Pod people: Don’t mess with C.S. Lewis

This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.

Dorothy Parker in her review of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (1957).

I cannot read Ayn Rand. I have tried. As a teenager, friends assured me I would love Atlas Shrugged. I didn’t.

In college and in my 20′s I was pressed to try again. I did, this time cracking open The Fountainhead. I detested it. Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal could not budge me either. I can’t stand Ayn Rand.

The inimitable Whitaker Chambers spoke for me when he wrote in The National Review in 1957:

Out of a lifetime of reading, I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained. Its shrillness is without reprieve. Its dogmatism is without appeal. In addition, the mind which finds this tone natural to it shares other characteristics of its type. 1) It consistently mistakes raw force for strength, and the rawer the force, the more reverent the posture of the mind before it. 2) It supposes itself to be the bringer of a final revelation. Therefore, resistance to the Message cannot be tolerated because disagreement can never be merely honest, prudent, or just humanly fallible. Dissent from revelation so final (because, the author would say, so reasonable) can only be willfully wicked. There are ways of dealing with such wickedness, and, in fact, right reason itself enjoins them. From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: “To a gas chamber — go!”

Yet among my circle of acquaintances are serious thoughtful individuals who number Rand among the great thinkers and writers of the 20th century. Her economic and philosophical theories are on the tip of their tongues — and passages of her fiction are committed to memory. I have learned over the years to be certain of my references to her life and work when she pops up in a story — for if I make a mistake I will hear from her legions.

Rand is one of a select group of authors who have maintained a devoted following. Monty Python, Star Trek, Karl Marx, and the Aubrey-Maturin naval adventures in literature, Bob Dylan in music, for example, have spawned fans who have memorized the canon of their classics.

C.S. Lewis is one such figure. In this week’s Crossroads podcast I spoke with Lutheran Public Radio host Todd Wilken about the perils of C.S. Lewis reporting, citing my GetReligion post “C.S. Lewis the occultist and other rather obvious errors”.

In that post, I recounted a series of unfortunate errors about C.S. Lewis’ life — mistakes that had nothing to do with the issue at hand, but ones that cropped up in the filler — background material about Lewis’ life and work used to round out the story. I noted the claim that Lewis was involved in the occult was untrue, and cited a portion of his autobiography. I wrote:

While Lewis, like his friend and colleague J.R.R. Tolkein, was devoted to the Norse sagas and mythology, he was not an occultist. While some Christian groups have denounced Lewis’ work, saying it glorifies witchcraft and magic, the only evidence of a personal interest in magic comes in this passage in Surprised by Joy where he recounts how a matron at his prep school dabbled in the occult. (citation follows in the original.)

And irony of ironies, I was caught out by one of GetReligion’s readers on this point. My correction of the original story was incomplete, Lori Pieper wrote.

George, you really should have kept reading in Surprised by Joy. There more about Lewis’ interest in magic and the occult in it than you think. In a later chapter, about his life just before he went to Oxford, he describes the attraction to these things that arose from reading Yeats (his prose more than his poetry) and Maeterlinck. He says “If there had been in the neighborhood some elder person who dabbled in dirt of the Magical kind (such have a good nose for potential disciples) I might now be a Satanist or a maniac.”

So he did read about the occult, though the journalist’s description is simplistic and overstated. And by misstating when the reading occurred, the mythology and the magic are lumped together as one, something that Lewis would never buy. He saw the effects of the mythology as beneficial, as an appeal to the imagination and as a pointer toward genuinely spiritual hope (those he misunderstood this for a long time), while he always at least dimly perceived the occult as evil.

I should have taken my own advice and boned up on Lewis a bit more.

While I have never taken to Ayn Rand, I have devoured C.S. Lewis’ works — his Narnia books, science fiction and his Christian apologetic works. Yet, working from my own knowledge, rather than going back to the original sources, I made the same sort of error that I criticized.

And — this is what I like about new media — its ability to be self-correcting. I advanced the ball and Lori Pieper moved it down the field for a touchdown.

Thank you Lori, and the other readers of GetReligion, who have added their specialized knowledge to stories my colleagues and I have posted to this site. Well done.

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About geoconger
  • Thinkling

    When I first saw the title then started reading the top about Ayn Rand, I thought this was going to be related to this quite remarkable article:

    http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2013/03/27/ayn-rand-really-really-hated-c-s-lewis/

    Anyway, you are right about the potential self correcting power of social media. Not all outlets have the humility to accept correction thus, but many do. It illustrates the difference between wanting to get it right, and wanting to be right.

    • George Conger

      Thank’s for pointing out this First Things story. I had not seen it.

  • FW Ken

    When I first saw the top of the post, I thought it would be about this article:

    http://www.catholicworldreport.com/Item/2700/jack_convert_mere_christian_and_near_catholic.aspx#.Uoccn7bnbJH

    The self-correcting potential of the new media is indeed impressive, but depends on the good will of the participants. We have all been exposed to innumerable comment threads filed with ad hominem, outright insults, and childish rants. GetReligion has, in the past, been a haven from that sort of thing.

    Let me say, as an aside, that I count it a blessing that my Ayn Rand phase ended with high school, just as my appreciation of C.S. Lewis began. If that’s a phase, then it has lasted 45 years.

    • George Conger

      FW Ken, I agree with you that there is a great deal of junk out there — but when it works, social media works very well.

      Part of a moderator’s job is to filter out the rants. This I do not do as well as I should.

      • FW Ken

        As I understand it, the Discus software is somewhat limiting in this regard.

  • http://www.subcreators.com/blog Lori Pieper

    George, I have been AWOL for the blogosphere for a couple of days, and missed what you wrote in regard to me. I just wanted to say a belated “thanks.” Lewis is indeed my favorite writer, and I am very particular where he is concerned. So you point is very well taken — fans of a writer are meticulous about mistakes and journalists need to be extra careful in regard to them.


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