Lesser Known Lewis

September 2, 2007    By: Jacob J @ 12:11 pm   Category: Uncategorized

Mere Christianity and Screwtape Letters get a lot of attention, but I find most people have not read much C.S. Lewis beyond that (if anything, the Great Divorce, The Abolition of Man, maybe The Weight of Glory). Although I’m a big fan of his famous books like Screwtape Letters, most of my favorite Lewis comes from his shorter essays and lesser known stuff. Here are some snippets from the Letters of C.S. Lewis, a collection of some of his personal letters to fans and friends. I thought some of these might generate interesting discussion if people are inclined to discuss. I numbered them so you can refer to them more easily.

1) I have seen death fairly often and never yet been able to find it anything but extraordinary and rather incredible. The real person is so very real, so obviously living and different from what is left that one cannot believe something has turned into nothing. It is not faith, is is not reason — just a “feeling.” “Feelings” are in the long run a pretty good match for what we call our beliefs. (To his father, 23 April, 1921)

2) I’m sorry about the Athanasian Creed — the passage illustrates how important it is in writing to say what you mean and not to say anything you don’t mean. As the context suggests, I was thinking purely of the Trinitarian doctrine and had quite forgotten the damnatory clauses. There are however several palliatives. Residence in Limbo I am told is compatible with “perishing everlastingly” and you’ll find it quite jolly, for whereas Heaven is an acquired taste, Limbo is a place of “perfect natural happiness.” …There are grand libraries in Limbo, endless discussions, and no colds. There will be a faint melancholy because you’ll all know that you have missed the bus, but that will provide a subject for poetry. (To Mrs. Joan Bennett, probably in response to Mrs Bennett taking exception ot the chapter “Limbo” in The Pilgrim’s Regress, 1933)

3) The process of living seems to consist in coming to realize truths so ancient and simple that, if stated, they sound like barren platitudes. They cannot sound otherwise to those who have not had the relevant experience: that is why there is no real teaching of such truths possible and every generation starts from scratch. (To Dom Bede Griffiths, 8 May 1939)

4) My own experience in reading the Gospels was at one stage even more depressing than yours. Everyone told me that there I should find a figure whom I couldn’t help loving. Well, I could. They told me I would find moral perfection — but one sees so little of Him in ordinary situations that I couldn’t make much of that either. Indeed some of His behaviour seemed to me open to criticism, e.g. accepting an invitation to dine with a Pharisee and then loading him with torrents of abuse. (To a former pupil, 26 March 1940)

5) Thirdly, is it not usually transitory? Doesn’t the modern emphasis on “love” lead people either into divorce or into misery, because when that emotion dies down they conclude that their marriage is a “failure,” tho’ in fact they have just reached the point at which real marriage begins? (To a former pupil, 18 April 1940)

6) My own frequent uneasiness comes from another source — the fact that apologetic work is so dangerous to one’s own faith. A doctrine never seems dimmer to me than when I have just successfully defended it. (To Dorothy Sayers, 2 August 1946)

7) I do however strongly object to the tyrannic and unscriptural insolence of anything that calls itself a Church and makes teetotalism a condition of membership. (To Mrs. Ashton, 16 March 1955)

8) I realise that until about a month ago I never really believed (tho’ I thought I did) in God’s forgiveness. What an ass I have been both for not knowing and for thinking I knew. I now feel that one must never say one believes or understands anything–any moment a doctrine I thought I already possessed may blossom into this new reality. Selah! (To Sister Penelope, 5 June 1951)


  1. Thanks for sharing these Jacob. I really like Lewis’ description of Limbo. Surely ending up in the telestial or terrestrial will provide material for poetry as well.

    Comment by Mark D. — September 2, 2007 @ 4:17 pm

  2. coming to realize truths so ancient and simple that, if stated, they sound like barren platitudes. (#3)

    So true! There have been many times when I’ve been so excited about something the Spirit taught me that I dashed out a post for the blog, read it, and never bothered to publish it because it seemed so exceedingly obvious. Most of the learning in life seems to be only remembering and reinforcing, either from this life or the previous.

    Comment by Bradley Ross — September 2, 2007 @ 6:01 pm

  3. A doctrine never seems dimmer to me than when I have just successfully defended it. (#6)

    This reminds me very much of what Blake said in his presentation at the FAIR conference. (Alas, the text is not yet available online.) He talked about the primacy of spiritual experiences, and how there is nothing more foundational–not even logic. If we seek to defend by logic things that are communicated by the Spirit, we are admitting that there is something more fundamental for us than pure revelation. Logic always rests on unprovable axioms and thus is never as sure as the Word of God communicated directly.

    (Hopefully Blake will correct this if he sees this and he thinks I’ve summarized his point poorly.)

