Amputating the Liberal Arts — by Crystal Downing

Image Source: Igor Miske, https://unsplash.com/photos/oLhTLD-RBsc

Enjoy this post by Wade Center Co-Director, Crystal Downing, that first appeared on the Christian Scholar’s Review blog on March 22, 2021.

As theaters, museums, and concert halls struggle during these covidious times, I worry about the respiratory system of the arts. Only a year and half after I took my current job co-directing the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College, which archives the work of seven culture-animating British Christians, the center’s museum and research-room were shut down. On the plus side, a podcast we developed has over 50,000 listens from nearly 70 countries, including several predominantly Muslim nations. People around the world seem to crave insight about historical contexts, psychological and sociological tensions, theological issues, and artistic techniques that inform the fiction of authors like C.S. Lewis, Dorothy L. Sayers, G.K. Chesterton, and George MacDonald. What they crave, in other words, is Christian liberal arts. (See wheaton.edu/listen/wade-center-podcast).

How might cinema satisfy this craving as well? One of the authors we archive at the Wade, J.R.R. Tolkien, has been called the father of modern fantasy fiction, and Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films help celebrate his “sub-creation,” as Tolkien once called his work. Unfortunately, Jackson’s cinema success has led to a slew (perhaps a slough) of unreflective fantasy films and television series that merely feed appetites for other-world sex and violence, offering not a single original thought to digest. But there are exceptions, and I would like to focus on a film, available on Netflix, that grapples with the state of the liberal arts.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is an unusual film, as is to be expected of a Coen Brothers production. Made up of six unrelated short “Westerns,” the anthology movie was nominated for numerous awards, the National Board of Review naming it one of the top ten films for 2018. Interestingly, the movie presents its stories as adaptations of tales from an old book, allowing viewers to see not only epigraphs to color plates that accompany each story in the book, but also the closing paragraph of each story—as though in acknowledgment of narrative cinema’s origins. The first story, the eponymous “Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” spectacularizes what has made the Coen Brothers famous: outrageously silly parody, with brief moments of stylized gore that subvert any sense of realism. Serious cinephiles may feel like turning away to better fare. But if they continue watching, they will see that each succeeding story gets more serious, until the film ends eliciting reflections about the purpose of existence. It is as though the first film story draws attention to the state of contemporary cinema, wherein the biggest financial successes today—based on comic-book clichés—have little to do with topics that drive the liberal arts.

The second story is a bit more sober: more like television comedy than satire, with James Franco playing a humorously hapless bank robber. It is the third story, “Meal Ticket,” that delivers a powerful commentary on the liberal arts. Liam Neeson plays a laconic impresario who drives his wagon from town to town in order to display a man without arms and legs: a deformity that reflects historical realities from America’s Civil War. The amputee earns his “meal ticket” by powerfully reciting great literary works. Witnessing the articulate passion with which the amputee performs Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” passages from Shakespeare, and lines from Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, educators cannot help being struck with the way great writing has fueled the liberal arts for centuries: not a topic often explored in cinema. Our hearts therefore break as we see fewer and fewer people turn out for the amputee’s breath-taking recitations, audiences preferring to watch a performing chicken.

There seems to be a similar turning away from the liberal arts today. The last several years before I accepted the job as Wade co-director, I taught English at a Christian college, where I heard more and more students say, “I would love to be an English major, but my parents won’t let me because there’s no money in it.” I, of course, gave the standard answer about the need in any profession for interpretive acuity and informed critical thinking, but to no avail. As in the aptly named “Meal Ticket,” many liberal arts institutions are turning into amputees, cutting off their theater, philosophy and language majors while investing in programs aligned with making money.

While the deleterious desire for money is merely suggested by “Meal Ticket,” the next film in the Coen anthology makes the problem blatant. In “All Gold Canyon,” a prospector played by a grizzled Tom Waits searches for gold in a gorgeous Colorado valley. Digging holes all over the countryside, he not only ruins the landscape but also drives away beautiful butterflies and a majestic horned stag. The search ends in death as another gold-digger seeks to benefit from the prospector’s work, as though endorsing John D. Rockefeller’s Darwinist praise of capitalism: “the growth of a large business is merely the survival of the fittest.”

The search for prosperity is more subtle in the next story, which focuses on a wagon train on its way to Oregon. Suggesting that it is more important to start a family with a God-honoring and gracious spouse than to discover an “all gold canyon,” the film nevertheless shows that “the best laid schemes o’ mice and men / Gang aft a-gley,” as Robert Burns famously put it.

The final story, “The Mortal Remains,” reminds me of another famous poem, this one by Emily Dickinson, who describes riding in a carriage: “Because I could not stop for Death / He kindly stopped for me.” The carriage in this last Coen story is transporting a corpse on its roof while five people underneath discuss the meaning of life. Unfortunately, the one Christian on board reduces faith to “moral and spiritual hygiene”: a clichéd reduction that Hollywood enjoys perpetuating. I left the film praying that Christ might better animate our culture through the liberal arts, if even in amputated form. Perhaps, rather than generating more Darwinian capitalists, Christian colleges can nurture fiction makers able to make foundational truths come alive through acts of sub-creation.

Cinema: In the Beginning — by Crystal Downing

Image Source: Daniel Sorm, @dansorm, https://unsplash.com/photos/EGamX6sOb7Y

Enjoy this post by Wade Center Co-Director, Crystal Downing, that first appeared on the Christian Scholar’s Review blog on February 22, 2021.


The following extract from my book Salvation from Cinema (Routledge 2016) alludes to what J.R.R. Tolkien called “sub-creation,” a construct that echoes Sayers’s definition of “the imago Dei”: we express being made in “God’s image” (Genesis 1:27) when we exercise our God-given creativity.


Related to kinesis, Greek for movement, the word cinema resonates with the beginnings described at the start of the Bible. In the first chapter of Genesis we read, “And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” According to Hebrew scholar Brian Smith, the verb translated as “moved” occurs only three times in the Hebrew Bible: Genesis 1:2, Deuteronomy 32:11, and Jeremiah 23:9. The word denotes “hovering”: not a “big sweeping movement,” but more like a “subtle, fluttering movement of a bird pulling up just as she is about to land on her nest.”1 The idea of “fluttering” has special resonance with the “flickering” of celluloid through a projector at cinema’s beginnings. Adding to that resonance is the next verse from Genesis: “And God said, ‘Let there be light: and there was light.’” The moment of creation combines movement, light, image, and the spoken word: basic components of narrative cinema. But that is not all: “God saw the light, that it was good” (v. 4a). God’s act of seeing, repeated seven times in the first chapter of Genesis, is essential to the work of creation. Similarly, the act of seeing is essential to the creative work of cinema, to the recognition of what is good.

The Psalms, as well, present evidence of creation in terms of what we see:

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
And the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
And night to night declares knowledge.
– Psalm 19: 1-2

The Psalmist, here, may have been thinking of the constellations mentioned in the book of Job (9:9; 38:31-32). Then as now, humans look to the heavens and see constellations of stars that make pictures: images that move across the screen of the night sky.

Significantly, when the Psalmist exults in the patterns of the skies, he notes they need “no speech” because beauty is its own “voice,” one that “goes out through all the earth”:

There is no speech, nor are there words;
Their voice is not heard;
Yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
And their words to the end of the world.
– Psalm 19:3-4

Something similar could be said about a well-crafted film: it goes out through all the earth, and its speech is much more than the mere “words” to which actors give “voice.” Some theorists have suggested, in fact, that the beauty of cinema was undermined by the development of sound. Thirty years after the first feature-length “talkie” premiered in 1927 (The Jazz Singer), Rudolf Arnheim argued that film reached its apex as “an artistic medium” in the late silent period. And Marshall McLuhan, who coined “the medium is the message,” similarly asserted the superiority of silent movies, believing that they elicit more mental activity from viewers.2 Like the beauty of heavenly constellations, the “voice” of silent film can go out through all the earth, enjoyed by people of all nations and tongues. Just as ancient viewers of the skies named constellations after religious stories from their own culture, so viewers of silent film were able to insert intertitles in their own language.

