The Greatness of Insignificant Service
The new issue of Credo Magazine, “The Truth Inside the Lie,” focuses on the relationship between theology and fiction. The following is an excerpt from Douglas Wilson’s article, “The Greatness of Insignificant Service: C.S. Lewis’s “The Shadow of that Hyddeous Stength.” Douglas Wilson is the senior minister for Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho. He teaches at New St. Andrews College, and blogs regularly at dougwils.com. He is the author of numerous books, including Mere Fundamentalism (Canon Press, 2018) and When the Man Comes Around (Canon Press, 2019).
In his very insightful book, Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis advanced a novel approach to evaluating the quality of literature. Instead of putting the book in question under a microscope, and examining it with the eye of the trained critic, established criteria in hand, he suggested that we put the average reader of that book, or of that kind of book, across from us in a comfortable chair, and have a discussion with him about it.
This might not be an actual conversation, and be more of a thought experiment, but you still get the idea. The study of literature involves more than studying the intent of the author—it includes also studying the intent of the readers. And in this proposal of his, Lewis identifies two different kinds of readers, who in their turn help us identify the different kinds of writers.
This approach led Lewis to suggest a book that a reader returns to again and again is a book that should be treated as an artifact which contains something valuable. The kind of “just-kill-the-time-on-an-airplane” book, the kind you find clogging up airport bookstores, is a consumption item—like a package of Ding Dongs purchased at a convenience store. You use it for its very temporary purpose, and then throw the delivery platform away. It is the kind of book you might find at a garage sale in a cardboard box, filled with similar books, and tagged at fifty cents for the lot.
Of course, we can’t be too strict with this airport illustration, in that Lewis himself purchased a book that was a genuine milestone in his life—MacDonald’s Phantastes—at a train station when he was a teenager. Just think how different twentieth century Christianity would have been if he had purchased Last of the Breed by Louis L’Amour instead.
Now judged by this most admirable criterion, That Hideous Strength constitutes a formidable presence in my life. I have read it somewhere around fifteen times, and so I might want to take Lewis’s standard up a notch. He argued a book was worthwhile if someone could return to it again and again, and each time find the return visit amply rewarded. This has certainly been true in my experience, but my relationship with That Hideous Strength actually goes well beyond that. My situation is such that I find that if I haven’t read it for a while, I must return to it. And I expect to feel this way about it until the river Jordan is up at least to my knees.
The Abolition of Man and That Hideous Strength
Owen Barfield once said that what Lewis thought about everything was contained within what he said about anything. This is simply a way of describing what integrated worldview thinking is like, and Lewis certainly provides us with a good example. But in the case of Lewis, the times he operates this way are far more evident than at other times. The publication of That Hideous Strength, and the company it keeps, points to one of those times.
To begin with, The Abolition of Man and That Hideous Strength really need to be treated as companion volumes. In his preface to THS, which Lewis wrote in 1943, he says, “This is a ‘tall story’ about devilry, though it has behind it a serious ‘point’ which I have tried to make in my Abolition of Man.”
The only thing to take issue with here is his use of the word tried. He didn’t try to make this serious point, he made it—fully, seriously, compellingly. And the need for us to understand that particular point has not diminished in any way in the decades since.
In his book, The Year of Our Lord 1943, Alan Jacobs has helpfully pointed out that this particular intersection of thought involved more than just these two works.
His key insight into this genealogy [of science and magic] may be found in the bravura introduction to the history of English poetry and prose in the sixteenth century, a book that he agreed to write in 1935 but did not complete until 1953. Along the way he condensed some of that project’s major themes into the 1944 Clark Lectures at Cambridge, and those themes overlap strongly with those of his novel That Hideous Strength, which he began at the end of 1942, just as he was writing the Riddell lectures [the basis for Abolition]. . . It is therefore helpful to explore The Abolition of Man in conjunction with these other texts that are so closely related to it.
Now as it happens, I have read The Abolition of Man almost as many times as I have read That Hideous Strength, and this cannot really be described as coincidental.
It is dangerous to point to a few objects of interest in texts that you are claiming would actually repay a lifetime of return visits, as though what you are pointing to might exhaust the treasure to be found there. So if you will permit me to wave off any such notion, I will then feel free to point to a small handful of things that I believe relate to the essential point.
In Abolition, Lewis points out how science and alchemy were born at the same time, and in the same neighborhood.
The serious magical endeavor and the serious scientific endeavor are twins: one was sickly and died, the other strong and throve. But they were twins.
It might be going too far to say that the modern scientific movement was tainted from its birth: but I think it would be true to say that it was born in an unhealthy neighbourhood and at an inauspicious hour.
In That Hideous Strength, we find these separated twins are reunited. The evil forces of the N.I.C.E. are supreme technocrats, using the machinery of bureaucratized science and technology to mow down anything that gets in their way, and it appears that what is getting in their way is anything distinctly human. Their whole enterprise is undertaken in the name of Science, all rise. But as they pursue the implications of their scientific revolution, they find that they are doing the bidding of “macrobes,” their pseudo-scientific name for what are actually powers of the air, which is to say, devils. They have come full circle. By declaring war on all that was truly spiritual in man, they invited in all that was truly “spiritual” in the ranks of fallen angels. The scientist has become the magician; the mad scientist has become the necromancer.
*Read Douglas Wilson’s entire article in the latest issue of Credo Magazine.