This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.
The Complex Human Heart
Joe Rigney, author of Lewis on the Christian Life, explores the legacy of one of the most beloved Christian thinkers and writers of the 20th century—C. S. Lewis. He discusses how Lewis managed to so brilliantly capture the complexities of the human heart in his writings, what he thought about The Lord of the Rings written by his good friend, J. R. R. Tolkien, and what he might say to the American church if he were alive today.
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Joe, thank you so much for joining us on The Crossway Podcast today.
Yeah, it’s great to be here.
I want to start with what may be an odd question, but of all the of all the books that have come out over the last couple years, which one do you think Lewis would have been most interested in reading and most excited about if he were alive today?
Yeah, that’s an interesting question to think about. You know, he read so much. When you read his letters to his brother and to Arthur Grieves and some of his other friends, all of the letters are oriented by books—what books each of them have been reading, what their opinions are of them. Lewis was such an eclectic author. I think he’d be really interested honestly in the way that modern groups are going back and finding untranslated works from the Middle Ages and from the Reformation era, and bringing a lot of these books into the modern era.
He at one point said that the devotional books that he was most interested in were heavy books of theology that he would have to work through with a pipe in his mouth and a pencil in his hand. So when you think about some of those types of work, I think that he could very well be interested in those.
Beyond that, he read very widely in science fiction, so I think he’d be interested to see how that genre played out. You know, he wrote science fiction—although it’s a little bit of a different kind than what we typically think of—so I suspect he would have kept up with that kind of genre to see how the fantasy genre developed. I would have actually been interested to hear his opinions on Harry Potter, you know? Rowling and others often talk about the inspiration for their writing was young-adult fantasy like Lewis and Tolkien. When you read the acknowledgements of a lot of these authors it was Tolkien and Lewis that fired their imagination as kids and they said, We want to do that for other people. So I’d be interested to read how he would evaluate some of the modern young-adult fiction and whether he would find it boring or whether he would think, Wow, this is really good, meaningful, Narnia-like stuff.
He read so broadly that I think he’d find all kinds of books interesting. But the flip side of that is his practice was to read many more old books before reading modern books. And so the most interesting book that he would read today would probably be something that was written five hundred years ago.
Yeah, you mentioned Tolkien and as many of our listeners would know, they were good friends for a long time. Do we know anything about what Lewis thought about The Lord of the Rings? He wrote Narnia, but it’s a very different type of fantasy story compared to The Lord of the Rings. What did Lewis think about Tolkien’s work and the whole mythology that he created?
Lewis was basically the first The Lord of the Rings fan boy. The reason that we have The Lord of the Rings, the reason those books actually got published, was at least in part because Lewis pushed so hard for Tolkien to get it done. He read The Hobbit, he read the others and would push Tolkien to get them get them out, get them done. And Tolkien was such a meticulous world builder that he was never finished.
And so Lewis loved The Lord of the Rings, loved The Hobbit. In the space trilogy he actually does this kind of subtle Hey, get it done, man prompt. I think it’s in That Hideous Strength—he mentions Númenor and the True West, which shows up in The Lord of the Rings. And he says, If you want to find more about Númenor, you need to read the forthcoming books by my friend Professor Tolkien. And it’s sort of like he said Now I’ve said to everybody that you’ve got these books coming out. I just did your book launch for you. So get it done. Otherwise, you’re going to get all kinds of letters from people who are going to be saying “Hey, when’s that book that Lewis said you were going to write? When’s that coming?” So he was a big fan of The Lord of the Rings.