Artistic filmmakers, then, recognize the power of voiceless beauty, the visual medium presenting its own message. As Johannes Ehrat puts it, “film does not need to assert by means of a linguistic intermediary, because as a Sign it has its own power of argumentation.”3 In the beginning was seeing. This principle will be my guide as I write about the visual power of specific movies during the following months for the CSR blog.4

Footnotes
  1. Brian Smith, Chair of the Bible and Religious Studies Department at Messiah College, via email Feb. 14, 2014.
  2. Rudolf Arnheim in Film as Art (1957), qtd. in James Monaco, How to Read a Film: The Art, Technology, Language, History, and Theory of Film and Media, rev. ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), 318; Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965), 287.
  3. Johannes Ehrat, Cinema and Semiotic: Peirce and Film Aesthetics, Narration, and Representation (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005), 436.
  4. This blog was adapted from my book Salvation from Cinema: The Medium Is the Message (Routledge, 2016), 17, 38-39.

Aiming for Abnormality — by Crystal Downing

Economy chart

Image Source: Markus Spiske, https://unsplash.com/photos/5gGcn2PRrtc

Enjoy this post by Wade Center Co-Director, Crystal Downing, that first appeared on the Christian Scholar’s Review blog on November 18, 2020.

During the 1992 election, James Carville coined an infamous aphorism: “It’s the economy, stupid!” I thought of it as I read Tim Meuhlhoff’s CSR blog for October 19, which beautifully argues against an economic model of discourse, by which one pays or exchanges “evil for evil or insult for insult.” Communication for Christians, especially in the realm of politics, should instead be “abnormal.” I would like to build upon Meuhlhoff’s provocative word abnormal to suggest that abnormality should not only inform Christian political vocabularies (as well as scholarship about film), but also guide all followers of Christ as they communicate their faith.

Emphasis on economic exchange is, without a doubt, normal. From ancient bartering practices to the current stock market, humans depend upon exchange. In fact, language itself seems to function according to economies of exchange. Similar to presenting a quarter at the market in order to get chewing gum in return, we present a word like star or stupid in order to elicit an image or concept in return. Exchange is so basic to being human, in fact, that it shapes the way we understand religion. As I explain in Salvation from Cinema, “Many religions inculcate, if even unwittingly, some form of exchangism: do these works, you receive salvation; perform this rite, you become redeemed; behave this way, you attain Paradise; believe this doctrine, you escape damnation; follow these principles, you achieve Nirvana; kill these infidels, you enjoy the pleasures of heaven; say these words, you become born again. It is no wonder, then, that theologians and religion scholars often assess salvation from cinema in terms of exchange: transcendence or valuable insight received in exchange for attentive viewing” (125).

Having earlier noted that the word exchangism was coined by philosopher Jacques Derrida, I proceed to explain that the famous founder of deconstruction contrasts “an economy of exchange” with the words of Jesus: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. . . . For if you love those who love you what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” (Mt 5:38-39, 46).1 Reading Christ’s words in a book by Derrida, I saw them in a new light. Jesus did not say, “Do not even pagans,”or “do not the heathen,” or “do not Pharisees do the same?” Instead, Jesus alludes to people literally engaged in an economy of exchange: tax collectors. Derrida argues that pure love, in contrast, operates according to what he calls “the Gift”: an abnormal event entirely undeserved and unexpected, with no taint of exchange.

Intrigued that a philosopher who once said “I rightly pass for an atheist” was aligning Jesus with the abnormal, I was forced to face exchangism in my own Christian rhetoric. Helping me in the process was Dorothy L. Sayers, who repeatedly proclaimed that the distinguishing feature of Christianity was salvation as a gift, not because of exchange, lest anyone should boast. As she puts it in a 1941 essay, “forgiveness has no necessary concern with payment or non-payment of reparations; its aim is the establishment of a free relationship.” And, as usual, she employs an abnormal metaphor to reinforce her point: “Nobody has to sit about being humiliated in the outer office while God dispatches important business before condescending to issue a stamped official discharge accompanied by an improving lecture.”2

Because she celebrated the abnormal Gift of God’s forgiveness, Sayers was distressed by exchangism in evangelical vocabularies, made most obvious through the quid pro quo of “if-then” arguments: if you accept Jesus into your heart and worship him with zeal, then you will receive comforting blessings in exchange. As she put it in 1941 when the London Blitz had driven many people to church, “one has a haunting feeling that God’s acquaintance is being cultivated because He might come in useful. But God is quite shrewd enough to see through that particular kind of commercial fraud.”3 Since it is normal to think of religion according to commercial exchange, the truth of salvation through Christ can be downright shocking.

Unfortunately, rather than proclaiming the abnormal Gift of God’s forgiveness, all too many Christians reduce belief itself to the quid pro quo of exchange, telling people if you believe in Jesus, then you are saved. The implication, of course, is that salvation depends upon what YOU do. As I grappled with this Derrida-driven conundrum, I came to realize, with the help of Sayers, that belief is nevertheless imperative. After all, the only way you can accept a gift is if you believe it has been offered to you. Otherwise, you don’t notice it, or else you think you’re being manipulated by the giver, who apparently wants something in exchange, which means it is no longer a true gift. Sayers therefore repeatedly emphasizes that it is Jesus Christ who saves us, not our belief. All we have to do is accept the gift. In fact, Sayers reputedly responded to the question “When were you saved?” with this abnormal answer: “When Christ rose from the dead!” It is no coincidence that C. S. Lewis read Sayers’s abnormal (and hence controversial) radio plays about Jesus every year until he died, proclaiming them to be one of the four most powerful influences on his spiritual life.

It is also no coincidence that my recently-released book on Sayers is called Subversive: Christ, Culture and the Shocking Dorothy L. Sayers. It’s about Sayers’s subversion of the normal through a determined fight against religious economies of exchange. It’s also about responding with love to the Giver of salvation, and how abnormal love should affect every aspect of our lives, including scholarship and politics: it’s NOT about economy, friend.

Footnotes

  1. Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death, trans. David Wills (University of Chicago Press, 1995), 102, 106. The translator uses the KJV, which I have changed to the NRSV.
  2. Dorothy L. Sayers, “Forgiveness and the Enemy,” in The Gospel in Dorothy L. Sayers: Selections from Her Novels, Plays, Letters, and Essays, ed. Carole Vanderhoof (Plough, 2018), 39.
  3. Dorothy L. Sayers, “The Other Six Deadly Sins,” in Creed or Chaos? (Sophia Institute, 1974), 103.

Wounds that Never Fully Heal: An Easter Reflection on Frodo Baggins — by Laura Schmidt

Stories hold a special ability to deeply impact their readers. Those who enjoy reading imaginative fiction like The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings by the Wade Center’s authors already know the truth of that statement. From the page to the screen, from the parables Jesus used for the spiritual benefit of his audiences to the trials of two small hobbits struggling up the slopes of Mount Doom, stories engage the heart in ways that other forms of expression cannot accomplish. We yearn for that kind of engagement and feel nourished once we find it, like taking a breath of fresh spring air or a drink of water after a long thirst.

J.R.R. Tolkien calls this nourishment “recovery” in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” explaining that stories can help us see life afresh and reawaken or illuminate spiritual truths:

“Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re-gaining—regaining of a clear view. I do not say ‘seeing things as they are’ and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say ‘seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them’—as things apart from ourselves. We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity[.]”

