Friday, January 28, 2005

Out Into Acres of Blue Flowers: Jesus as the Object of C. S. Lewis's Sehnsucht

In his spiritual autobiography Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis says that before he was six years old, he was, “for good or ill … a votary of the Blue Flower.”[1] The reference is to a German expression, “Blaue Blume.” Novalis’ work of this title was popularized for English readership in a Henry Van Dyke short story, “The Blue Flower.” In this story, “the boy” was struck by a Stranger’s stories, but “it was not what he told me about the treasures, … that was not the thing which filled me with so strange a longing …But the Blue Flower is what I long for. I can think of nothing else. Never have I felt so before…But when the flower fades from me, when I cannot see it in my mind, then it is like being very thirsty and all alone.”[2] The blaue Blume became a symbol in German Romanticism which represented a longing for the unknown. For C. S. Lewis, the Blue Flower became a symbol of his own longing—his Sehnsucht.
Sehnsucht is a German word which seems to defy translation into English. In a letter to his brother Warnie, Lewis describes it as “a vague something.”[3] Some have offered “desire” and “longing” as attempts for translation. Realizing Sehnsucht as more than that, C. S. Lewis referred to the concept in his letters to Arthur Greeves simply as “It”. He even described Greeves to Owen Barfield as “the ‘friend’ of It.”[4] Lewis said, “It is difficult to find words strong enough for the sensation which came over me; Milton’s ‘enormous bliss’ of Eden (giving the full, ancient meaning to ‘enormous’) comes somewhere near it.”[5] In the preface to Dymer, Lewis says, “Such longing in itself is the very reverse of wishful thinking: it is more like thoughtful wishing.”[6]
Lewis seeks to define “It” more precisely in Surprised by Joy: “It is that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and from Pleasure.”[7] What Joy has in common with those things is that anyone who experiences it will want it again. Where Joy differs from Happiness and Pleasure is that it is almost a sort of “unhappiness or grief. But then it is a kind we want.”[8] In the preface to The Pilgrim’s Regress, Lewis states that this “acute and even painful” attribute of Sehnsucht distinguishes it from other longings, “yet the mere wanting is felt to be somehow a delight.”[9] It is a hunger which “is better than any other fullness; this poverty better than all other wealth.”[10]
Lewis says, “It must have the stab, the pang, the inconsolable longing.”[11] The painful element of Sehnsucht is apparent in the essay “Transpositions,” as Lewis writes, “If I were to judge simply by sensations, I should come to the absurd conclusion that joy and anguish are the same thing, that what I most dread is the same with what I most desire.”[12]
An interesting characteristic of Sehnsucht is that, even though Lewis would argue it is a universal experience, one typically thinks he or she is the only one who is experiencing it. Lewis wrote, “I notice that a man seldom mentions what he had supposed to be his own most idiosyncratic sensations without receiving from at least one (often more) of those present, the reply, ‘What! Have you felt that too? I thought I was the only one.’”[13] Lewis finds it, among other places, in the writings of Keats (“He knows about the hunting for ‘it’”)[14] and Robert Louis Stevenson.[15]
Sehnsucht may be universally experienced, but it is not universally acknowledged. Lewis writes, “Almost our whole education had been directed to silencing this shy, persistent, inner voice.”[16] Therefore, Lewis describes his painstaking task of calling it to the attention of his audience: “I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; … the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both.”[17]
The first glimpses of Sehnsucht struck C. S. Lewis early in his childhood. On at least two occasions (in the preface to Dymer and in Surprised by Joy), he mentions that he was already aware of the sensation by age six. His earliest recollections of Sehnsucht involve scenes in the nursery of the Lewis home. From their windows the Lewis brothers could look out to the “The Green Hills” of Castlereagh. Lewis writes, “They were not very far off but they were, to children, quite unattainable.”[18]
Three particular childhood instances of Sehnsucht are recounted by Lewis in Surprised by Joy. The first concerned his brother Warnie’s toy garden which he had made by covering the lid of a biscuit tin with moss and twigs and flowers. Lewis recalls that this was “the first beauty I ever knew.”[19] The significance of this toy garden, however, was not in the seeing of it, but in the memory of it years later. “It was a sensation of course, of desire, but desire for what? not, certainly, for a biscuit tin filled with moss, nor even (though that came into it) for my own past.”[20]
The second glimpse of Sehnsucht Lewis records was in the reading of Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin. “It troubled me with what I can only describe as the Idea of Autumn. … [A]s before, the experience was one of intense desire.”[21] Autumn would become a special time of the year for Lewis, evidenced in an October, 1949 letter to Warfield Firor. Therein, Lewis describes the season as “paradisal, the sort of weather which for some reason excites me much more than spring: cool, cobwebby mornings developing into the mildest sunlight, and exquisite colours in the woods. It always gives me Wanderlust & ‘divine discontent’ and all that.”[22]