These were the kind of books that he wanted to read. Now the flip side of that is that Tolkien hated Narnia, just hated it. He thought it was a hodgepodge of mishmash, these characters don’t make sense together, you’ve got this snow queen from Hans Christian Andersen, you’ve got these four kids that are straight out of Edith Nesbit—you know, if you read The Railway Children by Edith Nesbit, it’s basically the four kids: Peter, Susan, Edmond, and Lucy but with different names—and then you’ve got Father Christmas showing up, and you’ve got fawns from Greek mythology. And so Tolkien looked at that and thought it was not a coherent world and Tolkien didn’t like that. He kind of panned Narnia and I don’t know that he ever did it publicly in print, but we know that he wasn’t a fan. So Lewis loved what Tolkien did, Tolkien wasn’t as much of a fan of what Lewis did.
Going back to what you said about Lewis mentioning Tolkien, it almost sounds like are you saying there was this extended universe almost with Lewis’s work kind of connecting it over to The Lord of the Rings and Tolkien’s world, or was it more like in the introduction that he mentioned Tolkien?
I think it was in the introduction to that book where he mentioned the True West, but there was a dovetailing like that, Lewis was self-consciously saying Hey there is this crossover. We’re both interested in the same things, we both love the Arthur mythology and Merlin and all that. It’s kind of like there’s this connectedness of all of the worlds. Lewis is saying, Hey, I’m going to mention this stuff in my novel and if you want to find out more you can kind of go in the back door and then go into Tolkien’s novel and you can get the full story.
The space trilogy was originally written meant to be a collaborative project. So Lewis was going to write a book about space travel. And then it was kind of like a bet or something to that effect. Like, I’ll write a book about space travel, Tolkien, then you write a book about time travel as a sequel. But Tolkien was just so slow that by the time Lewis’s came out, Tolkien’s not making progress and so Lewis has to change the plan and he ends up writing sequels for Out of the Silent Planet and finishing the trilogy himself because Tolkien was so bogged down in the minutia of Middle Earth.
Something about those two guys that is encouraging on one level is that they were so different in terms of the way that they went about building a world. Tolkien is so meticulous. Everybody has to have a genealogy, the languages have to be coherent. Whereas Lewis is more fluid, there’s still a center. And I think one of the best books on that is Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia where he basically tries to show that that Lewis did have an inner coherence to Narnia that even Tolkien didn’t recognize. Tolkien thought it was just a mishmash of Lewis’s favorite things and therefore not good story-making. But in reality, there was this deep substructure in Narnia that Lewis never told Tolkien about, as far as we know. He probably went to his grave chuckling about the heavenly conversation when he finally reveals, Hey, man, you know how you thought those books had no center, nothing tying them all together, they were just these random fairy tales? Guess what?
There’s this real unity to the two of them. But they’re so different as authors and yet there’s this friendship, this common core. But it’s helpful, I think, for us as modern authors and modern readers to know there’s not just one way to do this. There’s not just one type of personality, or one type of style, or one type of genre. Good writing can extend across multiple genres and we can still be friends with each other even if we wouldn’t write the same books.
As you think back to your own encounters with Lewis, which book of his have you reread the most times?
It’s got to be Narnia, because I read those earliest and so have had more time to reread them. If I was to go back the last ten years only, I would guess The Great Divorce and Till We Have Faces have been the most frequently reread, in part because I teach those at Bethlehem College and Seminary. I teach a course on Lewis and we read The Great Divorce, Till We Have Faces, and the space trilogy. The Screwtape Letters probably is another one. I’ve listened to that one multiple times.
So in recent years those have been the ones—they are usually not the first ones that people think of, you know? It’s Mere Christianity, Narnia, or The Screwtape Letters. But then there’s what I think of as hidden gems. So The Great Divorceis a book that puzzles a lot of people because it’s about what happens when you die, and people wonder, Does Lewis really think that people can get out of hell and go visit heaven? And he doesn’t really. That’s not the point. It’s a supposal. It’s meant to be cause you to imagine and to help you think more carefully about your own life. But I think it’s a brilliant book that shows through caricatures and exaggerations the tendencies of our own hearts.
