C.S. Lewis Really Should Have Seen it Coming: More On the Dangers of Reading

Last year I wrote a post called, “Be Careful What You Read… C.S. Lewis’ Literary Encounter with George MacDonald.” It got a big readership, partly (I think) because it turns our expectations upside down. According to research by sociologist David Kinnaman in books like You Lost Me, Christian youth are leaving the North American church in part because they feel the church is protecting them from big ideas in the world “out there.” According to Millennials, churches seem afraid that if they encourage education in science or philosophy, students will fall away from faith.

I’ve seen this–especially the protective instinct of parents and churches. I’ve also watched students step outside their faith story in the context of university science and philosophy classes. As a father and mentor to young Christians, I get that instinct to protect. I know how heartbreaking it is to watch people you love faltering in their faith. I know why churches try to protect their young people.

George MacDonald by Jeffrey of LondonI just happen to think that is a deadly approach.

It is deadly because it doesn’t work. Creating intellectual ghettos will only delay a person’s encounter with the world. It will always lead to arrested development.

Moreover, bright, faithful kids are left with the message from leaders that “Christianity doesn’t measure up, but believe it anyway because it’s true.”

Far from protecting young Christians from the world, we are actually giving in to a worldly idea. Some of my best students are atheists and agnostics, and most have a skeptical starting point. The most common response I get from our best young minds is something like this, “Brenton is bright. He has read philosophy and will ask any question. I just don’t understand how he can still be a believer.” The most common first response I get to theism is not a solid intellectual answer–that comes later–but the instinctive believe that it is all so ridiculous it can’t be true.

In this way, protective church believers and young atheists agree that Christianity isn’t credible. They just respond differently to that fact.

Surprised by Joy by C.S. LewisSo many are surprised when C.S. Lewis turns everything upside down and sends out a warning to skeptics and atheists:

“A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading” (Surprised by Joy, 182).

C.S. Lewis’ first teaching experience at Oxford was not in the English discipline where he would spend most of his teaching life, but in philosophy. Far from being a fundamentalist atheist, he followed the great philosopher Socrates in believing that one must follow the evidence where it leads. He read broadly, believing that he was secure in his intellectual atheism.

Eventually he found out that he was wrong:

“All the books were beginning to turn against me. Indeed, I must have been as blind as a bat not to have seen, long before, the ludicrous contradiction between my theory of life and my actual experiences as a reader. George MacDonald had done more to me than any other writer; of course it was a pity he had that bee in his bonnet about Christianity. He was good in spite of it. Chesterton had more sense than all the other moderns put together; bating, of course, his Christianity. Johnson was one of the few authors whom I felt I could trust utterly; curiously enough, he had the same kink. Spenser and Milton by a strange coincidence had it too. Even among ancient authors the same paradox was to be found. The most religious (Plato, Aeschylus, Virgil) were clearly those on whom I could really feed.” (Surprised by Joy, 201-202).

Sounds a bit like some of my students: “Brenton’s a great teacher, despite his Christianity.” Far from being a deficit, though, my faith perspective gives me a stronger position to talk about philosophy or science. And far from being something to hide, something to protect from the world, my faith grows with the great discussions that happen in culture and on the university campus.

I am currently reading David C. Downing‘s, Into the Region of Awe: Mysticism of C.S. Lewis (2005). I’ve suspected for sometime that Downing was on to something here, and am glad now to sit down with it and tear it apart. So far it’s a great little book.

When you read through C.S. Lewis’ diaries and letters from his atheist period in the 1920s, you see him slowly shaping into a solid thinker. It is during this period that he is reading these dangerous books mentioned above alongside the great philosophers and artists of history. Once he outgrew a youthful  “chronological snobbery”–the idea that today’s ideas are necessarily better than old ideas–his reading list became more and more diverse.

There is a sudden shift that takes place in the late 1920s. There is a debate about when exactly this is–see my “Was C.S. Lewis Wrong About His Own Conversion“–but the change is evident to any reader. What David Downing has done is shown how this evolution in Lewis’ understanding coincided with the great Christian (and often mystical) devotional literature of history:

“Though there are only scattered references to ‘devotional’ reading in Lewis’s letters or diaries in his twenties, the two-year period 1929-31 finds him reading George MacDonald’s Diary of an Old Soul and Lilith, John Bunyan’s Grace Abounding, Dante’s Paradiso, Jacob Boehme’s The Signature of All Things, Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God, Thomas Traherne’s Centuries of Meditations, William Law’s an Appeal to All Who Doubt, Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ, as well as the Gospel of John in the original Greek (Region of Awe, 42-43).

PierThe connection is significant. The more Lewis opened the door to authentic Christian writers, the more credible the life of faith became. Though his dive into faith was reluctant, in the end he did jump. And I suspect that this reading had a great deal to do with it.

So, I end as I did last year:

Atheists really must be more careful in their reading.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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22 Responses to C.S. Lewis Really Should Have Seen it Coming: More On the Dangers of Reading

  1. “Atheists really must be more careful in their reading.”

    The majority of us have the exact opposite experience to Lewis. The more I read, the more I stopped believing in the supernatural.

    Still haven’t stopped reading, and still an atheist.

    Everyone should read more.


    • I think everyone should read more. in my experience, though, most converts/unconverts don’t do so for intellectual reasons, but drift into atheism or theism or a different belief. Do you see that?


      • Most atheists I know have become atheists after a long period of study and searching. That’s how I changed. But I can’t speak for everyone.

        And obviously I view those who go from being atheists to being believers as having done so for mostly bad reasons, but I am clearly biased and wouldn’t deny being so.