The third glimpse came through reading Longfellow’s Saga of King Olaf. There, upon reading of the death of Balder (though Lewis confesses that he knew nothing about Balder), Sehnsucht happened. He wrote, “I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described (except that it is cold, spacious, severe, pale, and remote).”[23] He would go on to give this sensation the name “Northernness”, and define it as, “a vision of huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight of Northern summer, remoteness, severity.”[24] In a letter to Arthur Greeves he wrote, “This bent to ‘Northern’ things is quite real and one can’t get over it—not that I ever thought of trying.”[25] That Greeves understood “Northernness” is made plain in Lewis’s observation, “that both knew the stab of Joy and that, for both, the arrow was shot from the North.”[26]
With the death of his mother when he was just nine years old, Lewis confesses, “all settled happiness, all that was tranquil and reliable disappeared from my life. There was to be much fun, many pleasures, many stabs of Joy; but no more of the old security.”[27] During the “dark ages” of his boyhood, the stabs of Joy became fewer, vanishing almost entirely until the occurrence of that to which Lewis refers as “Renaissance”. In a schoolroom, his eyes fell upon a literary periodical featuring Siegfried and the Twilight of the Gods, and emblazoned with Arthur Rackham’s illustrations from that book. At that moment, Sehnsucht struck Lewis again in the form of “Pure Northernness.”[28]
In the wake of this singular event, C. S. Lewis’s awareness of Sehnsucht was reawakened. He began encountering “It”, among other places, in Norse mythology (an interest he would share with both Arthur Greeves and J. R. R. Tolkien) and in nature. In a 1929 letter to Greeves, Lewis writes, “I saw both a squirrel and a fat old rat in Addison’s walk, and had glimpses of ‘it.’”[29] Perhaps these creatures stirred in him a sense of nostalgia for Squirrel Nutkin and the “chivalrous mice” of his childhood Animal-Land stories (possibly a prototype of Reepicheep of Narnia).[30]
As Lewis began writing professionally, the “central story”[31] of his life flavored the pages. Sehnsucht can be found in the earliest works of C. S. Lewis. One detects it in his first published book, Spirits in Bondage (1919), as Lewis (under the penname “Clive Hamilton”) writes, “Seeking the last steep edges whence I may leap into that gulf of light.”[32] The essence of Sehnsucht is expressed in “Joy,” a poem written in 1924. Even earlier, in a short manuscript written in 1916 entitled “The Quest of Bleheris,” the hero finds himself growing more and more dissatisfied with the world in which he lives. “But even as thus he pondered, those dark moonlit hills with all their wonders were weaving a spell about him: so anon a new thought, as it had been a gust of sweet, cold morning-wind, smote upon the dungeon of his soul, and he almost laughed for joy.”[33]
In his 1945 essay, “Meditation in a Toolshed,” Lewis makes a distinction which is important to nearly all his writings. He notes the differences between “looking at” and “looking along.” Looking at something is to analyze it apart from the subjective experience of the thing. Looking along it is to experience it, or to take part in it. In this essay, Lewis argues that both perspectives are necessary. While Lewis’s major non-fiction works give a thorough look at Sehnsucht, his works of fiction provide the reader with a “look along”—the experience of Sehnsucht.
As Ransom rockets through space in Out of the Silent Planet, his fresh perspective on the universe (akin to the Medieval cosmology Lewis describes in The Discarded Image), causes him to feel “‘sweet influence’ pouring or even stabbing into his surrendered body … a severe delight.”[34] Ransom finds, upon learning from the hrossa, that there are two verbs which mean “longing” or “yearning,” and a sharper distinction was drawn between those words than in English.[35] The Malacandrian environment evokes images of the Northernness of which Lewis was so fond. Ransom’s recollections of two particular scenes in the postscript, the Malacandrian sky at morning and a nocturne scene, are “always before me when I close my eyes.”[36]
On Perelandra, Ransom’s Sehnsucht is livened by the multisensory experience that the planet provides. As he reached toward one type of fruit, “his head, face, and shoulders were drenched with what seemed (in that warm world) an ice-cold shower bath, and his nostrils filled with a sharp, shrill, exquisite scent that somehow brought to his mind the verse in Pope, ‘die of a rose in aromatic pain.’”[37] Another fruit “was like the discovery of a totally new genus of pleasures, … He could never tell us, when he came back to the world of men, whether it was sharp or sweet, savoury or voluptuous, creamy or piercing. ‘Not like that’ was all all he could ever say to such inquiries.”[38] Like the total satisfaction that Sehnsucht promises, Ransom noticed that after eating this fruit, “he was now neither hungry nor thirsty.”[39]
