Thursday, October 31, 2013

Gems in the Dock

Last year about this time, I read The Weight of Glory, a collection of essays by C. S. Lewis covering a variety of topics and offering on each one several nuanced, thought-provoking, and sometimes profound ideas. This year for my Lewis reading, I took on God in the Dock, a larger set of essays and addresses that, while quite good, proved less stunning. Part (or most) of the problem is due to editor Walter Hooper’s decision to bring together many short pieces not easily attainable before 1970 and to group them according to theme. Of course Prof. Lewis repeated himself in his public lectures, letters, radio talks, and contributions to small periodicals. But here the reader must experience the repetitions in a way the original audiences did not.

While the gems come loosely strung in God in the Dock (as opposed to the thick, sparkling clusters in the slimmer volume), they still shine brightly. Here is “Myth Became Fact,” one of the best expositions of the idea that Hugo Dyson and J. R. R. Tolkien discussed with Lewis on one momentous  midnight stroll on Addison’s Walk in Oxford, the idea that led to Lewis’s acceptance of the Christian faith. Myth, he explains, transcends both thought and feeling. When we think of pain, we think only of a memory of the experience, and when we experience pain, we can’t think about it. Myth, however, opens a door to knowledge at a level that integrates both thought and feeling. This definition has nothing to do with truth and everything to do with effect, so, as Lewis discovered, there’s no intellectual barrier to seeing the story of Christ, which looked to him like so many other myths, as historical fact, a feature no other myth enjoys.

Here, too, is “On the Reading of Old Books,” which could serve as the mission statement for my reading plan. Lewis spoke and wrote often about era-ism, a prejudice toward the thinking of one’s own era. We all need to read books from other times in history, he says, in order to get perspective on our own time and the assumptions it pushes on us. “To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good as a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.” He even warns his audience that they should read less C. S. Lewis and more Augustine and Aquinas. I try to read some of all three each year.

And here is the very important “Meditation in a Toolshed,” in which Lewis distinguishes “looking at” and “looking along.” His illustration, which I won’t try to recreate here, helps make sense of a lot of his other writings; Michael Ward depends on the notion in his excellent analysis of the Narnia books.

These three essays would provide an excellent quick intro to Lewis’s thinking, so I think I’ll wrap it up here. But I considered writing about several other pieces in God in the Dock, because I’m tempted by shiny things.

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