Meet C.S. Lewis, pedantic horndog

AdamGopnikEarlier this week, Daniel touched on some newspapers’ breathless “C.S. Lewis had premarital sex” exposes. Some of the comments on his post have mentioned the critique of Lewis in the Nov. 21 New Yorker.

Adam Gopnik’s essay offers the depth of detail readers would expect from The New Yorker, but dwells at tiresome length on Lewis’ sex life. In describing Lewis’ relationships with Janie King Moore and Joy Davidman, Gopnik leaves the impression that they were both married women still living with their husbands when they took to bed with Lewis. (We know that Davidman did. Contrary to Gopnik, we cannot be certain that Lewis and Moore “had a long affair.”)

Gopnik (pictured) does not mention that Lewis was fulfilling a promise to a World War I buddy to look after his widowed mother. (Whether Lewis and Moore ever engaged in a bit of the old non-marital rumpy pumpy is, as some comments on Daniel’s post indicate, not of great interest to Lewis admirers who understand that Lewis did many things before his conversion that he would not have done after it.)

Joy Davidman, in turn, was separated from her husband when she met Lewis, and Lewis left no impression that he was, in Gopnik’s words, “seduced by a married woman” by the time they were wed in a civil ceremony.

But enough about sex, as some of us are at least descended from the British.

Besides, Gopnik also is annoyed by Lewis’s brand of Christian faith. Gopnik depicts Lewis as a victim of that infamous Catholic soul-stalker, J.R.R. Tolkien:

It was through the intervention of the secretive and personally troubled Tolkien, however, that Lewis finally made the turn toward orthodox Christianity. In company with another friend, they took a long, and now famous, walk, on an autumn night in 1931, pacing and arguing from early evening to early morning. Tolkien was a genuinely eccentric character — in college, the inventor of Lothlorien played the part of the humorless pedant — who had been ready to convert Lewis for several years. Lewis was certainly ripe to be converted. The liberal humanism in which he had been raised as a thinker had come to seem far too narrowly Philistine and materialist to account for the intimations of transcendence that came to him on country walks and in pages of poetry. Tolkien, seizing on this vulnerability, said that the obvious-seeming distinction that Lewis made between myth and fact — between intimations of timeless joy and belief in a historically based religion — was a false one.

And so on. (This exceptionally long rant ends with Lewis on the brink of becoming a churchgoer, as if his conversion consisted primarily of faithful pew-warming at the nearest Anglican chapel.)

For Gopnik, Lewis commits the unpardonable modern sin of insisting that there’s such a thing as objective religious truth (and not merely subjective individual religious preference). On this point, Gopnik manages to make the postwar University of Oxford sound like a center of conformist Anglican piety:

Lewis insists that the Anglican creed isn’t one spiritual path among others but the single cosmic truth that extends from the farthest reach of the universe to the house next door. He is never troubled by the funny coincidence that this one staggering cosmic truth also happens to be the established religion of his own tribe, supported by every institution of the state, and reinforced by the university he works in, the “God-fearing and God-sustaining University of Oxford,” as Gladstone called it. But perhaps his leap from myth to Christian faith wasn’t a leap at all, more of a standing hop in place.

Most tellingly, while criticizing Lewis for his allegories, Gopnik shows a breathtaking literalism:

The trouble was that though he could encompass his obsessions, he could not entirely surrender to his imagination. The emotional power of the book, as every sensitive child has known, diminishes as the religious part intensifies. The most explicitly religious part of his myth is the most strenuously, and the least successfully, allegorized. Aslan the lion, the Christ symbol, who has exasperated generations of freethinking parents and delighted generations of worried Anglicans, is, after all, a very weird symbol for that famous carpenter’s son — not just an un-Christian but in many ways an anti-Christian figure.

So much for the Lion of Judah.

Memo to the legendary fact-checkers of The New Yorker: Lewis wrote A Grief Observed, not A Grief Portrayed.

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  • Carl

    Gopnick definitely had his own agenda, but the New Yorker isn’t a newspaper; it’s a place for criticism as well as journalism, so it’s not out of place for him to be less than ‘fair and balanced.’ Also, I can see what he was saying about Aslan being better suited to being a donkey or other humble creature. Christ certainly didn’t look like a King of Kings, and his being humbly born in a manger in a big part of the story.

  • Erik Nelson

    Perhaps we may not expect him to be “fair and balanced,” but his bias makes for an article which, to put it bluntly, demonstrates a bit of ignorance. That’s fine with me if he wants to write an article which makes him look foolish.

    As for the symbol of Aslan, though, both Scripture and literature have used a range of symbols to represent Christ in his various roles. I think it says more about Gopnik that he thinks the Lion symbolism “weird” than it says about Lewis (whose Aslan is very much a king, not an ass). Gopnik can object to Lewis’ choice, to be sure, but one wonders if the objection is to the symbol or the reality it points to.

