Monday, November 7, 2011

C.S. Lewis – Till We Have Faces

Of all Lewis’s writings, he placed Till We Have Faces at (or toward) the top of his list; yet its reviews and sales were toward the bottom. It appeared a failure. While Lewis gratefully acknowledged letters of appreciation from readers of all of his books, in my reading of his correspondence it appears to me that he was especially encouraged to receive letters from readers who appreciated TWHF

In a February 10, 1957 letter to Clyde S. Kilby Lewis writes at length about TWHF. While the letter is too long to quote in full in one or two blog posts, I’m going to share some excerpts along with my observations:

            Dear Professor Kilby –
            An author doesn’t necessarily understand the meaning of his own story better than anyone else, so I give you my account of the TWHF simply for what it’s worth. The ‘levels’ I am conscious of are these.

If for no other reason than to gain insight into Lewis’s take on writers and their stories I think the above worth quoting. While I can’t speak for all authors, many whom I have read on the subject of “writing” would echo Lewis’s words – they follow the story where it takes them, they allow their characters to develop. I’m reminded of Dorothy L. Sayers’s response to Christian readers who wanted Lord Peter Wimsey to become a Christian; Wimsey would never become a Christian because that would not be Wimsey – that is not where his character had taken Sayers as an author – Sayers had to respect the character of Wimsey and could not override Lord Peter’s character and his will. (If this seems a bit strange you might want to read her Mind of the Maker to better understand her thinking.)

Lewis’s statement about authors and their stories also reminds me of sermon development. A standard preaching text (Design for Preaching) by H. Grady Davis, a Lutheran, approaches sermon preparation organically – allowing the Biblical text to grow and develop, honoring and submitting to its growth and development – rather than forcing it into one’s own image.

Resuming Lewis’s letter:

1. A work of (supposed) historical imagination. A guess at what it might have been like in a little barbarous state on the borders of the Hellenistic world with Greek culture just beginning to affect it…Much of what you take as allegory was intended solely as realistic detail.

TWHF is first and foremost a story. The Narniad and the Space Trilogy are stories before they are anything else. While we don’t have Kilby’s letter, Lewis’s response indicates that Kilby was reading things into the text that the author didn’t intend – maybe they are there and waiting to be discovered, but then maybe they aren’t there at all. Maybe they are there with application to the reader’s present circumstances apart from the author’s intent.

We are finite creators, whether we paint or sculptor or design buildings or write books; and being finite we cannot see all the possibilities of our creations. How many times has a person shared with me something gleaned from a Sunday morning message that was not intended to be a point of mine in the least, but yet was communicated through the sermon without my design or knowledge? I could think, “You didn’t understand what I was saying”, or I could think, “I didn’t realize that what I was saying could communicate that message”.

The first time I read TWHF I wasn’t sure what I was reading, and I think that’s because I was trying to understand it intellectually rather than allow the story to take me along a journey. The second time I read it I purposed to read it as a story – and the experience…and the understanding…were both quite different from the first time.

When I first view a painting of my dear friend David Zuck’s I’ve learned to allow the painting to come to me and draw me to it; only as that occurs do I experience and appreciate the nuances and counter plays of the art. When I hear a piece of music (and I think this especially true of classical music) it is only when the musical motif is permitted to weave its tapestry in my heart and mind that I’m able to dance (internally) with the patterns, backgrounds, and point-counterpoints.

I think one reason why we can read the Bible and yet not read the Bible is that we’re in a hurry to the break the Bible down into data and information rather than understand its message, allowing its message to come to us, allowing our hearts and minds to be conformed to the message, to become one with the message – and of course the message is Jesus.

Most Bible-study materials do not encourage its users to see the story; all Biblical genres have stories, and yet the vast majority of Bible-study materials do not guide the users into seeing the stories – if we can’t see the shape of the tree, how can we put its branches in context to the tree on which they grow and the forest in which the tree is planted?

More in Lewis’s letter to Kilby in the next post.

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