Forthcoming next month* is a film of The Lion,
the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the first of C.S. Lewis’s popular children’s
stories of the land of Narnia. Lewis, of course, was a noted Christian
apologist, and these books are informed by religious allegory that
drives liberals nuts.
So it’s about time for a new attack on the man, and sure enough,
it comes in The New Yorker, where Adam Gopnik, often an interesting
and intelligent writer, belittles Lewis’s work in a way I can
describe only as catty.
Gopnik concedes that the Narnia stories are “classics in the
only sense that matters — books that are read a full generation
after their author has gone” — but he dislikes the author’s
overtly religious books. So he harps on what he chooses to call Lewis’s “religiosity,” with
its overtones of aggressive sanctimony.
In just his first four paragraphs, Gopnik writes of Lewis’s “conservative
religiosity,” his “bullying brand of religiosity,” and
his “narrow-hearted religiosity.” Would someone please
send this man a thesaurus?
I’m not sure how a book can be “bullying,” but I’m
sure the term hardly does justice to Lewis’s gently persuasive
defense of Christianity in The Problem of Pain,
Miracles, Mere Christianity,
and other books. These are classics by Gopnik’s own standard:
they sell millions of copies a full generation after Lewis’s
death on November 22, 1963. If Lewis’s readers felt they were
being “bullied,” why would they read him so eagerly?
It gets worse. Gopnik can’t stand Lewis’s “racism,” finds
him “nasty,” a “prig,” a “very odd kind
of Christian,” and so on. He speaks of his “weird and complicated
sex life” with a “sadomasochistic tinge.” Lewis’s
school days, Gopnik suggests, made him a “warped, morbid, stammering
sexual pervert.” (In liberal discourse, only a heterosexual Christian
can incur the charge of a sexual perversion. Ask Mel Gibson.)
Lewis conceives God as a “dispenser of vacuous bromides,” and
Gopnik assures us that “believing cut Lewis off from writing
well about belief,” for “a belief that needs this much
work to believe in isn’t really a belief but a very strong desire
to believe.” At bottom, Lewis had a “bad conscience” and
an “uncertain personal faith.” The Narnia stories, “in
many ways,” are actually “anti-Christian”; Lewis
didn’t realize this, but Gopnik does.
I’m afraid Gopnik hasn’t read the C.S. Lewis millions
of other readers have treasured. He has missed Lewis’s point — not
a very difficult one, really — about the virtue of faith. Belief
is something you have or don’t have; but faith is an act of will
and fortitude, which is why we speak of “keeping” or “breaking” faith.
A child may know perfectly well that the water is safe and that anyone
can learn to swim, but still allow himself to succumb to fear of the
water when he actually gets into it. The problem isn’t the child’s “beliefs” about
the water; it’s his irrational panic. In the same way, Lewis
explains in Christian Reflections, we may believe intellectually, but
allow our moods and passions to weaken our faith when we are tempted.
When our faith fails, it isn’t usually because of any rational
doubt. Reason isn’t opposed to faith; it’s opposed to the
passions (the word is cognate with passive; we’re truly active
only when we act rationally). In spite of all the clichés equating
intelligence with doubt, the loss of faith doesn’t occur in the
intellect, but in the will. Lewis understood this; but the clever Gopnik
seems not to.
Nor did Lewis present God’s message as “vacuous bromides.” He
saw it as just the opposite: a love so consuming that our natural reaction
to it is shock, almost terror. Lewis specifically rejects bland and
comforting bromides: God is truly our Father, though we might prefer
him to be (I love this image) a kindly “grandfather in heaven,
a senile benevolence who, as they say, ‘liked to see young people
God’s love is fierce, burning, and, like the love of any real
father, troubling; he demands that we love him back with all of our
energy. In truth, God loves us far more than we want to be loved. At
times his love feels to us like hatred and tyranny. No wonder we’re
tempted to hate him.
“Bromides,” eh? For my part, I can say only that in his
quiet way, C.S. Lewis has, like no other writer I’ve ever read,
brought home to me some frightening truths — frightening, yet
also consoling. And in his Narnia tales, he found a way to convey them
to children too.
*Note: this column was originally released in November 2005.
Copyright © 2011 by the Fitzgerald
Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. This column was published originally
by Griffin Internet Syndicate on November 22, 2005.
Joe Sobran was an author and a syndicated columnist. See bio
and archives of some of his columns.
Watch Sobran's last TV appearance on YouTube.
Learn how to get a tape of his last speech
during the FGF Tribute to Joe Sobran in December 2009.
To subscribe to or renew the FGF E-Package, or support the writings of Joe
Sobran, please send a tax-deductible donation to the:
Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation
P.O. Box 1383
or subscribe online.