C.S. Lewis’ Christmas Sermon for Pagans (Friday Feature)

I have spoken often enough of literary Providence: from time to time the book we really need falls from the shelf, lands in our mailbox, or gets handed to us by a friend (or enemy) at the very best time. In archival research, there is also a kind of serendipity at play. In my own life, it was the discovery and publication of an unpublished preface of The Screwtape Letters that opened up new possibilities of reading Lewis’ work. The person who had first published about the Ransom-Screwtape preface in a footnote was Charlie Starr, who has had his own archival adventures. Time and again, the magic of archives leads people to reveal the lost-but-found works of C.S. Lewis.

Serendipity has struck again. While preparing to do research for her PhD at the University of Stirling, Stepanie Derrick discovered two entries in The Strand index referring to C.S. Lewis essays that are not in any of our collections. Although published just after WWII, these articles have been overlooked ever since. You can read about her discovery in a recent Christianity Today article, “Christmas and Cricket: Rediscovering Two Lost C. S. Lewis Articles After 70 Years.”

What was Lewis’ experience with The Strand Magazine?

The most obvious example would be that it was where most Brits first encountered Sherlock Holmes and some of Arthur Conan Doyle’s other stories. Indeed, in a Nov 22nd, 1908 letter, one week before his eleventh birthday, Lewis wrote to his father in anticipation of reading the Strand for a schoolboy bookclub. Later, on Sep 6th, 1933, Lewis and his brother went for a swim and then a walk through Oxford. They landed at the Eastgate Hotel where they languished at tea, reading old volumes of the Strand. Lewis later fictionalizes the moment in the hapless character of Mark Studdock, using his connection to Strand Magazine as a partial recovery of his self:

Mark went into the little hotel and found a kind elderly landlady. He had a hot bath and a capital breakfast, and then went to sleep in a chair before a roaring fire. He did not wake till about four. He reckoned he was only a few miles from St. Anne’s, and decided to have tea before he set out. He had tea. At the landlady’s suggestion he had a boiled egg with his tea. Two shelves in the little sitting-room were filled with bound volumes of The Strand. In one of these he found a serial children’s story which he had begun to read as a child, but abandoned because his tenth birthday came when he was half way through it and he was ashamed to read it after that. Now, he chased it from volume to volume till he had finished it. It was good. The grown-up stories to which, after his tenth birthday, he had turned instead of it, now seemed to him, except for Sherlock Holmes, to be rubbish. “I suppose I must get on soon,” he said to himself (That Hideous Strength 17.I).

The Strand for Lewis was nostalgic, perhaps, but also symbolic of something lost and recovered in his own childlike maturity. Perhaps this is why, just after publishing That Hideous Strength, Lewis agreed to write an article or two for the Strand. Indeed, there are echoes in the “Sermon” of That Hideous Strength, and at least one direct quotation (from ch. 8, section III).

One of these articles–an unusual piece written by “Clive Hamilton,” Lewis’ pen name in his 20s–is not clearly connected to Lewis: I’ll leave that to Dr. Derrick and others to discuss. But the Christmas piece of 1946 is most definitely a Lewisian discovery–not least for the upsidedown nature of the essay.

Knowing that he is supposed to be simply writing a Christmas sermon for post-Christians–pagan England after the collapse of Christianity–Lewis takes time to set the words “pagan” and “heathen” in context. Though beginning as words for backward countryfolk, people on the heath and in the pagus (village), “pagan” really became a term for “pre-Christian.” To assume that post-Christian England will be like pre-Christian England, Lewis argues, is to assume that the experience of a widow is like that of a young woman before her wedding day, or that an unbuilt field and a ruined street are the same things.

by C.S. LewisLewis then takes time to think about the difference between what a pre-Christian pagan was and what a post-Christian person might be like. The difference isn’t just disenchantment, the Western experience of losing that sense of the universe being alive. Real pagans, Lewis argues, had a clear morality of right and wrong, a true sense that what we do matters, and a fully integrated life in the natural world. By contrast, in the contemporary world, whether or not we are post-religious, nature is not a spiritual reality, the universe is a machine ready to hand for exploitation, and there is no ultimate right and wrong–only ideology. When something is wrong, Lewis suggests, the post-Christian Englishperson points to the Government or the education system or to God or whatever as the problem. Rarely is there a sense that we might be at fault.

