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When an apology was called for

22 November 2013

Francis Spufford argues that C. S. Lewis was an uncomfortable apologist, that his efforts were very much of their time, and that his approach is now out of step with most British readers

Tuned in: wartime BBC radio talks by C. S. Lewis formed the basis of his bestseller Mere Christianity

Tuned in: wartime BBC radio talks by C. S. Lewis formed the basis of his bestseller Mere Christianity

IT WAS writing apologetics that made C. S. Lewis famous. Not Narnia, not his scholarship, not the science fiction, not the autobiography. Not even the allegorical fiction that, with The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce, became so essential to his imaginative power as a Christian writer.

It was out-and-out advocacy that created his connection with a mass audience, beginning with the commission from James Welch, of the BBC, in 1941, for the radio talks that eventually formed Mere Christianity. Amid sirens and rubble, Lewis's voice drawling, unexpected, one part Belfast to nine parts Oxford  reached hundreds of thousands, and then millions of listeners, who soon became readers, too. Apologetics turned him from an Oxford literary figure to a global one.

This may describe the contemporary American scene, where the theological vocabulary remains available and familiar even to those who think themselves indifferent to it, or hostile; but it does not match the Britain where faith is two or three generations distant.

As Farrer went on to say, “There can be no question of offering defences for positions which are simply unoccupied, or of justifying ideas of which the sense has never dawned on the mind.” Where de- fence and justification do matter in Britain, Lewis's apologetics retain a following. Otherwise, this part of him has become dormant for us.

IF YOU look at Mere Christianity, Miracles, or The Problem of Pain in Britain now, you find a mismatch between their chosen tools and the present-day audience. In the first place, although argument of some kind is intrinsic to apologetics, their argument is intensely . . . well, argumentative: knotty, up-front, in- your-face dialectics, explicitly foregrounding the sequence of the ideas.

Lewis's favourite connectives are a teacherly “See it this way,” or “Think of it this way,” or even “Now look here,” none of which play well in a society that has taken the “expressive turn”, and consequently values the authenticity of emotion over the appearance of logic.

Then there is the problem of voice that “Now look here” already suggests. Lewis's literal speaking voice from the era of the radio talks is preserved in only one archived sample, but he is metaphorically audible in every paragraph, and to a modern ear he comes across as painfully posh. His R. P. eloquence seems to be class-discredited, authority-stained.

The irony is that these alienating qualities of his manner turn out to represent Lewis’s rather brilliant solution, for his historical moment, to a problem that remains uncannily fresh. When the BBC first approached him with a request for “a positive restatement of Christian doctrine in lay language,” he said he thought that that would be to begin “a stage too far on”.

“It seems to me that the New Testament, by preaching repentance and forgiveness, always assumes an audience who already believe in the law of nature, and know that they have disobeyed it.” Unless people saw that Christianity represented an escape from an intelligible trap, forgiveness for an intelligible guilt, there would be no reason for them to pay any attention to “doctrine”.

APOLOGETICS had to begin earlier, with a recognisable account of what was wrong. Hence the rueful insistence in Mere Christianity that a fallible chap was speaking to other fallible souls. Hence the acuity of its passing portraits of fear, spite, self-deception, and other everyday sins.

And hence the decision - rather strange to encounter, now - to introduce the Devil before either God or Christ, and to offer his hearers the metaphor of a world under enemy occupation. As they listened to their radios in streets of ruined houses, hearing the nightly bombers overhead, knowing that the greater part of humankind lay that moment in tyrannical darkness, it must have seemed a plausible cosmic picture, too. You can quarrel with the theology, and yet applaud the appeal that is being made to experience.

He understood that that voice was crucial. As Theo Hobson wrote recently in the TLS, “Effective defenders of Christianity must sound like ordinary citizens. . . Is this so hard? Yes. For they must also convey the awkward seriousness and strangeness of faith, its otherness.”

An uncanny doubleness of register was required: ordinariness, with a possibility of transfiguration. Lewis's bluff broadcast voice solved the ordinariness part of the problem; for, in 1941, it was easy to tell that this was the a member of the Senior Common Room speaking off-duty, gone down the pub with friends.

Meanwhile, the transfiguration was supplied by Lewis’s extraordinarily sensuous late-Romantic prose, which could be slipped into his ordinary sentences without affectation, as the natural expression of his sensibility.

He had genuinely been led into faith through the beauty of word and story, and he understood it himself through intensely vivid word-pictures that worked for him as apertures opening on to the far country of which faith was the news. As Farrer said in his eulogy for Lewis, his mind was at least as pictorial as it was argumentative. Which was both a power and a danger.


APOLOGETICS, after all, is a literature of the imagination. Its cousins are the memoir, the literary essay, even the travel book. Like the memoir, it turns the private tissue of life communicative; like an essay, it makes the line of an explanation concrete and palpable; like travel writing, it delivers the sensations of a journey - all to accomplish for a reader on the outside of belief what an insider does not, strictly, need. (Although it is always a pleasure for a believing reader to see our own half-understood experience articulated.)

The apologist is trying, above all, to convey the body of a truth. For a believer, of course, truth already has a body, in several ways, "body" being one of Christianity's profound puns. Our truth is a body, the body of the incarnated Lord, and it makes us a body, the body of Christ which is the Church, every time we eat the bread which is also the body of Christ.

But, more routinely, truth also has a body for us as believers, in the sense that it is carnally present to us all the time, in habit and experience. But if you are on the outside, this kind of body is exactly what belief lacks. So, apologetics is in the business of trying to create for the reader a kind of virtual body of faith; one that he or she can borrow and try out, to see what it might feel like to assent.

Lewis was superlatively good at this, leaving decades'-worth of readers with the sense of having dwelled, on terms of almost uncanny intimacy, within the sense-world of Lewis's own faith. But he did it at some cost to himself.

To perform this truth, to stage successfully the appearance of truth's true body, required the apologetic equivalent to the chip of ice in the heart needed for other kinds of imaginative literature. Like Charles Dickens weeping over the death of Jo, the crossing sweeper, as he wrote Bleak House, and yet noting in the daybook for that day's work: "Jo: kill him", it calls on you to manipulate expertly what, at the same time, you genuinely feel.

Lewis was much too spiritually self-aware not to grow uneasy. "No doctrine of the faith", he told a group of priests in Wales in 1944, "seems to me so spectral, so unreal as the one that I have just defended in a public debate. For a moment, you see, it has seemed to rest on oneself; as a result . . . it seems no stronger than that weak pillar. . ."

It has been a truism about Lewis since A. N. Wilson's biography came out, that the turn towards Narnia in his later life was driven by apologetics' having, in some way or other, gone wrong for him. The humiliating public exposure of flaws in his book Miracles by the formidable philospher Elizabeth Anscombe usually figures.

But Alan Jacobs has recently argued in The Narnian: The life and imagination of C. S. Lewis (2005) that he may have fled to fiction be- cause apologetics had gone so right for him; because he was feeling, with troubling intensity, the dangerous weight that apologetics laid on his imagination.

In fiction, even allegorical fiction, the layer of story and the layer of the truth it stands for are farther apart. In Narnia, he could let imagination more straightforwardly be the power that makes things up. In Narnia, a lion in a snowy wood could stand for truth, without truth in turn depending on his successful storytelling.

Francis Spufford is the author of Unapologetic: Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense.

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