Wednesday, April 02, 2014

C. S. Lewis and His Legacy: A Conversation Among Baylor Professors

For C.S. Lewis fans out there, you'll find an interesting discussion among Baylor University scholars of Lewis's influence upon the concept of a Christian education, a perennial theme at Baylor, for I clearly recall Baylor President Abner V. McCall giving a talk on precisely that topic during Freshman orientation week way back in 1975! If I recall, he gave the illustration of water boiling in a saucepan on a stove, and that there were two possible answers to the query as to why the water was boiling, a scientific answer (because the heat imparted by an electrical coil under the pan was heating the water molecules and thereby causing them to jostle each other at ever greater rates) and a teleological answer (because I'm making coffee), and that the latter answer was a matter related to queries on the meaning of the universe. (No, the meaning's not coffee, though that does come pretty close!) Fresh from the Ozarks at the time, I wasn't accustomed to drawing such sharp distinctions in a word's meaning, but I found that concrete analogy so clarifying that I've retained it all these years . . .

Anyway, the discussion in this issue of Baylor Magazine is an excellent introduction to themes in Christian education as understood by several Baylor professors (nine, in fact), whose dialogue is found in the Winter 2014 issue. One of the professors, David L. Jeffrey (Distinguished Professor of Literature and Humanities), noted the current-day profound ignorance about Christianity even on the part of Christian students:
One of the challenges for Christian universities today might be the relatively low order of hold that many of our students have on their own culture. I would say in particular their own religious culture. They come in often better educated perhaps in some technical ways than they were 20 years ago, but I suspect more poorly educated as Christians than they were 20 years ago and most certainly than 30 years ago. By that I mean that biblical Christians tend not to know the Bible very well. Liturgical Christians tend not to have attended church enough to really understand what the liturgy is intended to do. And almost all of them lack a sense of their tradition in the largest sense, Christian history in the largest sense. So, among us, Christian identity that has intellectual substance is not maybe what it ought to be, and that is a challenge.
I've noticed some of these same things, and the superficial understanding of Christianity is evident in the lyrics of the so-called 'praise' songs. They're often fun to sing but say very little. Another Baylor professor, Alan Jacobs (Distinguished Professor of Humanities), notes the lack of rigorous education in many university students:
What I find myself thinking about as we have this conversation is a character in one of Lewis' novels. In That Hideous Strength, one of the two central characters is Mark Studdock. There's a passage about a third of the way into the book in which Lewis describes Mark's extreme vulnerability to manipulation -- he pauses in the action and says, "It must be remembered that Mark had at his fingertips scarcely a scrap of genuine learning. The severities of a traditional humanistic education and a rigorous scientific education alike had passed him by. He didn't have either one. And, therefore, he was utterly vulnerable to rhetorical manipulation, as he just didn't have the intellectual equipment." It's interesting that the two words that Lewis uses are "severities" and "rigor." Those are interesting words. What Lewis is saying very clearly, is that if Mark had had either one, if he had had either a first-rate scientific education or a first-rate humanistic education, he would have been equipped to offer at least some resistance. But he had nothing. He always did well in "essays and general papers" -- if he had the opportunity to bloviate he could sound good, you know? But that was really all there was to it. He was, Lewis says, a "hollow" man.

Not to be disparaging of our students, but we need to remember how little they know when they get here and how few "rigors" and "severities" that they have undergone, in order that we may educate them more rigorously, but also to be compassionate towards them and realize that they are not going to be able to catch up overnight. It's going to require a lot of patience from us to get them up to speed in these matters. But we do well to think of our students as being in many ways like Mark Studdock, beset on all sides by rhetoric from television, movies, the Internet, even the books they read; they are getting buffeted by this stuff and they don't necessarily have what it takes to stand up straight in a gale like that. That's how I think of our job in a lot of ways.
Interesting, this characterization of the character Mark Studdock, for I've worked in an allusion to Lewis's novel That Hideous Strength in my novella, The Bottomless Bottle of Beer, and the anonymous protagonist of my tale is partly reminiscent of Lewis's Studdock. I didn't exactly model my main character after Lewis's, but I did think of him as I described the profound ignorance of my protagonist. Here's the outright allusion made in my novella, a scene in which a lawyer named Dan Webster assists the main character by agreeing to take him on as a client and thus looks over a contract that the protagonist had signed with a certain "Mr. Em":
He leaned over the table and perused the document. "Hmm . . . spirit for spirit. Yes, it's typical of Old Scratch to play loose with words. That's his hideous strength, but also his grave weakness."
The direct reference is clearly to Lewis's novel, but behind that lies David Lyndsay's poem of 1555, Ane Dialog betwix Experience and ane Courteour of the Miserabyll Estait of the World, which contains this couplet, "The shadow of that hyddeous strength, sax myle and more it is of length," which refers to the Tower of Babel and hence all that this image entails about the power of instrumental knowledge and the intellectual poverty of linguistic confusion.

Anyway, I'd like to have been part of that Baylor conversation, but I'm not, of course, a Baylor scholar, other than in the sense that it's my undergrad alma mater, and that it prepared me well for Berkeley . . .

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At 2:10 PM, Blogger ilTassista Marino said...

That Hideous Publisher!! The book is on reprint in Italy, and it's not arrived yet, after one year . . .
It's the only Lewis masterpiece I lack now, in either language.

At 2:45 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Tell that publisher he'll have to speak to the Head . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:14 PM, Blogger ilTassista Marino said...

>to speak to the Head

. . . like Don Quixote?? (II, 62)

At 7:38 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Not unless the Head was severed . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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