So I go back again and again to that one because there’s just a lot of subtleties in how he develops these characters as the main character is journeying and meeting people who are dead, who are ghosts, but who still have a chance. In the way the story is set up, they have a chance, if they wanted, to choose God, choose Christ and be saved. And you get to see, stripped of all of the earthly excuses that we make or the earthly facade that we put on, what the true motivations are underneath. And to see the rationalizations and what people choose, the lengths to which people will go to avoid God. And I find it a really brilliant book in that respect and it’s actually, for your listeners, it’s a great audio book. Julian Ryan Tut is the narrator, and he does a great job of capturing the different voices and the personalities of the different characters, which really brings it to life. And Lewis was a good enough writer that the different characters have different speech patterns, and cadences, and character to them, so that’s a really rich book.
The other one that I go back to again and again is Till We Have Faces, which Lewis said was his best book. In his mind Till We Have Faces was his best book. It was his last book, or next to last—I think Letters to Malcolm came out after he died. But Till We Have Faces was his his last novel and in his estimation, it was his best, although in his letters he says, “But nobody else thinks that.” All of the critics and nobody’s buying it. It wasn’t a best-seller the way that The Screwtape Letters was in his lifetime, but he felt like he had done something in that book that was really good. And I agree. When I teach it with my students, it’s often one of the more influential, paradigm-shifting type books that they read in that class because of the way that Lewis unfolds this main character, Orual. It’s set in the ancient world, before Christ, and in a pagan land and it has to do with the gods and how a pre-Christian person related to the gods. But really it’s about human beings and the way that our natural loves—our love of family, love of friends, romantic love—can derail us and need to die if we’re to actually come to God truly. It’s a really brilliant unfolding of the interior of this woman’s mind, and it’s remarkable in itself, Lewis says, that a man was able to write a very authentic—at least to me, though I’ve never been inside a woman’s mind. But it feels very realistic and the ladies in my class tend to agree about how she’s thinking through things, how she’s processing reality, the excuses and rationalizations she makes, and then this kind of cataclysmic moment where things change. I won’t give away the ending. But anyway, it’s a brilliant book and Lewis thought it was really great. And yet . . . I talked to one Lewis-lover, a friend of mine, who said he just feels like that book’s very gray. It doesn’t sparkle the way Lewis’s other books do. And so it doesn’t resonate with him. But I think it’s absolutely wonderful.
Something you’ve alluded to a couple times already is Lewis’s penetrating insight into the human heart. He just seemed to get us and he found words to express what’s going on in our own hearts, our own minds in ways that sometimes we can’t even put words to. Where do you think he got that ability to cut through the clutter and reveal the truth of an issue?
After the first edition of The Screwtape Letters sold so wellI, people asked, Where’d you learn to do this? In the preface to the second edition he said, I just know my own heart. So there was a self-awareness element to it. In one place he mentions the habit of imaginative honesty and the refusal to lie to yourself. And I think he had that. And so he recognized when he was making excuses, when he was trying to get around obligations and responsibilities, and so he was very dialed in; and yet he recognized that his own heart would argue with him about that. And so he grew very adept at recognizing those excuses, and blame shifting, and justifications that we make for our sin, and our weakness, and our shirking of responsibility. And so he recognized it in his own heart and then was able to go, I don’t think I’m the only one. I think I see it in other people, too. And was able to then articulate it in a very compelling and clear way. So I think that’s one place is just his own heart.
I think the other place that he would point to is books. He said, “When I read the books I’m able to see with other eyes . . . I become a thousand men and yet I remain myself.” And so being able to see the world through other people’s eyes. Being the voracious reader that he was enabled him to be dialed into the human condition, the human heart in such a way that was more penetrating than most. And so between books and his own honesty about himself—Lewis, I think, is what all of us wish our conscience sounded like. And what I mean by that is he has a way of being absolutely relentless in his insistence on telling the truth and clarifying. So he’s not going to let you off the hook. When he’s writing, he’s trying to unfold what you’re thinking, how you’re trying to avoid God, how you justified things, he’s absolutely a bulldog and he won’t let you go. At the same time, he’s not vicious. So he’s not a vicious bulldog. He’s relentless, but he’s not mean.
