C.S. Lewis and the Church: Essays in Honour of Walter Hooper

C.S. Lewis and the Church: Essays in Honour of Walter Hooper. . Judith Wolfe and B.N. Wolfe, editors. London: T&C Clark International, 2011. xii + 193 pp. ISBN 13: 978-0-5667-04736-9.  $110.00. (Paperback from Amazon currently $31.95)

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Reviewed by Joe R. Christopher

[This review originally appeared in Mythlore 31.1/2 (#119/120) (2012): 158–161.]

This book contains eleven essays on the titular subject (plus an introduction that will be considered later). Most of the authors have ties to Oxford University, and most of the essays are well done. That which will be of most interest to the readers of Mythlore is Michael Ward’s “The Church in C.S. Lewis’s Fiction.” Ward begins from the fact that the Church seldom appears in Lewis’s creative works. Ward notes his omission of the poetry (except for a brief comment in a note), Till We Have Faces because of its pagan setting (although it certainly has some pagan priests who suggest Christian parallels, not noted by Ward), the short stories, and unfinished pieces.

One of Ward’s definitions of the church is its manifestations in its rituals and buildings. Ward points to Weston’s comment about attending church in his youth (Perelandra, ch.13), but also to Tinidril’s appearance being like a church’s coldness and stillness contrasted to a hot street outside (ch.5). These are his beginning point, but he goes on with other brief references and allusions in the Ransom Trilogy and the Chronicles of Narnia. He finds no references in The Great Divorce and “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” but extensive discussion of the church in this sense in The Screwtape Letters. He points the second letter with its discussion of the “aesthetic poverty of mid-twentieth-century English Anglicanism.” He also finds similar material on the church in letters 7 and 16.

Ward’s second definition of the church is the visible institutions “as represented by their ordained ministers and their teaching” (68). Ward writes: “Nearly all of Lewis’ clergymen are knaves or fools or weaklings of one kind or another” (75). (He ties this to a tradition in English novels.) The exception is Canon Jewel in That Hideous Strength, who is not able to stand up to the “progressive element,” but is “pure of heart” (76). Amazingly, Ward points to Fr. Spike of The Screwtape Letters as the second most positive presentation—after celebrating all the havoc in his parish because of Fr. Spike’s shifting ideas, Screwtape says that the priest does believe. (Ward introduces at this point an interesting contrast with Philip Pullman: Pullman’s priests in The Amber Spyglass are completely corrupt. Although Pullman complained that Lewis wrote works with too much simplistic good vs. evil, in this context Pullman is the one who is simplistic.)

Before his analysis of Lewis’s most important portrayals of priests, Ward pauses over Lewis’s genres—he is not writing in the conventions of realistic novels.

The Great Divorce is a series of moral satires couched in the form of a dream […] The Pilgrim’s Regress is an avowed allegory […]. [Their characters] are representatives, ambassadors from the realm of clerical error, designed to articulate those fallacies and foibles that Lewis wished to address at particular points in his story. (78n48)

Ward discusses Mr. Broad in The Pilgrim’s Regress and the Liberal Bishop in The Great Divorce, indicating the satiric portraits are described with some of the same details. He then defends The Great Divorce as generically not needing to balance the Liberal Bishop with a satiric portrait of a type of conservative bishop, but points out that The Pilgrim’s Regress, having a different purpose, does balance Mr. Broad with Mr. Neo-Angular. (Ward’s discussion of the various churches’ teachings are partly covered in his discussion of the ministers and partly by two paragraphs at the end of the section.)

Ward’s third definition of the church is as the mystical body of Christ (the Church Triumphant, in a traditional term, which—as in Dante—is the same as Heaven/Paradiso). He mentions some references to it (as in Screwtape’s reference to “the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity,” letter 2), but then turns to the last chapters of The Last Battle for Lewis’s major depiction. Ward mentions the surprises in this depiction of Heaven, the New Narnia: the salvation of Emeth and of one of the dwarfs who had murdered talking horses. And he ties it to both Dante’s Paradiso and his own discussion of the seven planets in Planet Narnia. In short, a truly excellent essay. (Ward once, in discussing Narnia, refers to “dwarves” with a Tolkienian plural, rather than the “dwarfs” that Lewis uses.)

The other essays may be covered more briefly, for those in the Society who are interested. Part I (three essays) discusses the church in Lewis’s life. Mark Edwards’ “C.S. Lewis and Early Christian Literature” shows that Lewis did not have a command of the Church Fathers, having real knowledge of only a few. Jonathan Herapath’s “’You Must Throw Yourself in’: C.S. Lewis and the Victorian Literary Church” seeks to isolate the background out of which Lewis’s Christian practices grew—partially High Church, partially Low, and strongly anti-Broad. Herapath stresses the literary nature of the Church of England in the 19th century. Perhaps the area which needs another paragraph appears in Herapath’s passing identification of George MacDonald as having become a Broad Church Anglican: how did Lewis reconcile his distrust of the Broad Church in the 20th century with his acceptance of MacDonald as a mentor? (Probably the Broad Church identification comes from MacDonald’s Universalism.) Francis Warner’s “Lewis’s Involvement in the Revision of the Psalter” is a pleasant, historical account of Lewis’s service on the Church of England’s “Commission to Revise the Psalter”; it also discusses some of the changes the Commission made in Coverdale’s text.