Besides the dreary worldview of the post-Christian mechanistic universe–compared with the colour of the pagan world, at least–Lewis is concerned about the social and environmental implications of the approach current in his time. In particular, as he argued in The Abolition of Man (1943) and That Hideous Strength (1945), an imperial approach to nature is not merely “Man’s conquest of Nature” but “really Man’s conquest of Man.” Lewis was right that in WWII and the years after, the real question was how some people were going to rule others. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the so-called end of ideology, still that temptation to domination is in us.

Lewis is really focussed in this little article about warfare technology, environmental damage in the name of progress, and social control. Beyond the warning of those things, he suggests that we are going to need a root to morality. In order to say that Nazi ideology is wrong, we need to compare it to something which is the right. He leaves open for the post-Christian world where they might find that root of truth that stands up against great evil.

Well, not totally open. In his characteristic way, Lewis turns everything on its head. Derrick includes this intriguing moment in her CT article:

“It looks to me, neighbours, as though we shall have to set about becoming true Pagans if only as a preliminary to becoming Christians. … For (in a sense) all that Christianity adds to Paganism is the cure. It confirms the old belief that in this universe we are up against Living Power: that there is a real Right and that we have failed to obey it: that existence is beautiful and terrifying. It adds a wonder of which Paganism had not distinctly heard—that the Mighty One has come down to help us, to remove our guilt, to reconcile us.”

Thinking of post-Christians and those Christians who have no knowledge of the pagan world, I can’t think of anything more horrifying at Christmas than this sermon (except children’s Christmas concerts, which I think are universally horrifying). In many ways, it isn’t very Christmasy, but it isn’t anything like his Christmas curmudgeon essays I’ve talked about before.

In the CT article, Derrick describes her find in terms I can resonate with: “The thrill of discovery has brought home a few points (of encouragement) in a time when it sometimes seems as though all the stones have been overturned.” I am convinced not all stones have been turned, that there are still discoveries to be had. More than the great moments–and this neat discovery is small compared with the work of Derrick’s research project as a whole–working in the archives brings a thousand additions, clarifications, and little points of interest to any curious reader. Archive research is like the sand settling between the stones in a jar, filling in the unknown empty spaces of our research for a fuller knowledge of what we study.

I would encourage you to read the CT article, and watch for the publication of the full article in SEVEN this coming year. The transcription and introductory essay are provided by Chris Marsh and Joel Heck (this is the Joel Heck who provides the service of “Chronologically Lewis,” important editorial work, and a number of free features on his website).

I am particularly interested in Stephanie Derrick’s forthcoming The Fame of C. S. Lewis: A Controversialist’s Reception in Britain and America. I am curious how her work fits with other books about C.S. Lewis’ impact, including:

  • Samuel Joeckel, The C.S. Lewis Phenomenon: Christianity and the Public Sphere (2013)
  • George Marsden, C.S. Lewis’s “Mere Christianity”: A Biography (2016)
  • Alan Snyder, America Discovers C. S. Lewis: His Profound Impact (2016)

The cover of The Strand with C.S. Lewis and Laurence Olivier reminds me of one of my favourite Christmas movies, A Christmas Story (or the Ralphie movie, as we call it).

 

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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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18 Responses to C.S. Lewis’ Christmas Sermon for Pagans (Friday Feature)

  1. nancyleek says:

    That cover has to be by Edward Ardizzone.

    Liked by 2 people

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Lovely – thanks! I’m sure you are right! Here, too, not The Strand as I tend to think of it (like the 1911 Holmes cover). I think the only book illustrated by him listed in his Wikipedia article which I’ve read is the delightful Stig of the Dump (Puffin, 1963 and reprints), yet his style seems more familiar than that alone would make it…

      Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks Nancy. Your post allowed me to follow the internet thread of an artist I never knew about.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Ardizzone’s artwork takes me back to my childhood via the happiest of routes. If the copies of the Strand Magazine that Mark Studdock read included some of his work that would have done him much good.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    This is great – many thanks!

