This other C.S. Lewis has been a mystery to me -- an avowedly Christian writer whose account of his religious beliefs isn't even especially convincing. In Surprised by Joy, one sees a writer whose imaginative life is apparently animated primarily by fairy tales, but who turns to religion as a way to amplify and order the joy his imaginative worlds give him. One finds passages like the following:
I also developed a great taste for all the fiction I could get about the ancient world: Quo Vadis, Darkness and Dawn, The Gladiators, Ben Hur. It might be expected that this arose out of my new concern for my religion, but I think not. Early Christians came into many of these stories, but they were not what I was after. I simply wanted sandals, temples, togas, slaves, emperors, galleys, amphitheaters; the attraction, as I now see, was erotic, and erotic in rather a morbid way. . . . The idea of other planets exercised upon me then a peculiar, heady attraction, which was quite different from any other of my literary interests. Most emphatically it was not the romantic spell of Das Ferne. "Joy" (in my technical sense) never darted from Mars or the Moon. This was something coarser and stronger. The interest, when the fit was upon me, was ravenous, like lust.
Lewis' account of the role of literature in the development of his religious imagination seems confused. For one thing, since the passion for science fiction and fantasy was so intense, why worry about "Joy" altogether? And since his own imagination is so often the story of Surprised by Joy, why not design his own religion based on the fantastic alternate worlds that had already created and populated by him in his own mind? Why the Anglican framework exactly?
Adam Gopnik's long piece on Lewis in this week's New Yorker clears up many questions. The whole piece is worth reading to people interested in Lewis, but perhaps the final two paragraphs are especially intriguing, as Gopnik bridges the gap between a secular reader's passion for fairy tales (or more generally, for the otherworldly) with the religious believer's investment in them (generally as a stimulant to spiritual growth).
Here is Gopnik from the New Yorker:
For poetry and fantasy aren’t stimulants to a deeper spiritual appetite; they are what we have to fill the appetite. The experience of magic conveyed by poetry, landscape, light, and ritual, is . . . an experience of magic conveyed by poetry, landscape, light, and ritual. To hope that the conveyance will turn out to bring another message, beyond itself, is the futile hope of the mystic. Fairy stories are not rich because they are true, and they lose none of their light because someone lit the candle. It is here that the atheist and the believer meet, exactly in the realm of made-up magic. Atheists need ghosts and kings and magical uncles and strange coincidences, living fairies and thriving Lilliputians, just as much as the believers do, to register their understanding that a narrow material world, unlit by imagination, is inadequate to our experience, much less to our hopes.
The religious believer finds consolation, and relief, too, in the world of magic exactly because it is at odds with the necessarily straitened and punitive morality of organized worship, even if the believer is, like Lewis, reluctant to admit it. The irrational images—the street lamp in the snow and the silver chair and the speaking horse—are as much an escape for the Christian imagination as for the rationalist, and we sense a deeper joy in Lewis’s prose as it escapes from the demands of Christian belief into the darker realm of magic. As for faith, well, a handful of images is as good as an armful of arguments, as the old apostles always knew.
Clearly Gopnik sees Lewis as a talented fantasist first, and a Christian distantly second. But what I think is helpful about Gopnik's review essay is the way it links the two rather different modes of writing and thinking about the imaginative world. Secular readers (and readers from outside the Christian tradition) can indeed appreciate Narnia (well, most of the series) as an involving fantasy world, completely separate from its allegorical meaning. And their need for such stories is not very different from the need of religious believers to imagine spiritual significance overlaying material reality. While huge gaps remain between the two kinds of readers, someone like Lewis can act, at his best, as a bridge over the epistemological divide.
[Cross-posted to The Valve]