lewis himself used talking animals in his tales. When reading Narnia we never pause to think, “oh, why on earth is this creature talking?” We accept the premise that once on the other side of the wardrobe, things are different: not worse or even better, but different. The trick is to suspend disbelief for the sake of something profoundly true. Lewis once said a Christian writer ought to have blood in his veins, not ink. By this I think he meant if you have a sermon, go ahead and preach it … from a pulpit. If you venture into literature, you ought not to have in mind a certain message. This will end up as propaganda. Instead, you must first love words and love the people who produce them. In a word, you must be human. Then, when you write, your Christian faith cannot help but show through. So don’t worry about a “dispatch”; just write.

Parts of this anthology will please the word police (of which I am one). One chapter is titled, “How to Murder Words” (81–83). These titles are presumably created by the editors, not by Lewis, but they are on the whole faithful to the content. The paragraphs here are about “verbicide,” the murder of a word. The comments would please any English teacher worth his salt. One way to kill a word is inflation. Awfully for “very,” tremendous for “great,” etc. One of my own pet peeves is turning nouns into verbs: to prioritize, to impact, and the like. One place we can be sure to encounter verbicide is on airplanes. The flight attendant will tell passengers when to “deplane.” Or the doors will close “momentarily.” A friend of mine whispered, “will they open again in mid-flight?”

Lewis notes the tendency (what would he say today?) to confuse description with approval or disapproval. For example, behaving like an adolescent somehow means behaving badly. In the chapter, “Saving Words from the Eulogistic Abyss” we are warned against using words as an evaluation, instead of what they originally meant. For example, “he behaved like a perfect gentleman” today means the person was decent and kind, whereas the original simply meant he held property (86–7). Abstract once meant essential, whereas today it means vague or shadowy, or lacking substance. Christian readers will identify with Lewis’s concern that in our times the term Christian might mean something like, decent or just good. But, he argues, it should simply mean someone truly committed to the Apostles’ Creed, whether or not he is a good person.

Examples could be multiplied. To be called “inappropriate” or even “offensive” today is synonymous with being “wrong.” Lewis would have said, better to be wrong and liable to punishment, than just “insensitive” or the like, which defies objective norms of transgression.

Understandably, Lewis balked at the way Hollywood could distort the true sense of fear and of romance found in the original. His comments are not simply the cranky objections of the purist. And he is not against making movies out of classics. But he worries that certain films cannot convey a world or a feeling the way a book can. He uses the example of King Solomon’s Mines (73). In the book by H. Rider Haggard (1885) the hero awaits death inside a rock chamber full of mummies. In the film version (he was presumably watching the 1937 version, directed by Robert Stevenson) there is plenty of excitement, even suspense, but very little fear of real danger.

Why should Christians be interested in these essays? Lewis does not discuss theological or biblical matters much. Of course, he does so elsewhere. One of the virtues of Lewis’s approach is that it gets us away from a concern only with one dimension in life. Believers ought to become more open, less fearful. American believers in particular are so prone to individualism they tend to reduce the faith, and everything else, to propositions they may like. If so-and-so is saved or even born again we don’t need any further involvement. Never mind whether the person needs more love, or the society he frequents needs reform.

Taking The Reading Life seriously can even help us better understand the Bible. In our defense of Scripture we often become empirical without intending to. We may even become afraid of images and metaphor. How could Noah’s flood have really covered the entire earth? Are there big fish in which a man can live for several days? Can a virgin really conceive a child? In my own view these things did happen. These are legitimate issues in the face of skepticism. But to limit our apologetics to simply trying to prove that science and miracles are compatible is often to miss the heart of a story. More significantly, it may lead us to miss the primary author himself and thus prevent receiving his love. A friend of mine was interviewed for a position at the Yale Divinity School. At one point he was asked whether Genesis was theology or history. He asked the committee, “Do I have to choose?” He did get the job, but his question was a good one.

Most Bible stories have at least three characteristics: doctrinal payoff, literary structure, and theology. C. S. Lewis helps us particularly with the literary aspect of a story. To read, say, Jonah, and only be concerned with the possibility that a large fish could swallow a man is fine, but it misses the main point of the story, which is Jonah’s hardness of heart. If we read chapter 2 as genuine repentance, we will be puzzled by the rest of the book which shows no real proof of Jonah’s repentance. But if we pay attention to the literary nature of the book, we will see that Jonah’s prayer from the belly of the great fish is theologically correct but lacking in all sincerity. The author of the book is quite the artist. He underscores the contrast between the downward movements and then the rising movements in the text, helping us understand the depths of Jonah’s rebellion and the zenith of God’s love. Some of my colleagues in the Bible department have done extensive studies on the use of plants in the prophecy.

Evangelicals rightly worry about such trends as “narratology” according to which propositional truth is suspect and every sermon must tell stories. But it is possible to overreact and deny or minimize the literary aspect of a biblical account and slouch into arid sermons. In another example, we may cull thoroughly from Job’s so-called friends’ remarks and legitimately find in them a mixture of truth and error. But why do we need over thirty long chapters of their dialogues with Job just to be wrong? The length is intentional. In part it helps us see their obstinacy and lack of imagination compared to the simplicity of Job’s vindication. In part it shows us how tedious is unbelief. Again, why does Daniel several times enumerate the large number of the king’s officers (“Then the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the justices, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces gathered for the dedication of the image that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up” (3:3; 3:27). Surely it is to render the pretention, the affectation of such an entourage. Or, again, why does the genealogy in the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel add up to fourteen generations, when we know there were more? Matthew the Jew wanted his readers to have an easy way to remember the main links in the chain from Adam to Christ. He also wanted to highlight Jesus’ paternity. He is the son of Abraham and of David (implicitly the son of Adam as well). Not only is his ancestry Jewish, but, significantly, Gentiles appear in the genealogy, and so do women: Rahab and (presumably) Bathsheba, not to mention Ruth who chose Naomi’s God over her paganism.

As an academic and a theologian, I get exposed to a great deal of literature related to divinity. Much of it is good, often solidly orthodox. But occasionally what I see suffers from being dry. To put it a Lewisian way, it lacks imagination. But thankfully, I then do encounter warm, pastoral, even poetic, theology. That kind leads me to pray and worship. Every church leader and possibly every Christian believer ought to read this excellent book. It will help them transcend themselves and in the bargain become more themselves as God meant them to be.

William Edgar is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and serves as professor of Apologetics and Ethics, Westminster Theological Seminary, Glenside, Pennsylvania. Ordained Servant Online, November 2020.

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Ordained Servant: November 2020

Creation Stewardship

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Going Beyond Stewardship—Where is Dominion? A Review Article

Smorgasbord Religion: The New American Spirituality: A Review Article

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