Remembering C.S. Lewis 60 Years On: ‘Very Catholic-Friendly’
An interview with scholar Father Michael Ward about the beloevd author on the 60th anniversary of his death.
OXFORD, England — Father Michael Ward is an English literary critic and theologian.
He works at the University of Oxford, where he is a member of the faculty of theology and religion. In addition, he is also professor of apologetics at Houston Christian University in Texas.
He is the author of the award-winning: Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis (Oxford University Press) and co-editor of: The Cambridge Companion to C.S. Lewis (Cambridge University Press). He presented the BBC television documentary The Narnia Code and wrote the accompanying book The Narnia Code: C.S. Lewis and the Secret of the Seven Heavens.
On the 50th anniversary of Lewis’ death (Nov. 22, 2013), he unveiled a permanent memorial to C.S. Lewis in Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey, and is the co-editor of a volume of commemorative essays marking that anniversary, entitled: C.S. Lewis at Poets’ Corner.
His latest book is: After Humanity: A Commentary on C.S. Lewis' Abolition of Man (Word on Fire Academic).
He spoke to the Register via email just prior to the 60th anniversary of the death of C.S. Lewis.
When did you first come across C.S. Lewis?
My parents read the Narnia Chronicles to me when I was a little boy. My two older brothers and I would pile into our parents’ bed on a Sunday morning; my mother would read a chapter or two from the current book, and then we’d all get up, have breakfast and go to church. Those are vivid memories from my childhood. And as soon as I was old enough to read the Chronicles for myself, I did so, and then Lewis’ other fiction and his Christian apologetics. I went through all of those works in my teens. I then did an English degree at Oxford (choosing Oxford in large part because he and Tolkien had taught there), and so I began to look at Lewis’ professional works of literary criticism and literary history. I wrote an undergraduate thesis on Lewis for my finals, as a result of which I was asked, after graduating, to give a one-off lecture for Oxford’s Department for Continuing Education and then a course of tuition on his works.
These invitations to speak and teach about Lewis kept coming, and eventually I ended up living in his former home, The Kilns, looking after it as a curator and warden, sleeping in his old bedroom and writing in his study. In due course, when it came time for me to do my Ph.D., studying Lewis was the obvious choice. My dissertation was published by Oxford University Press as Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis. The BBC became interested and commissioned a documentary about Planet Narnia, entitled The Narnia Code. It was a great pleasure to present my analysis of Lewis’ theological imagination on national television, but the title, alas, wasn’t the best: too many shades of The Da Vinci Code!
Why did his writing attract you?
In the first instance, the Narnia books attracted me partly because they were exciting stories, full of quests and battles and adventures, and partly because, as my parents gently hinted, the tales had a second level of meaning: the lion king, Aslan, being a bit like Jesus, and so forth. I wasn’t used to stories having an extra dimension, so that made them stand out. And once I began reading Lewis’ other works — The Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity, and eventually everything he’d ever written! — I realized that he had a lot to say on faith and life and love and art and almost everything under the sun. Plus, he said it very well. Whatever you think of his content, it’s hard to deny that Lewis was a great stylist, a master of the English language, and able to operate on numerous different registers, from the highest academic abstraction down to the most accessible kind of journalism and everything in between.
But much more than his style, I appreciated the way he combined imagination and reason. He was a poet in the sense that he understood how to use language effectively by means of metaphor, symbol, allusion, connotation — brilliantly able to suggest and imply meaning, not just state it baldly. Yet he was also a rigorous thinker, who taught philosophy at Oxford for many years, and who could operate using logic in a tough-minded, dispassionate, dialectical fashion. It’s easy to find poets and it’s easy to find philosophers: It’s rare to find someone who can combine both characters, as Lewis did.
How did you take to his personality?
I found it very congenial. I think I would describe his personality as that of a sociable introvert, if that’s not a contradiction in terms. Lewis was bookish and, in many ways, very private and individualistic; he had little time for small talk or parties. Yet he also had a huge talent for friendship, most notably with Tolkien and the others in their circle called “The Inklings”; he loved conversation and laughter. He was frequently described by those who knew him as jovial and great company. I daresay I would have found him a bit intimidating on the intellectual level, especially in his younger days, when he perhaps didn’t know the strength of his own personality. But in the second half of his life, when he had mellowed a bit, I think he was more approachable and certainly very generous with his time and encouraging to those who looked to him for advice.
Do you think he is still relevant today?
