OHEL—the Oxford History of English Literature—is Lewis’ big boy book, his largest single volume, the fruit of his lifetime love and study of medieval lit. His Anglican light on the Puritans and the Reformers tries to be critical but ends up confirming things for Calvinists. His critic’s light on 16th century prosers and poets introduced me to many new names and many new ways to say negative things with droll pleasure.
So I learned a lot and also smiled a bunch.
I started to read it in 2019, and it got the better of me in a few weeks. I started again last August, trying to give it ten minutes a day, and I am better because of it. I definitely don’t think everyone needs to read this, but if you like Lewis and words, this book should be in your queue.
It is really fun to be here, and to mutually encourage one another’s faith for building culture in hostile territory. We are in a non-fiction fight with the “principalities and powers and depraved hypersomatic beings at great heights” (as C.S. Lewis put it in Perelandra, 21), not to mention our reductionistic and materialistic earthly authorities. While we need faith to be strong in the Lord, He strengthens our faith through fellowship in truth, and I can testify that the Lord can and does strengthen our friendships through good fiction.
You may have seen that earlier this year a UK anti-terrorism group has identified reading books by C.S. Lewis (along with Tolkien, Huxley, and Orwell) as a possible sign of far-wing extremism and white supremacy (source). If you’ve ever imagined yourself enjoying a cup of tea and piece of cake at St. Anne’s, you are the enemy. Well done.
I’ve spoken about That Hideous Strength before, and for as amazing as my observations were (at least to me, ha!), I’ve often failed to appreciate how many of the people I’m talking to haven’t yet read THS; I might as well be speaking the solar language. Let me know: how many people am I’m going to be babbling in front of?
There are a lot of resources for basic character introductions and plot points for all three books in the Ransom trilogy; today I want to make a more particular appeal for expanding our imaginative coordinates in order to encourage our image-bearing culture-building.
More Literary Connections
Before I make my point, which is mostly drawn from THS, we shouldn’t fail to recognize that Lewis works back and forth between making his point in THS and The Abolition of Man. He explicitly references Abolition in the preface to THS; THS is the narrative ride of his prophetic thesis (“This is a ‘tall story’ about devilry, though it has behind it a serious ‘point’ which I have tried to make in my The Abolition of Man”). There’s also a lot of narrative overlap with his essay called “The Inner Ring” (here’s a reading on YouTube). But it’s not stepping out too far to say that the greatest connection to THS is the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11.
I’d like to present a case that the Tower of Babel is the key to understanding THS, it is the key to fixing a critical misstep in Abolition, and it is the rallying point for us to fight the good fight better.
What’s in a Name
There are two obvious connections between THS and Babel Tower. First is the title, second is the easy climax, or the penultimate—not final climax, of the plot.
The name of the book, That Hideous Strength, is a line in a poem written by Sir David Lyndsay in 1555 (one of the first readers of William Tyndale’s translation of Scripture into English, also a supporter of John Knox and the Reformation in Scotland). Lyndsay’s line is: “when the building of the tower of Babel was abandoned the schaddow of that hidduous strenth was already six miles long” (glorious Old English spelling found in English Literature in the 16th Century Excluding Drama). Lewis uses the phrase, “the Hideous Strength”; each time H and S are capitalized, like a proper noun: Hideous Strength. It’s used three times in chapter 13 which is titled: “They Have Pulled Down Deep Heaven on Their Heads.” What is the Strength, and why is it Hideous? Those are essential terms to define.
Of course the other connection to Genesis 11 is the Banquet at Belbury (second to last chapter), when Merlin brings “the curse of Babel,” also capital B, and confuses their language, but not just into dispersing the party—they disperse alright—but into the chaos of killing and being killed. The disorder in language is only the beginning of the disarray and destruction and death. “Wither had once heard [Merlin’s] voice calling loud and intolerably glad above the riot of nonsense, ‘Qui Verbum Dei contempserunt, eis auferetur etiam verbum hominis.’” Meaning, “They that have despised the word of God, from them shall the word of man also be taken away.” The Babel curse conquered the NICE.
Back up to Babel
What is the deal with this Babel influence? The biblical story itself is only one paragraph, nine verses long at the beginning of Genesis 11. At this point in the biblical narrative we’re post flood by a few generations, not quite sure how many people were around, but likely in the tens of thousands.
The “whole earth had one language and the same words” (verse 1). They settled together in the same place, Shinar.
And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” (Genesis 11:3–4 ESV)
Attentive readers already see some problems, and the response of the Lord corroborates it. Three times they say “let us make…let us build…let us make.” That should sound familiar. In Genesis 1:26 “God said, ‘Let us make…’” Hmmm, and let us keep going. Building themselves a city is not necessarily bad, though it hints at premeditated refusal to “fill the earth” as the Lord mandated in Genesis 1:28. Their tower was to have “its top in the heavens,” none would be above them, and it would presumably be tall enough to protect them in case there was another flood. These projects would “make a name for ourselves.” They thought they could determine their place, their own limits.
