Whittaker Chambers on C. S. Lewis

As I read Whittaker Chambers’ Witness, at several points the story drove me to look things up online, where I found a page that links to many of Chambers’ other writings. Somewhere I read Solzhenitsyn say that his writing resulted from his having been thrown headlong into hell and attempting to describe the experience. Chambers’ experience with communism gives his writing that quality. He writes as a man who knows that the souls of men and the destinies of nations turn on the ability to love truth, goodness, and beauty, while evil forces try to present cheap knockoffs that steal, kill, and destroy.

Here are some gems from a piece Whittaker Chambers wrote on C. S. Lewis:

Lewis leaving class

“The lecturer, a short, thickset man with a ruddy face and a big voice, was coming to the end of his talk. Gathering up his notes and books, he tucked his hornrimmed spectacles into the pocket of his tweed jacket and picked up his mortarboard. Still talking—to the accompaniment of occasional appreciative laughs and squeals from his audience—he leaned over to return the watch he had borrowed from a student in the front row. As he ended his final sentence, he stepped off the platform.

The maneuver gained him a head start on the rush of students down the center aisle. Once in the street, he strode rapidly —his black gown billowing behind his grey flannel trousers—to the nearest pub for a pint of ale.

Clive Staples Lewis was engaged in his full-time and favorite job—the job of being an Oxford don in the Honour School of English Language & Literature, a Fellow and tutor of Magdalen College and the most popular lecturer in the University. To watch him downing his pint at the Eastgate (his favorite pub), or striding, pipe in mouth, across the deer park, a stranger would not be likely to guess that C. S. Lewis is also a best-selling author and one of the most influential spokesmen for Christianity in the English-speaking world.”

Lewis on sex in heaven

“Sex in Heaven? Bachelor Lewis is no man to be afraid of that one either: “The letter and spirit of Scripture, and of all Christianity, forbid us to suppose that life in the New Creation will be a sexual life; and this reduces our imagination to the withering alternative either of bodies which are hardly recognizable as human bodies at all or else of a perpetual fast. As regards the fast, I think our present outlook might be like that of a small boy who, on being told that the sexual act was the highest bodily pleasure, should immediately ask whether you ate chocolates at the same time. On receiving the answer no, he might regard absence of chocolates as the chief characteristic of sexuality. In vain would you tell him that the reason why lovers in their carnal raptures don’t bother about chocolates is that they have something better to think of. The boy knows chocolate: he does not know the positive thing that excludes it. We are in the same position. We know the sexual life; we do not know, except in glimpses, the other thing which, in Heaven, will leave no room for it.””

Delivered from the steep descent

“When he was about 18, Lewis bought a book called Phantasies, by George Macdonald, a Scottish Presbyterian best known for his Princess & Curdie and other children’s fairy tales. In the introduction to his recent anthology of Macdonald’s work (TIME, June 2), Lewis confesses the importance of that day’s purchase: “I had already been waist-deep in Romanticism; and likely enough, at any moment, to flounder into its darker and more evil forms, slithering down the steep descent that leads from the love of strangeness to that of eccentricity and thence to that of perversity. Now Phantasies was romantic enough in all conscience; but there was a difference. . . . What it actually did to me was to convert, even to baptise . . . my imagination. It did nothing to my intellect nor (at that time) to my conscience. Their turn came far later and with the help of many other books and men.””

Reaction of unbelieving colleagues

“Outside his own Christian circle, Lewis is not particularly popular with his Oxford colleagues. Some resent his large student following. Others criticize his “cheap” performances on the BBC and sneer at him as a “popularizer.” There are complaints about his rudeness (he is inclined to bellow “Nonsense !” in the heat of an argument when a conventionally polite 25-word circumlocution would be better form). But their most serious charge is that Lewis’ theological pamphleteering is a kind of academic heresy.

On this score, one of Lewis’ severest critics insists that his works of scholarship, The Allegory of Love (on Spenser), and A Preface to Paradise Lost, are “miles ahead” of any other literary criticism in England. But Lewis’ Christianity, says his critic, has brought him more money than it ever brought Joan of Arc, and a lot more publicity than she enjoyed in her lifetime. In contrast to his tight scholarly writing (says this critic), Lewis’ Christian propaganda is cheap sophism: having lured his reader onto the straight highway of logic, Lewis then inveigles him down the garden path of orthodox theology.”

The whole thing is definitely worth reading, not least for references to the possibility of revival and the comments on Dorothy Sayers and others.

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