According to C.S. Lewis scholar, Dr. Michael Ward, when it came to language, C.S. Lewis had “the highest possible view: language is a metaphysical reality with a transcendent origin.” (Planet Narnia, pg. 151) After Babel, and given the constraints of this world’s fallenness, Lewis understood that language was something that was continually under attack. The attack is most pronounced in our modern, scientific age when “precision” is valued above all else – even to the point of destroying meaning.
“Beauty tells you to stop thinking about yourself and to wake up to the world of others. It says: ‘Look at this, listen to this, study this – for here is something more important than you.’” ~ Sir Roger Scruton
Can a book on literary criticism hold any value for Christian apologetics? Insofar as the apologetics in question involves culture, yes, it can. Where can we turn to find such a pairing of literary theory and theology? Nowhere better than to a mature Cambridge professor at the end of a distinguished career, reflecting back on his life-long love of reading. Enter C.S. Lewis, Christian apologist, writer, medievalist, and literary scholar, and his book An Experiment in Criticism. Here, we see Lewis offering a more personal approach to judging a book than the standard theoretical ones. These theories tend to reduce what constitutes good literature to their particulars and uses, thereby putting it on the “quicksand” of subjective opinion. For Lewis, this is the kind of modern analysis that becomes a “basilisk which kills what it sees and sees by killing.” He turns this approach on its head, proposing to “judge a book” not by its constituent parts, but by its effects on the good reader, the latter representing more “solid ground” than the ever-shifting phenomenon of taste. He writes that we should define “good literature as that which permits, invites, or even compels good reading.” In this, we see Lewis not only making a defense for the irreducible value of literary beauty, but also demonstrating how to be receptive to its positive effects. Lewis makes the case for why we should avoid dismissive vigilantism when it comes to secular writing. Instead, he encourages us to seek to enter “fully into the opinions, and therefore also the attitudes, feelings and total experience, of other men”, refraining from the easier project of reducing the work to a message we might find problematic. As Christian apologists, we are encouraged to keep our own basilisks at bay. Indeed, one could argue that Lewis’s experiment has ramifications that extend beyond the act of reading, as it involves principles that we should take into all of our endeavors as apologists, artists, and followers of Christ.
Ruby Beach, Olympic National Park
“…we all like astonishing tales because they touch the nerve of the ancient instinct of astonishment.’ – G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy