“We Became to America what the Huns Had Been to Us”: C.S. Lewis and the European Colonization of America

One of C.S. Lewis’ funniest and punchiest books is also his longest. And, arguably, it is his most important work of literary criticism and his greatest academic achievement. The snazzily titled English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, excluding Drama was commissioned for the Oxford History of English Literature series in 1935–just as his groundbreaking The Allegory of Love (1936) was moving toward publication. The 16th-century volume was not published until Sept 16th, 1954–a two-decade-long research and writing process that earned the book its humorous sobriquet, “OHEL” (an acronym of the series title). While I get the sense that Lewis was proud of this literary history published in the middle of the Narnian series, he was certainly glad to be rid of it in the end.

I really think that English Literature in the Sixteenth Century is Lewis’ magnum opus. It intensified Lewis’ value as a literary historian by providing a unique look at the cultural spirit of the 16th century through hundreds of its poets and authors. Lewis is thinking about the ways that technological innovations, intellectual discoveries, economic shifts, religious changes, and community developments were connected with literature in shaping and being shaped by the “imagination” of the sixteenth century–what we might call the “worldview” or “social imaginary.”

He is also quite obviously trying to challenge commonly held assumptions about the 16th-century “Renaissance” (rebirth) that is presumed to have awakened the world from Medieval slumber. Written with ever-present wit and remarkable brevity, OHEL is a literary history so lively and provocative that I enjoy reading it even when I haven’t read all (or even most) of the original sources.

With the recent release of an Audible audiobook edition, what was my beside-the-couch-little-bit-at-a-time reading experience has been transformed. At 25 hours long with a supplemental 80-page PDF chronology and bibliography, OHEL is still a significant commitment. However, hearing the text provides a new dimension for me. With Lewis’ words in my ear, certain quotations strike me with surprise and then lead me back to marginal notations I have made in the past. One of these snappy refound lines concerns Lewis’ observations about European colonization of the Americas.

Admittedly, in a chapter I am editing, I have been trying to capture in just a few words the refreshing view Lewis has in his so-called “native encounter” science fiction of the ’30s and ’40s. On the one hand, Lewis is an embedded personality, someone who has clearly benefited from the global project of European colonization in his at-home experience as an Anglo-Irish intellectual. On the other hand, I am often amazed at the way Lewis keeps turning perspectives upside down in discoveries of the indigenous peoples of Malacandra in Out of the Silent Planet (1938). While Lewis lacks anything like a “postcolonial vocabulary,” his instincts for seeing things in new ways are clearly there.

As Lewis is trying to capture the cultural and literary imagination of the period in his 16th-century literary history, it is no surprise that he turns to epoch-defining discoveries in astronomy and geography. However, Lewis concludes that the poets were seldom invested in the new astronomy, and the great age of discovery–including the European encounter with the Americas–had surprisingly little effect on the literary imagination of the period. As Lewis is being something of an intellectual iconoclast in his introduction–cheekily titled “New Learning and New Ignorance”–we should not be surprised by the surprise. However, there are some ideas that might give us pause within his very brief comments on the colonial project that defined the modern era for much of the world.

In particular, Lewis wants to remind the reader that the so-called “discovery of America” that has been lauded for its political and religious conquest, was in fact defined by its economic and technological failure. Columbus and the others weren’t looking for America as the fulfillment of some great superstitious dream; America was in the way. Like, literally–a geographical obstacle to navigational goals.

Depending on when and where you are born–and perhaps depending on what ideological movement is trying to limit your understanding of history by carving out the bits that make them uncomfortable–you might think of the American colonial project as that half-millennium of discovery and adventure, environmental transformation, meeting of cultures, ill-made and ill-kept treaties of friendship and conquest, blood-baths and intermarriage, linguistic deaths and births, philosophical challenge and diversification, innovations in approaches to medicine and genocide, centuries of slavery and revolution, and the vibrant and diverse nations born on that long north-south barrier to circumglobal navigation to the west–what we now call the continents of North and South America.