There’s a great scene in Perelandra where the main character, Ransom, is having this inner dialogue that turns out to be more like an outer dialogue with God about whether he’s going to do the hard thing that he needs to do the next day. And he’s making all these evasions and escapes and at one point, he feels like he’s standing in the presence of this voice. And the voice is just looking at him and saying, *You know you’re only wasting time. I’ll wait. You can spin yourself out, exhaust all of your excuses and let it all peter out, and then in the end you’ll still be right where we are with the expectation that you do the hard thing or not. You can choose to walk away. You can choose to abandon your post. You can choose to fail and I’m giving you that dignity of choice. But you’re not going to be able to evade it and make an excuse for it.
You’re going to see it straight on and you’re going to choose God or not. You’re going to choose faithfulness or not. And I think that Lewis himself, in his writings, he resonates so much with us because he’s like that. He knows I know what I’m doing. I’m backing you into a corner as you read this essay and I’m walling off all of your escape routes. And I’m going to get you back into the corner and then I’m going to stop and I’m going to leave you an escape route. You can just be a coward. You can just reject God out of hand. You can just be unfaithful. But you’re going to do it honestly. You’re either going to say, “No, God. I don’t want it and I’m doing it my way. I’m choosing myself over you,” or you can submit. You can humble yourself. You can relent and you can enter into joy. I think that was a key part of it: if we do relinquish our self-will, we find we enter into joy. And so I think that’s part of why he resonates so much with us—he knows how he work and he’s able to box us in, but not in a mean way, or a cruel way, or a I’m going to get you, I know your heart and I’m going to expose you* way, but more of a wise counselor who loves you type of way.
One of the things that makes Lewis seemingly unique among a lot of Christian authors is the way he appeals to such a wide spectrum of Christians from all kinds of denominations and backgrounds and theological persuasions. Included in that group would be theologically conservative Christians, evangelicals who read him a lot and appreciate his works. What’s something about his theology or his approach to the Christian life that you think conservative evangelicals might be surprised to learn?
That’s a good question. One that may surprise people is that Lewis probably did believe in purgatory of some kind. I think that he was pretty clear that he didn’t believe in the kind of medieval Catholic type of purgatory, like temporary hell, that you find the Reformation rightly rejected. But some notion of purification that continues after death. Sanctification continues after death. It’s not immediate. He seemed to believe something like that. And in my book on him I try to explain what I think he’s doing there. So that’s a little bit odd for someone who’s not Roman Catholic, but who is a lifelong Anglican. That’s one surprising.
Another thing that bothers people is his somewhat dismissive attitude toward the atonement, particularly how it works. So he believes in the atonement, but in terms of the explanation for the way in which it works. Like, Christ died to satisfy the wrath of God that was against us and so some notion of propitiation or penal substitution. He kind of says, “Maybe that’s true, but it’s not very important.” And he’s somewhat dismissive of it in some of his writings, especially in his popular-level stuff, partly because I think he thinks it may be a stumbling block to people. It was a stumbling block to him. He didn’t understand how it worked before he was a Christian and so I think he’s trying to say, You need to know that Jesus is for you and that he died in your place. But what exactly that means you don’t have to necessarily figure out. And I think that’s unfortunate. I don’t think that that’s necessarily a helpful approach and in the end of the book I try to navigate how I would push on him.
One of the most brilliant depictions of penal substitution that I know of is Aslan dying for Edmund in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. Edmund is the traitor. The moral law, the deep magic, says he’s got to die, he belongs to the witch now and that’s what the moral law says. And yet Aslan says, I’ve got a deeper magic and I’m going to die in his place. And if I do that death starts working backward and everything comes right. And so Aslan literally dies in in his place, he takes the penalty of Edmond. So that’s a beautiful depiction of penal substitution, which we love as evangelicals. So if I was having a conversation with Lewis, I would appeal to his own writings and say, Hey, you’ve got all the categories here and you present it beautifully. Why the dismissive comments over here? And try to push there.
