THS: BenOp before BenOp

Continuing my observations after reading C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength

Observation #2: St. Anne’s is the BenOp prior to all the hubbub about BenOp
I was struck by how St. Anne’s on the Hill more-or-less prefigures the recent discussions and debates surrounding Rod Dreher’s book The Benedict Option. Tour the Hobbiton Movie Set in Matamata, New Zealand | HGTV

St. Anne’s is a quasi-agrarian household–complete with a garden and (from Jane’s perspective) a backward social structure based on conservative/traditional values regarding gender, religion, etc. St. Anne’s is the primary resistance to the growing threat of the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments (NICE).

The NICE, in contrast, is a bureaucracy: it abstracts humanity into numbers and then attempts to harness the evolutionary process through technology. It is, more importantly, progressive. It wants to better humanity by discarding tradition and marching towards an ever purer form of human existence–one that is free from the messiness and limitations of biology.

One of the recurring debates at St. Anne’s is the usefulness of their resistance. MacPhee, the hyper-rational logician and skeptic, frequently raises the complaint that while the NICE continues to grow and gain power, the small group of insurgents at St. Anne’s continue to do nothing. They garden, cook meals, argue with one another, corral Mr. Bultitude–the bear–whenever he traipses through the garden or wanders too close to the fence, and–worst of all–wait for orders from Ransom’s masters (i.e., the eldil) in whom some of the members have little or no faith.

There is so much waiting at St. Anne’s and so little doing. There is no “warrior class” or “special operations unit” making attacks on the NICE. There is no “war room,” per se, where the members of St. Anne’s talk at length about their plans. There is only waiting.

In an article from 2015, Jake Meador describes the St. Anne’s strategy well, comparing it to the current state of evangelical Christians in 21st century America:

In one of the essential texts for today’s church, C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, the insurgents rebelling against the sexual industrial complex of the modern west are not culture warriors assailing the institutions slowly consuming our earth and its creatures. Rather, their insurgency takes the form of faithful living in an out-of-the-way manor house out in the English countryside called St. Anne’s. It was at St. Anne’s that these people could live in fellowship with one another and with God’s creation while they waited for the undoing of the NICE in a Tower-of-Babel-style collapse. The future of Evangelicalism will either look less like Willow Creek or Mars Hill and more like St. Anne’s or it will not exist.

I like Meador’s emphasis on the lack of “culture warriors” in his description of St. Anne’s: the urge to “DO SOMETHING” productive–i.e., something quantifiable and empirically useful–would be the undoing of St. Anne’s because it would result in its dissolution. NICE is too big to be threatened by an external attack from the small group of people at St. Anne’s. And NICE’s cultural influence and political power is too ubiquitous to be hampered by a political campaign based on the St. Anne’s way of life. Anything other than small, faithful living would be doomed to fail.

It’s worth noting, however, that St. Anne’s, despite being an out-of-the-way manor house, remains the sole form of rebellion against NICE. Lewis intentionally wants to draw our attention to St. Anne’s as the only productive form of resistance. It may feel like useless inaction, or passive aggressive behavior, or even like a retreat to the bunkers. But we would be mistaken. To live faithfully in small ways requires a herculean effort of courage, determination, and hope no military charge would require of its members. It’s easier to act rashly than it is to wait patiently.

If you’re concerned about cultural trends in 21st century America, think small. Forego flashy exploits or rhetorical dunking on your opponents. How does your way of life reflect your beliefs? Are you willing to sacrifice the conveniences  and cachet of cultural relevance–and I mean everything from staying up-to-date on the latest Netflix shows to life-style trends like minimalism and F.I.R.E.?

The cultural battles ahead (…if you can call them battles…) won’t be won on a grand stage; it won’t be decided by a single showdown where the champion will win glory for himself/herself. It will probably be won in a garden–somewhere on an obscure patch of land in an obscure region of the world. After all, as Meador points out, the battle is not ours to win.

That Hideous Strength: Fiction vs. Reality

I just finished reading the third book in C. S. Lewis’ space trilogy, That Hideous Strength. I haven’t read it since high school, and I regret every decision that distracted me from picking it up again.

In the next few posts, I’m going to reflect on a few observations that stood out to me this time around.