Some readers may have heard of some of these nations–like the United States, a global superpower in pop culture and innovation and education, that remarkable social and political experiment of such historical heartbreak and possibility, a place of such dynamically rooted forward-moving energy that (like Canada) is flirting with a temptation to lump its entire being into simple buckets of demonization or valourization, or Twitter-era preaching or four-digit symbologies.

Where he had space for a little perspective, Lewis had no such temptations. He did, though, enjoy the adventure of reading literature to discover the past.

Of the American conquest, it is not only a markedly European failure, but one that left its mark on the people that were there. In OHEL, Lewis speaks of the European exploitation of the land. And when the easiest mineral wealth had been depleted, late-comers like the English “had to content themselves with colonization.” This colonization was not, in Lewis’ view, a grand design of societal extension and transformation, but was

“conceived chiefly as a social sewerage system, a vent for ‘needy people who now trouble the commonwealth’ and are ‘daily consumed with the gallows’” (15).

English colonization of America as, initially, social engineering for the effective disposal of human waste?

Lewis argues that those of us who know the massive religious, political, educational, environmental, cultural, and philosophical development of America are apt to misread the cultural moment that birthed those changes. Missionary zeal and political creativity and cultural genocide were not the aim, but the effect. European consciences would need time, Lewis argued, before

“the untroubled nineteenth-century acquiescence in imperialism” (16).

Has your conscience acquiesced to (yielded to, tacitly agreed with) the doctrine of European (and later, American or ideological) imperialism?

Rather than a project of global good, the goal was the development of European wealth. Lewis reminds the reader that, allegorically speaking,

“the great explorer, the true discoverer of all these new lands, was Avarice” (De Sphaera, I. 182 et seq.).

Greed was the energy behind navigational innovation and colonial development. Rather than revel in imperialist identities, Lewis argued that

“The best European minds were ashamed of Europe’s exploits in America. Montaigne passionately asks why so noble a discovery could not have fallen to the Ancients who might have spread civility where we have spread only corruption” (Essais, III. vi). (16)

Lewis described this corruption as

“a period during which we became to America what the Huns had been to us” (15).

While the 16th-century poets did not commonly use the global conquest as part of their diction of description, there is one area of the European literary imagination that was touched by the age of discovery. While Europeans had long-held philosophical, biological, literary, and religious models of “Wild Men,” “Natural Man,” and “the Savage,” the colonial project enhanced poetic imaginations of indigenous peoples. Characteristically, Lewis was able to see in these European caricatures two clear and opposing camps: the aboriginal person as “as ideally innocent” or as “brutal” and “subhuman.” Lewis calls these the two “great myths” of the popular modern imagination that continued into his own age.

Lewis will move on fairly quickly to tear down his generation’s mental icons of “Puritans” and “Humanists”–and, indeed, wants to deny that there is really such thing as “the Renaissance,” even as he takes up his chair in Medieval and Renaissance Literature in the months after OHEL is released. You can see my evolving discussion on that topic here, but this line captures Lewis’ attitude toward “Renaissance” studies:

“Before they had ceased talking of a rebirth it became evident that they had really built a tomb” (21)

Chief Junior Gould of Abegweit First Nation joins the drum group Mi’kmaq Thunder for the singing of the Honour Song, June 2022 (phto by Jane Robertson/CBC)

Because I think Lewis provides a fresh view of our shared colonial history, I have included the entire section on Lewis and the Americas (the full text from pp. 14-21, which some changes in paragraphing). Lewis can’t see everything from his Oxbridge chair in the ’30s to ’50s. We will see things differently, for here we live, or most of us do, within these latter days of Europe’s Hun-like conquest. I am writing this post within a short canoe ride of ancient Mi’kmaq summer camps–a place of stunning beauty that was developed into a Canadian national park once the indigenous people had been successfully removed. Here we are. Here I am.