Part II (four essays, beginning with Ward’s) discusses the church in Lewis’s writings. James Como’s “C.S. Lewis’ Quantum Church: An Uneasy Meditation” is a cleverly written discussion of Lewis’s Anglicanism from a Roman Catholic perspective. (This reviewer is doubtful about the complete authenticity of “Christian Reunion” as an essay by Lewis, but Como’s major point does not depend on it.) Judith Wolfe’s “C.S. Lewis and the Eschatological Church” begins from the images of Heaven in Lewis’s fiction (more than just Ward’s use of New Narnia), but the main focus is not on his fiction; rather, the essay discusses his combined use of Christian and Platonic theory, often not perfectly integrated with each other. A basic disagreement is about the transcendental: the forms or Ideas in Plato are “abstract”; “the Christian God is personal.” But this is the beginning of the essay, which eventually returns to the concept of Heaven, the eschaton in Wolfe’s diction, a more Dantean than Platonic vision. “This idea of man as a mirror of God, and of the Church as the community of people mirroring Christ to each other, if not unique to Lewis’ work, is uniquely realized there” (114). This is an “esthatological exchange.” (She makes no connection to Charles Williams.) B. N. Wolfe’s “C.S. Lewis on Relations between the Churches” finds three points to discuss in Lewis’s preface to Mere Christianity: Lewis’s concept of mere Christianity, his Anglicanism, and his assertion about mere Christianity being the core of the differing churches. “Lewis’s concept of a mere Christianity is one of his most famous contributions to twentieth-century Christian discourse” (124).

Part III (four essays) discusses Lewis and specific churches—specific denominations. Ian Ker’s “’Mere Christianity’ and Catholicism” points to the difficulties, from the Roman Catholic perspective, of Lewis’s assumption that one can become a Christian and then choose a Church. Actually, that is one of the four problems he addresses. Kallistos Ware’s “C.S. Lewis, an ‘Anonymous Orthodox’?” consists of two parts: first, Ware shows that Lewis seldom showed an interest in the Greek fathers or in Orthodoxy; second, he discusses Lewisian assumptions that are much like those in Orthodoxy. These are (1) “the hiddenness of God, […] the inexhaustible mystery of the Divine,” and other aspects of apophaticism (141); (2) “the Incarnation and the Trinity” (although the emphasis on the Trinity is mainly in Mere Christianity); (3) “the sacramental character of creation”; and (4) “the vocation of the human person” (144), especially in the uniqueness of the individual, the significance of face (based on the Greek prosopon), salvation as deification, and eternal life as infinite progress. Christopher W. Mitchell’s “Lewis and Historic Evangelicalism” discusses Lewis’s popularity with modern evangelicals, while not agreeing with all of their positions—more specifically, Mitchell makes an excellent case that Lewis fits the boundaries of pre-twentieth century evangelicalism in terms of conversionism, activism, biblicism and crucicentrism. Philip Ryken’s “Lewis as the Patron Saint of American Evangelicalism” is a lighter weight treatment of Lewis’s relationship to evangelicals.

The introduction to the volume, “Oxford, 1963, and a Young Boswell,” by Andrew Cuneo, ties to the dedication in the subtitle, “Essays in Honour of Walter Hooper.” Cuneo’s essay is, as is appropriate to the genre, a panegyric, celebrating Hooper in a biographical narrative. Since this reviewer wrote a preface for each of Kathryn Lindskoog’s three books that developed her questions about Hooper’s truthfulness, he is not an appropriate person to evaluate Cuneo’s stance. But it is a pleasantly written essay, and many will appreciate it.

To return to the high marks in the book: Michael Ward’s is valuable as literary criticism. Warner’s discussion of the revision of the Psalter adds biographical details about Lewis. Judith Woolfe’s essay is an excellent study of Lewis’s mingled and sometimes contradicting religious influences. (Her style may be too learned for some.) Christopher Mitchell writes of Lewis and Evangelicalism in a scholarly way, not just with anecdotes. In short, a good collection of essays. (Indices of references to Lewis’s works and to subjects.)

C.S. Lewis and the Church: Essays in Honour of Walter Hooper. . Judith Wolfe and B.N. Wolfe, editors. London: T&C Clark International, 2011. xii + 193 pp. ISBN 13: 978-0-5667-04736-9.  $110.00. (Paperback from Amazon currently $31.95)

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