  • Achilles

    Maybe I’m overlooking something, but isn’t Gopnik’s claim that Lewis thought Anglicanism to be the Only True Church out-and-out wrong? I’ve always thought of Lewis as an ecumenicist. He definitely had some Catholic sympathies.

    The thing that bugged me the most was his reduction of Jesus to “a controversial incident in Jewish religious history.” You could tell he really enjoyed getting in that little superfluous dig.

  • Andy Crouch

    Gopnik gives basically no evidence of having read Alan Jacobs’s book, which he dismisses as simply a “disciple’s” take on Lewis. This was not at all my impression of The Narnian. Certainly Alan doesn’t whitewash Lewis’s sexual relationship with Minto. Where else does Alan exonerate Lewis or mock Lewis’s critics? Examples, please.

    I’ve always appreciated Gopnik’s writing, but this one is half-baked at best. For consistently outstanding cultural criticism you could read, oh, Alan Jacobs instead. :)

  • Beth

    “Paris to the Moon” is a lovely book, precisely because Gopnik took the time to enter imaginatively into even the smaller realities of what it means for someone to be French, and then to reflect on how that’s different than being American. Pity he couldn’t muster the same delighted intellectual curiosity about what it means for someone to be Christian.

  • Rose

    The very strong impression that comes through is one of “So, Lewis is this great Christian figure? Well, he smoked! and drank! and had sex! So there! Now what do you think of your hero, hmm?”

    The fact that some of us may contrive not to fall to the floor in staggerment at this astounding revelation does not seem to have occurred to the gentleman, much less the possibilty that Lewis never wished to be presented as a plaster saint.

    And as for his portrayal of Professor Tolkien – funny, I never realised that he hung around Oxford just waiting to pounce on potential converts and drag them into the toils of the Church (must be that Jesuit influence, I suppose). I thought he had more than enough to do with raising his family and teaching his students and developing the philological side of the English faculty. Oh, and his bits of writing on the side, as well. One never knows, does one?

  • DK

    CSL’s marriage was a bit radical and controversial. The Anglican position on divorce/remarriage then was as the Catholic position remains. I don’t recall the details–was Joy Davidman divorced or separated initially? A priest and friend of CSL’s did the wedding, or was he the one who refused to do it? It had to be done out of town though–the local bishop wasn’t going along with it.

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  • Lucas Sayre

    First, you have a typo in your third ‘graph. Second, I can’t believe you used the phrase “rumpy pumpy,” though I found it funny. Third, the Tolkien-Lewis link is a fascinating one, and one I mentioned a couple weeks ago in a comment on this blog, and one worth much more exploring by the media.

  • Eric Phillips

    Yeah, Gopnik is wrong about Lewis thinking Anglicanism was “the single cosmic truth.” He wouldn’t have to read much of _Mere Christianity_ to realize that _Christianity_ is the one cosmic truth, not Anglicanism.

    But I guess it’s too much to expect of journalists who assay to criticize the thought of their subjects that they actually READ THE WORKS of said subjects.

  • keypusher

    “Maybe I’m overlooking something, but isn’t Gopnik’s claim that Lewis thought Anglicanism to be the Only True Church out-and-out wrong?”

    Yes, I believe it is. In _Mere Christianity_ he undertook to describe the core of the Christian faith as he understood it. He also advised his readers to choose a particular denomination (the metaphor he used was a person in an antechamber — you have to go into one of the rooms). But he did not tell his readers what denomination to choose. And, of course, he had a horror of sects (but not that other thing that sounds like sects!) from, as he put it, the parties of Paul and Apollo at Corinth down to the high and low segments of the Church of England.

    Gopnik is a very bright man. How can he be so sloppy?

  • Eric Phillips

    It’s easy to be sloppy in portraying someone else’s beliefs when you start with the assumption that those beliefs are untenable nonsense. That’s most likely Gopnik’s problem here.

  • Douglas LeBlanc

    Thanks for mentioning the typo, Lucas, which I should have noticed hours ago. I’ll count that mistake as a humility pill after my joke about The New Yorker‘s fact-checkers.

  • Avram

    Who’s that a photo of, up top?

  • MT

    My politically incorrect observation is that Jews (I presume Gopnik is Jewish) tend not to “get” Christianity. Specifically, they – in my experience – do not understand the importance of the Christian concepts of redemption and grace. Gopnik’s article seems to reinforce my belief with its emphasis on Lewis’s sins – as if that disqualifies him as a Christian. Plus, Jews seem to hate the truth claim Christianity makes. Didn’t Foxman recently make some comment about how no religion has the exclusive truth? Flame away!

