Friday, January 28, 2005

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.

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