Friday, October 10, 2014

C. S. Lewis, Myth, and Postmodernism

I'm trying something a little different today. I found a paper I wrote in grad school on C. S. Lewis and Postmodernism and decided to try to edit it down and break it up into a few posts here on the blog. So bear with me and leave me a comment to let me know what you think!

     C. S. Lewis remains one of the most prolific writers in the Western world, with most of his works still in print though he died in 1963. His writings, spanning most genres, have been read by scholars and children, Christians and atheists. But how does he fit in with a postmodern culture? Are the writings of C. S. Lewis still relevant in a postmodern age?

     Born in 1898, C. S. Lewis did most of his writing at the end of the modern age and the beginning of the postmodern age. As such, his arguments, at times, seem to be with different issues in modernism. However, the line that divides the modern period from the postmodern period is not a solid one. It would be tempting to assume that C. S. Lewis would be anti-postmodern because of his Christian worldview. And when it comes to contemporary critical literary theory, C. S. Lewis tends to be overlooked, which is unfortunate. Despite not coming into direct contact with Lewis in my study of literary theory at the graduate level, I heard echoes of him in Levi-Strauss and Derrida.

The first major echo I heard was in the importance of myth espoused by Levi-Strauss. Like Lewis, he believed there were deep meanings to be discovered in myths. He wanted to show: “not how men think in myths, but how myths operate in men's minds without their being aware of it" (Levi-Strauss 20). C. S. Lewis certainly understood the power of myth. In fact, he credits the power of myth as playing a significant role in his conversion to Christianity. In his autobiography he describes the way his imagination was baptized, years before his actual conversion, by reading George MacDonald’s book, Phantastes (Surprised 181). Several years later he wrote to his friend, Arthur Greeves about the understanding he came to after a conversation with friends and colleagues, J. R. R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson:

Now what Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: … if I met the idea of a god sacrificing himself to himself … I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it: … that the idea of the dying and reviving god (Balder, Adonis, Bacchus) similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels. The reason was that in Pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even tho’ I could not say in cold prose ‘what it meant’." (Letters 976)

Lewis continued in his letter to explain that the story of Christ is simply a true myth that works on its audience in the same way as the other myths with the monumental difference that it really happened. Therefore, the story of Christ needed to be accepted in the same way, “remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths: i.e. the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things’” (Letters 977). Lewis claimed it to be true, not as a description of God that no finite mind could take in, but in the being the way God chooses to appear to our faculties. He is quick to warn that “the ‘doctrines’ we get out of the true myth are of course less true: they are translations into our concepts and ideas of that wh. God has already expressed in a language more adequate, namely the actual incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection” (Letters 977).

Lewis emphasized the importance of understanding the connection between “myth” and the historical fact of the incarnation in his essay entitled “Myth Became Fact”:

"Now as myth transcends thought, Incarnation transcends myth. The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens – at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified … under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle.(66-67)
     In an essay titled “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to Be Said,” Lewis articulates the reason he used the power of myth in The Chronicles of Narnia: “I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralysed much of my own religion in childhood” (47). Lewis questioned why it was so hard to feel the way one was told he ought to feel about God and the sufferings of Christ and came to the conclusion that the main reason was because one was told one ought to. He knew from experience that “an obligation to feel can freeze feelings and reverence itself did harm” (47). But suppose that “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” (47). Consequently, all of C. S. Lewis’s fiction is deeply imbued with the Christian story; Louis Markos describes the Chronicles of Narnia, the space trilogy, and Till We Have Faces as “three monumental attempts at an incarnational fiction” (134). In all three “meaning is slippery and polysemous, as it is for the deconstructionist, but it is nevertheless grounded in a Transcendental Signified who is the ultimate author of all the dramas” (135).

Works Cited
Lévi-Strauss, Claude. “Overture” Mythologiques. (1964-71)
Lewis, C. S. The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis Volume I, Family Letters 1905-1931. Ed. by Walter Hooper. HarperSanFrancisco, 2004.
---. “Myth Became Fact.” God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics. Ed. by Walter Hooper. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1970. 63-67.
---. On Stories. New York: Harcourt, 1982.
---. Surprised by Joy. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1955.
Markos, Louis. Lewis Agonistes: How C. S. Lewis Can Train Us To Wrestle with the Modern and Post Modern World. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2003.

In response to the 31 Day blogging challenge, I will be posting every day in October. You can read previous posts HERE. Follow me on Facebook and/or Twitter to be notified of new posts. You can also Subscribe to get posts sent to you by email. (There is a simple form towards the top on the right where you can do this.)

Feel free to comment with your own thoughts and questions!

Index of Posts:
Day 1: 31 Days of C. S. Lewis (Introduction)
Day 2. C. S. Lewis on Longing (In "The Weight of Glory")
Day 3. C. S. Lewis on Sehnsucht (Longing and Desire in The Weight of Glory)
Day 4. C. S. Lewis Audio Recordings
Day 5: C. S. Lewis Online Resources
Day 6: C. S. Lewis: The Intolerable Compliment (The Problem of Pain)
Day 7: C. S. Lewis: What is "The Weight of Glory"?
Day 8: C. S. Lewis: The Great Divorce and The Weight of Glory
Day 9: C. S. Lewis: A Grief Observed
Day 10: C. S. Lewis, Myth, and Postmodernism
Day 11: C. S. Lewis, Myth, and Postmodernism (Part 2)
Day 12: C. S. Lewis and Postmodernism (Part 3 - Conclusion)

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