Spring landscape through a window

Image: Valeria Strogoteanu, https://unsplash.com/photos/LjfIslWWql8

“Recovery” is like a wake-up call to our souls after they have been lulled to sleep by the daily, familiar patterns that soon become mundane. G.K. Chesterton spoke against this pull towards apathy that can develop in our lives in the “Ethics of Elfland” chapter of Orthodoxy, where he uses the example of the sun rising each morning. That routine phenomenon, Chesterton says, should be seen not as a mere repetition in nature, but as God’s “theatrical encore.” Each sunrise is miraculous. Likewise the character Innocent Smith in Chesterton’s Manalive leaps out of his garden one morning to travel around the world so that he may appreciate his garden properly again when he returns home. Only after his long journey can he see the garden’s awe-inspiring beauty when his eyes behold it afresh.

Dorothy L. Sayers relates the theme of recovery to the truths of Christian doctrine in her essay “The Greatest Drama Ever Staged,” reminding us that it is we who have made religious dogma boring:

“So that is the outline of the official story—the tale of the time when God was the under-dog and got beaten, when He submitted to the conditions He had laid down and became a man like the men He had made, and the men He had made broke Him and killed Him. This is the dogma we find so dull—this terrifying drama of which God is the victim and hero.

If this is dull, then what, in Heaven’s name, is worthy to be called exciting? The people who hanged Christ never, to do them justice, accused Him of being a bore—on the contrary; they thought Him too dynamic to be safe. It has been left for later generations to muffle up that shattering personality and surround Him with an atmosphere of tedium. We have very efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified Him ‘meek and mild,’ and recommended Him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies.”

The Truths professed within Christian doctrine, Sayers claims, deserve not only our attention but our excitement as well. If the welfare of our souls depends upon this “Greatest Drama” being True, then we cannot afford to let it remain dull but must find means of recovering it and letting it work on our sensibilities anew. But how is this to be done?

There are many methods of recovery available to us, but the one that the seven Wade authors specialize in is the written word. Masterful writing allows the truths that stories contain to steal “past those watchful dragons,” as Lewis calls our internal sentinels of doubt and cynicism, so they can give our heart and soul the chance to embrace recovery. We simply need to be on the lookout for recovery when it crosses our path, and notice which methods strike a chord with our spirit.

Cover to The Lion, the Witch, and the WardrobeSome may have apprehension about the idea of intermingling imaginative literature with faith. Such a concern was brought to C.S. Lewis by the mother of a little boy who was worried that he loved Aslan the lion from The Chronicles of Narnia more than Jesus. In Laurence Krieg’s own words as an adult, he remembers: “what worried me was that I found Lewis’s portrayal of Aslan much more appealing and worthy of worship than any church or Sunday School’s portrayal of God or Jesus.” His mother wrote to Lewis about this problem to ask his advice. Here was Lewis’s response in a letter dated May 6, 1955:

“Laurence can’t really love Aslan more than Jesus, even if he feels that’s what he is doing. For the things he loves Aslan for doing or saying are simply the things Jesus really did and said. So that when Laurence thinks he is loving Aslan, he is really loving Jesus: and perhaps loving Him more than he ever did before. Of course there is one thing Aslan has which Jesus has not – I mean, the body of a lion. … Now if Laurence is bothered because he finds the lion-body seems nicer to him than the man-body, I don’t think he need be bothered at all. God knows all about the way a little boy’s imagination works (He made it, after all) and knows that at a certain age the idea of talking and friendly animals is very attractive. So I don’t think He minds if Laurence likes the Lion-body. And anyway, Laurence will find that in a few years, as he grows older, that feeling (liking the lion-body better) will die away of itself, without his taking any trouble about it.”

The lines “loving Him more than he ever did before” and “God knows all about the way a little boy’s imagination works” serve as a wonderful summary for how God can use our imaginations, which He made, to reveal Truths to us and recapture our hearts through the vessel of story. We must remember that story does not work this way for everyone, and stories will impact people differently, but for many readers the re-awakening and recovery of spiritual truths actively occurs through God’s call to their imaginations.

For me, the story that captured my heart and imagination was Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. I’ve met many readers over the years who can say the same for themselves. There are innumerable ways that the story has aided me in the work of recovery, but I wanted to share one example in this reflection as the celebration of Easter draws near.

Fellowship of the Ring coverThe suffering of Frodo Baggins has always touched me deeply, aided by Tolkien’s vivid descriptions of his long journey to destroy the Ring and the injuries he received along the way. That suffering carries timely resonance as we remember the wounds of the past year in so many lives worldwide. Frodo chose selflessly to take an object that few others would (or could) touch in an effort to rid Middle-earth of the evils of Sauron. He suffered hunger, thirst, the endless temptation and weight of the Ring, and exhausting travels. The first time I read The Lord of the Rings in high school, I was so imaginatively and emotionally invested in the story that I found it difficult to eat meals while reading about Frodo and Sam starving on the plains of Gorgoroth.

Frodo receives four serious wounds during his quest, in addition to his travel weariness and the temptation of the Ring:

  1. The stab wound in his left shoulder by the Nazgûl at Weathertop
  2. The spear wound in his right side from the orc in Moria
  3. The poisoned wound from Shelob on the back left side of his neck
  4. Gollum biting off the third finger on his right hand at Mount Doom

The Nazgûl knife wound and Shelob’s sting impact Frodo even after the Ring is destroyed as Tolkien tells us the effects are lingering and the wounds are not fully healed.

“At last the hobbits had their faces turned towards home. They were eager now to see the Shire again; but at first they rode only slowly, for Frodo had been ill at ease. When they came to the Ford of Bruinen, he had halted, and seemed loth to ride into the stream; and they noted that for a while his eyes appeared not to see them or things about him. All that day he was silent. It was the sixth of October.

‘Are you in pain, Frodo?’ said Gandalf quietly as he rode by Frodo’s side.

‘Well, yes I am,’ said Frodo. ‘It is my shoulder. The wound aches, and the memory of darkness is heavy on me. It was a year ago today.’

‘Alas! There are some wounds that cannot be wholly cured,’ said Gandalf.

‘I fear it may be so with mine,’ said Frodo. ‘There is no real going back. Though I may come to the Shire, it will not seem the same; for I shall not be the same. I am wounded with knife, sting, and tooth, and a long burden. Where shall I find rest?’

Gandalf did not answer.”

– “Homeward Bound,” The Return of the King

Door to Bag End, shadowy

Image: Matamata, New Zealand, Conner Bowe, https://unsplash.com/photos/riw_BZvlMcI

It becomes evident that Frodo’s wounds will not heal if he remains in Middle-earth, and sadly his sacrifices from the quest are largely unknown by the inhabitants of the Shire, with the exceptions of Sam, Merry, and Pippin. Frodo is given the opportunity to sail west, the “spiritual epicenter” of Tolkien’s legendarium, where his wounds can be healed. The end of the story brings the poignant bittersweetness of Frodo’s departure, despite all he did to preserve the Shire and Middle-earth.

“I have been too deeply hurt, Sam. I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me.”

– “The Grey Havens,” The Return of the King

Despite the sadness, it is comforting to know that Frodo will have his cares removed, dark memories forgotten, and his physical wounds healed. He will be refreshed and renewed, and as a result, can ultimately one day die in peace.

