Clarity Needs Humility

C.S. Lewis was an accomplished academic. He taught at Oxford and then Cambridge, and wrote several significant academic works that are still highly regarded today (The Allegory of Love, The Discarded Image, English Literature in the 16th Century, A Preface to Paradise Lost). His academic credentials are solid. Among many readers, especially American evangelicals where his influence is greatest, he is primarily perceived as an “intellectual” writer, and first and foremost an apologist.

At the same time, Lewis has always had a somewhat ambiguous relationship with academia. His fame and influence is chiefly from his popular works, not his scholarly works, and in his own day many of his colleagues at Oxford looked down on him for writing children’s stories, and for being a thoroughgoing supernaturalist (hence his eventual departure to Cambridge). The diversity of his literary output, and what was seen as sermonizing and rhetorical over-reach in some of his writings, was even a source of embarrassment for some (and perhaps jealousy for others?). Furthermore, there has been surprising little academic treatment of his work. In his Introduction to the Cambridge Companion to C.S. Lewis, Robert MacSwain notes that only 3 authors have written monographs on Lewis, and observes that many academic theologians “have been hoping for over half a century that Lewis would quietly go away” (5-6).

Why do academics sometimes look down on Lewis? I want to leave room for legitimate criticism of Lewis’ writings and be okay with acknowledging his imperfections. But to the extent that Lewis’ writings are derided as too simple, home spun, unsophisticated, I think academic writers should learn from Lewis rather than look down on him. It is not that Lewis lacks learning, but that he finds a way to hide his learning in order to help the reader. In the Cambridge Companion, an John H. Fleming gives an academic treatment of Lewis as a literary critic, and he commends The Discarded Image for this very reason: “it would be hard to say whether it is more impressive in its erudition or in the artful manner in which the erudition is masked lest it intimidate a beginner” (22). That is how I feel about Lewis’ writings more generally. He is humble. It is obvious he is not out to impress you, but to help you.

Consider as an example this quote from the final part of Mere Christianity, the part about the Trinity:

At the beginning I said there were Personalities in God. Well, I’ll go further now. There are no real personalities elsewhere. Until you have given up your self to him you will not have a real self.

Four short sentences here. They are clear and to the point, without any technical language, and colloquial and casual in tone (note the word “well” starting out sentence #2). It would be quite easy to rush past this passage too quickly, assuming that it was as easy to write as it is to read. But notice what C.S. Lewis has just done: in a passage just 58 characters too long to be tweetable, and clear enough for a 6th grader to understand, Lewis he has just introduced to us the core of the Christian doctrines of God and salvation–and with a clever turn of phrase at that. As Paul Fiddes puts it in his essay in the Cambridge Companion, in this passage “Lewis brings together the doctrines of God, human nature and salvation in a concise way.” This kind of writing requires both the rigor of research and the skill of clarity: in the places where academic and popular writing tend to split apart, Lewis brings them together.

In my view, the ability to compress your learning into accessible, engaging, winsome prose like this takes greater, not lesser, skill. And above all, it takes humility. To write clearly is a matter of one’s character even more than one’s brain: it stems from being good more than from being smart. Virtues like charity and humility (about which Lewis wrote so much!) shape and restrain and reorganize our writing towards clarity and accessibility because they value the edification of the reader above the reputation of the writer. Writing like that may not get as many nods from the high-brows of academia, but it is more valuable for the kingdom of God.

Anybody can be obscure. Just read Hegel and take notes. But truly effective writing requires that we are genuinely more invested in helping our readers than impressing them. And only the gospel can make that change in the writer’s heart.

2 Comments

  1. Jani Ortlund

    Love this, especially your conclusion. Thank you~

    and love, Mom

    Like

  2. […] Good word from Gavin Ortlund on the humility of C.S. Lewis’ writing. Some money quotes: […]

    Like

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