In the preface to The Pilgrim’s Regress, C. S. Lewis states that “there is a peculiar mystery about the object of this Desire.”[40] The object of Sehnsucht is as elusive as the White Stag of Narnia. One may not be able to define the object, but experience will teach the seeker what it is not. If ever one attains what is perceived to be the object of Desire, it will only be a short time before realizing that the real object is still beyond reach—still somewhere beyond. “All Joy reminds. It is never a possession, always a desire for something longer ago or further away or still ‘about to be.’”[41]
Many things in this world appear to be the object of Sehnsucht. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Edmund is convinced that Turkish Delight will satisfy his longing. “He had eaten his share of the dinner, but he hadn’t really enjoyed it because he was thinking all the time about Turkish Delight—and there’s nothing that spoils the taste of good ordinary food half so much as the memory of bad magic food.”[42] Soon enough, Edmund would discover that his craving for Turkish Delight would be his downfall. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, it is a pool of water which turns objects into gold which portends false satisfaction for the characters.
C. S. Lewis had come to discover that Sehnsucht defied satisfaction in a host of earthly objects. In Perelandra this phenomenon is referred to as “the sweet poison of the false infinite.”[43] He learned that he could not find the genuine object of Sehnsucht in the occult. “It is not at Black Mass or séance that the Blue Flower grows.”[44] Neither could sex satisfy the longing. “I learned this mistake to be a mistake by the simple, if discreditable, process of repeatedly making it.”[45]
Lewis was aware that he was not the only one who had sought for the object of Sehnsucht in all the wrong places. “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”[46] He says in Mere Christianity, “Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.”[47] If earthly things are mistaken for the object of Sehnsucht, Lewis warns, “they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”[48] And so, the stabbing, painful longing continues—“the odour which is death to us until we allow it to become life: an air that kills from yon far country blows.”[49]
If the Blue Flower is not to be found in any garden on earth, that is, if earthly pleasures are not the object of Sehnsucht, then what is? C. S. Lewis came to find out the object of Sehnsucht is in another world. “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”[50] It is not in Perelandra or in Malacandra, though venturing there in literature may awaken one’s sense of it by causing the reader to look along it.[51] Beyond those places, the only real object of Sehnsucht is in heaven.
Lewis recognizes that the suggestion of such would strike the average person as absurd. “Most of us find it very difficult to want ‘Heaven’ at all.”[52] Perhaps the case is more accurately stated in The Problem of Pain, where Lewis writes, “There have been times when I think we do not desire heaven but more often I find myself wondering whether, in our heart of hearts, we have ever desired anything else.”[53] Sehnsucht, “Joy” in Lewis’s vernacular, is “the serious business of Heaven.”[54]
Heaven itself is not the object, but the location where the object will be found. Sehnsucht is “as the Siege Perilous in Arthur’s castle—the chair in which only one could sit. And if nature makes nothing in vain, the One who can sit in this chair must exist.”[55] The rightful occupant of the chair, the true object of Sehnsucht is “one Particular Man, with a date, so tall, weighing so much, talking Aramaic, having learned a trade.”[56]
In another world this One is called Aslan, but Lucy is told that He has a different name in this world. In a letter to a young girl named Hila in 1953, C. S. Lewis tried to help her recognize this One: “I want you to guess. Has there never been anyone in this world who (1.) Arrived at the same time as Father Christmas. (2.) Said he was the son of the Great Emperor. (3.) Gave himself up for someone else’s fault to be jeered at and killed by wicked people. (4.) Came to life again. (5.) Is sometimes spoken of as a Lamb (see the end of the Dawn Treader). Don’t you really know His name in this world[?].”[57]
For C. S. Lewis, Sehnsucht had driven him to the One True Object. The Green Hills, the Idea of Autumn, Northernness, and all the other occasions of Joy in Lewis’s life had been “shafts of glory”, “patches of Godlight,”[58] a “signpost” to one “lost in the woods”, and “a pointer to something other and outer.”[59] On the other end of Sehnsucht was “God Himself, alive, pulling at the other end of the cord,”[60] pulling Lewis to the place where he could recognize, “my only real treasure is Christ.”[61] It is only in Jesus that one can both “look at” and “look along” Sehnsucht. It is only in Him that myth becomes fact. He is, in the words of Johann Sebastian Bach, the “Joy of Man’s Desiring.” He is the Sehnsucht of Sehnsuchts. Only the risen Aslan, the resurrected Jesus as He is known in this world, could take C. S. Lewis “out into acres of blue flowers.”[62]