Frodo’s story aids me as a spiritual stepping-stone when I contemplate Christ’s wounds and suffering. We see human vulnerability in Jesus’s prayer in Gethsemane: “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42) He was not looking forward to the tortures ahead, but Jesus still accepted that burden. Not only did He endure the physical pain of the cross, but He also bore the sins and evils of the whole world (and of past, present, and future generations) all at once. The weight of that burden is greater than the One Ring by far. He confronted all the forces of evil, and overthrew them. And unlike Frodo’s inability to destroy the Ring without Gollum’s intervention, Christ brought about the ultimate defeat of evil that no one else could achieve, and He did this for all of us. In fact, that is one reason why Tolkien chose not to have Frodo destroy the Ring with his own strength; it serves as a reminder that only the person of Christ, as both fully God and fully human, can accomplish such a task.*

After the resurrection, Jesus appears to the disciples and they are able to touch the wounds on His hands, feet, and side. This is a good indication that Jesus will bear those same wounds for eternity. We may likewise guess that the moments of suffering on the cross will also be remembered by Jesus perfectly for eternity. While those hurts and memories do not have power over Him, they are real, and will remain engraved on His body and memory. He does not get to “sail West” and have those hurts healed as Frodo did. But those eternal wounds are what give us the hope and assurance that our own wounds will be fully healed one day. They are also a beautiful testament to the extent of God’s love for us.

“But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.”
– Isaiah 53:5

“He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
– Revelation 21:4

This practice is not an exercise in allegory or a one-to-one comparison between Frodo and Christ. It acknowledges the emotive and revelatory qualities inspired by Tolkien’s story and their resonance with the truths of my Christian faith, making the True Story more vibrant in my own life. I cannot fully fathom the amount of love that Christ has lavished on each of us through His sacrifice, but my care for Frodo gets me several steps closer, causing me to worship with a more fervent appreciation and gratitude. Like Laurence, I find myself loving Jesus more than I ever did before. That renewed spirit of worship and understanding is what “recovery” is all about.

This note by C.S. Lewis from the chapter “Time and Beyond Time” in Mere Christianity seems an appropriate word to end on: “This idea has helped me a good deal. If it does not help you, leave it alone.” Recovery takes many forms, and God’s ideas on how to reach us in ways we will understand are unlimited. The vital reminder is simply to be on the lookout for where the opportunities of recovery turn up in your own life, and embrace them. They are beacons of hope on your horizon, sent by God for your benefit. Are you watching?

lighthouse on a rocky coast

Image: Portland Head Lighthouse, Captain Strout Circle, Cape Elizabeth, Maine
by photographer Dan Mall, https://unsplash.com/photos/1OVw9oKHH4A

*It is interesting to note that the date of the Ring’s destruction, March 25, is the traditional date of Christ’s Crucifixion, as well as date of the Annunciation. It is celebrated as “Tolkien Reading Day” by Tolkien enthusiasts around the world.


Laura Schmidt has served as Archivist at the Wade Center since 2005. She is also the Staff Adviser for the Wheaton College Tolkien Society and Facilitator of WhInklings, a Wheaton College group for writers.

Naughty Gnosticism and Film Scholarship — by Crystal Downing

Image Source: Boudewijn Huysmans, https://unsplash.com/photos/HYRVOsFvHaM

Enjoy this post by Wade Center Co-Director, Crystal Downing, that first appeared on the Christian Scholar’s Review blog on October 26, 2020.

I ended my last post suggesting “the relevance of cinema to Christian orthodoxy.” What exactly does this mean? On one level the answer is easy: award-winning films have portrayed dedication to Christ with respect, such as The Mission (1986, Roland Joffé) and the recently streamed A Hidden Life (2019, Terrence Malick), about a martyred Austrian, beatified in 2007, whose prayer-filled faith enabled him to endure intense torture while defying Nazi hegemony. (Interestingly, both films show love of Christ conflicting with the political interests of church leaders.)

In addition to celebrating faith infused films such as these, Christian scholars have extracted spiritual insights from popular Hollywood movies in which Christianity has no apparent role. I have been enlightened and nourished by their profound theological perspectives. However, of the fifty-plus essays and books I have read on faith and film, nineteen on Jesus-films alone, almost every single one has ignored changing theories about film aesthetics and language about the cinematic devices shaping film form. This strikes me as comparable to someone writing a book on the atonement without ever acknowledging the difference between Ransom, Satisfaction, or Penal Substitution theories, and hence failing to grapple with the varying approaches taken by Origen, Anselm, and Calvin. It can be done, of course, but much is lost about historical understandings of Christ as the medium of salvation. I therefore felt led to write Salvation from Cinema in order to fill a gap in Christian film scholarship.

Not coincidentally, I subtitled the book with Marshall McLuhan’s famous aphorism The Medium Is the Message. Indeed, that phrase applies to the history of Christianity as much as to the history of film. As I argue in the book, when it comes to writing about cinema, many endorsers of the Incarnation seem more Gnostic than Christian. Emphasizing hidden knowledge that can be extracted from a movie, they imply that the medium itself is merely an entertaining illusion that conveys truth, much as Christian Docetists in the third century regarded Jesus as an illusionary conveyor of God’s presence rather than as a flesh and blood medium. As I did research for the book, however, I discovered that authors from other religious traditions were Gnostic in their analyses of cinema as well. At least they had better excuses, for they were embedded in belief systems that either celebrated escape from the body or else dismissed doctrine about the Incarnation, assuming that no Transcendent God would deign to take on flesh.

Because I explored these multiple religious approaches, my publisher encouraged me to pivot from writing about “Christianity and film” to the more general topic of “religion and film,” which took a lot more work but ended up being a blessing in disguise. For now, Salvation from Cinema is read in courses on religion and cinema at secular universities. Here, then, is a passage celebrating Christian orthodoxy that non-Christians are required to read:

Failure to engage with and assess the visual medium is especially ironic for Christian scholars. Doctrine hammered out in the first five centuries of the church—often in defiance of Gnosticism—emphasizes that salvation is mediated not through stories and insights spoken by Jesus, but through his material body hung upon the cross, a medium seen after the resurrection. During the third ecumenical council, held at Ephesus in 431 CE, church leaders therefore borrowed a Greek philosophical term, hypostasis, meaning underlying substance, to argue that Christ’s human nature cannot be separated from his divine nature: it is a hypostatic union. Inspired by this ancient doctrine of Christianity, confirmed at Chalcedon in 451 CE, Salvation from Cinema argues for a hypostatic union of medium and message in film scholarship: an emphasis relevant not simply to Christian scholarship but also for the broader discourse of religion and film.” (Salvation from Cinema, 26)

In order to accommodate discussions about movies with Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu perspectives, the publisher asked me to remove material about specific Christian doctrines, one anonymous referee saying, “I don’t have time to teach my students about the Trinity.” Once again, this was a disguised blessing, providing significant material for another book: one that can explore in depth the important relationship between orthodoxy and cinema studies. As suggested in my last CSR post, Dorothy L. Sayers guides this project, not only due to her interest in cinema but also because her book about creativity and the Trinity, The Mind of the Maker (1941), anticipates secular theories about film aesthetics. An emphatic endorser of dogma established at the first four Ecumenical Councils, Sayers despaired over Christians who reduce the Incarnation to naught. Critiquing the naught-y who “practice a kind of artistic Gnosticism” by focusing on “Knowledge with a capital K,” she suggested such practices imply “that it is beneath the dignity of the son to dwell in a limited material body, and postulate for him a body which is a pure psychical manifestation, retaining all the supernatural qualities of the divinity.”

Sayers’s critique, of course, applies to more than the visual arts. The Incarnation should make a difference to the way Christians teach and practice scholarship in all the liberal and applied arts. As Jenell Paris beautifully put it in a recent CSR post, Christian scholarship in the classroom “is about neither the urgency nor the beauty of delivering content. It’s about the glory and honor of our students’ lives, and the lives of those they will one day serve, each one created just a little lower than the angels” (Psalm 8). Quality teaching, like quality cinema, is considerably more than a content delivery system.

