Monday, December 08, 2008

That Hideous Strength

I was raised on a diet of Narnia books from a young age. It was only natural, therefore, that I would go on to read C.S. Lewis's sci-fi trilogy as a teenager. I loved 'Out of the silent planet'. I liked 'Perelandra' (which I must have read aged 15 as I associate it with studying for my 'O' Grades) and I remember reading 'That Hideous Strength' - but I don't think I really 'got it' at the time.

I've just finished revisiting the trilogy.

Viewed as a series of sci-fi books, I still think the series declines as it goes on. OOTSP is still the best, Perelandra is the most fantastic and THS is still the least accessible.

Viewed from the theological perspective, however, things change a bit. The theology in OOTSP is relatively straightforward, is fleshed out a bit in Perelandra but gets really muddled in THS.

Sometimes I wonder if all the Conservative Evangelicals who hold the writings of C.S. Lewis in such high regard have ever actually read some of the things he wrote - his beliefs regarding the gods of nature and the powers of angels, as expressed in allegory form in this book, are far from orthodox.

Fundamentally, the book deals with the influence of the demonic on 'modern' life. There is also some political comment built in there which probably reflects the mood of the time (written during the end of the 2nd World War, but not published until 1945). The book actually does a good job of showing how subtly attractive evil can be, whilst also showing (Christians take note) how unattractive Christianity can appear to be to the outsider.

The book follows the story of a young couple, Jane & Mark Studdock as they get drawn apart, Mark towards the demonic 'N.I.C.E' organisation, Jane towards the Christian community who oppose the N.I.C.E. (that's the 'National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments' by the way).

A lot of the early part of the book concerns university politics and the very human manipulation of people. I work in a university, and I can say that quite a lot of the satirical comment on university administration in the 1940s is still valid in the 2000s. The tension between the 'progressive' elements and the 'old school' is still there, even though the current old school were probably the progressive element in previous decades.

I've never been totally comfortable with Lewis's view on magic. And by magic, I mean the system of tapping into the power source of nature and using that power for your own purposes. Here, Lewis presents the belief that the use of magic in the modern world would be morally wrong - something the Christian should take a stance against - but that this wasn't necessarily the case in ages past. In the book, the character of Merlin is presented as both a Christian and as a magician, and it is asserted that before his time it was quite acceptable, possibly even good, to use magic, while he came from a time where the use of magic was a morally grey area. But subsequent to Merlin's time, magic has become categorically wrong. Yet Lewis gives no reason why this should be. Indeed, as the plot plays out it becomes apparent that the use of something like magic is required to overthrow the demonic enemy, so only Merlin can bring this about. Taken outwith the context of the allegory, Lewis appears to be saying that the best means of defeating the enemy are not allowed to us today. This doesn't sit comfortably with me.

When the book was published, George Orwell reviewed it and complained that the battle was won by divine intervention. Because if you can invoke divine intervention then that side always wins. And this doesn't make for a very good story. I can kind of see his point. Once the uber-angels get involved at the end, the outcome is clear: good guys win, bad guys lose and, in many cases, die. But here the book gets all tied up in its own internal logic - the reason divine intervention had never been invoked earlier is a bit unclear, God had apparently put constraints upon himself for no readily explained reason, but once the enemy broke those constraints, He was free to do what he wanted. Sounds a bit theologically suspect. It also implies that the good guys would never have won if the bad guys hadn't stepped over the line. So that aspect of the book is unsatisfying.

But the book is entertaining, if a bit long winded in the early chapters. And its interesting, even if you have to question the theology which is allegorised here.


NonModern said...

Hey Ricky,

As you know from one of my earlier blog entries, this is the book I have called "my all time favorite." I think the key is to understand what Lewis was doing with his trilogy. He is presenting a very fictional "what if" model of the solar system and then using that model to expound on theological concepts. Lewis' Solar system in this trilogy os no more real than Narnia is in the other series.

So you can't take the ideas of angelic powers and magic too literal. That is not the theology he is presenting in these books. In THS he is expounding on his ideas in The Abolition of Man. In Perelandra he is riffing on Paradise Lost.

All that being said, there are ideas that Lewis did have that most evangelicals would not be comfortable with today. They were his personal views, and of course none of us are perfect. It is just that some Evangelicals try to forget the weird things he proposed so that they can make him out to be perfect.

Personally, I just love him as an entertaining story teller and the sort of deep thinker that is hard to find today.

Ricky Carvel said...

I probably should read 'The Abolition of Man' sometime. Have never got around to it yet...

Nancy said...

CSL was a guy like most humans...sometimes he got it spot on...sometimes not so much. I have had problems with some of the Narnia stuff. I still like his work though and think he has helped many to see things in a spiritual perspective they might have missed.