To That Experience I Must Now Turn

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In his introduction to English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, C. S. Lewis thrashes the bushes searching out potential causes for the surprising efflorescence of brilliant literature that sprang up near the end of the sixteenth century. At the beginning of the century, “the prose is clumsy, monotonous, garrulous; their verse is either astonishingly tame and cold or, if it attempts to rise, the coarsest fustian. In both mediums we come to dread a certain ruthless emphasis; bludgeon work. Nothing is light, or tender, or fresh. All the authors write like elderly men.  . . . Then, in the last quarter of the century the unpredictable happens. With startling suddenness we ascend. Youth returns. The fine frenzies of ideal love and ideal war are readmitted. Sidney, Spencer, Shakespeare, Hooker . . . display what is almost a new culture” (1)[1]. What is the explanation for this sudden transformation? Lewis examines several plausible causes of inspiration. First he examines the influence of the new astronomy, but he soon rules it out, concluding that in the sixteenth century the magician exerts more influence than does the astronomer, and any significant influence from astronomy is not apparent in the sixteenth century. Next he turns to the new geography. Perhaps the discovery of the New World inspired the imagination of late sixteenth century writers? Lewis dashes the idea: “Though we all know, we often forget, that the existence of America was one of the greatest disappointments in the history of Europe” (15). Requiring more thorough consideration than astronomy and geography, Humanism, at first glance, seems to hold real potential as a source of inspiration especially since the Humanists were rediscovering the great classics of Greek and Roman literature. But whatever potential that rediscovery held was throttled by the humanist canonization of rules of composition that they extrapolated from the classical texts. Coupled with the humanist insistence that the ancient Latin writers established the unalterable standard for vocabulary and style, it is no wonder that Lewis concludes, “Whatever else humanism is, it is emphatically not a movement towards freedom and expansion” (23). The humanists clogged the flow of imagination worse than those awful American continents impeded traffic to the Far East.

Then, amidst Lewis’ thrashing of the bushes of potential causes, a frightened puritan starts out of the bracken. Ah, now we will have some fun. In the course of the mundane life of a literary critic there is nothing quite so delightfully amusing as a good puritan-shoot. Our man Lewis will set the dogs on him directly, and we can later resume our literary investigation by the fireside over tea and a haunch of roast puritan. But Lewis does not release the dogs on the poor pallid thing. Our disappointment is supplanted by disbelief as we realize that Lewis is actually going to give the puritan and his doctrine a hearing. As expected, the puritan mounts his pulpit and begins to preach, “You must be born again.” Now see what you have done, Lewis. We will have to endure a sermon on the necessity and reality of catastrophic conversion. Lewis calmly replies, “To that experience I must now turn” (32). As he does turn to it, he sounds suspiciously sympathetic to the experience. In the paragraph, cited below, note the lack of distance-creating qualifiers such as, “according to the puritans,” or “adherents claimed.” He writes like someone who has himself experienced catastrophic conversion.

The man who has passed through it feels like one who has waked from nightmare into ecstasy. Like an accepted lover, he feels that he has done nothing, and never could have done anything, to deserve such astonishing happiness. Never again can he ‘crow from the dunghill of desert’. All the initiative has been on God’s side; all has been free, unbounded grace. And all will continue to be free, unbounded grace. His own puny and ridiculous efforts would be as helpless to retain the joy as they would have been to achieve it in the first place. Fortunately they need not. Bliss is not for sale, cannot be earned. ‘Works’ have no ‘merit’, though of course faith, inevitably, even unconsciously, flows out into works of love at once. He is not saved because he does works of love: he does works of love because he is saved. It is faith alone that has saved him: faith bestowed by sheer gift. From this buoyant humility, this farewell to the self with all its good resolutions, anxiety, scruples, and motive-scratchings, all the Protestant doctrines originally sprang (33).

Why must Lewis present such a candid and sympathetic description of Christian conversion – so candid and sympathetic that leaves himself open to the accusation that he is being unnecessarily religious, perhaps even evangelistic? What mandate compels him to deal so thoroughly with the issue? Why does he write, “To that experience I must now turn”? Is it the mandate of earnest scholarship? Plenty of other literary historians apparently feel no necessity to turn so deliberately to the positive and invigorating influences of distinctly Christian ideas. On the contrary, they freely find what is censorious and stultifying in Christian (and especially puritan) practice. Against this backdrop Lewis seems almost unprofessional to be so “preachy” about conversion.

Perhaps, then, it is not the mandate of rigorous scholarship, but the mandate of the Great Commission that lays this necessity upon Lewis. Christ commands his followers to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). Lewis is a notorious Christian; Christians are commanded to make disciples. Perhaps Lewis is simply being a dutiful Christian and taking advantage of his platform to insert a bit of Christian propaganda, sneaky fellow.