C.S. Lewis and Tolkien Debate History and Lies

Tolkien- Lewis 2

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The first video below is a dramatization of what was reported to have been involved in a conversation that was very influential in affecting Lewis’ view of how the dynamics of history could be understood as influenced by God. The two You Tubes following  are dramatized reckonings of the path Lewis took eventually leading him into the Christian fold which unnaturally (i.e., supernaturally) proceeded from his earlier atheistic orientation to life.

What had been regarded as a purely Mythical representation in a narrative form we try to comprehend what they both eventually saw in the issues of Myth and of History. J.R.R. Tolkien is credited by both Lewis himself and others as having had a tremendous impact on the way he and those who came to follow Lewis’ reasoning came to regard Myth and History. Walter Hooper wrote in his C.S. Lewis: The Companion and Guide, that Lewis’ view of myth as—falsehood—remained fundamentally intact until a conversation he had with J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson (Dyson was a fellow Inkling) about Christian and Pagan myth altered that view.

Lewis wrote to Arthur Greeves, his closest friend since childhood, to inform him that he had “just passed on from believing in God, to definitely believing in Christ—in Christianity . . . and that Tolkien and Dyson had a good deal to do with it. In Together We Stand, Lewis explained that  . . . “what Dyson and Tolkien had showed me was this: that if I met an idea of a sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind at all: again, that if I met the idea of  god sacrificing himself to himself   . . .  I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it: again, that the idea of a dying and reviving god (Balder, Adonis, Bacchus) similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels.

The reason was that in Pagan stories I was prepared to feel myth as profound and suggestive of meaning beyond my grasp even though I could not say in cold prose ‘what it meant’. Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working itself out in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths: that is, the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself though the mind’s of poets, using such images as can be found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself though what we call ‘real things’. Therefore, it is true, not in the sense of being a “description” of God (that no finite mind could take in) but in the sense of being in the way in which God chooses to (or can) appear to our faculties.

The doctrines we get out of the true myth are of course less true: they are translations into our concepts and ideas of that which God has already expressed in a language more adequate, namely, the actual incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. It was not long after this that Lewis wrote The Pilgrim’s Regress. This is the early theoretical groundwork in which it is held Lewis’ thought evolved, and it is the way that those of us who have come to take Lewis’ thought seriously take into consideration the view of the horizons between Myth, History, and of History’s Truth–whose Truth is found in Christ, and in the way they literally stand to Reality.

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This next You Tube is a brief excerpt from the book by CS Lewis titled “Surprised by Joy”, speaking about his spiritual conversion from atheism. (please note, this is NOT Lewis actually speaking. It is the reader Geoffrey Howard from the audio version of the book.

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Lewis Moves from Theism onto Christianity

C.S. Lewis: It must be understood that my conversion at that point was only to theism pure and simple. I knew nothing yet about the incarnation. The God to whom I surrendered was sheerly non-human.

C.S. Lewis: [Reading from Chesterton] A great man knows he is not God and the greater he is, the better he knows it. The gospels declare that this mysterious maker of the world has visited his world in person. The most that any religious prophet has said was that he was the true servant of such a being. But if the creator was present in the daily life of the Roman empire, that is something unlike anything else in nature. It is the one great startling statement that man has made since he spoke his first articulate word. It makes dust and nonsense of comparative religion.

C.S. Lewis: As I drew near to Christianity, I felt a resistance almost as strong as my previous resistance to theism. As strong but shorter lived for I understood it better. But each step, one had less chance to call one’s soul one’s own.

C.S. Lewis: What Tolkien showed me was this — that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a pagan story I didn’t mind it at all — I was mysteriously moved by it. The reason was that in pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound. Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth.

C.S. Lewis: I know very well when but hardly how the final step was taken. I went with my brother to have a picnic at Whipsnade Zoo. We started in fog, but by the end of our journey the sun was shining. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and when we reached the zoo I did. I had not exactly spent the journey in thought. Nor in great emotion. It was more like when a man, after a long sleep, becomes aware that he is now awake.

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The heart of Christianity is a myth, which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens – at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical person crucified (it all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle. To be truly Christian we must both assent to the historical fact and also receive the myth (fact though it has become) with the same imaginative embrace which we accord to all myths (from God in the Dock).

Author Colin Duriez writing in his, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, tells us: ‘Lewis in taking on this view, faced, like Tolkien, the ancient tensions. The tension between realism and fantasy is just one such tension, expressed in the common charge that fantasy is escapism. Employing myth and fantasy, however, did not traditionally denote a lack of confidence; this was a modern phenomenon. Its use in Lewis, and in Tolkien, retains a sense of confidence.

When Lewis applied the categories to the Gospels, he was not displaying uncertainty about their historicity. Though the two were aware of the tensions between myth and realism, the tension for them was basically reconciled, despite the fact that the tension is embedded in modern usage of the term “myth.”’  

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For those who would like to follow out this line of reason in terms of the way in which Lewis understood True Myth you will want to head over to our C.S. Lewis for the Third Millennium page. You can find both Peter Kreeft’s presentation on how the ancients thought about the imagination as well as professor Ryan Reeves’, who teaches at the Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, analysis on the way in which both Lewis and Tolkien had followed G.K. Chesterton’s thought of myth and the way in which the faculty of imagination can bring us closer to a truly biblical understanding of our relationship with Christ. For those interested just click on the hot link above and you will be taken to that page where you can access the second You Tube on the page at bottom.

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