Primary Sources:

Dorsett, Lyle W. and Marjorie Lamp Mead. C. S. Lewis: Letters to Children (New York: Touchstone, 1995).

Hooper, Walter, ed. The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, vol. II, Books, Broadcasts, and the War 1931—1949 (New York: Harper San Francisco, 2004).

---. The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, vol. I, Family Letters 1905-1931 (New York: Harper San Francisco, 2004).

---. Poems (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977).

Lewis, C. S. The Collected Works of C. S. Lewis [The Pilgrim’s Regress, Christian Reflections, God in the Dock] (New York: Inspirational Press, 1996).

---. The Inspirational Writings of C. S. Lewis [Surprised by Joy, Reflections on the Psalms, The Four Loves, The Business of Heaven] (New York: Inspirational Press, 1994).

---. Letters to Malcolm Chiefly on Prayer (San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1992).

---. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (New York: Harper Trophy, 1994).

---. Mere Christianity (New York: Touchstone, 1996).

---. Miracles (New York: Touchstone, 1996).

---. Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength [in one volume] (New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1997).

---. The Pilgrim’s Regress (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1958).

---. The Problem of Pain (New York: Touchstone, 1996).

---. The Weight of Glory and Other Essays (New York: Harper San Francisco, 2001).

Secondary Sources:

Carnell, Corbin Scott. Bright Shadow of Reality: Spiritual Longing in C. S. Lewis (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999).

Cording, Ruth James. C. S. Lewis: A Celebration of His Early Life (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2000).

Downing, David C. The Most Reluctant Convert: C. S. Lewis’ Journey to Faith (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2002).

---. Planets in Peril (Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992).

Duncan, John Ryan. The Magic Never Ends (Nashville: W Publishing Group, 2001).

Duriez, Colin. The C. S. Lewis Encyclopedia (Edison, NJ: Inspirational Press, 2003).

---. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis: The Gift of Friendship (Mahwah, NJ: HiddenSpring, 2003).

Goffar, Janine. The C. S. Lewis Index (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1995).

Hooper, Walter. C. S. Lewis Companion & Guide (New York: Harper San Francisco, 1996).

Martindale, Wayne and Jerry Root, eds. The Quotable Lewis (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale, 1989).

Meilaender, Gilbert. A Taste for the Other (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).

Schultz, Jeffrey D. and John G. West Jr., eds. The C. S. Lewis Readers’ Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998).