Observation #1: Fiction vs. Reality

Several aspects of Lewis’ biography stood out to me–he quotes directly from Charles Williams’ Taliessin Through Logres, he references Owen Barfield’s theory of semantic “ancient unities,” and Tolkien’s myth of Numenor. I’m also convinced that it would be possible (and I’m sure someone has already done it) to map many of the real-life Inklings members onto the characters in the story. Lewis, obviously, is the Ulsterman MacPhee–the snuff-addicted, hyper-rational skeptic member of St. Anne’s on the Hill.

The cross-over between Lewis’ real life and the fictional world of the story creates an effect that blurs the line between fiction and reality. The self-assertion of the narrator also contributes to the effect. The narrator frequently interrupts the story with personal/retrospective opinions about the events; he refers to himself with masculine pronouns; and he explicitly states his own limitations as a narrator. However, it’s not clear how/why the narrator knows as much he does about the details of the story–especially the thoughts and emotions of many of the characters. This narrative device is often used in fairy tales, which makes sense given the subtitle of the book: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups. But I think its significance plays into Lewis’ deeper philosophical conception of the relationship between fiction and real-life.

For example. In his essay, “On Stories,” Lewis writes:

To be stories at all they must be a series of events: but it must be understood that this series–the plot, as we call it–is only really a net whereby to catch something else. The real theme may be, and perhaps usually is, something that has no sequence in it, something other than a process and much more like a state or quality. Giantship, otherness, the desolation of space, are examples that have crossed our path.

The “quality” or “state” is the reality caught by the fictional series of events and characters who act, think, and appear in very specific ways. For Lewis, this has a direct correlation with everyday life and forms one of the underpinning themes of the book. Based on the knowledge we have about biological life we have three interpretive/philosophical options in front of us, all of which are represented by three different groups of people in That Hideous Strength:

  1. The Materialist Interpretation: We can, like Mark Studdock and many people within the N.I.C.E., define life down to purely physical phenomena–e.g., emotions are merely chemical reactions in the brain; the appearance of “ghosts” are hallucinations, etc. The physical world does not point beyond itself. It is, instead, a highly rationalistic, machine-like system. Every event or phenomenon has a material explanation that explains away whatever spiritual significance we think it may have.
  2. The Evolutionary Interpretation: The N.I.C.E. looks at human evolution and attempts to harness it and direct it to what the organization perceives as a “higher” mode of existence. The ultimate goal is to transcend human physicality–i.e., the aspects of an embodied existence that hamper intellectual achievements. Birth, decay, and death stand in the way of human achievement. This philosophy is a form of trans-humanism–the attempt to evolve beyond our physical limitations.
  3. The St. Anne’s Interpretation: I don’t know what label to give this interpretation. Fundamentally, it stems from a traditionally Christian anthropology: man is neither solely beast (materialist) or solely angel (evolution); he is by nature an in-between creature–one for whom there seems to be infinite potential, but never at the cost of either aspects of his nature. In the image of St. Anne’s on the Hill, Lewis describes a kind of monastic commune where the people work in a garden, maintain friendly relations with animals, submit themselves in obedience to the authority of Ransom, and, in the end, entertain the gods. The community of St. Anne’s represents the ultimate–and only–resistance to the growing evil and encroachment of the N.I.C.E. It resists by cultivating a way of life, not by marching out against the enemy (much to the frustration of MacPhee). It’s an odd form of resistance because it doesn’t feel like anything is being done. No quantifiable progress is being made–nobody attempts to capture enemy soldiers, commit espionage, or invade N.I.C.E. headquarters. Instead, they simply wait and obey. Preserving a way of life, especially one centered on an anthropology that is conducive to man’s dual nature, is the only effective resistance against evil. Any other active form of resistance falls into the trap of mirroring, and ultimately being consumed by, the enemy’s own tactics (…there are echoes here of Saruman’s downfall in Tolkien’s The Two Towers).

Like our understanding of a story, all three philosophical alternatives attempt to make sense of the world by way of it’s events, characters, and physical structure. These give rise to the plot of every day life, the net whereby we try “to catch something else.” And in this instance, the “something else” is a proper understanding of human nature and the cosmos.

By blurring the lines between fiction and reality in That Hideous Strength, Lewis prompts readers to confront their conception of reality–or, at least, our interpretation of the physical world which suggests/signifies/indicates/catches “something else.”



