As I posted this week, Canada’s broadcaster, the CBC, included a two-part documentary on C.S. Lewis and the Inklings on its award-winning Ideas programme. As a Canadian, I was fortunate to be able to listen to this documentary live–while I was painting, actually. It included some key C.S. Lewis scholars:
Malcolm Guite: The Reverend Dr. Malcolm Guite is a chaplain at Cambridge University, where he also teaches and lectures literature and theology. He is a published author and poet, and has also put together a wonderful series of talks on C.S. Lewis and the Inklings, which can be heard at his website.
Monika Hilder is the Co-Director of The Inklings Institute of Canada. Hilder is also the author of a three-volume study of Lewis and gender. The third and most recent volume is titled Surprised by the Feminine: A Re-Reading of C.S. Lewis and Gender.
Alister McGrath is Professor of Theology, Ministry, and Education at King’s College London. He is also the author of the recently published C.S. Lewis A Life: Eccentric Genius and Reluctant Prophet.
Ralph C. Wood is Professor of Theology and Literature at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. He is also the author of The Gospel According to Tolkien: Visions of the Kingdom in Middle Earth.
I was pleased to hear Canadian scholar Monika Hilder included. Monika is a co-director of the Inklings Institute of Canada, of which I am a member. Monika’s work is on Lewis and Gender, as well as Lewis’ WWII fiction. I would have liked to hear more from her, but it isn’t unexpected that much of the broadcast was dominated by Alister McGrath, perhaps the world’s leading public theologian, and who has released a pair of highly regarded Lewis biographies this year.
My note today, however, is regarding Malcolm Guite, who I knew first as a poet and second as a thinker and Lewis scholar. I first ran into Guite’s poetry through his blog, where he tends to post formal poems, often to the rhythm of the feast calendar. Guite was featured prominently in the CBC documentary, and he made two points–one of prophetic critique and one of theological method–that I think are worth comment.
The first quotation is set up by the host with the comment that, although Lewis was a strong defender of the Christian faith, he was not a “Bible-thumping-everything-in-the-Bible-is-literally-true kind of believer.” The Guite spoke:
“Lewis in a sense sets you free so that you are not confined by literalism. I mean, he’s a comparatively conservative reader, but he certainly doesn’t think that the book of Genesis is a scientific treatise, or that what’s referred to as a day is the same thing as the period of 24 hours. I think because Lewis’s book Mere Christianity was so powerful and so effective in refuting a number of genuinely specious objections to the Christian faith, and has a great gospel of grace in it, was meat and drink to a certain kind of conservative Protestant Christianity. And there was nothing that they could take objection to in that book, so they loved it.
“But, actually, a lot of Lewis’ writing and a number of his arguments go far beyond that, and work in a very… much more intuitive, much more imaginative, much more open-ended way. And indeed, I’ve seen people write about Lewis as though when he speaks about moral law, he was only speaking about Pentateuch, to the Torah, to the law of Moses. And clearly he’s not doing that, because in The Abolition of Man he points out that a moral insight is universal to all the great religions–and not just a moral insight, but the same moral insights. And one of the most interesting things in the book The Abolition of Man is a beautiful piece of comparative religion at the end, where he goes through… he uses the Hammurabi Code, he uses The Bhagavad Gita, he uses The Upanishads, The Tao Te Ching, the Analects of Confucius, and also the Old and New Testament, as all bearing witness to the same fundamental moral insights. Now that’s an openness of approach–of course, he’s not denying the uniqueness of Christianity; you get him onto the subject of what God has done for us in Christ–but it’s not narrow-minded, it’s not parochial, it’s not xenophobic. He’s got a very large, capacious mind, and I wish sometimes that all the people that cite him could follow that example.”
Though Guite is rooted in England, he is engaged also with a North America audience. And doubtless he has encountered what is an impressive American fan-base and scholars community. And while there is diversity among the readers of an writers on C.S. Lewis on this continent, there is a decidedly conservative trend that dominates. For example, a new book, The Magician’s Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society (2012), edited by John G. West. West is a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute, an anti-evolution and creation education advocacy group. This book contains arguments that suggest that Lewis was really a creationist, despite his assumption of evolutionary histories in Mere Christianity and The Problem of Pain. It’s notable that this re-visioning of Lewis is endorsed by a number of leading American Lewis scholars.
I’ll let the reader weigh the merits of The Magician’s Twin–Lewis certainly was a critic of scientific mythologies that claim monolithic status–but Guite’s comment will certainly resonate in that sort of context. He is concerned about narrow-mindedness and xenophobia among Lewis scholars, and advocates an openness of approach. His final words resonate with the power of a prophet:
[C.S. Lewis has] got a very large, capacious mind, and I wish sometimes that all the people that cite him could follow that example.
I can think of no greater goal for any scholar, and I suspect the chaplain Malcolm Guite is here offering a benediction for all believers.
While Guite’s prophetic criticism is spoken in terms of intellectual perspective, it is his mode of theology–his theological praxis–that I find especially telling. As a good documentary will be highly edited, I cannot tell how this happened in his original interview. But after a documentary considering how C.S. Lewis negotiated reason and imagination, and how these were brought together in his faith, it was actually a poem that finished Guite’s thoughts. Rather than tell us more about how this process of reason and imagination work together, Guite showed us by including one of his own poems. He calls it a “found” sonnet, as all of the phrases are taken from Lewis’ book, The Abolition of Man. I cannot think of a better tribute to complete this note on Malcolm Guite’s prophetic critique than to include the sonnet, with my thanks to the poet-theologian.
Imagine a new natural philosophy;
I hardly know what I am asking for;
Far-off echoes, that primeval sense,
With blood and sap, Man’s pre-historic piety,
Continually conscious and continually…
Alive, alive and growing like a tree
And trees as dryads, or as beautiful,
The bleeding trees in Virgil and in Spenser
The tree of knowledge and the tree of life
Growing together, that great ritual
Pattern of nature, beauties branching out
The cosmic order, ceremonial,
Regenerate science, seeing from within…
To participate is to be truly human.
Note: The images of Malcolm Guite are by Lancia Smith. There are more, great photographs in a great interview on her site. Check it out.