Limited as he was, though, Lewis’ iconoclastic subtlety can be a resource for those of us who are open to the conversation. A nation’s identity, past or present, cannot be reduced to paint-by-number histories and live-action tweets. As Lewis says in “On the Reading of Old Books” (and books like The Discarded Image) by reading authors from other times and places (like Lewis is to us), we are able “to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds.” This clarification of our mental map may expose some of the cultural errors of our social moment that might otherwise be obscure.

At the very least, Lewis can help us see how our poetic and political imaginations weave themselves together into society-shaping myths. We all have “New Learning” as well as “New Ignorance” in our paths to understanding who we are.

The new geography excited much more interest than the new astronomy, especially, as was natural, among merchants and politicians: but the literary texts suggest that it did not stimulate the imagination so much as we might have expected. The aim of the explorers was mercantile: to cut out the Turk and the Venetian by finding a direct route to the east. In this the Portuguese had succeeded by circumnavigating Africa and crossing the Indian Ocean; Vasco da Gama reached Malabar in 1498. Columbus, a man of lofty mind, with missionary and scientific interests, had the original idea of acting on the age-old doctrine of the earth’s rotundity and sailing west to find the east. Lands which no one had dreamed of barred his way.

Though we all know, we often forget, that the existence of America was one of the greatest disappointments in the history of Europe. Plans laid and hardships borne in the hope of reaching Cathay, merely ushered in a period during which we became to America what the Huns had been to us. Foiled of Cathay, the Spaniards fell back on exploiting the mineral wealth of the new continent. The English, coming later and denied even this, had to content themselves with colonization, which they conceived chiefly as a social sewerage system, a vent for ‘needy people who now trouble the commonwealth’ and are ‘daily consumed with the gallows’ (Humphrey Gilbert’s Discourse, cap. 10).

Of course the dream of Cathay died hard. We hoped that each new stretch of the American coast was the shore of one more island and that each new bay was the mouth of the channel that led through into the Pacific or South Sea’. In comparison with that perpetually disappointed hope the delectable things we really found seemed unimportant. In Virginia there was

‘shole water wher we smelt so sweet and so strong a smell as if we had beene in the midst of some delicate garden’; a land ‘so full of grapes as the very beating and surge of the sea ouerflowed them’; a king ‘very iust of his promise’; a people ‘as manerly and ciuill as any of Europe’, most ‘gentle, louing and faithfull, voide of all guile and treason’, living ‘after the maner of the golden age’.

But that was all rather beside the point; nothing but ‘a good Mine or a passage to the South Sea’ could ever ‘bring this Countrey in request to be inhabited by our nation’ (Hakluyt, vii, 298-331).

Hence the desperate attempts of Pert (1517), Hore (1536), Willoughby (1553), and Frobisher (1576-8) to find either a North-West or a North-East passage. Judged in the light of later events the history of English exploration in the sixteenth century may appear to modern Americans and modern Englishmen a very Aeneid: but judged by the aims and wishes of its own time it was on the whole a record of failures and second bests. Nor was the failure relieved by any high ideal motives. Missionary designs are sometimes paraded in the prospectus of a new venture: but the actual record of early Protestantism in this field seems to be ‘blank as death’ [Tennyson?].

The poetic charm with which these voyages appear in the pages of Charles Kingsley or Professor Raleigh is partly conditioned by later romanticism and later imperialism. Wild Nature – plains without palaces and rivers without nymphs – made little appeal to men who valued travel almost wholly as a means of coming, like Ulysses, to know the cities and manners of men.

And the best European consciences had still to undergo a long training before they reached the untroubled nineteenth-century acquiescence in imperialism. Go back even as far as Burke or Johnson and you will find a very different view: ‘in the same year, in a year hitherto disastrous to mankind’, America and the sea-passage to India were discovered (Taxation No Tyranny). Go back farther, to Buchanan (1506-82), and you read that the great explorer, the true discoverer of all these new lands, was Avarice (De Sphaera, I. 182 et seq.). The best European minds were ashamed of Europe’s exploits in America. Montaigne passionately asks why so noble a discovery could not have fallen to the Ancients who might have spread civility where we have spread only corruption (Essais, III. vi). Even on the utilitarian level the benefits of the whole thing were not always obvious to home-dwellers. Our merchants, observes William Harrison in 1577, now go to Cathay, Muscovy, and Tartary,

‘whence, as they saie, they bring home great commodities. But alas I see not by all their trauell that the prices are anie whit abated … in time past when the strange bottoms were suffered to come in we had sugar for fourpence the pound that now is worth half a crowne’ (Description of England, ii. v).

