Jon Kennedy
Jon Kennedy

Click to enlargeJon Kennedy's
'C. S. Lewis Overflow
Jon Kennedy's latest book is The Everything Guide to C.S. Lewis and Narnia, due in stores in March 2008, from Adams Media, F&W Publications. This series of articles is thinking inspired by readings in Lewis's work that didn't fit into the book. Click here for a list of all articles in the C.S. Lewis Overflow series.

C. S. Lewis's culture war

Lewis's nonfiction The Abolition of Man and his trilogy of science fiction novels (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength) form a unified exposition of the main thesis of his life: that humanity's basic moral precepts and laws are universal, unviolable, and if toppled or compromised, chaos and the fall of human civilization will result. By exposing attempts to undermine moral values by making them subjective and relative ("true, perhaps, for you, but not necessarily for me") he started calling both the church in its most general and basic sense and all advocates of moral law to stand up and resist the downward trend.

In a sense, the church is always making that stand; every sermon is a call to reject the dark forces and spread more light, at least as its preacher perceives it. Every authentic conversion crosses over to the side of right. And though That Hideous Strength makes a persuasive argument for the possibility that the fall of civilization may be just around the corner, there's a larger sense in which the fall has already taken place and both it and the civilized world are just around the corner, depending on which way you turn when you get to it. How could civilization fall lower than it had in the Europe of the mid-1930s to 1940s? Yet Lewis's science fiction envisions a re-emergence of the scientistic fascism that upended a millennium of moral progress less than a decade earlier.

In The Abolition of Man Lewis takes up the movement in childhood education to undermine the universal human moral framework that he calls "the Tao" and is also traditionally called "natural law," by teaching children that words can mean whatever their users want them to mean. Lewis responds by making the case for treating the meanings of words with high respect and care. Lewis was trained in his teens by a tutor (William Kirkpatrick) who began their association by illustrating that no phrase should be used glibly; everything one says should be part of a logical framework.Though Kirkpatrick was, ironically, a skeptic and atheist, he was reinforcing the biblical teaching that children of God must never speak "idle words" but speak only truth conditioned by charity.

In Out of the Silent Planet the protagonist, Dr. Elwin Ransom, a Cambridge University philologist—an expert on the development of languages and the meanings of words—is kidnapped by two men who have gone entirely over to the dark side and take him in their spaceship to what they call Mars but whose inhabitants call Malacandra. As a language expert, Dr. Ransom soon learns to speak the Malacandrans' language. They are fascinated by what he says about Earth, because to them Earth is the silent planet. No one in the inhabited universe that they know have ever heard from Earth before. As the only "fallen" planet—the only one in rebellion toward its Creator—Earth is the only place where the language of all the other creatures in God's universe is unknown. God took that language away from Earthlings at Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) and replaced it with hundreds of tongues and dialects that sound to Malacandran ears like gobbledygook. This is Lewis's way of making large the lesson that words have meaning, and that well-defined and properly applied meanings are the key to life as God intended. But as a mainstream science fiction work, Out of the Silent Planet never mentions God; the truth is there for the finding but not for batting anyone over the head.

This theme is taken forward through all three novels, where Ransom continues to learn that what he has believed is the Truth.

Webmaster Jon Kennedy

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C. S. Lewis (1898 - 1963)

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