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on 24 July 2013
It’s strange how things change; one minute you think you are on solid ground, and the next it’s quicksand. Such is literary – not to mention artistic, sociological, political, philosophical and theological – fashion. On the literary front there has been a humanist conspiracy for years promoting tedious modernist and post-modernist texts that nobody wants to read, but everyone thinks they should. Ultimately, the cultural hypnotism is so strong one even begins to believe that the texts have merit. But as Dr Johnson observed, ‘Nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of general nature’.
I remember myself in the Seventies doing a degree in English Literature and having to deal with all these ‘serious’ writers and ‘serious’ texts – I can hardly remember one of them now. But I can remember that the idea that you’d study a writer like Tolkien was inconceivable – that was low-brow, populist fiction. And anyway, it was plain silly, hobbits and all. Wasn’t it?
What did they know, those academics?
There have in the last year been two brilliant biographies published which represent part of an increasing and welcome trend to correct this injustice and to begin to see a core of major English writers of the twentieth century for what they are: major writers. I refer to Ian Ker’s magisterial biography of GK Chesterton and Alister McGrath’s absorbing Life of CS Lewis. You will doubtless note, of course, both are Christians and overtly Christian apologists.
This requires a slight detour before considering the books themselves. It is not because they are Christians per se that these two are such great writers; it is because of their depth of perception – their insight – combined with their pungent and stylistic elegance. Further, in both, you sense the obsession with finding the truth, wherever the truth takes them. They are not defending a position come hell or high water – they are engaged on a quest for more illumination and their writings are a record of that fact. Disputation is just one way of arriving at truth.
It was CS Lewis, however, who observed, in McGrath’s wonderful account, that modernist writers like Shaw and Wells “seemed a little thin” and that there was “no depth in them” – “the roughness and density of life” was not adequately represented in their works. In short, their underpinning philosophies were “too simple”. What I am getting at is that the riches of the Christian tradition that both, almost reluctantly, found themselves in, doubtless proved the major source for their insights into human beings, literature and the human condition. It provided the framework – the scaffolding – on which they could hang their critiques of so much that was and is wrong with the world.
To take two simple examples: for Chesterton, there was virtually from day one a wholesale rejection of Nazism (and with this incidentally, as Ker makes clear, a shift from being critical of Jewish financiers to total support for the Jewish people whom he realized would suffer). Chesterton saw clearly what Nazism would lead to: he had presciently condemned eugenics and the cult of the ‘superman’ from the start of the century. We forget that all the leading intellectuals of the time – the modernists - thought these valid objectives and ideals! And many politicians thought Hitler could be bargained with. If Chesterton had lived post Second War World how he would have mocked the complete turn round of these intellectuals’ and politicians’ views.
Lewis, equally, saw ahead. For example, on the question of vivisection: “for Lewis, the true mark of the primacy of humans over animals is ‘acknowledging duties to them which they do not acknowledge to us’” (McGrath). And further, Lewis suggested that the practice of vivisection exposed an “inner contradiction within Darwinian naturalism. At one and the same time it emphasized the biological proximity of humans and animals, while asserting the ultimate authority of human beings to do what they please with animals” (McGrath). Again, the clarity of the thinking is so sharp.
Thus I cannot recommend these two books enough – they are packed with illuminating incidents and anecdotes, stuffed with great quotations form the writers themselves, and finally draw you into the very thought processes of these two genius minds. Read these books and then get out the authors themselves!