Textual Tourism

Though most people think of him as a writer of children’s fantasy, for his familiar Chronicles of Narnia, C. S. Lewis’s true area of expertise was Medieval literature. In one of his studies on the topic, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature, he makes some comments that are equally applicable to the study of the Bible. He mentions the reader’s tendency to consult expert literature only when the reading is forbiddingly hard. “But,” he warns, “there are treacherous passages which will not send us to the notes. They look easy and aren’t.” Part of the reason for this difficulty is the vast difference between the reader’s world and the world of Medieval literature, and by the same token, the world of the Bible. We all know about passages in literature or Scripture that are difficult because of the concepts or strange vocabulary that is used (Agh! High school Shakespeare!). When the vocabulary is familiar we can easily be lulled into thinking that we know what the writer is talking about. But medieval and biblical authors alike lived in very different worlds than we do and speak of common things—nature, souls, love—from perspectives very different than ours. We cannot merely read their writing through the lens of our world.

Lewis cleverly depicts the difference between readers that, recognizing the difference between worlds, seek to enter the world of the author, from those who take their world along with them in their reading: “There are, I know, those who prefer not to go beyond the impression, however, accidental, which an old work makes on a mind that brings to it a purely modern sensibility and modern conceptions; just as there are travellers who carry their resolute Englishry with them all over the Continent, mix only with other English tourists, enjoy all they see for its ‘quaintness’, and have no wish to realise what those ways of life, those churches, those vineyards, mean to the natives.”

Just as readers could take their “modern sensibility and modern conceptions” to the works of medieval which are the focus of Lewis’s book, so too readers of Scripture can come to it with their contemporary ideas. Rather than trying to enter the world of Scripture on its terms, marveling at the strange and at times incomprehensible features that we find there, we come to it with our ideas and expectations. The result is that we manage to find exactly what we expected to find in the literature. It is not Scripture and its authors that are speaking to us, but our own ideas.

There is no doubt that there can be some pleasure from reading literature this way. Lewis concludes of these readers, “They have their reward.” But when it comes to Scripture, we should wonder whether the reader, reading in this fashion, heedless of the world from which the text has come, has truly read the word the author has written. And if he has not really read the word that was written, will he really encounter the voice of God in that word? Let us not take our “resolute American Christianry” with us on our journeys on the Continent of Scripture. Let us enter that world eager to engage with its strange culture rather than settling for quaint postcards.

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Tolstoy is wrong

You have probably heard the quote from Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

The quote has everything a good quote needs: relevance (we all have families), pithiness, and the appearance of wisdom. But that doesn’t make it accurate. In fact, I think that Tolstoy got it exactly wrong, at least in the part that matters most.

Tolstoy is probably right from the standpoint of causes of happiness and unhappiness in families. The things that can cause unhappiness in families are manifold: selfishness, addictions, alcoholism, workaholism, marital disharmony, verbal, emotional, and sexual abuse, violence, isolation, suicide, bitterness, unforgiveness, ungratefulness, etc. Families can fail any number of ways. Families may have more than one of these, but often one is enough.

By contrast, those things that make for happy families are generally shared in common: humility, forgiveness, respect, stability, discipline, gratitude, sharing, praise, etc. Most happy families will evidence nearly all of these characteristics.

So by the standard of that which causes happy and unhappy families, Tolstoy may be correct. However, when one considers what happy and unhappy families produce he is dead wrong.

The variety of causes of familial unhappiness incompletely enumerated above may be diverse but they are remarkably consistent in what they produce: misery. Misery is relatively without character. Though the paths to the misery may be varied, the destination is the same.

By contrast, the characteristics common among happy families produce any number of unique effects. Some families are of the jovial, back-slapping, joke telling variety in their happiness. Others express their familial harmony in various artistic manners. In other homes the family happiness creates space for quiet reflection and study.

I would like to suggest that this is a richer, Christian and theological assessment than Tolstoy’s pithy maxim offers. As C. S. Lewis pointed out, the devil cannot create; he can only parody. What ‘creativity’ he has is spent in bending the varied tools on offer to him to his ultimate goal of spreading misery and death.

The grace of Christ, however, is endlessly creative. Resurrection brings life and life brings fruit. Happy, joy-filled families produce people that create and bless in all sorts of beautiful ways, not least in often creating still more happy homes. This is the essence of grace.

By manifold devices the devil creates a single effect: misery.

By a single effect—grace—the Savior creates manifold delights.