SEVEN SURPRISES IN HOLLY ORDWAY’S NEW BOOK, Tolkien’s Modern Reading: Middle-earth Beyond the Middle Ages — by David Downing

Dr. Holly Ordway is a dragon-slayer. Among scholars, one of the fabled beasts most dangerous to challenge is the one called Conventional Wisdom. And the conventional wisdom about Tolkien is that he didn’t read much literature beyond the Middle Ages, the generation of Chaucer and the Gawain poet. With her thorough research and careful analysis, Ordway explodes this myth and creates a much more expansive and accurate picture of Tolkien’s reading habits and how they may have influenced his creative works.

  1. The first surprise in this book is the title itself. The phrase “Tolkien’s modern reading” will sound like an oxymoron to many readers of Tolkien, as it is generally thought that he took little interest in fiction or poetry composed after the 15th century. But Ordway lists dozens of authors after 1850 who Tolkien read and sometimes admired greatly. In Tolkien studies, one expects to hear about the influence of Beowulf, the Eddas, or the Kalevala. But who expects to learn that Tolkien also knew Mark Twain, T. S. Eliot, and Ray Bradbury?
  2. The conventional wisdom is that Lewis was a prodigious letter-writer, while Tolkien seemed to have other things to do. Lewis’s published letters fill three thick volumes with 3,500 total pages, while Tolkien has exactly 354 published letters in one volume. But actually Tolkien’s editor, Humphrey Carpenter, culled through “thousands and thousands of letters,” and even then he often abridged the letters that he selected, sometimes making Tolkien sound abrupt or brusque in his letters to correspondents.
  3. Tolkien got tired about being asked if his Lord of the Rings epic was beholden to the Wagnerian cycle of operas about the Ring of the Nibelungs. Tolkien stated that the only similarity between the two rings was that they were both round. But Tolkien also knew the stories of Andrew Lang, including one in The Green Fairy Book called “The Enchanted Ring,” about a ring that could make one invisible, but which seemed to bring ill fortune more than good fortune to its bearers.
  4. It is commonly assumed that Tolkien ignored most English literature after Chaucer and that he absolutely abhorred twentieth-century fiction or poetry, especially the Modernists. Yet Tolkien read and took notes on sections of James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, often considered the pinnacle of High Modernism, and he even transliterated some of the character names into Elvish. Equally surprising is the fact that Tolkien nominated the English realistic novelist E. M. Forster for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Tolkien also studied T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, and Tolkien’s letters express his genuine grief when he learned of T. S. Eliot’s death.
  5. Tolkien’s Treebeard and the other Ents seem to have been influenced by two other Wade authors, George MacDonald and C. S. Lewis. Tolkien said that though he didn’t care much for MacDonald’s Phantastes, he did recall the living trees, good and evil, such as the gentle Beech and the lovely but dangerous Alder-Maid. In his notes for Lord of the Rings, Tolkien asked himself if the Ents were hnau, rational souls, a term that Tolkien found in Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet. Dr. Ordway points out a number of surprising but specific similarities between Augray the Sorn in Lewis’s first interplanetary story and Treebeard in Lord of the Rings.
  6. Tolkien was well versed in popular adventure stories, including Rider Haggard’s She, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan books, and Frank Herbert’s Dune. Tolkien revealed that his scenes involving wargs were influenced by S. R. Crockett’s The Black Douglas (1899), the chapter in which the heroes are surrounded by fiendish wolves. Rather than simply pointing to possible sources and influences, Ordway persuasively shows how Tolkien was able to improve on his sources, creating even more vivid scenes portrayed in more evocative prose. (The book also contains marvelous illustrations, letting readers see for themselves the kinds of visual images that Tolkien had stored in his imagination.)
  7. Sometimes a survey of Tolkien’s reading may also uncover some possible creative sources for his good friend C. S. Lewis. Just as Lewis was beginning to write the Narnia Chronicles, he wrote to his friend Chad Walsh that he wanted to write a series of children’s stories “in the tradition of Edith Nesbit.” In one of Nesbit’s stories that Lewis knew, The Story of the Amulet, some English children accidentally transport the Queen of Babylon back to London, a plot device that can’t help but make one think of The Magician’s Nephew.

I will stop this list at Seven, partly to allow readers to discover more surprises for themselves and partly to preserve the alliteration in my title. Suffice to say, Dr. Ordway’s new book is a major contribution to Tolkien studies–meticulously researched, carefully organized, and written in clear, pleasing prose. Sometimes readers of Tolkien scholarship may begin to feel “there is nothing new under the sun.” But Holly’s book is indeed new, as well as refreshing, and insightful. She may justly raise her shimmering sword over that scaly serpent known as Scholarly Consensus.


The Marion E. Wade Center will be hosting a virtual book launch with author Holly Ordway on Thursday, February 25, at 7:00 pm CST to discuss her new book, Tolkien’s Modern Reading. We welcome you to register in advance for this event on Zoom.

January 6, 2021 and the Fixation of Belief — by Crystal Downing

Image Source: Kyle Mills, https://unsplash.com/photos/2pxjS57_axE

Enjoy this post by Wade Center Co-Director, Crystal Downing, that first appeared on the Christian Scholar’s Review blog on January 26, 2021.

I imagine that most of us are looking through the binocular lenses of scholarly specialization and Christian faith as we seek to understand the January 6 attack on the Capitol: a day of infamy that will be a defining moment in our students’ lives, much as 9-11, the Challenger explosion, and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. still serve for earlier generations.

One of my specialties, the semiotic theory that informs film studies, seems especially appropriate in these distressing times. Often called “the science of signs,” semiotics explores how context affects the very way we see signs, as when a society actually sees a tan as ugly in one century and beautiful several centuries later. One of the fathers of semiotics, scientist and philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (1839 – 1914), therefore discusses how the communities with which we identify shape our habits of perception, as when a Protestant might actually see a statue of the Virgin Mary as idolatrous whereas a Roman Catholic would see it as a pointer to God’s saving grace. It’s not about interpretive subjectivity; it’s about the way we see.

Peirce therefore suggests that we see signs in one of three ways: as an index (pointing to what caused it); an icon (representing what the object is or does); or as a culturally-constructed symbol. Consider, for example, current facemasks: most people see them as indexes of a virulent disease, many also viewing them as icons of concern for others’ health. Some, however, see them merely as symbols of government oppression. Though Peirce is much more complex than this example, actually coming up with nearly 60,000 classes of sign, his basic triad of Index, Icon, and Symbol inspired film theorists to discuss the plural ways that signs function on the movie screen.

More relevant to our present moment is Peirce’s suggestion that habits of perception change when “collateral experience” forces people to look with different eyes.1 Indeed, many of us view the U.S. Capitol with different eyes after the collateral experience of January 6. A building once seen as an icon of governmental stability now symbolizes, for many, a polarized America. This does not mean that Peirce is a relativist, denying the existence of universals. Instead, he asserts that human reason is fallible in its understanding of “the real,” which does indeed exist apart from our thoughts about it.2 To better understand “the real,” then, humanity needs what medieval scholastics called “science”: a commitment to expanding our understanding of truth. What we need, in other words, is Christian scholarship.

In his essay “Logic as Semiotic: The Theory of Signs,” Peirce established a “scientific” mind as having “an intelligence capable of learning by experience.”3 As Robert Corrington explains, “Both the scientist and the theologian rely on a common body of inferential strategies in coming to conclusions about the ultimate explanations of things.”4 In other words, both the scientist and the theologian hold onto the fundamental beliefs of their community while also opening themselves to new ways of understanding reality, creatively suggesting new signs for old truths: signs that might change the very way the community perceives reality. A good example of Peirce’s “scientific” mind appears in my December CSR blog, where I recount how Sayers employed new signs for the Gospel message in BBC radio plays about Jesus, which C. S. Lewis considered one of the most important influences on his spiritual life. Nevertheless, Christians in 1940s England excoriated Dorothy L. Sayers for not using the traditional signs of King James English in her scripts. Christians were fixated on traditional signs more than on the truths to which they pointed.

