I don’t suppose many ACW blog readers get to see the Journal of Inklings Studies. It’s understandably quite expensive, and rather erudite. I have just been lent a copy of the April 2016 volume, which contains a wonderful article by A. O. J. Cockshut, ‘C. S. Lewis in Post-War Oxford’. There’s only space to share a few titbits, but here we go.
After setting the scene in 1945, the author describes Lewis. ‘I have never to this day seen a man of high intellectual attainments who so little looked the part’, he says. He appeared to be dressed in gardening clothes; was thickset with very ruddy cheeks, a heavy jaw, and dull eyes; and resembled someone you might find propping up a bar. But when he spoke ‘one heard .. a great blast of sound, rapid, eloquent, allusive, and witty’.
Describing Lewis’s teaching, Cockshut avers ‘I can say without hesitation that Lewis was the best lecturer that I ever heard.’ When he lectured on medieval authors such as Chaucer and Langland he took you to the sources of their allusions in Augustine, Boethius, Dante, and so on, and presented them as they might have appeared to their first readers. ‘One was encouraged to enter an unknown intellectual world.’ He showed what ideas medieval authors took for granted and what they did not know (Greek, for example). The great value of his teaching was to enable young minds to escape from what he called ‘the prison of the zeitgeist’ (the spirit of the age).
Skipping forward a couple of sections, we come to Lewis the Christian apologist. Cockshut begins with some tough questions. Lewis commendably insisted that he stood for the common ground among Christians and eschewed theological in-fighting. As a traditional Anglican he was averse to extremes, Anglo-Catholicism and Calvinism. But Cockshut thinks he ducked some questions. For example, the Church of England Article that insists on the lay magistrate’s control over the church’s councils was surely not in line with his beliefs, yet he nowhere seems to have discussed it. Also, in scattered places in his writings he hints at a concern about the orthodoxy of the beliefs of some Anglican clergy—
The vicar is a man who has so long been engaged in watering down the faith … that it is now he who shocks his parishioners with his unbelief (Screwtape Letters XVI, 1942)
—but again, never confronts the issue. Cockshut gives his view that as a theologian, Lewis is not in the front rank.
But Cockshut only makes these criticisms to clear the ground for a ringing assertion of Lewis’s unparalleled powers as an ‘apologist and a counsellor of the perplexed’. ‘He strips away the film of familiarity and boredom which often inhibits people’s understanding of Christian doctrine’. Cockshut gives four brief examples: I can only allude to one, that brilliant dialogue in The Great Divorce when the self-righteous soul can’t accept that the murderer of his friend has been admitted into heaven. ‘We are all inclined to read satire as addressed to the vices of other people. Few are better than Lewis at getting past our guard.’
As a finale, Cockshut rightly commends Lewis’s sermon ‘The Weight of Glory’ (from Transposition and Other Addresses, 1949), quoting two lengthy extracts. I can only pick two snippets:
Nature is mortal; we shall outlive her. When all the suns and nebulae have passed away, each one of you will still be alive.
Remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature you would be strongly tempted to worship… Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses.