A Literature Lesson from Professor Lewis
- Monday, December 21, 2009
There's a powerful new condition going around that one Christian magazine called "Narnia Mania."
The most common symptom is a heightened sense of anticipation surrounding the December release of Hollywood's latest big-budget film based on C.S. Lewis's phenomenally popular Chronicles of Narnia books.
Lewis was a balding, British bachelor who was more intimate with books than he was with boys and girls; but that didn't stop him from writing a collection of seven novels that was the world's bestselling children's series until a student warlock named Harry Potter arrived on the scene. (The Narnia books have sold some 85 million copies, while the Harry Potter books have sold twice that number.)
Christians love Lewis's Narnia novels and his books on Christian theology and apologetics such as Mere Christianity. Christianity Today even called Lewis a "patron saint" of the evangelical movement, a movement that hasn't always been known for attracting large numbers of intellectuals (see Mark Noll's The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind).
While millions of Christians celebrate Lewis' lasting legacy, many of us routinely contradict his guidance about how we should treat literature and art.
Art for Art's Sake
Before he was a novelist or an apologist, Lewis was a professor of literature—first at Oxford University, where he and Catholic novelist J.R.R. Tolkien used to drink, smoke and share their latest stories, and later at Cambridge.
For Lewis, literature was more than a series of texts to criticize or deconstruct. Rather, Lewis saw literature and mythology as vast repositories that have much to reveal to us about what it means to be human.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was published in 1955. Six years later, Cambridge University Press published Lewis' An Experiment in Criticism, a brief but fascinating book about how literature is read, understood and experienced by those who consume it.
Lewis believed the thoughtful reading of a quality novel could produce "an experience so momentous that only experiences of love, religion or bereavement can furnish a standard of comparison."
A lover of literature from the time he was a child until his dying day, Lewis argued that it could have a transformative power in people's lives. "Their whole consciousness is changed," he wrote. "They have become what they were not before."
Not everybody experiences the glories of literature so deeply, though. Lewis said one group that fails to do so is "literary Puritans," who "are too serious as men to be seriously receptive as readers."
There's another large group of people who fail to accept literature or other forms of art on their own terms. These people seek to use art for their own ends rather than letting art work its wonders in them, and it appears that some pastors and youth workers are members of this group.
'Users' and 'Receivers'
"We sit down before [a work of art] in order to have something done to us, not that we may do things with it," writes Lewis. "The first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way."
Lewis says that people who approach art and literature in this way have learned how to "receive" it. "When we 'receive' it we exert our senses and imagination and various other powers according to a pattern invented by the artist."
There's another, larger group of people that either doesn't know how to receive a work of art or chooses not to do so. Lewis says these people "use" art. "When we 'use' it, we treat it as assistance for our own activities."
There's a relatively new breed of "user" in youth ministry circles, as anyone who's ever strolled through the exhibit hall at a National Youth Workers Convention or thumbed through a copy of YouthWorker Journal can see.
These "users" sift through mounds of new movies, CDs and other pop culture products in search of teachable moments they can extract for their youth groups. The Videos that Teach series from Youth Specialties is one of the more popular examples of the books and resources that have emerged from this effort.
A few decades ago, the teaching and preaching ministries of many churches were divorced totally from most of what was happening in popular culture. So products such as Videos that Teach show that some youth workers are trying to be more engaged with popular culture.
So far, so good.
Lewis was critical of well-meaning people—whether preachers or politicians—who sought to "use" art for their own purposes. No matter how legitimate or lofty these purposes were, Lewis felt that art always suffered in the process.
"'Using' is inferior to 'reception,'" wrote Lewis. "Because art, if used rather than received, merely facilitates, brightens, relieves or palliates our life, and does not add to it."
Here's how Lewis described those who insist on "using" art rather than "receiving" it: "We shall be like a man poking his fire, not to boil the kettle or warm the room, but in the hope of seeing in it the same pictures he saw yesterday."
At present, thousands of pastors and teachers are preparing sermons and lessons based on the upcoming movie The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Christian groups that have been enlisted to help the film's marketing efforts are encouraging churches and Christian bookstores to tap into the power of Narnia in order to reach the unchurched.
Such uses of the Narnia books were never what Lewis had in mind when he wrote them, said stepson Douglas Gresham in a recent e-mail interview. "Jack never wanted The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to be presented or thought of as a 'Christian book,'" says Gresham, who operates a Christian ministry in Ireland.
"Jack said that we don't need more people writing 'Christian books,' what we need is more Christians writing good books. I think he was absolutely right' and we don't need more people making 'Christian movies.' What we need is more Christians making good movies."
Lewis himself believed art and literature can reach mysterious corners of the human imagination that more straightforward sermons and lessons never can touch. Here's what he wrote in "Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What's to Be Said," an article that appeared in the New York Times Book Review:
"Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feeling.
"But suppose by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday School associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency. Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could."
For many people, their earnest desires to "use" the new Narnia movie will be so overpowering that they'll gladly dismiss Lewis' concerns. That's understandable, but Lewis invites us all to open ourselves to experience art as it is, with no ulterior purpose.
"In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself," he writes at the conclusion of An Experiment in Criticism."I see with myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do."
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