In an 1877 essay called “The Fixation of Belief,” Peirce explores the way people fixate on political and religious signs, as when antebellum Christians denounced abolition as the false teaching of intellectual “elites” who ignored the Bible’s endorsement of slavery.5 Of course, intellectual “elites” in our own day echo similar “fixation of belief” anytime they refuse to allow political conservatives to take the podium on a university campus. Umberto Eco, influenced by Peirce, calls such fixation the “Fundamentalist fallacy,” which he sees “instantiated when one assumes that his/her own philosophy is the only valid philosophy . . . (and demands a universal agreement on such a statement).”6

Though concerned about fixation of belief, whether coming from the right or the left, Peirce did not repudiate belief itself. Instead, he argues that

“Faith is not peculiar to or more needed in one province of thought than in another. For every premiss [sic] we require faith  . . .  This is overlooked by Kant and others who draw a distinction between knowledge and faith. Wherever there is knowledge there is Faith. Wherever there is Faith (properly speaking) there is knowledge.”7

Not coincidentally, Dorothy L. Sayers made the same point to a non-Christian who protested her BBC radio plays about Jesus. Not much different from the fixated Christians who sent her hate mail, the skeptic wrote a nasty letter impugning Sayers’s intelligence because her plays legitimized the miracles of Jesus. Christians and skeptics were merely opposite sides of the same fundamentalist coin. In response, Sayers wrote,

“One act of faith must, indeed, be made before one can accept Christianity: one must be prepared to believe that the universe is rational, and that (consequently) human reason is valid so far as it goes. But that is an act of faith which we have to make in order to think about anything at all. . . . Admittedly, we cannot prove that the universe is rational; for the only instrument by which we can prove anything is reason, and we have to assume the rationality of things before we can trust or use our reason. . .; without that act of faith we could not live or act.”8

Sayers’s use of new signs in her radio plays, then, exposed “fixation of belief” in both Christians and anti-Christians, a fixation that Sayers identifies with Judas in her radio plays. Fixated on proper signs of behavior for a Messiah, her Judas obsesses over the Triumphal Entry, considering it evidence of improper political leadership. Judas, in other words, trusts his own certitude more than he trusts Jesus. Not coincidentally, the sign certitude appears nowhere in English translations of the Bible, whereas forms of the word faith and faithful appear over 350 times. We are called to faith, not certitude.

This leads us to an overwhelming question: if “faith without works is dead” (James 2:17), how can we assess the proper works of faith, both religiously and politically? Peirce answered such a question with the words of Jesus: “By their fruits ye shall know them.”9 The context for Christ’s statement bears repeating: “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. . . . every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit” (Mt 7:15-17, NIV). These days, however, it seems that people cannot even agree on good versus bad fruit, which leads us back to the need for Christian scholarship. By studying works of the past, not only works of literature and philosophy but also the workings of science and technology, Christian scholars can assess strengths and weaknesses in habits of perception, modeling “intelligence capable of learning by experience.”

Capable of learning by experience, we might contrast the “fruits” of January 6 with another march in Washington D.C.: the one led by Martin Luther King, Jr., in August of 1963. King avoided the “fixation of belief” in his famous “I have a dream” speech by praising the strengths of America even as he exposed its weaknesses. Rather than encouraging acts of violence he manifested fruits of the spirit. Resisting Judas-like certitude, he modeled hope for change, as though in acknowledgement of that important verse to the Hebrews: “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (Heb 11:1).

In contrast to the fixation of belief, Peirce suggests we consider “fixing belief,” in both senses of the phrase.10 For me, this means affixing my faith on orthodox doctrine, which was fixed into place at the first four Ecumenical Councils (325 – 451 CE), while at the same time “fixing” my beliefs—seeking to fix them—by assessing how contemporary signs of Christian truth have been warped by traditional cultural practices, as when Christians denounced abolition as “un-Biblical” and women’s rights as “un-Christian.”11 January 6, then, might serve as a reminder to Christian scholars that we are called to the fixing of belief.

Footnotes

  1. For a more substantive explanation of Peirce’s paradigms and their relevance to Christianity, see Crystal Downing, Changing Signs of Truth: A Christian Introduction to the Semiotics of Communication (IVP Academic, 2006), chapters 7 – 8. For “collateral experience,” see pp. 202 – 203.
  2. The Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, vol. 6, ed. Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss (Harvard University Press, 1931-58), 495.
  3. Peirce, “Logic as Semiotic: The Theory of Signs,” in Philosophical Writings, ed. Justus Buchler (Dover, 1955), 98.
  4. Robert Corrington, An Introduction to C. S. Peirce: Philosopher, Semiotician, and Ecstatic Naturalist (Rowman and Littlefield, 1993), 47.
  5. Mark A. Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 49.
  6. Umberto Eco, “Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language,” in Reading Eco: An Anthology, ed. Rocco Capozzi (Indiana University Press, 1997), 7.
  7. C. S. Peirce, “A Treatise on Metaphysics,” in Peirce on Signs: Writings on Semiotic by Charles Sanders Peirce, ed. James. Hoopes (University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 19.
  8. Sayers to L. T. Duff, May 10, 1943, The Letters of Dorothy L. Sayers, Vol 2, ed. Barbara Reynolds (Dorothy L. Sayers Society, 1997), 401.
  9. Matthew 7:20, KJV, in Peirce, “Pragmatism in Retrospect: A Last Formulation,” Philosophical Writings, 271.
  10. Peirce, “The Fixation of Belief,” in Philosophical Writings, 12, 13.
  11. “Unchristian” is the word Queen Victoria used to describe “women’s rights” in 1870.

Toward a Christian Film Aesthetic — by Crystal Downing

Image Source: Jeremy Yap, https://unsplash.com/photos/J39X2xX_8CQ

Enjoy this post by Wade Center Co-Director, Crystal Downing, that first appeared on the Christian Scholar’s Review blog on September 14, 2020. Posts by Crystal Downing will be a regular monthly feature on “Off the Shelf.”

As co-director of the Marion E. Wade Center, the world’s most comprehensive archive of books and autographs by and about C. S. Lewis and six of his most important influencers, I have delighted in reading unpublished correspondence and manuscripts by Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957), whose radio plays about Jesus nurtured Lewis’s spiritual life. Among the many treats at the Wade, I am most excited about discoveries related to one of my many scholarly interests: film. 

Unlike Lewis, who paid little attention to movies, Sayers relished cinema, composing film scenarios for a British producer before writing the detective fiction that transformed her into a bestselling novelist. Because none of her scenarios got produced, scholars overlook the fact that Sayers maintained her interest in cinema even after her fictional sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey, made her famous. Many would be surprised to discover that two of her closest friends wrote for the screen, and most would be shocked to learn that Sayers had connections to Alfred Hitchcock and Michael Powell, the British director that Oscar-winning Martin Scorsese considers his primary mentor. 

The shock is easy to explain: almost every letter expressing appreciation for film has been left out of the four volumes of published Sayers correspondence, whereas most letters disparaging movies have been included. This may be due to the fact that Sayers’s friend and biographer Barbara Reynolds, who edited the volumes, was committed to showing Sayers’s scholarly sophistication, and for people of Reynolds’ generation cinema was even less respected by the intellectual elite than bestselling detective fiction. Reynolds includes, instead, dozens of letters about the intricacies of interpreting Dante’s Divine Comedy into English, the project that channeled Sayers’s “passionate intellect” in the last decade of her life: letters that would primarily interest students of Dante or translation theory. 

