Thursday, September 19, 2013

Christianity and Literature

There is a fascinating passage in C.S. Lewis's autobiography, Surprised by Joy, where he describes how, as an atheist, he was frustrated that so many of the great writers in history were deeply religious. It's a fairly long passage, but here it is.

All the books were beginning to turn against me. Indeed, I must have been as blind as a bat not to have seen, long before, the ludicrous contradiction between my theory of life and my actual experiences as a reader. George MacDonald had done more to me than any other writer; of course it was a pity he had that bee in his bonnet about Christianity. He was good in spite of it. Chesterton had more sense than all the other moderns put together; bating, of course, his Christianity. Johnson was one of the few authors whom I felt I could trust utterly; curiously enough, he had the same kink. Spenser and Milton by a strange coincidence had it too. Even among ancient authors the same paradox was to be found. The most religious (Plato, Aeschylus, Virgil) were clearly those on whom I could really feed. On the other hand, those writers who did not suffer from religion and with whom in theory my sympathy ought to have been complete -- Shaw and Wells and Mill and Gibbon and Voltaire -- all seemed a little thin; what as boys we called "tinny". It wasn't that I didn't like them. They were all (especially Gibbon) entertaining; but hardly more. There seemed to be no depth in them. They were too simple. The roughness and density of life did not appear in their books.

Now that I was reading more English, the paradox began to be aggravated. I was deeply moved by the Dream of the Rood; more deeply still by Langland; intoxicated (for a time) by Donne; deeply and lastingly satisfied by Thomas Browne. But the most alarming of all was George Herbert. Here was a man who seemed to me to excel all the authors I had ever read in conveying the very quality of life as we actually live it from moment to moment; but the wretched fellow, instead of doing it all directly, insisted on mediating it through what I would still have called "the Christian mythology". On the other hand most of the authors who might be claimed as precursors of modern enlightenment seemed to me very small beer and bored me cruelly. I thought Bacon (to speak frankly) a solemn, pretentious ass, yawned my way through Restoration Comedy, and, having manfully struggled on to the last line of Don Juan, wrote on the end-leaf "Never again". The only non-Christians who seemed to me really to know anything were the Romantics; and a good many of them were dangerously tinged with something like religion, even at times with Christianity. The upshot of it all could nearly be expressed in a perversion of Roland's great line in the Chanson --

Christians are wrong, but all the rest are bores.

What strikes me about this passage is how completely alien it is to the state of literature today. Christian literature is, in general, greatly inferior to its secular counterparts. Christian literature, along with Christian music, has become derivative -- that is, it tries to imitate the successful secular styles so that Christians can read (or listen to in the case of music) those styles without being exposed to any unchristian thoughts. But the movers in the literary and musical worlds are not Christians -- or if they are, their Christianity is not central to their accomplishments: you can be fans of theirs without ever realizing that they are Christian (although there are exceptions of course). It would be an interesting study to see how this came about. I suspect it's at least partially because religious people have been divorcing themselves from the wider culture for the last 150 years or so. Thus, today, we have Christian colleges, where Christians can go to study without hearing alternative viewpoints; which, of course, means that non-Christians can go to non-Christian schools to study without ever hearing about the value of religion or the message of Christianity. All of this seems to me to be an attempt to disengage from modern culture despite the biblical injunction to be in but not of the world (John 17: 14-15; 1 Corinthians 5: 9-10). I don't know if there's a way to fix this -- I'm diagnosing the problem, not offering a cure. After all, it's not a bad thing that there are Christian colleges, they play a vital and sacred role. Moreover, it's very likely that my diagnosis is incorrect. But it's a little depressing. In Lewis's day, if someone wanted to be well-read, he couldn't avoid Christian authors. Today, we have to search to find them, and when we do the results are rarely cheering.


Adam G. said...

What line from the Chanson is he talking about? I can't figure it out.

Jim S. said...

I have no idea either. In my case though it's because I've never read it.

The original Mr. X said...

Interesting post, but I don't think the last paragraph really follows on from what was quoted. Most of Lewis' writers were dead long before Lewis himself was born, so what he says cannot be used to infer that the quality of Christian writers in Lewis' own time was higher than those of our time (though it may well have been).