We must not therefore be surprised if the wonder and glory of exploration, though sometimes expressed by Hakluyt and the voyagers themselves, was seldom the theme of imaginative writers. Something of it is felt in the Utopia [by Thomas More], and there are casual references in Spenser, Shakespeare, Donne, and others. As the great age of the voyages receded it was perhaps more valued. I think Drayton cared more about it than Shakespeare, and Milton more than Drayton. In the sixteenth century imagination still turns more readily to ancient Greece and Rome, to Italy, Arcadia, to English history or legend. Lodge writing a romance about Arden while he sails to the Azores is typical.

There is, however, one respect in which America may have affected not only imaginative but even philosophical thought. If it did not create, it impressed on our minds more strongly, the image of the Savage, or Natural Man. A place had, of course, been prepared for him. Christians had depicted the naked Adam, Stoics, the state of Nature, poets, the reign of Saturn. But in America it might seem that you could catch glimpses of some such thing actually going on.

The ‘Natural Man’ is, of course, an ambivalent image. He may be conceived as ideally innocent. From that conception descend Montaigne’s essay on cannibals, Gonzalo’s commonwealth in the Tempest, the good ‘Salvage’ in the Faerie Queene (vi. iv, v, vi), Pope’s ‘reign of God’, and the primeval classless society of the Marxists. It is one of the great myths. On the other hand, he might be conceived as brutal, sub-human: thence Caliban, the bad ‘Salvages’ of the Faerie Queene (vi. viii), the state of nature as pictured by Hobbes, and the Cave Man’ of popular modern imagination. That is another great myth. The very overtones which the word ‘primitive’ now has for most speakers (it had quite different ones in the sixteenth century) are evidence of its potency; though other causes, such as evolutionary biology, have here contributed.

If the new astronomy and the new geography did not seem at the time quite so important as we should have expected, the same cannot be said of either humanism or puritanism, and to these I now turn. But I must immediately guard against a possible misunderstanding. Both words have so changed their sense that puritan now means little more than ‘rigorist’ or ‘ascetic’ and humanist little more than ‘the opposite of puritan’. The more completely we can banish these modern senses from our minds while studying the sixteenth century the better we shall understand it….

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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16 Responses to “We Became to America what the Huns Had Been to Us”: C.S. Lewis and the European Colonization of America

  1. An interesting dissertation, I shall have to read Lewis’s book. It is one I have put at the bottom of my long reading list, but it appears that it needs to be moved up.


    • Well, I can see why it’s at the bottom of most reading lists! Terribly titled, super long, and of the top 200 authors, most of us haven’t read 180 of them.
      However, in terms of book content, the 20 authors we know make up most of the work. The essays are crisp and funny. Although there are certain essays that work better read in a tight period (the Intro, the Spenser/Sidney essay, etc.), it is a book you can read 10-20 minutes a day over a few months.
      Ideally, I would read it with the authors. So I come to one paragraph on some Scottish poet I don’t know. I stop, read all I can find or can handle of the poet, then read Lewis’ paragraph/mini essay. That would be the 40-year plan for reading OHEL!


  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Wow, an audiobook: I had no idea! Lewis’s advice of testing writing against the ear – drafts read aloud – must be interestingly ‘put to the test’ of many other ears, here! I hope to reread this section when I get the chance – I just started the late Landeg White’s translation of Luís Vaz de Camões’s Os Lusíadas, to see if it is an apt book to read while travelling, and his Introduction seems fascinating to juxtapose with what you write of Lewis’s account here – a ‘dialogue’ worth pursuing.