[1] C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy in The Inspirational Writings of C. S. Lewis (New York: Inspirational Press, 1994), 6.
[2] Henry Van Dyke, “The Blue Flower”. (Accessed January 27, 2005).
[3] Letter to Warren Lewis, October 24, 1931. Walter Hooper, ed., The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, vol. II, Books, Broadcasts, and the War 1931—1949 (New York: Harper San Francisco, 2004), 7.
[4] Letter to Owen Barfield, September 9, 1929. Walter Hooper, ed., The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, vol. I, Family Letters 1905-1931 (New York: Harper San Francisco, 2004), 821. See also Lewis’ letters to Greeves dated October 3, 1929 [page 832]; January 30, 1930 [page 877]; et al.
[5] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 10.
[6] Preface to Dymer. Quoted in John Ryan Duncan, The Magic Never Ends: The Life and Work of C. S. Lewis (Nashville: W Publishing Group, 2001), 61.
[7] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 11.
[8] Ibid.
[9] C. S. Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 7
[10] Ibid.
[11] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 40.
[12] C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Essays (New York: Harper San Francisco, 2000), 97.
[13] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 3.
[14] Letter to Arthur Greeves, November 8, 1931. Hooper, Collected Letters, vol. II, 12.
[15] See Letter to Greeves, August 28, 1930. Hooper, Collected Letters, vol. I, 931.
[16] Lewis, The Weight of Glory, 31.
[17] Ibid., 29-30.
[18] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 6.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Ibid., 10.
[21] Ibid., 11.
[22] Letter to Warfield M. Firor, October 15, 1949. Hooper, Collected Letters, vol. II, 985.
[23] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 11.
[24] Ibid., 41.
[25] Letter to Arthur Greeves, December 7, 1935. Hooper, Collected Letters, vol. II, 169.
[26] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 72.
[27]Ibid., 13.
[28] Ibid., 41.
[29] Letter to Greeves, October 3, 1929. Hooper, Collected Letters, vol. I, 832.
[30] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 9.
[31] Ibid., 11.
[32] Quoted in Ruth James Cording, C. S. Lewis: A Celebration of His Early Life (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2000), 133.
[33] Quoted in David Downing, The Most Reluctant Convert: C. S. Lewis’s Journey to Faith (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 67-68.
[34] C. S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet in Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength [in one volume] (New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1997), 33.
[35] Ibid., 74.
[36] Ibid., 156-157.
[37] C. S. Lewis, Perelandra in Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength [in one volume] (New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1997), 198.
[38] Ibid., 193.
[39] Ibid.
[40] Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress, 8.
[41] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 43.
[42] C. S. Lewis, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe (New York: Harper Trophy, 1994), 88.
[43] Lewis, Perelandra, 226.
[44] Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress, 9. See also Surprised by Joy, Chapter 11.
[45] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 94.
[46] Lewis, Weight of Glory, 26.
[47] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 121.
[48] Lewis, The Weight of Glory, 31.
[49] C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock in The Collected Works of C. S. Lewis (New York: Inspirational Press), 436. Italicized is reference to A. E. Housman, A Shropshire Lad, stanza 40.
[50] Lewis, Mere Christianity, 121.
[51] See C. S. Lewis, “An Expostulation” in Walter Hooper, ed., Poems (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977), 58.
[52] Lewis, Mere Christianity, 120.
[53] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 130.
[54] C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm (San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1992), 93.
[55] Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress, 10.
[56] C. S. Lewis, “No Beauty We Could Desire” in Hooper, ed., Poems, 124.
[57] Letter to Hila, June 3, 1953. Lyle W. Dorsett and Marjorie Lamp Mead, eds., C. S. Lewis: Letters to Children (New York: Touchstone, 1995), 31.
[58] Lewis, Letters to Malcolm, 89, 91.
[59] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 130.
[60] C. S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 125.
[61] Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 95.
[62] Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, 165.

Book Review: Lewis Agonistes

Lewis Agonistes: How C. S. Lewis Can Train Us to Wrestle with the Modern and Postmodern World, by Louis Markos. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2004. 174 pages.

According to Louis Markos, the contemporary proliferation of modernist and postmodernist ideologies has “dulled the edge of the Christian agon” (x). Markos finds in C. S. Lewis a model for wrestling with the culture. Hence his seemingly odd title: Lewis Agonistes. The title is borrowed from John Milton, whose play Samson Agonistes depicted Samson’s internal and external wrestling. In like manner, Markos discusses the personal struggles of C. S. Lewis, and how those shaped him for the task of wrestling with the ideologies of the world around him. Throughout the book, Markos refers to Lewis as “Lewis Agonistes.”

Louis Markos is certainly qualified to undertake a project of this nature. He is a professor of English and literature at Houston Baptist University, and has written much on C. S. Lewis. His lecture series entitled The Life and Writings of C. S. Lewis was published through the Teaching Company. Several articles written for periodicals and lectures delivered at various engagements were expanded to form the substance of Lewis Agonistes. Upon reading the book, Markos’s familiarity with the Lewis canon is obvious.

Markos’s objective is not primarily academic or documentary. It is his intent, “to go beyond analysis: to not only wrestle through Lewis but alongside him as well” (xiii). He sets out to accomplish this task rather systematically. First, he seeks to explain the challenges of modernism and postmodernism. He demonstrates these challenges in five particular arenas of thought. The second step in Markos’s process is to reference primary sources in order to present Lewis’s response to the challenges. Finally, Markos seeks to equip his readers to follow Lewis’s example in engaging the philosophies currently affecting culture.