And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. And the LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” (Genesis 11:5–7 ESV)
Initially it might seem that the LORD is being petty, that He is threatened by what they’re doing. What is His concern?
This goes back to Genesis 1 and God’s creation of man and the nature of man and the mandate to man. God told Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth (Genesis 1:28). They were made with the capacity for relationship and family. As they, and their offspring, filled the earth they were to subdue it and have dominion. They were made with the capacity for responsibility and rule as God’s stewards.
Isn’t that what the men in Shinar were doing? No one man, or family, could accomplish the city and tower enterprise. They were in a community, in relationship; they were trying to build culture. And certainly the tools and the plans and the construction were parts of demonstrating human ingenuity and creativity and responsibility.
But virtuous relationship and responsibility depend on God’s blessing (doing it the way God said to do it). The first part of Genesis 1:28 is key: “God blessed them” and then God said be fruitful.
And even more, the relationship and the responsibility were part of what it meant to be made in His image. Note the plural, “let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Genesis 1:26). While the doctrine of the Trinity is obviously not fully revealed here, God didn’t make humans in the likeness of Himself and angels, or in the likeness of Himself and lesser gods. Men are made as images of God, the imago Dei. In Babel, the LORD said, “Come, let us go down” (Genesis 11:7). That plural pronoun in God’s mouth is used in 1:26 when He purposes to make man in His image and only again in 11:7 when He sees men using His language without reference to Him.
A man is not a man in his own name or his own image. When the LORD said, “this is only the beginning of what they will do,” He was referring to the beginning of their abolition of man. They were running into self-sufficiency, autonomy, and attempts to live and master themselves as if God wasn’t necessary.
In the “shadow of that hideous strength” the tower symbolized or embodied the will and work of men. There is glorious strength in image bearing relationships and responsibility, but all the results are hideous as men try to define the image for themselves.
Back to Belbury – The Nice Guys
The setting for THS is on earth where the Macrobes have convinced men in the name of “Science” not just to ignore, but to destroy, what is human (how prescient was Lewis about our present culture). They were reimagining in order to reengineer the human race. But mirrors reflect a given shape, they can’t create their own shape. So by the end of the story Wither (think: Dr. Fauci) and Frost and Straik have lost even the love of their own flesh, their own lives.
The NICE, the National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments, the NICE guys are experimenting themselves right into vanity and dust in the wind. The story of Babel, and the story of Belbury, are Men, in the name of Man, ruining men and Man. This is the key to understanding THS.
The Tao < the Dei
I said at the beginning that Babel is also the key to fixing the misstep, or at least insufficient (and actually self-refuting) step, in the otherwise glorious The Abolition of Man.
I don’t know that I could read Abolition (or THS) enough. There’s barely anything in it that doesn’t edify me. If Lewis was alive to see our generation I’m sure he’d clarify that when he argued for men with chests, he wasn’t talking about big prosthetic boobs at the city library’s Drag Queen Story Hour.
And while I appreciate his setting, that he was giving academic lectures at a university, and while I am compelled by his success in showing the nonsense of objective claims that there are no objective realities, for my money I think he doesn’t quite go far enough.
What is needed is to recognize that the Dei (in the imago Dei) trumps the Tao; the Tao < the Dei. This is needful for two reasons. First, it’s not just that men must recognize objective values, they must reflect objective values as image-bearers. Second, the objective values we reflect as image bearers are personal, they are revealed to us in God, and the Triune God at that, Father, Son, and Spirit. We are made in the image of one God in three Persons.
This means that to be truly men we cannot be alone. So “the LORD God said, ’It is not good that the man should be alone’” (Genesis 2:18). (What is so gutting in the movie “Castaway”? It’s not mostly his lack of shoes, but his lack of companionship.) The Tao has a rhetorical value in exalting the real world, but it falls short of the glory of God.
Friendship at St. Anne’s
The “company” at St. Anne’s isn’t just literary detritus. Lewis uses “company” 29 times in THS and a couple of them are capital C. A company refers to the group of companions, from the Latin words “com-” meaning “together” and “panis” meaning “bread” so those who shared bread/meals together. The company at St. Anne’s wasn’t perfect, but it was powerful; it pulled Jane in.
(Jane:) “You keep on talking of We and Us. Are you some kind of company?” (Ransom:) “Yes. You may call it a company.”
St. Anne’s provides a true picture of image-bearing: singing, gardening, doing dishes, eating cake and drinking wine, having word play and making puns(!), dressing up, having a cup of tea.
The main human characters struggled as image-bearers. Mark wanted relationship with the wrong set, Jane wanted responsibility according to her terms. Mark avoided true responsibility, Jane avoided true relationship.