    I remembered Holmes (and maybe semi-misremembered, too) from that passage about Mark’s reading, but not the “serial children’s story which he had begun to read as a child, but abandoned because his tenth birthday came when he was half way through it”! My bet is one of E. Nesbit’s… Can this perhaps tell us any interesting little things about Mark’s age and the novel’s (post-war) setting?

    I was not aware of how long and actively The Strand went on until I read in Elizabeth Goudge’s autobiography of her contributing to it, and of which of Agatha Christie’s stories were first published there in the 1930s, and heard this rather sarcastic little reminiscence:

    For an aid to an experience like Mark’s of when “he chased it from volume to volume till he had finished it”, I recommend:

    https://archive.org/details/TheStrandMagazineAnIllustratedMonthly

    Like

  3. Pingback: A New C.S. Lewis Christmas Gift « Mere Inkling

  4. Hannah says:

    Thanks for this! The origin of the word ‘Pagan’ is very interesting, also the descriptions of “the difference between what a pre-Christian pagan was and what a post-Christian person might be like ….. the dreary worldview of the post-Christian mechanistic universe–compared with the colour of the pagan world”. They remind me of Lewis’s comparison in “The Discarded Image” of the medieval worldview with a stage: the audience in the dark looking into very colourful and lively scenes full of music on the stage, while in a (post-)modern worldviews we look into a dark, silent, impersonal and cold universe.
    Right now I am reading “Do not say we have nothing” by Madeleine Thien for my English reading club. It is on three generations of several Chinese families (ca 1947-2016), and I suddenly wondered (very unscholarly) if there might be some comparison between rationalistic modern science and communism, in their effect/influence on rich, colourful worldviews.

    Liked by 1 person

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      “I suddenly wondered (very unscholarly) if there might be some comparison between rationalistic modern science and communism, in their effect/influence on rich, colourful worldviews.”

      I think you are right, there! I’m not sure how early the characterization ‘scientific materialism’ was coined, but…

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Christopher Marsh says:

    As the person who “independently discovered” A Christmas Sermon for Pagans (around December 2014) I read Stephanie Derrick’s, “Christmas and Cricket” with great interest. I had no prior knowledge of her discovery of the article and it came as a great surprise when I read “Christmas & Cricket” ahead of our forthcoming publication in the journal SEVEN in 2018 and I am very grateful for their interest in the project. I am also grateful to The C. S. Lewis Company for granting permission to republish. Joel Heck and I have written a small introductory article to accompany “A Christmas Sermon for Pagans.”

    Like

  6. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Funny, hours after following your link to Stephanie Derrick’s article, in which she writes, “The second article [“Cricketer’s Progress”] offered joy of a different kind: a puzzle. Was it, in fact, by Lewis?” – and concludes “There were several indications that it was” – to run into an edited extract from a talk delivered at the Ministry of Sport Con­ference by the Rt Revd Philip North, the Bishop of Burnley, in the Church Times, which begins, “Why was there no revolution in 18th- and 19th-century England when almost everyone else was having one? The sports historian Tony Collins believes that the answer was: cricket”!

    The whole talk (which I have not yet read, much less pondered critically) is here:

    https://www.blackburn.anglican.org/storage/general-files/shares/Resources/Tlaks%20articles%20and%20sermons/Christians_in_sport_keynote.pdf

    If we had/when we get to see “Cricketer’s Progress”, it would be interesting to read both critically and compare approaches…

    Meanwhile, I am left wondering (again) if Lewis and other of the Inklings knew Johan Huizinga’s magnificent (and, I think, very ‘Inklings-compatible’, to put it sweepingly!) study, Homo Ludens.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. And I wish you a very merry Christmas, Brenton, and I will read the original piece. I loved the intimate detail of the boiled egg suggested to Mark Studdock by the kindly landlady. Everything about his character says that good wholesome food and drink was just the kind of thing that the poor man was in need of. The landlady was clearly a woman of profound spiritual insight but, sadly, not the kind of insight that seems to be valued enough.

    Liked by 1 person

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