Lewis Agonistes is very well organized. The preface is substantial and very informative in setting out the objectives of the book. It is followed by an introduction to Lewis’s life and by chapters on the “five most contested battlefields of the twentieth century” (x). These chapters are fairly uniform in length and structure, with the chapter on the arts being the longest, and that on evil and suffering being the shortest. The brief conclusion serves as an inspiring benediction for the reader to go out, under the influence of Lewis, and become a wrestler in the present age.
Markos’s first chapter, “The Education of Lewis Agonistes,” gives important biographical information which will be familiar to the student of Lewis’s life and works. Markos highlights those people, places, and events in Lewis’s life which particularly shaped him for the task of engaging culture. In particular, Markos focuses on Lewis’s internal wrestling with the “two competing sides of his psyche. On the one side was an eager young scholar and rationalist who yearned to hone his already sharp mind on the whetstone of reason and logic. On the other was the passionate dreamer who thrilled to the tales of Norse mythology and who sought in every nook and cranny of the world some object or story or word that would carry him away on the wings of joy to that richer world he could only catch in glimpses” (6). Markos gives attention to the influence of MacDonald’s Phantastes, Owen Barfield, and J. R. R. Tolkien in helping Lewis to settle this competition by embracing myth. Tolkien helped Lewis to understand Christ as the myth made true.
Markos suggests that the “fusion of these two sides of his character” makes Lewis an effective Christian apologist (17-20). In the subsequent chapters, Markos seeks to demonstrate this fusion by using examples of both imaginative and rational arguments found in Lewis’s writings.

Each of the second through sixth chapters focuses on a different “battlefield” of thought. The first of these is science. Included in this chapter is an introduction to modernism, highlighting Darwin, Freud, Marx and Nietzsche serving as the fathers of the movement. To this challenge, Markos suggests that Lewis wrestles with a two-pronged apologetic. First is Lewis’s argument by desire. Markos calls this “Lewis’s most original contribution to apologetics” (41). Second is his more academic line of argument. Drawing from several of Lewis works, Markos posits that Lewis was convinced of four things that could not have evolved: joy, ethics, human reason, and religion (48). The reader may be misled if he or she does not bear in mind that Lewis was not antagonistic toward science, even embracing much of the evolutionary theory. What Lewis opposed was scientism, that is, the use of science to formulate theological positions—the making of a religion out of science. Markos would better serve his readers and do more justice to Lewis by clarifying this distinction.

The second battlefield Markos engages with Lewis is that of the New Age, particularly its pantheistic foundation. Whereas the challenge of science represented modernist thinking, the New Age is decidedly postmodern. Lewis, seeing how modernism had destroyed the majesty and splendor of the universe, seems to have anticipated this pendulum swing to the other extreme. The answer to this challenge is to be found in medieval cosmology, outlined in The Discarded Image and illustrated in the Ransom trilogy. This chapter bears several weaknesses. First among them is the speculative suggestion that the Magi were Zoroastrians (73). Another biblical flaw is the suggestion that the Jerusalem Church tried to influence Paul to force his Gentile converts to become Jews first before becoming Christians (73). Markos parenthetically refers to the second chapter of Galatians, of which even a casual reading debunks his statement. The Jerusalem church affirmed Paul’s message, and declared it so in Acts 15. The position Markos has tried to ascribe to the Jerusalem church is that of the cult of Judaizers, who were never tolerated under the umbrella of orthodoxy. Finally, while Lewis did see Christ as the fulfillment, not only of Hebrew prophecy but also of pagan religion, Markos takes this a step too far perhaps. He suggests that the Catholic Church’s practice of Christianizing pagan holidays was a “higher kind of evangelism” (79). These weaknesses aside, Markos succeeds in stretching the mind of the modern evangelical to become more imaginative (like Lewis) in reaching the postmodern pantheist.