I’d argue that the climax of the story happens after “The End.” Not only are Mark and Jane converted, they are unified. The end should remind us that the first word of THS is “matrimony.”
“Matrimony was ordained, thirdly,” said Jane Studdock to herself, “for the mutual society, help, and comfort that the one ought to have of the other.” (Location 54)
She repeats it a few paragraphs later: “Mutual society, help, and comfort,” said Jane bitterly. (Location 620)
The last sentence in the book, as Jane stood outside the lodge: “Obviously it was high time she went in.” Here are image-bearers, male and female, about ready to be fruitful and multiply. And their fellowship is only the beginning.
Winning the Good Fight
No Christian and, indeed, no historian could accept the epigram which defines religion as “what a man does with his solitude.” (“The Inner Ring”)
Today, this conference, talking about culture building, is part of the good fight. It’s not the only part, but those who fight alone on the right side only understand half of what it means to be on the right side.
We don’t read THS to become “Athanasius Contra Mundum,” we are like the little company of St. Anne’s contra mundum simul, against the world together. We do not love the world or the things in the world, but we do love one another and sharing these stories keeps us from being solo soldiers. You don’t have to read in a group, but you better read for the group, not to isolate yourself from it. It is our fellowship in receiving good gifts from God, including our flesh and blood relationships, as hard as they may be, that make us jealousable salt and light.
May the Lord of heaven and earth, one God in three Persons, bless us to be fruitful as we multiply our reading of good fiction that we would fight the good fight of faith with broader imaginative coordinates and stronger connections.
If you would have told me fifteen years ago that I would love fiction, I would have so non-fiction laughed in your face. If you would have told me that my favorite novel would be in the sci-fi genre, I might have encouraged you to book a flight on a SpaceX rocket. Yet here we are.
Deeper Heaven is more than a commentary, it’s a sort of celebration of C. S. Lewis’ Ransom Trilogy: Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength. We focused on this trifecta at our most recent Fiction Festival, and I thought I’d read Hale’s book as part of my preparation. Well worth it.
She references Michael Ward’s book, Planet Narnia, and especially the medieval cosmology/astronomy Lewis so clearly loved and threaded into Narnia and these earlier planetary books. I enjoyed Ward a lot, and I think anyone can read his stuff. But if you’re just getting started you might find Hale’s orbit a bit more inviting.
It’s only been two years since I last read THS, and it was, perhaps, even better on my fifth time through? Our 7th annual fiction festival is coming up in March, and the theme is “Why Christians Shouldn’t Be NICE.” So it will have a Ransom trilogy focus, with special attention on the third of the three. I wanted a running start, so I started a plod read with Out of the Silent Planet last summer, got through Perelandra, and just finished THS. I had forgotten how (bloody) bloody the damage is at the end, and of course it couldn’t have happened to NICEr guys. THS couldn’t get any higher on my list of favorite fiction books, though it did root its position more securely.
Work with me here for just a second. I like the Burger King Whopper with cheese. I order it as is. Before I eat it, I wipe off almost all of the toppings: tomato and onions and pickles and lettuce and condiments. I carefully choose a couple pieces of the more greenish-looking lettuce to replace on the burger, and then dig in. I like the overall flavor, but still have some texture issues.
This book is way more filling if you can scrape off the parts about theistic evolution and man’s free will. This book is worth the work to do so, I’m just warning before you take a big bite.
Lewis identifies the “problem”:
‘If God were good, He would wish to make His creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty He would be able to do what He wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore God lacks either goodness, or power, or both.’ This is the problem of pain, in its simplest form.
He answers the question pretty well, not only in terms of what our sin deserves, but especially in terms of how God uses suffering/pain/troubles to not let us be satisfied with anything less than Himself. So:
God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.
This is not from a detached position. There’s no Lewisian Stoicism.
When I think of pain—of anxiety that gnaws like fire and loneliness that spreads out like a desert, and the heartbreaking routine of monotonous misery, or again of dull aches that blacken our whole landscape or sudden nauseating pains that knock a man’s heart out at one blow, of pains that seem already intolerable and then are suddenly increased, of infuriating scorpion-stinging pains that startle into maniacal movement a man who seemed half dead with his previous tortures—it ‘quite o’ercrows my spirit’.
Lewis has chapters on Hell and Heaven which are also connected and good, and overall he accomplishes his goal to provide “a little courage” and “the least tincture of the love of God.”
I have grown older since the last time I read Perelandra, and reading it again has made me older still.
Of course I’m riffing off the Green Lady’s testimony; growing older is how she describes her learning, so does the King, as well as Piebald. We learn more and it makes us less young. Solomon once wrote that in much wisdom and knowledge there is much grief and sorrow. And there is much to maturing that is misery. It is a fight to keep the joy.