So I’m a “young, restless, reformed” type guy. I’m a Calvinist, and I love the sovereignty of God. The place that I think I found Lewis most helpful, in terms of bringing something that my own tradition tends to not emphasize, is the way that he emphasizes the importance of human decision making. Choice. And that’s something that a lot of Calvinists can be skittish about. We think if we emphasize human choice then that means we’re going to de-emphasize God’s sovereignty. If we emphasize human free will then we lose God’s supremacy, something like that. So there’s a kind of trade off, because we say Arminians emphasize human choice and we emphasize God’s sovereignty. And I think Lewis is a great model of trying to not lose either one, not let one part of the Bible mute the other parts of the Bible. And so he, in everything he wrote—I think this is the central thing that I argue in my book on him—is bring us back down to the present choice, which is always, Are you going to seek God and put God at the center, or are you going to put yourself or something else at the center? And that choice has a thousand different faces for everybody and everybody’s different, but every day you’re faced with that choice again and again and again and again. And his writing is designed to clarify the choice that you’re making and then to encourage and woo you to make the right one. To say that choosing God may be hard, choosing obedience to God, faith in God, may be really hard, it may cost you everything; but it is so worth it.
That’s something that I’ve detected in my own pastoral ministry over the last four or five years since I began writing that book and to do a deep dive into Lewis. I’ve noticed that I accent that a lot more in my pastoral counseling and my preaching than I probably would have when I was straight out of college and still on the Calvinist high and loving the sovereignty of God, but was a little skittish about pressing people to make a decision and a choice, telling them that it’s all on their shoulders, what they decide in this moment it matters. And that it matters to God. Everything hangs on what they do with the gospel right now. I think I’ve learned from Lewis that we have to do that and that that doesn’t undermine or diminish the sovereignty of God, but is another element of this great mystery of the Christian life.
Kind of along the same lines, if Lewis were alive today and sitting in his office thinking about American Christianity, in what ways would he speak prophetically to some of the cultural issues that we are wrestling through as Christians here?
If you read Abolition of Man—which is Lewis’s little book on education—and That Hideous Strength—which is the same content in fairytale form—that’s a package deal. He says it’s a package deal. There’s a ton of social criticism and sort of speaking prophetically about the modern attempt to remake the world technologically. To use science and technology to overthrow and to remake what it means to be human. And he spotted a lot of tech trends and trajectories that really didn’t become evident for another twenty, thirty, fifty years, which is why you can read those books and feel like he’s reading our newspaper. He describes the villains in That Hideous Strength—they’re called the N.I.C.E, which is a clever little acronym: the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments—and it’s this cobble of different politicians and scientists who all want to remake the world and basically tell everybody what to do. And behind it all is demonic forces that are trying to destroy humanity. And then the counterpart to that is Saint Anne’s on the hill, which is this little ragtag community of an injured scholar, a married couple, a professor and a housewife, a bear, and this Scottish skeptic who doesn’t even believe in God but grows really good vegetables. So that’s this ragtag group and they’re the ones who have been gathered to oppose the entire might of this scientific, military, industrial complex. But God’s with them and so they win.
I’ve read a few essays here and there over the years about culture war. Jake Meador over at Mere Orthodoxy has written some on this at various times about using the “Saint Anne’s on the Hill” model of cultural engagement: We’re going to be faithful where we’re planted and try to be faithful as husbands, and wives, and churches, very unassuming, and then God is going to give us the deliverance against the great might of the state and societal, cultural media power. And I think that there’s something to that. I think that Lewis would probably continue to strike that note in the present day.