In the chapter concerning the battlefield of evil and suffering, Markos asserts that post-Enlightenment thinking, particularly the influence of Rousseau and the rejection of the concept of sin, has created an inability to deal with the problem of evil. It is in this chapter that Markos makes perhaps his most profound observation: “What is less often asked is why our modern Western world, which has seen a decrease in human suffering unparalleled in human history, seems less able to deal with pain and more quick either to blame God for evil and suffering or to deny his existence altogether—or, as contradictory as it may seem, to do both at the same time” (91). Markos makes use of Perelandra, The Problem of Pain, A Grief Observed, and The Magician’s Nephew to articulate Lewis’s position. He focuses on Lewis’s free-will theodicy, while defending Lewis against charges of Open Theism because of his views on eternality and timelessness (97). The greatest shortcoming of this chapter is its brevity, being the shortest of the book. Aside from that, Markos does well at presenting a concise synopsis of Lewis’s thought on the problem of evil.

In the books longest chapter, Markos takes up the subject of “Wrestling with the Arts.” Ferdinand de Saussure and Jacques Derrida are the antagonists here, with the focus being on modernist and postmodern use of language. Markos’s primary form of art under consideration is poetry. He recognizes that Lewis “never addressed directly the issues raised,” in this chapter (122). That does not stop Markos from embarking on a long, tedious, and sometimes dangerous journey of engaging the issue. It is the book’s weakest point, with confusing concepts never clearly defined, thoughts that could be better organized for clarity, and a risky hermeneutic that embraces spiritualizing and allegorizing the Scriptures and compares the treasured evangelical doctrine of inerrancy with Islamic views of the Koran (120).

The final issue Markos engages is that of heaven and hell. Demonstrating the subtle influence of Freud and of William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (from which Lewis draws the title The Great Divorce), Markos argues that most Westerners have rejected hell (and to some extent, heaven) on the grounds of fairness, equality, and human integrity. Markos goes on to articulate Lewis’s very unique views on hell and his compelling statements concerning heaven. This very fine chapter leaves the reader intrigued, wanting to hear Lewis speak more on these subjects.

In the conclusion, Markos makes reference to C. S. Lewis’s cave allegory (not entirely unlike that of Plato) from his sermon “Transpositions”. Markos employs the allegory as a picture of modernism and postmodernism, and how each system leaves us bankrupt as human beings. He concludes with an inspiring challenge for the reader to take up Lewis’s mantle and wrestle with the culture as Lewis Agonistes has demonstrated. The conclusion is rather brief and leaves the tying up of some loose ends to the reader.

Overall, Markos has done a fine job in both describing Lewis’s method of apologetics and giving specific examples of it in the “five battlefields.” Obviously there are issues not addressed in this book, but the reader feels equipped to tackle those issues alongside of Lewis having seen his method so clearly demonstrated by Markos. Lewis Agonistes is a positive contribution to the field of Lewis studies, taking the reader beyond literary criticism and theological understanding to pragmatic apologetics. If the reader finds himself or herself interacting with the skeptic in a Lewisian fashion, then Markos’s purpose has been served. The book is therefore recommended to fans of Lewis and those with an interest in apologetic dialogue.

If a future revision is to occur, it will be greatly enhanced by an index and bibliography. An index would help the reader locate passages of Lewis’s works referenced by Markos as well as the individuals and concepts to which he makes reference. The reader will be helped in understanding the themes and recurring concepts in Lewis’s writings by referencing other secondary materials. The book contains no footnotes or endnotes and no list of recommended resources for further study. While it is possible that Markos penned this entire volume without the aid of other sources, surely Markos is aware that, at least in this realm of writing, it would be ill-advised. The book bears the mark of other influences who deserve acknowledgement. In fairness to Markos, who seems to be a careful scholar, this shortcoming may be the fault of the publisher or editor rather than the author. Of course, the reader will profit most by following Lewis’s own advice given in his essay “On the Reading of Old Books” (God in the Dock, part II, chapter 4): “It has always therefore been one of my main endeavors as a teacher to persuade the young that first-hand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than second-hand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.” Louis Markos’s readers should feel compelled to return to Lewis’s own works and learn from the man himself.



You have landed on my Blog. I am Russ Reaves. I am a Christian, the husband of the most wonderful woman in the world, father of the two most precious children on earth, a Pastor, a Seminary student in the field of Christian Apologetics (concentrating on C. S. Lewis), and a fervent fan of ice hockey. Most posts here will have something to do with one of these subjects.

Having recently experimented with posting things on a Yahoo! Group, I have decided to move toward Blogging. I will maintain the Yahoo! Group (search for russreaves), but will also post important articles here.

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