Ransom’s fight on Venus is a good fight.
I reread this second part of the Ransom trilogy because our next Fiction Festival is at least about That Hideous Strength and I wanted a fresh meditation through the whole series for sake of my preparation. I’m adding the fifth star to my previous four in 2014.
The Abolition of Man by C. S. Lewis is a worldview game-changer. Rather, it’s a book about how certain attempted changes to the game are bringing an end to humanity, and in the name of humanity. That’s bad.
Ward’s book is a commentary on Lewis’s book, with background material and line by line explanations of references and persons that Lewis assumed his 1943 academic audience would know.
As with many commentaries, After Humanity is three times the length of Abolition‘s original text. Yet Ward knows his stuff (Ward’s Planet Narnia is one of my all-time favorite books), and the extra pages will repay the effort of reading. Maybe read Lewis three or ten times, then read Ward, then go back to Lewis yet again.
This is a classic, relevant before it was even published as a book, and relevant ever since, with eternally relevant questions for non-Christians and immediately relevant reminders for believers. You should read it.
I’d known about the book for a long time but had never read it. Then, a few weeks ago when war started (again) between Russian and Ukraine, I saw on the tweetstream someone mention that he had started reading Mere Christianity, and I remembered that Lewis originally prepared most of the material for the book as he shared it over a radio broadcast series in England during WW II. Similar contexts, then and now, made now seem like the right time for me to pick it up.
I didn’t realize how many Lewis-ian ideas came from Mere Christianity. This is where the “Lord, Liar, or Lunatic” apologetic comes from. It’s where he says, “the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next” and “Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither.” It’s where he quotes George MacDonald that as a Father “God is easy to please, but hard to satisfy.” And it’s where he talks about how men who try to be original can’t be, but “if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before), you will, nine times out of the, become original without ever having noticed it.”
I don’t agree with Lewis (because I disagree with his reading of the Bible) on the degree of freedom in man’s will, and he is wrong (again, according to Scripture) about how some “people in other religions … [can] belong to Christ without knowing it.” While these false things can’t be ignored, they are, ironically, defeated by so many of the true things that Lewis says.
God is killing our need to be needed, and He is doing more than making us “nice,” He is making us new men. Mere Christianity will edify and fortify such men.
A few years ago I began to talk about #MEGA, Make Easter Great Again, not because it ever stopped being great, but in order to remind us of how great it really is.
It’s not the day per se, and it’s not limited to the doctrine. The resurrection itself declares that God received the sacrifice of His Son and vindicated all the Son’s claims. He “was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 1:4, ESV). The resurrection, as objective and historical truth, did it.
If Jesus is resurrected, then God is pleased with you who believe in Jesus because you’ve been raised with Him. If Jesus is raised from the dead, then your account with God has been settled. It is finished.
And also He is not finished with us. He will be, and we can share Paul’s confidence. “I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6, ESV). But at the present time God is willing and working in us (Philippians 2:13), and our perfect heavenly Father wants the same for His sons: perfection.
C. S. Lewis put it this way:
It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad. (Mere Christianity, Location 2504)
“You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3, ESV). The realities of Easter remind you that He is making you a new self and renewing you through the knowledge of the living Christ (Colossians 3:10).
I recently saw a guy I follow online post that he had started to read Mere Christianity. I remembered that that book began as a series of radio broadcasts by C. S. Lewis in England during WWII. Of all the Lewis lit I’ve read, that book isn’t one of them, so I thought, in light of what I see in the rest of my news feed, maybe there’s no time like the present.
It’s in that book that Lewis gives his Lord, Liar, or Lunatic argument. It’s fool’s work to claim that Jesus was merely a good teacher. Jesus said things that either were life giving truths or damnable lies. He was from heaven, or He was straight from the pit. He claimed to be the Son of God, and nice guys who aren’t God don’t say that sort thing. So Jesus was either crazy, or a conniver, or Lord of the cosmos.
It’s the immediately preceding context in Lewis’ book that struck me. The thing Lewis highlights is that Jesus forgave sin.
Remember the paralytic in Matthew 9. Jesus told him, in front of the scribes, that in order to know that the Son of Man had authority to forgive sin, the man could also rise up and walk. The healing by His word is a miracle. But the authority of His forgiveness is more awesome.
But what should we make of a man, himself unrobbed and untrodden on, who announced that he forgave you for treading on other men’s toes and stealing other men’s money? Asinine fatuity is the kindest description we should give of his conduct. Yet this is what Jesus did. He told people that their sins were forgiven, and never waited to consult all the other people whom their sins had undoubtedly injured. (Loc. 792)
Jesus asked and asks no man’s permission to forgive. It’s said that to forgive is divine, and amen. He is Lord, and He is Lord of forgiveness.