Book Review

Reading C.S. Lewis

Below is a review of mine that appeared in CSL: The Bulletin of the New York C.S. Lewis Society. Thanks to Bob Trexler, the editor, for sending me the page.

 

CSL 12 _ _________________________________________________________________________
Reading C. S. Lewis: A Commentary
by Wesley A. Kort
Oxford University Press, 312 pp., $29.95
Reviewed by Frank Freeman
In this solid and thought-provoking book,
Wesley A. Kort, Professor Emeritus of Religion at
Duke University, steers a course between the Scylla
and Charybdis of Lewis criticism, that is, between
uncritical, unthinking praise and adulation, on the
one hand, and the same uncritical, unthinking blame
and denigration of Lewis on the other hand.
Kort writes, “I am neither a devotee nor a
detractor.” He says he decided to teach a course on
Lewis because of the number of students who brought
Lewis up in class and asked him questions about
Lewis. Many of Kort’s colleagues expressed surprised
disdain that he would teach such a course. Some of
this reaction was intellectual snobbery but some, Kort
thinks, is justified because of the doctrinal rigidity of
many Lewis supporters. Thus Kort writes for anyone
interested in Lewis’s work but focusing on aspects of
his work that neither devotees nor detractors dwell
enough on.
“From my reading of him,” Kort writes,
I began to draw the conclusion that these
pronounced opinions about Lewis were
not based on what I began to see as basic
and sustaining elements of his work but
rather on his specific turn to Christianity
as a move separable from that larger
project. I have tried in my teaching and
in my previous book on Lewis [C. S.
Lewis Then and Now] to assess his work
more broadly. That intention lies behind
this book as well.
In other words, devotees and detractors miss
the forest of Lewis’s achievement for the trees of his
religious views.
The book has three parts. In the first, Kort reads
Surprised by Joy, The Problem of Pain, The Screwtape
Letters, and Mere Christianity, then devotes a chapter
to discussing Lewis’s “assumption that some basic and
important moral and religious matters are and have
been generally agreed upon by reasonable people.” In
Part Two, he covers Lewis’s science-fiction trilogy
and The Abolition of Man with a concluding chapter
focusing on Lewis’s “critique of modernity,” which
Kort calls “sharply focused, well informed, consistent,
and both theoretically and practically defended.” In his
final section, Kort examines The Lion, the Witch and
the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, The Magician’s Nephew,
The Last Battle, and The Four Loves. These books show
Lewis’s gift for “applying and recognizing enduring
and universal principles in particular, complex, and
changing circumstances.”
All of this is, for the most part, lucid and well-done,
although Kort has moments when he lapses into
academic jargon which makes one’s eyes glaze over.
He also says that Lewis is sometimes racist, sexist, and
homophobic, but acknowledges that views differ on
these issues, some saying we should judge writers on
them, others that they should be judged only by the
standards of their own time. I lean toward the latter
view. One could argue Lewis was, at times, racist
and sexist (by our current culture’s standards) but I
don’t understand the homophobic argument. In my
opinion he condescended to them in print, but overall
was broadminded and compassionate on the subject.

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