    • An audiobook! Only came out a week ago or so (in the US, Canada too). I’m more than halfway through. It is great fun, really–so different than what I have been reading on my desktop (for teaching), my bedside table, or other audiobooks (also teaching prep, but some research too).
      I have been reading bits of OHEL over the last few years, but my last full read was 2015, and it took 20 months! So this is new for me: racing through, just enjoying it.
      “A dialogue worth pursuing” is kind of grand.


  3. danaames says:

    Lewis was so astute. Unfortunately, a lot of Christians only value his acuity in “spiritual” matters, and never get around to reading his literary criticism – which is just as spiritual. I’ve been one of those guilty parties. Those other books are definitely on my “to read” list. Does Lewis make any comments about the aftermath of the Dissolution of the monasteries?


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    • I think you nailed it here, Dana. Lewis’ “acuity in spiritual matters” is captured as well in his lit crit/history (and poetry) as it is in his storytelling and apologetics.
      Hence my book (which you have read). I’m trying to get Lewis readers (often in the American religious context) past thinking of Lewis in the “from Atheist to Apologist” category, and help us see him in a much bigger way with deeper transformational possibilities. However, I suspect that religious and non-religious readers of Lewis who already have a temptation to turn to his literary and academic work will read my book, but those who are tempted to cherry-pick the apologetics bits will just go on doing that. ‘Tis the way of things.
      On the monasteries, only briefly through other peoples’ lenses. Here’s an example of Lewis presenting the dissolution in a negative light (not balanced at all), but (falsely) presenting himself nodestly as “merely a literary historian” and thus without a dog in the fight:
      “Thomas Cooper in his Admonition (also 1589) says that ‘an infinit number of Epicures and Atheistes’ share the puritans’ hatred for bishops because bishops ‘staye from them that spoyle and praye which now for a fewe yeeres with great hope they haue gaped after’. The charge is not unplausible. No one had forgotten how profitable the spoliation of the monasteries had been to some eminent laymen: if the revenues of the bishops were similarly taken from them, might there not be similar pickings? Of course such a charge was certain to be made whether it was true or not; but then the very reason why it was certain to be made was that it has some probability. Fortunately a literary historian need come to no conclusion on such a point.”

      If you can forgive the length of this note (which I should just turn into a blog post!), this passage on the rape of the monasteries shows Lewis being funny, slighting, praising, and doing both a literary and intellectual assessment (here, economics and social justice) that we didn’t know he knew much about–all on a figure we don’t know, Henry Brinklowe
      The Lamentation is mainly moral and theological, the Complaint economic and political as well. It records the disappointment of an ardent Lutheran who had approved (and still approves) the dissolution of the monasteries on doctrinal grounds, but is shocked by its actual results. The new owners are even worse landlords and worse patrons than the abbeys; and ‘this is a fayre amendment … it is amendid euen as the deuel amended his damys legg’. The great merit of this piece is that Brinkelow goes beyond the common medieval appeal for perfect moral virtue in all ‘estates’ and shows us economic (286) necessities. Rising rents must produce a rise in prices, and a rise in the price of wool must lose us our foreign markets, ‘make what actes ye can deuyse to the contrary’. All this is done in a prose which has not perhaps been sufficiently praised. It goes about as far towards excellence as a merely natural style can go when the author is neither a humorist nor a poet, and is far less confused and monotonous than such styles usually are. It has even its own untaught eloquence:
      Death, death, euyn for tryfyls, so that thei folow the High Prystys in crucifyeing Christ, saying nos habemus legem and secundum legem nostram debet mori, we haue a lawe and by our lawe he ought to dye. This mori, mori, dye, dye, went neuer owt of the pristes mowthes syns that tyme, and now thei haue poysonyd the temporal rulars with the same.
      Brinkelow’s style, intelligence, and honest passion deserve more attention than they usually receive.”