Ironically, as I argue in VII, the journal produced by the Wade Center, Sayers’s intrigue with Dante may well have been ignited by cinema. What follows is an edited version of my speculation, which is based on many wonderful discoveries, like the number of cinemas providing screening opportunities for Oxford University students in 1912:

After winning a prize in photography at the Godophin boarding school in Salisbury, Sayers attended Oxford University from 1912 to 1915, when she took advantage of the town’s six cinemas. Given her excited letters home about movies she had seen, Sayers most likely screened the first international blockbuster in history, the Italian L’Inferno, based on Dante’s Inferno, released in England during October of 1912. This certainly would help explain why Sayers describes Dante’s Inferno, decades later, with, “We see the whole action as though it were shown on a screen.”

Even if she missed seeing the film (which I doubt), she certainly knew of its cultural significance, Punch magazine referencing it at least twice: in October of 1912 and again in March of 1913. Long acquainted with the magazine, for which her uncle contributed articles, Sayers compared one of her Oxford experiences, in 1914, to “a page out of Punch.” So she more than likely saw the cartoons, both of which juxtapose posters about movie murder mysteries with images from the film version of L’Inferno. The second cartoon, published 26 March 1913, depicts two men entering an “electric palace”: a common name for cinemas at the time. Posters on the right side of the cartoon advertise two films. One titled Murder Will Out depicts an attacker’s hands at the neck of his victim, whose head he has covered with a bag. Above that image, an advertisement for L’Inferno shows people frozen in ice up to their necks: an allusion to Dante’s depiction of traitors, from Canto 32, which Sayers later described as “perhaps the greatest image in the whole Inferno.” In other words, Punch cartoons align murder with Dante—as Sayers would do in her first novel, Whose Body? (1923), which begins with Lord Peter Wimsey on his way to purchase a “Dante Folio,” a rare book mentioned several more times as Wimsey works to solve a case having to do with broken necks. Meanwhile, Wimsey’s butler specializes in photography.

The editors of VII got permission to reproduce the Punch cartoons in the body of the essay, making my speculation all the more fun. 

My essay, of course, includes far more extensive and substantive data supporting the influence of cinema on Sayers, data that informs my current book project: The Wages of Cinema: Looking through the Lens of Dorothy L. Sayers. In a future blog I will discuss the significance of this book for Christians, who all too often reduce cinema to a “content delivery system”: a phrase I borrow from my fourth book, Salvation from Cinema: The Medium Is the Message. Employed as a text in secular university religion courses, Salvation from Cinema challenges scholarly conversations about “religion and film,” which tend to say little about movies that couldn’t be gleaned simply by reading their original screenplays, thus entirely overlooking the aesthetics of film form. The Wages of Cinema follows up by narrowing its discussion to the particularity of Christianity, demonstrating how Sayers’s essay “Towards a Christian Aesthetic” not only anticipates film theory—a subject usually ignored in Christian books about cinema—but also illuminates the relevance of cinema to Christian orthodoxy.

For more about film and faith in CSR see: https://christianscholars.com/deep-focus-and-cinematic-faith-an-extended-review/

 

The “Lost” C. S. Lewis Tapes on the Ransom Trilogy and Chaucer — by David C. Downing

C.S. Lewis, August 1960

C.S. Lewis at his desk in the Kilns. Photo taken by Bill Gresham in August 1960, during the same visit in which Bill recorded these tapes!

The only thing better than reading C.S. Lewis’s novels would be listening to Lewis himself read from his novels. It is now possible to hear Lewis reading from both Perelandra (1943) and That Hideous Strength (1945). Additionally, Lewis fans can listen to him reading the famous opening section of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in resonant Middle English.

The Marion E. Wade Center, in partnership with the Rabbit Room, is releasing all three segments of “The Lost Lewis Tapes” to the public. Excerpts of the tapes, along with in-depth analysis of the Ransom trilogy, are available for free on the Wade Center Podcast. All three segments (45-minutes in total) are now available in the Rabbit Room store.

These tracks were first recorded at Lewis’s home, the Kilns, in August 1960. After Joy Davidman Lewis passed away in July 1960, her former husband, Bill Gresham, traveled to Oxford to see his two sons, David, 16, and Douglas, 14, as well as to meet Lewis face to face. Gresham brought a portable tape recorder with him and apparently asked Lewis if he would do some readings. Lewis chose to read nearly all of Chapter 3 in Perelandra for 27 minutes, narrating in detail the scene in which Ransom first arrives on the sea-swaddled world of Venus. The next reading is nearly 9 minutes long and comes from Chapter 13, section 1, in That Hideous Strength. This is the scene in which the newly-awakened Merlin interrogates Ransom about his credentials, ultimately kneeling before the man he recognizes as the Pendragon, the one person who has the authority to carry the secrets of Logres (the spiritual dimension of Britain) into the modern world.

Lewis reel to reel tape

Photo of the 5-inch, EMI reel-to-reel tape containing the recordings of Lewis’s voice by Bill Gresham. Photo taken by Wade Archivist, Laura Schmidt.

The third segment features Lewis declaiming the General Prologue to Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales in impeccable Middle English for over 8 minutes. He may be reading the text, but then again he may be reciting. (Both Lewis and Tolkien had near-photographic memories, and Tolkien is known, on at least one occasion, to dress up in Chaucerian garb and recite “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale,” again in Middle English, from memory.)

The original source for these audio files is a 5-inch reel-to-reel tape stored in the in the archives of the Marion E. Wade Center in Wheaton, Illinois. This tape came to the Wade Center in 1982, purchased from Bill Gresham’s widow, Renee. Dr. Lyle Dorsett, a professor of history at the University of Colorado, interviewed Renee when he was writing the very first biography of Joy Davidman Lewis, And God Came In (1983). Dr. Dorsett arranged for the Wade Center to purchase some of Bill Gresham’s papers, including this vintage audiotape. (Dr. Dorsett served as Director of the Wade Center from 1983-1990.)

The files on old-school magnetic tape are a delight to listen to, though clearly homemade. Lewis has a mesmerizing voice, reading in a confident, steady tempo with just enough dramatic flair to fit each sentence of his prose.  The Perelandra segment begins “This is from chapter three of Perelandra, Ransom’s arrival on the planet Venus.” Lewis reads the chapter from his classic fantasy novel with a spell-binding bass voice in what Americans think of as “the Oxford accent,” but with a few hints of an Irish brogue.

The audio segments seem to have been recorded with little or no editing. Lewis occasionally coughs or clears his throat during the reading, and at one point we can hear a fly buzzing around the room. At another point, we hear heavy steps ascending creaky stairs, which Douglas Gresham guesses was Warren Lewis heading upstairs to bed. How vividly these small background noises evoke the whole world of the Kilns in Lewis’s later years.

One can’t help but wonder how Lewis chose the sections of the Ransom trilogy he decided to read on tape. In the first segment, Ransom plunges through the radiant atmosphere of Venus, feels his coffin-like spacecraft melt around him, and encounters a world of golden skies, massive waves, sweet-water seas, and floating islands. Though these early scenes contain many hints that Ransom has landed in an unspoiled planet, he himself, from a violent, fallen world, is full of doubts and anxieties. Only at the end of the chapter does Ransom begin to wonder if he has indeed found a mythical paradise that has been drawing him with cords of longing since his childhood.

Lewis’s immediate audience for this impromptu reading seems to have been his 14-year-old stepson, Douglas Gresham, and Douglas’s father, Bill. Lewis may have wanted to choose a sample that was a lively, stand-alone chapter, needing little exposition. He may have also wanted to enthrall both of his listeners in the room with an imaginative immersion into Joy, the yearning for some lost paradise that is also a pleasure to feel. In the second excerpt, the conversation between Merlin and Ransom in That Hideous Strength, Lewis seems to have found another good stand-alone scene. This is the moment when the newly awakened Merlin questions the injured Ransom about his credentials for carrying on spiritual warfare on planet Earth. Eventually, the haughty and skeptical magician from King Arthur’s day humbly kneels before the seated Ransom, acknowledging him as the Lord’s anointed in the upcoming battle with the forces of evil.

