Or, A Culture of Imaging and Imagination
Below are the notes from the talk I gave at the Equipping the Saints Conference a couple weekends ago.
Fairytales as Terrorism
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.