    Comment by Bradley Ross — September 2, 2007 @ 6:08 pm

  4. The process of living seems to consist in coming to realize truths so ancient and simple that, if stated, they sound like barren platitudes. They cannot sound otherwise to those who have not had the relevant experience: that is why there is no real teaching of such truths possible and every generation starts from scratch.

    I like that.

    Comment by Stephen M (Ethesis) — September 2, 2007 @ 6:47 pm

  5. Yea, Mark, that is the same thing I noticed. It is striking how similar his description of limbo is to things we sometimes say about the telestial kingdom.

    Bradley (#2), I have done that too. (#3) I am excited to get my hands on Blakes comments from FAIR. I am still sad I missed the conference this year.

    Stephen (#4), that is one of my all-time favorite quotes from Lewis, glad you like it.


    Quote 4) is very interesting to me. It is fascinating that for all that we tell people to ask themselves “What Would Jesus Do?” it is really hard to answer that question by reading the Bible and in the cases where we can answer it we often find behavior we really wouldn’t recommend. Do we generally commend people for breaking the customary rules surrounding sabbath day observance? Etc. The Jesus in the NT seems a lot harder to pin down than people like to pretend.

    Comment by Jacob J — September 2, 2007 @ 9:46 pm

  6. Here’s one of his poems that I enjoyed. And you left out of your list his most popular books of all. I knew a teacher who used “the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” for years in her elementary classroom without realizing that it was a Christian allegory.
    I think what I like best about Lewis is how he is able to communicate how important it is that we get it right. He knows how significant that yearning feeling for a better world is.

    A Cliche Came Out of Its Cage

    You said ‘The world is going back to paganism’. Oh bright
    Vision! I saw our dynasty in the bar of the House
    Spill from their tumblers a libation to the Erinyes,
    And Levis with Lord Russell wreathed in flowers, heralded with
    Leading white bulls to the cathedral of the solemn Muses
    To pay where due the glory of their latest theorem.
    Hestia’s fire in every flat, rekindled, before
    The Lardergods. Unmarried daughters with obedient hands
    Tended it. By the hearth the white-arm’d venerable mother
    _Domum servabat, lanam faciebat._ Duly at the hour
    Of sacrifice their brothers came, silent, corrected, grave
    Before their elders; on their downy cheeks easily the blush
    Arose (it is the mark of freemen’s children) as they trooped,
    Gleaming with oil, demurely home from the palaestra or the dance.
    Walk carefully, do not wake the envy of the happy gods,
    Shun Hubris. The middle of the road, the middle sort of men,
    Are best. Aidos surpasses gold. Reverence for the aged
    Is wholesome as seasonable rain, and for a man to die
    Defending the city in battle is a harmonious thing.
    Thus with magistral hand the Puritan Sophrosune
    Cooled and schooled and tempered our uneasy motions;
    Heathendom came again, the circumspection and the holy fears …
    You said it. Did you mean it? Oh inordinate liar, stop.

    Or did you mean another kind of heathenry?
    Think, then, that under heaven-roof the little disc of the earth,
    Fortified Midgard, lies encircled by the ravening Worm.
    Over its icy bastions faces of giant and troll
    Look in, ready to invade it. The Wolf, admittedly, is bound;
    But the bond will break, the Beast run free. The weary gods,
    Scarred with old wounds, the one-eyed Odin, Tyr who has lost a
    Will limp to their stations for the last defence. Make it your
    To be counted worthy on that day to stand beside them;
    For the end of man is to partake of their defeat and die
    His second, final death in good company. The stupid, strong
    Unteachable monsters are certain to be victorious at last,
    And every man of decent blood is on the losing side.
    Take as your model the tall women with yellow hair in plaits
    Who walked back into burning houses to die with men,
    Or him who as the death spear entered into his vitals
    Made critical comments on its workmanship and aim.
    Are these the Pagans you spoke of? Know your betters and crouch,
    You that have Vichy-water in your veins and worship the event,
    Your goddess History (whom your fathers called the strumpet

    Comment by Doug S. — September 2, 2007 @ 11:11 pm

  7. Good solid stuff, especially that Dom Bede Griffiths letter and the Sister Penelope letter.

    Yeah, Brad R., I’ve had that experience a lot. Unlike you, though, I usually just throw in more fustian adjectives.

    Comment by Adam Greenwood — September 3, 2007 @ 9:09 am

  8. Doug, you’re right, I have been known to neglect Lewis’ fiction, but probably more people have read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe than any of the books I listed. Lewis usually said everything he wanted to say in both fiction and non-fiction and I almost always prefer the non-fiction version. I am deficient in my ability to appreciate poetry, so I’ll have to take your word for it that that is a good poem.

    Comment by Jacob J — September 3, 2007 @ 9:23 am

  9. Thank you for this, Jacob J. I, too, am a fan of many of his essays. The one with the greatest practical effect on my life is “On Learning in War-Time.” Anyone who has had to get her education outside of the traditional setting, or perhaps to develop an art or build a career or carve out family time under less than optimal conditions, can find encouragement and cautions in that essay.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — September 3, 2007 @ 11:37 am

  10. Just last week I read A Preface to Paradise Lost, having bought it (via Amazon) based on a passing reference to it in a blog somewhere.