Of course, one can never know why Lewis chose these passages to read or how they were received by his immediate listeners. Whatever their immediate effects, these recordings are likely to become an ongoing source of edification and delight for listeners more than a half a century later. What more can we ask than to hear Lewis’s inimitable prose read in his own inimitable voice?


Track List

  • Perelandra (27:00): Lewis reads nearly all of Chapter 3 from the second novel of his Ransom Trilogy, narrating in a mesmerizing and confident voice Ransom’s arrival on the watery planet Venus.
  • That Hideous Strength (9:13): For over 9 minutes, Lewis dramatizes Merlin’s interrogation of Elwin Ransom about his credentials as the Pendragon from Chapter 13, section 1.
  • Bonus: Canterbury Tales (8:35): Lewis declaims the Prologue to Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales in impeccable Middle English, possibly from memory.

Mere Christianity: An Accidental Classic

C.S. Lewis at his desk in August 1960 (Image from the Wade Center's photo collection), and the cover of the HarperCollins 2012 edition of MERE CHRISTIANITY.

C.S. Lewis at his desk in August 1960 (Image from the Wade Center’s photo collection), and the cover of the HarperCollins 2012 edition of MERE CHRISTIANITY.

This blog post is presented in conjunction with the Wade Center’s Summer 2020 series on our Facebook and Instagram platforms titled: “Mere Christianity – Simple Truths.” We are sharing some of Lewis’s thoughts from his classic, Mere Christianity, hoping they will provide you with some valuable food for thought and encouragement, and of course, that they will intrigue you enough to pick up your own copy of Mere Christianity to read and enjoy! You can follow the series under the hashtag #MCSimpleTruths.

The following text provides background on the creation of Mere Christianity, and some reasons for its continued success as a best-selling book. This post was adapted from an article written by Wade Center Co-director, Dr. David C. Downing, of which a condensed version appeared in our 2020 Spring Friends of the Wade newsletter.

C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity has sold over 3.5 million copies in the 21st century, translated into 36 languages so far. In 2000, it was named as the #1 the most influential book among Christian readers, according to a survey conducted by the editors of Christianity Today. In 2005, TIME magazine pronounced C.S. Lewis the “hottest theologian of the year,” more than forty years after Lewis’s passing in 1963.

This is an amazing impact for a book that was released with no fanfare, no advertising campaign, no print reviews, and, of course, no social media. After all, Mere Christianity was not considered to be a new book, but a collection of three previous books published in the U.S. under the titles The Case for Christianity in 1943 (the 1942 British edition of this volume was titled Broadcast Talks), Christian Behavior in 1944, and Beyond Personality in 1945. These books, in turn, were based upon four series of broadcast talks that Lewis gave over BBC Radio between 1941 and 1944.

The three books that became MERE CHRISTIANITY.

Mere Christianity offers a clear and concise introduction to Christian faith, covering apologetics (reasons to believe), basic doctrine, ethics, and theology. The four main sections are well ordered and smoothly written, giving the impression that the book was carefully planned and outlined in advance. Actually the book evolved piece by piece, and there was nothing inevitable about its final published form.

The story begins in February 1941 when J.W. Welch, the head of the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation), wrote to Lewis inviting him to give a series of four brief talks on a topic of his own choosing. Welch had been impressed by Lewis’s book The Problem of Pain (1940), and he suggested that Lewis might talk about modern literature as viewed by a Christian or else the Christian faith itself as understood by a layperson. Lewis was interested in both topics, but he chose the second one—one of those “two roads diverging” moments that may have influenced the rest of Lewis’s life and his ongoing legacy.

Lewis gave four 15-minute talks over BBC Radio in August 1941. Rather than beginning his first talk with some generic introduction, Lewis jumped right into his topic: “Everyone has heard people quarreling. Sometimes it sounds funny and sometimes it sounds merely unpleasant; but however it sounds, I believe we can learn something very important from listening to the kinds of things people say.” After giving several examples, Lewis observes that in most arguments people assume some moral standard that the other person has broken. He goes on to show that all of us judge others by these ethical guidelines, but all of us fall short of our own ideals.

Lewis spent most of those first four talks discussing an “internal Moral Law.” He felt that many people of his generation had lost all conviction of sin. They seemed to view human deficiencies in terms of psychological complexes or social injustices. Lewis felt that his listeners could not hear the good news of salvation until it was clear to them that they were indeed lost and in need of saving.

The first series of radio talks generated so much interest—over a million listeners by the end of August—that the producers of the BBC asked him to add a fifth talk to answer the deluge of letters that had that came pouring in. Before the series had even ended, Lewis was asked to do a second series of talks, and then a third, and a fourth. By the end of World War II, it is said that Lewis’s voice was one of the most recognized on BBC Radio, after that of Winston Churchill himself.

In his fine book C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity: A Biography (2016),* George M. Marsden documents the ongoing legacy of Lewis’s classic book, noting the key role it has played in the lives of people as diverse as Charles Colson, Pope John Paul II, George Gallup, Jr., J.I. Packer, and Philip Yancey. Marsden goes on to list the qualities that have given this work its permanent value, stating that Mere Christianity

  • Seeks timeless truths instead of culturally bound insights
  • Uses human nature as a point of contact with audiences
  • Presents reasoning in the context of experience, feelings, imagination
  • Uses metaphors and analogies to appeal to the mind’s eye
  • Presents “mere Christianity,” minimizing denominational differences
  • Captures the luminosity of the Gospel message itself

It could be argued that the traits listed above are hallmarks of all of Lewis’s writings. That is, he was successful as lay theologian, literary scholar, and even children’s writer because he was so consistently able to blend intellect and imagination, and to write with a depth of insight conveyed with masterful clarity and simplicity. We can be thankful for C.S. Lewis’s decision to write a series of radio broadcasts to bolster the spirits of his fellow British citizens, and the impact those same words still carry for us today.

*The statistics in this article are taken from Marsden’s book.


Mere Christianity Resources

UNABRIDGED AUDIOBOOKS

  1. Read by Geoffrey Howard
  2. Read by Julian Rhind-Tutt

STUDY GUIDES

  1. Brown, Devin. Discussing Mere Christianity: Exploring the History, Meaning & Relevance of C.S. Lewis’s Greatest Book. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015 (study guide and video)
  2. Mitchell, Christopher W. Mere Christianity: The Book, the Idea, and the Legacy. Free online study guide videos and resources presented by the C.S. Lewis Institute, 2010. Chris Mitchell was a former director of the Wade Center.

SCHOLARSHIP

  1. Marsden, George M. C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity: A Biography. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016
  2. McCusker, Paul. C.S. Lewis and Mere Christianity: The Crisis that Created a Classic. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2014
  3. Phillips, Justin. C.S. Lewis in a Time of War: The World War II Broadcasts That Riveted a Nation and Became the Classic Mere Christianity. New York : HarperSanFrancisco, 2002 – alternate title: C.S. Lewis at the BBC: Messages of Hope in the Darkness of War. London: HarperCollins, 2002

RELATED MEDIA

  1. C.S. Lewis at War: The Dramatic Story Behind Mere Christianity. Focus on the Family Radio Theatre, 2013 (audio drama)
  2. Marsden, George. “Mere Christianity and American Culture” lecture at the “C.S. Lewis and American Culture” conference held at Wheaton College, November 2013 (free audio recording)