Yes; in fact, increasingly relevant, and that in three ways. First, in terms of ethics. As I mentioned, Lewis was a philosopher. That was how he began his academic career, and even after he switched to English, he continued to tutor Oxford students in philosophy. The main thing he was interested in was whether value was objective or subjective. This is the theme of his book The Abolition of Man, to which I’ve recently written a guide called After Humanity. Writing that guide made me realize afresh how very prescient, even prophetic, The Abolition of Man is. Lewis foresaw many of our current problems about ethics, especially the idea that value is merely subjective, that reality is whatever each of us wants it to be. Pope Benedict XVI, when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger, spoke highly of that book; and so has the contemporary British philosopher, John Gray, who, despite being an atheist, believes in objective value and recognizes that Lewis’ work is “as relevant now” as when it first came out, “if not more so.”
Second, Lewis’ combination of reason and imagination speaks to our postmodern world very relevantly, I think. Though he believes in the objectivity of value, he also recognizes that we each access that objective value individually. Our subjective perspective matters, and the language we choose to speak about it matters too. The metaphors and paradigms we adopt condition much of what we can perceive and articulate. One of his most important essays on this subject is the oddly titled: “Bluspels and Flalansferes: A Semantic Nightmare.” Interestingly, just a couple of months ago, I was contacted out of the blue by one of the most prominent of the so-called “new atheists.” I’d never had any dealings with this man before, but he had heard I was a Lewis scholar, and he wrote to ask me where he could find this “Bluspels” essay, as he had read it years ago and wanted to revisit it. That Lewis’ ideas had evidently struck this notable atheist as worth reengaging with indicates something of his continuing relevance today.
Thirdly, Lewis’ fiction is showing its staying power, is achieving something of a classic status. Narnia and Screwtape most obviously, but also his relatively little-known novel Till We Have Faces. Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, is among those who regard Till We Have Faces as Lewis’ greatest work, and I tend to agree. Everyone ought to read it. It’s a powerful exploration of love and love gone wrong; a profound and challenging and beautiful story. I’ve reread it more often than any of Lewis’ other works.
How did he influence your Christian journey?
In all sorts of ways: too many to mention! Two things in particular, though, are worth highlighting. One is Lewis’ honesty about difficulties in belief, not just honesty about intellectual difficulties such as “the problem of pain” (on which he wrote a useful book), but also the more private and existential difficulties, the moral compromises to which we’re drawn in the secrecy of our own soul. He has helped me a lot in the candid way he uncovers the psychological and spiritual barriers we choose to erect against faith. And the other thing he has really helped me with is his emphasis on the importance of personal knowing, of inhabiting a way of seeing, and how we ruin certain things if we hold them at arm’s length and inspect them like a specimen in the laboratory. The life of faith involves interior knowledge, what he calls “Enjoyment” as opposed to external “Contemplation.” Love is an objectively good thing, but if you objectify your beloved, you step outside love altogether, into the world of cold calculation. What he says about all this in his autobiography Surprised by Joy and also in his little article “Meditation in a Toolshed” has influenced me hugely.
Did he influence your journey to Rome?
Yes and No, or perhaps I should say No and Yes. No, he didn’t influence my journey to Rome because he wasn’t a Catholic and occasionally said some pretty sceptical things about the Catholic Church, so his own example as an Anglican who never seriously considered “crossing the Tiber” naturally couldn’t model such a path for me. However, yes, he did influence my journey to Rome because, despite his resolute Anglicanism, he was very Catholic-friendly. Literally, he was friends with Catholics like Tolkien and admired the work of Catholics like Chesterton. But also, doctrinally and in terms of devotional practice, Lewis evidently lived his Christian life on the Catholic-facing border of Anglicanism. He had a high view of the ordained priesthood and of the Eucharist, calling it the “Blessed Sacrament.” He went to confession, fasted on Fridays, believed in purgatory, prayed for the dead, and said he would not like the job of defending contraception against an almost-unbroken Christian tradition of disapproval. Moreover, he showed in numerous ways that he believed in obeying the light of conscience and following the truth wherever it led, even if that meant career problems or unpopularity. His “hot-gospelling,” as he called it, was much looked down on in certain academic quarters and contributed to his never being appointed to a professorial chair at Oxford. In my own case, it wasn’t the obvious or easy option, as a lifelong member of the Church of England and as an Anglican priest to boot, with a secure chaplaincy job at a central Oxford college, to resign from all that and become a Catholic layman. (I’m now a priest in the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham.) But Lewis’ example reminded me that one shouldn’t expect the Christian life to be a continual bed of roses. A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do!