        • I was the opposite, growing up in a non-religious context and an anti-religious home. When I work with students, many of them are thoughtfully considering things and choosing a path (or leaving one). But in general culture, I don’t think the same is true.
          Do you find as you’ve firmed up your ideas over time that you have trouble understanding how someone could possibly believe X? I understand the feelings of atheists–I know why one might choose that path. But i have trouble feeling the full credibility of some of the well-worn arguments.


  2. robstroud says:

    The Church needs more of its members to pursue the sciences and fields like philosophy. It’s helpful for them to be introduced to others already in those fields who can aid them in understanding that they need not jettison their Christian worldview to do so. As for why young people leave the Church… we could discuss that for hours. “Hypocrisy,” real or (more often) perceived would be neck and neck with “boring.” I think that when kids are introduced to genuine Christian faith and practice, that’s what makes the lasting difference.

    I use “genuine” here in the same sense as you used “authentic” in this astute comment: “The more Lewis opened the door to authentic Christian writers, the more credible the life of faith became.”

    The genuine, authentic, divinely inspired and led Christian witness–whether in written words or in the flesh–has the power to transform.


    • jubilare says:

      Yes, it does. Sadly, there is a lot of pressure to pretend, or to put it more harshly, to lie. Of course, that pressure is not absent in society at large. The tragedy is that it should be absent in our Christian fellowships, and that isn’t always the case.


  3. jubilare says:

    You and Lewis shame me into remembering how little I read, at present. I need to carve out more time for it.

    I think you are right, but there are two important elements that need highlighting. 1. Lewis was open to reading a wide variety of things 2. He was willing to open his mind and consider the “what ifs” even if he believed the “what ifs” to be unlikely or repugnant. I find both or one of those things absent in… well… most people. I’m not sure how useful it is to speculate as to why, but I can speak of my own experience.

    One of my parents is a Christian and the other an atheist. Both are very dear to me and have been great influences in my life. I cut my teeth on doubt and questions, was taught to read widely and prod things that didn’t seem right.

    Sometimes, that is an extremely hard, painful, and scary thing to do. I understand why people don’t want to do it, especially after a while. One can only take so much prodding before needing a place to rest. It is so much easier to decide what to believe, to only read things that lead one in the direction one wants to go (or to read other things with your intellectual defenses up). Lewis certainly did the latter, but he also had some academic honesty drilled into him that eventually began to weaken his defenses. Not everyone gives up, thankfully, and I do believe that thinking people can come to different conclusions based on a myriad of factors, but I think many people believe they are more open-minded than they actually are.

    Like you, I find my faith liberating, allowing me to explore the physical world and the world of ideas with more freedom. When I did not have my faith, I was a heck of a lot more frightened of ideas, though I might not have been willing to admit it. As it stands now, I rarely hear or read anything that seems like a cogent argument against my faith, and most arguments I hear are so fallacious that I can barely take them seriously. And the people speaking these arguments seem to think that they have not only made a good argument, but have laid down an unassailable one (as if such a thing existed… talk about mythical…). That sounds really arrogant, I know, but to soften it would be to tell a half-truth. Sadly, I hear many pathetically fallacious arguments for Christianity as well, when flat honesty would be much better. Perhaps, being in an academic environment, you encounter more interesting arguments, though.

    Sorry for the essay-length comment… Perhaps we are reaching a period in our nations similar to the one Lewis encountered, where the assumptions people make are changing from theistic to atheistic. And perhaps that is not such a bad thing. If our faith is true, the last thing that should worry us is a shift in the tide of popular opinion. As frightening as this might be, for all of us, the future of the Church may not be in those who muffle themselves and their children and refuse to question, but in those who, not having shied from storms of questioning and doubt, are prepared to weather hurricanes. Though, ultimately, the future of the Church is in the hands of God, and it is a good thing, too. For The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men [an’ apologists], gang aft agley.


  4. Thanks for this. We cannot be too often reminded that faith and reason do not have to be mutually exclusive


  5. Why do people leave the church?

    Speaking for myself, having left and returned, I left because of pride. I arrogantly believed that I was really smart and knew best. After being humbled in life, I decided I really wasn’t all-knowing and was brought back into the fold by the Good Shepherd.

    I suspect my experience is not unique.


  6. pnharris says:

    As a young person who was raised in a Christian context, this discussion is particularly poignant and resonates with my experience. The dominant question of my parent’s Christianity is “What is Truth?” I feel that my generation, saturated as we are with postmodernism and relativistic concepts, need to find the answer to a different question to feel that Christianity is authentic. It is because Lewis was so wrapped up in skepticism even to the point of atheism, that his work seems relevant and worth consideration to me. He is one of the few Christian authors who demands answers of Christianity to the hard questions. The marvelous thing is that those answers are there, which indicates to me, that Christianity is authentic in a deeper way than mere belief.


    • I think you have targeted why Lewis is still loved today. He is bold, demanding, humorous, and somehow sees things sideways.
      But his books will fade away, and our generation is left with the same pilgrimage to consider. Part of that really is the question of authenticity. It also means–if I can poke a bit in the earth–it means turning the question “What is Truth?” around a bit, to the questions, “What is true?” and “Who is Truth?” At the end of our search is a person, not an idea.


  7. Reblogged this on The Paradise Ward Elders Quorum and commented:
    I found this quite interesting. Sometimes we hear about someone losing their testimony because of something they read, usually on the internet. This suggests a different view.


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  16. keebslac1234 says:

    This is another marvelous post and discussion to read on a ferociously windy Sunday morning.
    The fearlessness of Lewis’ thinking (and other lights of learning as well) will always be rediscovered. The best thinkers and writers range freely, not avoiding but engaging. The way of Jesus may be a narrow way, but it beckons from all corners.


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