  • Michael

    Under your theory, MT (which very well may be true), it is then fair to say that Christians don’t “get” Judaism and definitely don’t get Islam and probably should avoid talking about them since they don’t really “get it.”

  • MT

    I definitely know Christians who don’t know a thing about Judaism or Islam and probably shouldn’t make any pronouncements about either. However, I also know Christians who know a great deal about both faiths (I happen to know more than the average Christian about Islam for a variety of personal reasons). I have never met a Jew or Muslim that has read the New Testament, but I’ve known plenty of Christians that have studied Jewish history and scriptures (for obvious reasons) and/or read the Koran. Regarding Muslims, I suspect their societies don’t really encourage a worldly view (Bernard Lewus suggests this is the case). And, I suppose Jews need to know that Jesus isn’t the Messiah and that’s about it. Just a guess.

  • MT

    typo – Bernard Lewis

  • boinkie

    Tolkien a “humorless pendant”?
    Well, he did mumble, but in reading his philological lectures, (e.g. Beowulf) and his letters, I was astonished at the gentle humor in them…
    Two descriptions of Tolkien’s gentle humor come to mind: George Sayer’s description of him playing Thomas the Tank engine with Sayer’s children, and the philologist Ransom in Out of the Silent Planet playing with Martian children…
    As a mother, I find such actions heartwarming…

  • Charming Billy

    “Lewis insists that the Anglican creed … etc.”

    Fact check: fact is, there is no specifically Anglican creed. Anglicans, in common with most every Christian denomination, hold that “the three Creeds, Nicene Creed, Athanasius’ Creed, and that which is commonly called the Apostles’ Creed, ought thoroughly to be received and believed”.

    And what’s with the “funny coincidence” business? That’s the sort of crack you’d expect from a bright undergrad who’s just learned about “false consciousness” and “ideological critique”. (Mea culpa. It was the 80s. It was exciting and new. It got me A’s.)

    By a funny coincidence — almost as funny as that knee slapper that never troubled Lewis — adherents to these creeds include not just members of established state churches, like Lewis, but also believers who, far from lacking state support, suffer state suppported persecution for their beliefs. So what kinda leap is that, Mr. Fancy Pants?

  • Charming Billy

    FYI, I’m no Lewis devotee, though I enjoy his books. But since he’s not here to defend himself and Gopnik doesn’t want to fight fair, I have step in again.

    Case in point: “The liberal humanism in which he had been raised as a thinker had come to seem far too narrowly Philistine and materialist to account for the intimations of transcendence that came to him on country walks and in pages of poetry.”

    Lewis was susceptible to the beauty of nature, but he was no Wordsworth. Where did Gopnik get the idea that Lewis was a nature mystic? Read any of his books. In “Mere Christianity” he bases his argument for God’s existence almost entirely upon morality, not aesthetics. It was in morality and the peculiar demands of moral reasoning that Lewis found the “intimations” that led to faith.

  • mr tall

    Charming Billy: these glimpses of transcendence are something Gopnik got at least sort of right: he’s referring to Lewis’s intimations of ‘joy’ as per the title of his autobiography. But I agree that Gopnik seems otherwise almost comically inept at grasping Lewis’s vision. This doesn’t bode very well for a critic, does it? But then, maybe it does — he’s a star at the NYer, isn’t he? Tells you plenty.

  • Avram

    Billy, it’s been a long time since I read Lewis’s autobiography, Surprised by Joy, but I do remember having the impression after I read it that Lewis converted primarily for aesthetic reasons. Mere Christianity was written later, and (I think; I haven’t read it) was primarily aimed at people who’d been raised Christian but were lukewarm about their faith.

    MT, Michael, you’re right that Jews and Christians commonly misunderstand each other, but there are plenty of strong redemption stories in Judaism. In Judaism, the redemption generally doesn’t come from God as grace, but from the person as a desire for learning or righteousness.

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  • Charming Billy

    Yes, I agree that Lewis was brought to faith through in part through quasi Wordsworthian intimations of immortality. However, he quickly realized that these aesthetic experiences had to be anchored in a deeper, moral and theological understanding of what these experiences meant. He knew that if you can’t integrate aesthetic intimations of a transcendent reality within a moral and theological framework, you end up with a sickly Romanticism. (You end up with Swinburne and his simian catamite. Having an affair with your dead buddy’s mom pales in comparison to that.) That’s why I think it’s wrong to linger on Lewis’ Wordsworthian phase, for lack of a better term. He continues to be powerful and appealing not because he’s just another nature mystic, but because he went from mere intimations to a deep and reasoned orthodox faith.

    As for “Mere Christianity” being aimed at the lukewarm, I agree. But Lewis didn’t formulate his argument along moral lines just because he thought it appeal to those who lacked his sensibility. It was the anchor of his own faith as well. This is the appeal of the book. Readers recognize not only themselves but also Lewis’s honesty and depth in his discussion of our moral life.

