Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Lewis and Language

It’s been years since I read Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. Well, try decades. I read it in the 1970s, not long after I became a Christian, and it was one of a whole spate of works by Lewis that I devoured. In 1980, I read They Stand Together, the letters of Lewis and his friend Arthur Greeves, a correspondence that started when they were young teenagers and lasted until Lewis died in 1963. It is one of my favorite books about and by Lewis.

Lewis provided the foundation for much of my understanding of faith and belief and indeed Christianity in general, particularly Christianity as it is practiced in contemporary society (G.K. Chesterton played a role here, too, but that’s another story). What I’m finding as a I read Mere Christianity is that the writing has aged well; it is just as applicable today as it was when Lewis gave his wartime lectures on BBC radio in the 1940s, and then used his lectures to create this book.

So it was with a great deal of pleasure that I saw that Sarah Salter and Jason Stasyszen would be leading an online discussion of Mere Christianity. I had followed their discussion of Rick Stearns’ The Hole in Our Gospel, and decided to join in with the Lewis book, taking a chapter a week and beginning today.

In this first chapter, “The Law of Human Nature,” Lewis makes two points: “First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it.”

He is setting the stage here. These two points take us back to first principles, as described in chapters 2 and 3 of Genesis. People (Adam and Eve) knew how they were to behave, because it was in a sense imprinted upon them (that business about being made in the image of God), but they chose to violate that standard.

This puts me in mind of something that’s been weighing heavily on my heart for quite some time, and that’s the decline of civility – the deliberate decline of civility – in public discourse in the United States. Our language and our communication seem increasingly polarized at the extremes. We know better; we know how we should behave and speak with each other. But we scream and rave and rant anyway. Our leading pundits, our “thought leaders,” our politicians, our news media, our social media all encourage it and participate in it.

It’s rather interesting that our increasingly secular society freely and deliberately tosses out words like “evil” and “the devil” with both abandon and premeditation. We demonize the opposition, and in the process help make civil discourse increasingly difficult if not impossible. This seems less about understanding and consensus and more about power and control.

I worry about language because language offers clues about the health of our culture and society. This polarization we’re currently experiencing has historical precedent; it has happened before in America. Read our American history of the two decades or so running up to the Civil War. Even allowing for changes in words and usage, the language of polarization seems eerily familiar.

We know how we should speak with each other, and we break that “law” every day. C.S. Lewis would understand it.

To read more posts on Mere Christianity, please visit the links at Sarah Salter's site, Living Between the Lines.


Jerry said...

Thanks for your commentary on Mere Christianity and the thought on our society today that it produced.interesting corelation between now and the years preceeding the civil war.

Gwen Stewart said...


Oh, I LOVE "Mere Christianity". Second to the Bible, it may be my favorite Christian book. C.S. Lewis' writing skills make me weep with joy. His writing reaches off the page and squeezes my heart. I've read MC twice all the way through; perhaps I'll read it a third time and join in the discussion!

And you're right: our society is in decline in so many ways. It worries me.

God bless you.

ML said...

I enjoy reading CS Lewis and frequent his books often.

My first was Screw Tape Letters (italics intended).

Our education system could use a good dose of CS Lewis, but that is a whole other giant to tackle.

Thanks for the post!

Maureen said...

I think we have all of Lewis's books on our shelves. It's been awhile since I've picked one up to re-read.

On language: I find it difficult when statements are framed in "winner" and "loser" propositions, as if there is only one option and that option precludes collaboration and teamwork for the common good.

Unknown said...

My first thought was: You were old enough to read this in the 70's?

But then I thought: That would not be proper to say...

And then: I did it anyway.

So glad you decided to join the discussion. I look forward to reading your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for joining the discussion, Glynn! Much appreciated. I completely agree on your concerns with our language. It's quite a scary thing when people not only say outrageous and incendiary things but are encouraged to do it and rewarded for it. A definite matter of prayer. Language is very important. Thanks.

HisFireFly said...

If we truly knew the power of our tongues ---

Would it make a difference?

I agree with Jason that this is indeed a matter for prayer!

Well said, as usual Glynn.

Helen said...

I, too, was reminded of politics. The accusations both parties make at each other breaks my heart.
I'm glad you are part of this discussion, Glynn. I'm sure to learn a lot from your perspective.

Duane Scott said...

Okay, this was what I was worried about.

Your post was all amazing and smart. :)

And mine... well, it's me.

Anyhoo.... I also thought the material had aged really well.

And what an interesting perspective you're bringing to these book studies.

I'm glad you joined.


S. Etole said...

Your thoughts are well shared ... as always.

Anonymous said...

there are people that are very good at using the language and words to influence or control.

not changing the situation, but, changing the name of the situation is one example of the many ways that the language is used to their advantage and control.

Louise Gallagher said...

Thanks for this -- I haven't read Mere Christianity -- you make me want to go do it, right now!