      Lewis’ greatest warning about the Spoilation of the Monasteries is that the colleges could have gone the same way:
      “It is not always remembered that the bishoprics probably, and the colleges certainly, came near to sharing the fate of the monasteries. For the colleges, as Harrison says (Description, II. iii), ‘greedie gripers did gape wide’. Brinkelow ought to have learned his lesson from the fate of the monastic lands: in his simplicity he had really believed that government would spend its booty on ‘social services’, and had been bitterly disappointed by the event. But experience beats in vain upon a congenital progressive. He urged the spoliation of the colleges in the firm hope that this time – that mystical ‘this time’ which is always going to be so different – government, having sucked in, would give out.”
      Imagine no Cambridge or Oxford and all the rest, but the slow rebuilding of higher education from the seminary/manor house drawing room up?

      I do think I will make this a blog post. Is that okay Dana? I spend quite a while on this and I think it is cool and interesting for the 20 people that will stop by to see it! (but who won’t necessarily see this note)


      • danaames says:

        Fine with me – I get that it may have limited readership 🙂

        As a “not particularly high or particularly low church” Anglican who was sensitive to history and the Roman Catholic faith of his friends – e.g. Tolkien – I’m not surprised Lewis had an overall negative view of the Dissolution. I hadn’t associated that with the Colleges (there is Lewis’ acuity again). The whole thing was all of a piece, indeed.

        The Dissolution was, in fact, a very negative move, driven much more by economics than by doctrine. The monasteries also employed people in their communities to help with the labor involved, especially in the wool trade. Shutting down the monasteries deprived a lot of people of a livelihood, and merely shifted the wealth “higher up the ladder ” to the already wealthy. And culturally it was a disaster – the amount of art that was defaced is also criminal; compare the interiors of the few churches that survived the Dissolution (and Cromwell) with those that didn’t. Finally, you can cease to believe in the efficacy of the prayers of the Saints without desecrating their tombs and scattering their remains; “civilized” people don’t do that. The whole iconoclastic stance of the Reformation/Puritan experience in England had some unforeseen consequences that left the common people, especially, worse off in general than they were prior to it. (Yes, I have a bias, but it’s not only my own…)

        Thanks for such a detailed reply, Brenton.



        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          I haven’t tried to see what, if anything, Lewis says about Charles Williams’s Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury, but Williams’s treatment of those profiting from the Dissolution rewards attention. (The play is transcribed at fadedpage)

          The page before Brenton’s last quotation is also good to read, about “the Dissolution” – in the Introduction: the third index entry for Harrison should help find it quickly. (Incidentally, it is interesting to compare his observations here about “processes […] going on before the Reformation, or the century, began” with those in very different circumstances treated in detail by Francis Ludwig Carsten in The Origins of Prussia published by the OUP in the same year.) This is followed in a few pages by attention to “education”, where “The exclusion of the poor was beginning.”

          More generally, earlier in the Introduction, Lewis has an intriguing attempt to consider Powicke’s suggestion of “general acquiescence” and the experience of “a sixteenth-century man who had lived through all these changes”, the “common man” in particular. (The first index entry for Powicke should find this quickly – at least in both the original hardback and the 1973 paperback: I don’t know the subsequent textual history.)

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        • Thanks Dana. “Iconoclasm” is used now pretty widely as a metaphor, I suppose as a substitute for monstrous words like “Presumptive Culture-oclasm” or “Anti-Sacred Cowism” or “Echo Chamber Disruption” or “Strident Gadlyism” a dozen other ideas. I like it, usually–and Lewis’ (and others’) idea that “God is the great iconoclast” is quite nice.
          However, I remember sitting in history class when it dawned on me that the Luddites were not just anxious about technology, but moved to destroy things, and that some of the Wittenburgers and Zwingliites destroyed meaningful religious art and art-spaces (and some artists and icon-protectors)… well, I was quite disturbed. I felt the same about some (but by no means all) of the Islamic conquests–early ones, and then that more recent destruction of ancient Afghan Buddhist statues. I am a “reformer” in many senses, and iconoclastic in many ways, and not terribly drawn to images as part of worship or veneration. Yet this kind of thing disgusts me.
          Your picture of the economically-driven rape of the Monasteries is similar to that given by Margaret George’s Autobiography of Henry VIII.