The other issue that he would, I think, be very dialed into is the manhood/womanhood stuff. I think he recognized that the attempt by modern man to move beyond the natural boundaries of our humanity is a disaster, and destructive, and harmful to people, and he would want to help people recognize the goodness of manhood and womanhood, the goodness that men and women are different, that they’re both valuable, that they’re both essential for God’s purposes in the world. I suspect he’d be doing it in surprising ways, because that’s what he tended. He’d write fiction about it. Maybe less like what I’m going to write . . . you know, would he sign the Danvers Statement or the Nashville Statement or any things like this? I don’t know. I doubt it actually, but would he write fiction that would try to present the beauty and glory of masculinity and femininity? Oh, yeah. He did that, right? He was doing it in his day. He would have continued to do it. He’s very potent as a teacher is in not just saying, This is what’s true, but It’s true, and it’s good, and it’s beautiful. He draws you into this great dance that he portrays in the space trilogy, and in Narnia, and in other places.
All right, final question. If you had one hour to sit down with Lewis today for coffee at a Starbucks and could talk about one issue or topic for that time, what would you want to talk with him about?
I should preface this question by saying, I think many people mistakenly think that they would really enjoy an hour with C.S. Lewis. And I say mistakenly because I think they hear his authorial voice and it’s kind of comforting. You feel like, Oh, we’d be friends. I love listening to him talk and I would like to talk with him. I would much rather write him letters about stuff. I think that would be a much more fruitful time . . . we’d both get a lot more out of it. My impression from the biographies is that in person, it would be very awkward. With people that he was friends with—that he developed that relationship with—they had great debates and you know, the Inklings, and Tolkien, and Charles Williams, and Owen Barfield. If you could get to that level with him, man, the topics you could dive into are endless. But as just a random guy, I suspect it would be awkward. I’m awkward probably too, not not just him. So it would be mutually awkward and I’m a fan, you know, so that’s weird too.
But if I was going to correspond with him, I think there are two topics that would immediately jump out to me. One, the manhood/womanhood thing. I’d just love to hear him talk more about that. He’s so suggestive and insightful in the way he depicts it and I would just love to probe that a little bit, ask questions like, Hey, what did you mean by this in Perelandra? Or,When you showed this in That Hideous Strength, is what you were going for? So I think that would be an interesting line of inquiry.
And then the other would be to hear him talk more about prayer. One of his last books is Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer and I find it a very helpful little book on different types of prayer, the challenges of prayer. And it’s a question that he wrestled with his whole life. He wrote a number of essays asking, If God’s sovereign, why pray? And he recognized that prayer is hard and yet prayer is really important. It’s the place where we open ourselves up. God’s always there. He’s always accessible. He’s always with you. He’s present all throughout his creation. So you can’t escape him. But you can ignore him. And prayer is the place where you stop ignoring him and actually engage with him as a person. And God then engages with you as a person. And so Lewis thought, This is like the meeting place of Creator and creature in prayer. I just want to hear him talk more about that and hear a little bit more of the personal side, which I think we get in his letters some and we get in that book, but I’d want him to open up a little more about that.
I would actually want him to read either Live like a Narnian or Lewis on the Christian Life. And then I would want to argue about it. Did I get you right? Where did I get you wrong? Is that what you meant? I think the best way to have a fruitful conversation with him would be to make it less personal at the front end and more about ideas, more about objective content that we can discuss, and kind of lose ourselves in that aspect. Like, we’re not on the level of, How is your heart, man? But more like, Is this the truth about this issue? Did you get that right? What do you write about the atonement, or would you say that God is sovereign in this way? And to actually get into the debate. I think that that would probably develop a friendship more quickly with a man like him than anything else.
Well Joe, thank you so much for joining us on The Crossway Podcast and sharing a little bit about your own journey with C. S. Lewis and the things that you’ve learned from him through his works. We appreciate you taking the time.
Well, it’s my pleasure. I love talking about Lewis. I love exploring these topics.