    While I’ve read a lot of Lewis’s religious writings, this is the first literary criticism of his that I’ve read. It made me wish to have been born long ago and far away, so that I could have had him as a teacher. (And I’m a techno-geek not an English major.) His gentle, respectful, but logically relentless takedown of T. S. Eliot for (apparently) saying, in effect, only the best poets can criticize Milton is alone worth the price of admission.

    Lewis’s work also inspired me to go out and buy a well-annotated edition of Paradise Lost, which I’m now working through. ..bruce..

    Comment by Bruce F. Webster — September 3, 2007 @ 7:46 pm

  11. Thirdly, is it not usually transitory? Doesn’t the modern emphasis on “love” lead people either into divorce or into misery, because when that emotion dies down they conclude that their marriage is a “failure,” tho’ in fact they have just reached the point at which real marriage begins?

    I would love context on this.

    Comment by Matt W. — September 5, 2007 @ 8:11 am

  12. Matt,

    The context is a discussion of Christian marriage (it is a fairly long letter so I can’t do the whole thing justice). But, Lewis is in the middle of explaining why “being in love” is not a proper foundation for marriage.

    The modern tradition is that the proper reason for marrying is the state described as “being in love.” Now I have nothing to say against “being in love”: but the idea that this is or ought to be the exclusive reason or that it can ever be by itself an adequate basis seems to me simply moonshine. In the first place, many ages, many cultures, and many individuals don’t experience it — and Christianity is for all men, not simply for modern Western Europeans. Secondly, it often unites most unsuitable people. Thirdly, is it not usually transitory? …

    Comment by Jacob J — September 5, 2007 @ 10:58 pm

  13. As a teenager I was introduced to C.S. Lewis’ science fiction triology by the young lady who also introduced me to the Church. The books are: Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength. Inside those pages were concepts which I considered peculiarly Mormon and this from an atheist, lately turned Christian:
    1) Planets have spirits
    2) Our planet’s spirit is bent
    3) The drama of the Garden of Eden plays out on other planets
    4) The Son of God is known on and has visited other planets.

    Steve Graham

    Comment by Steve Graham — September 6, 2007 @ 1:21 pm

  14. Interesting stuff, Jacob J, thanks. Reading Lewis’s letters is a real treat. Here are a few thoughts I had on these excerpts:

    Quote 1: This comment came during Lewis’s atheistic period. His letters especially to his dad often try to mask his disbelief. This comment about “feelings” is really interesting, as later Lewis had some interesting correctives about trusting feelings, etc. I’m planning a blog post on that since I think it has some interesting implications for Mormons and the concept of “feeling the Spirit.”

    Quote 2: Interesting things about what Lewis would appeal to as authority. For instance he would appeal to the creeds and “traditions” most Christians agreed on. (He saw much in Catholicism as being unnecessary additions though). Most often he appealed to the Bible, though he wasn’t an inerrantist by any stretch. He saw the Bible as an inspired construct of particular cultures which includes different genres.

    Quote 5: Lots of interesting bits on marriage and love in the letters. Well, mostly love. On marriage he would make jokes about being a bachelor.

    Quote 6: This was a recurring sentiment; he mentioned it pretty much yearly at the least.

    Quote 7: Strangely enough, Lewis’s own brother, Warnie, had awful struggles with alcoholism and it was one of Lewis’s largest trials in life. This pops up in many letters, when Lewis’s “secretary” is off getting plowed in Ireland, only to wind up in a hospital or nursing home somewhere. Sadly, Warnie even deserted Lewis during his darkest days right after Joy died. A few pretty gut-wrenching letters on this subject.

    Quote 8: That’s one of my favorite moments in the letters, when he makes this realization. He brings it up often, and has a lot of interesting things to say about doubt, learning, and conversion as a process.

    Comment by BHodges — April 29, 2009 @ 3:09 pm

  15. Blair,

    Thanks for those additions. I’ll just keep saying that I really look forward to your further posts. On the topic of “correctives about trusting feelings” I am wondering what you have in mind. I have always thought that his essay Transposition is extremely relevant to the Mormon concept of “feeling the Spirit” and to the standard objections made by anti-Mormons.

    Comment by Jacob J — April 29, 2009 @ 4:13 pm

  16. Jacob J, I need to revisit that Transposition, (I don’t have the weight of glory so I’ll have to poke around the web and see if I can find it anywhere) but I think it might involve Lewis’s metaphysics more than his more practical side of actual Christian living. He believed God could communicate through feelings and impressions, undoubtedly, as do we. At the same time he had interesting cautions for our expectations of that process.

    Comment by BHodges — April 30, 2009 @ 8:13 am