          • danaames says:

            Ah Brenton, another case of language and interpretation… I was not using the word metaphorically, but in its original historical sense, referring to the anti-image movement in the Christian East over the 8th century, and to bring that sense to the destruction of Catholic religious objects and art in England in the 15th (see The Stripping of the Altars). In the back of my mind I was also thinking about the persecution and destruction of human beings – made in the image of God – by all parties Catholic and Reformed. And it’s more complicated with the Luddites; as far as I know, all they destroyed was the Machine-ry that was taking away their means of livelihood – and dignity – and throwing them into poverty. Economics again, not just vague psychological anxiety. Paul Kingsnorth’s writing on his Substack page has helped educate me on the Luddites, and on the Enclosure Laws.

            I’m as happy as the next person to barbecue a sacred cow, and I think that’s closer to what Lewis had in mind with his more metaphorical usage of the term with regard to God. Jesus upended a lot of “sacred cow” kind of thought. But Lewis spent his intellectual life in a time when people did not live much at all “in their heads”, as we have tended to do after the Enlightenment; I’m sure he recognized, from what I gather from his writing, and especially what I understand The Discarded Image has to say (another of his works I have yet to read in full, alas), that the Medieval world was much more numinous in its physicality, including the materiality of Christian images and holy objects. There was “more to it” than we experience nowadays, living in a much more conceptual culture. I can’t remember if you’ve ever been to an Orthodox service of any kind. I remember reading, though, that when Jack and Joy went to Greece, he was quite taken with the Orthodox Liturgy. My guess is that he could see some commonalities with the numinousness. (Is that a word?)

            I get where you’re coming from as an “image-less in worship” kind of Christian; I used to be there. We may have to agree to disagree on this, but remember that the iconodules were always making a theological point: Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, and if he’s not both God and man then we are not saved, period. The iconoclasts were driven, at least at first, by fear that God wasn’t blessing the battles and conquests of Constantinople as an Empire against the Muslims; maybe that was because the Muslims were right about not worshiping with images?… As you recognized in your history class, it’s all too easy to blow up statues and otherwise destroy the beauty of cultures. Building cultures which support that beauty takes many years, even centuries. We humans forget that in our frenzy to be… what?


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            • Thanks for this great response, Dana. I particularly like your Discarded Image conversation, and how you put it in terms of the numinous. It’s the right way of framing it.
              I’m not terribly image-driven in worship, but I am not image-less–and certainly not iconoclastic (in the technical sense). I am more like an amateur who appreciates that there is more beyond my imagination. Thinking of a wedding dance, I detest having to get up and dance. But I think a whole floor of dancers is a beautiful thing to see. When I sneak away and attend more image-full worship services, I can understand intellectually what others experience in a rich image-full space.
              And if it is important, it is theological.


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  5. bookwarmgames says:

    Sorry I can’t comment helpfully on the thread here about churches and monasteries. But I did want to throw in another data point for anyone interested in Lewis and America and such. It’s in his essay On Stories, which I was just reading for Foundations at Signum, but it gets called out in other places by Philip Pullman as a point of agreement, so it’s always more or less top of mind for me 🙂 Lewis says in para 2 “What finally convinced me of this distinction [ie, between ‘Story’ and ‘plot’] was a conversation which I had a few years ago with an intelligent American pupil.” In that paragraph, he highlights (in place of a dated term I’ll pass over) “Hiawatha names” as part of his delight in stories. That’s the phrase that sticks with Pullman. The essay touches on a lot of interesting points and closes on a note of sehnsucht, so though much shorter, it makes a good counterpart to Tolkien’s On Fairy-stories. And I suspect it’s much higher on the general reading list power rankings than his 16C tome, so I just thought it was worth mentioning here!

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