    So, I agree with your points but this Gopnik feller really chaps my you know what. As this thread shows, I’m not the only one.

  • Salar

    hhmm methinks the conversation on this blog has more intelligence than Mr Gropnik’s latest.

    Sadly, people like you aren’t the sort he is aiming at. Most of you think for yourselves. You’ve read C.S.Lewis’ works. This little gem is aimed at the ‘instant experts’ who regard trendy ‘critiques’ like Gropnik’s as a sort of Cliff notes for ‘clever’ conversation on the given topic.

    I only wish I were kidding, but I’ve heard the routine in action. Reminds me of the monkeys in Madasgascar.


    Like you, I’ll stick to reading C.S. Lewis’ works directly.

    As to nature mystic thing, C.S. dwelt at some length on his pre-conversion fancies in Surprised by Joy, and why they failed to satisfy him at the end of the day. He didn’t greatly credit Tolkein for saving his soul, though he definitely regarded that master writer as one of his most valued friends.

    C.S. was VERY clear that his overall views were ecumenical. Actually he was generous with all seekers for truth. This generosity of view greatly widened his audience.


  • Tobias S Haller

    I recall from many years ago an essay on Lewis by Anthony Burgess in, IIRC, the NY Review of Books (though it may have been the New Yorker). It took a critical, but a much more rational and fair view of Lewis. I recall Burgess referring to L as “Apostle to the half-converted,” which is a fair assessment, I think.
    I am very fond of Lewis’ writings: they brought me back to faith after some wanderings with agnosticism that ultimately were not intellectually satisfying. It was also moving to me to find a basically “conservative” Christian writer who didn’t make sexuality the primary issue of the faith: and his recognition that homosexuality “wasn’t all bad” in _Surpised by Joy_ was an eye-opener. Clearly Lewis had his faults: he didn’t really understand Chas Williams; he had a narrow view of women, and allowed his personal sexism to invade his theological thought; but he was also remarkably tolerant and practical in addressing the most deadly snares we all face in our daily life….
    And BTW, I read the Narnia stories to 14-y-o Harlem orphans in a summer camp almost 40 years ago — and they couldn’t get enough of them; and thought Aslan was great. And didn’t worry about the theology…

  • James D. Davis

    The quoted excerpts from Adam Gopnik’s article remind me of A. N. Wilson’s famous C. S. Lewis biography. Wilson was happy recounting Lewis’ intellect and achievements in medieval and Renaissance literature. He even admired the tight logic of “The Abolition of Man” and the “white-hot” prose of the Narnia series. But whenever Lewis did apologetics, Wilson had to pause to argue with him. It was as if Wilson was chewing happily through the bio material, then bit down on a jalapeno pepper too hot for his taste.

  • I’d rather not say

    First, the photo is of Gopnik sitting in a cafe on the Upper West Side, probably across the street from my alma mater Columbia (that looks like the corner of 114th and Broadway through the window, but I can’t be sure).

    Second, while I am not surprised at the . . . well, shall we say, intense dislike shown by most of the posts here, I think they are a bit unfair. I am a big, BIG Lewis fan, but Gopnik is obviously not a believer, so why is anyone annoyed, except perhaps that Gopnik has not fallen under Lewis’ spell? Nor do I think that he dwells so much on sex as some people here think—his comments (reflecting those of A. N. Wilson) are a reaction against the Virginal Lewis invented by Walter Hooper.

    Yes, Gopnik does get some facts wrong, but they’re the sort of facts one would expect someone who does not believe in Christianity to make. So rather than seeing the glass as half empty, I prefer to see it as half full—someone writing for The New Yorker (!) has written a mostly sympathetic, and occasionally insightful, essay about C. S. Lewis. That’s no small thing. I don’t agree with Gopnik on several occasions (as have others who have posted here), but the word “rant” is unfair. And anyone who doesn’t think that Lewis’ relations with women are highly relevant to his writings has not considered the parallel between Lewis’ mother and the mother in The Magician’s Nephew, or between Minto and the patient’s mother in Screwtape, or meditated on A Grief Observed (which, despite getting the title wrong, Gopnik praises highly).

    As for the Lion vs. Donkey question, I repeat what I wrote elsewhere: the image of the donkey is fine, but presumably Gopnik feels that a beast symbolizing Christ should be a humble beast of burden. The power of the image of Aslan, however, lies in his being powerful beast who yet surrendurs that power—a king whose ultimate kingship comes from the voluntary surrendur of his kingly prerogatives. The “mythic” power of Aslan lies in the very paradox of Christly kingship. He is a lion who takes on the role of a donkey, thereby revealing in the end the true source of his power.

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