Christians Never Say Goodbye

Preparing for another out-of-state move and leaving a community of people I love has me thinking of this scene from A Severe Mercy:

On that last day I met C. S. Lewis at the Eastgate for lunch. We talked, I recall, about death or, rather, awakening after death. Whatever it would be like, we thought, our response to it would be ‘Why, of course! Of course it’s like this. How else could it have possibly been.’ We both chuckled at that. I said it would be a sort of coming home, and he agreed. Lewis said that he hoped Davy and I would be coming back to England soon, for we mustn’t get out of touch. ‘At all events,’ he said with a cheerful grin, ‘we’ll certainly meet again, here–or there.’ Then it was time to go, and we drained our mugs. When we emerged on to the busy High with the traffic streaming past, we shook hands, and he said: ‘I shan’t say goodbye. we’ll meet again.’ Then he plunged into the traffic. I stood there watching him. When he reached the pavement on the other side, he turned round as though he knew somehow that I would still be standing there in front of the Eastgate. Then he raised his voice in a great roar that easily overcame the noise of the cars and buses. Heads turned and at least one car swerved. ‘Besides,’ he bellowed with a great grin, “Christians NEVER say goodbye!’

History and Temporal Bandwidth

Alan Jacobs has been arguing that the current era of social media and soundbites has contracted most people’s sense of historical context, and that we need to make a concerted effort to expand our temporal bandwidth. The related book is in the works, but it’s an idea that’s worth spreading sooner rather than later.

I’m preparing to teach Book I of Edmund Spenser’s The Fairie Queene to a class of 10th — 12th grade students next week. As I’ve been educating myself a little more on Spenser’s work, I ran across C. S. Lewis’s essays on Spenser which were characteristically The Faerie Queene - Wikipediainsightful, both of the literature itself and its reception in modern culture. I was struck by how much of what Lewis says echoes Jacobs’s current line of argument.

Lewis begins his introductory essay on Spenser by appealing to the importance of reading old books–especially books whose language and narrative style are foreign to our modern tastes. Why? Because…

“(One of the great uses of literary history is to keep on reminding us that while man is constantly acquiring new powers he is also constantly losing old ones.)” (“Edmund Spenser, 1552-99” 134)

Lewis is one of the few writers who can make such an obvious yet profound observation in a parenthetical comment, as if it requires no more attention. I had not thought of it this way before: progress involves sacrifice. But it’s not solely the sacrifice of “unenlightened” cultural traditions or mores; it’s the sacrifice of a way of being in the world, a way of being that may be more robust and amenable to the human condition than the idea of “progress” would suggest.

Along similar lines, Lewis notes how Spenser stands as an in-between figure, bridging the divide between the medieval literary world and the European renaissance. According to Lewis, if Boethius was “The last of the Romans and the first of the scholastics,” then Spenser was the “last of the medieval poets and the first of the romantic medievalists” (“On Reading The Fairie Queene” 148). Again, his main point is to show that progress entails loss. What made Spenser exceptional–especially compared to his humanist and puritan peers–was his willingness to preserve a medieval ethos in his poetry.

On the importance of reading old works of literature, especially those works that stand at the cross roads of two different eras, Lewis writes:

“There is a great difference between rejecting something you have known from the inside and rejecting something (as uneducated people tend to do) simply because it happens to be out of fashion in your own time. It is like the difference between a mature and travelled man’s love for his own country and the cocksure conviction of an ignorant adolescent that his own village (which is the only one he knows) is the hub of the universe and does everything in the Only Right Way. For our own age, with all its accepted ideas, stands to the vast extent of historical time much as one village stands to the whole world.” (“Edmund Spenser, 1552-99” 138)

Into Thy Calm: Shakespeare meets Twilight: The Serious and ...Here is one of the best arguments for reading old books and educating yourself in the humanities–that most unpractical of disciplines. If you want to understand the modern world, then you need to read about the preceding eras: starting with Homer and working your way forward. Twenty-four hour news cycles and New York Times Best Sellers distort the importance of current events more than they report with accuracy. These outlets are too close to the events themselves, and so everything is blown out of proportion. Such distortion ultimately leads to the hair-on-fire rhetoric that saturates and infects modern political and social discourse.

Want to diffuse the chaos of public debates–online, on television, or in person? Read old books. As Lewis points out:

“This kind of poetry [specifically The Fairie Queene, but also great poetry in general], if receptively read, has psychotherapeutic powers” (140).

Finally, if you want to know what current events are truly significant, then you should probably read Edmund Spenser first.



Lewis, C. S. “Edmund Spenser, 1552-1599” & “On Reading The Fairie Queene,” Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, ed. by Walter Hooper, pp. 121-148, Canto Cambridge UP, 1998.