Markos, Louis. 2003. Lewis agonistes: How C.S. Lewis can train us to wrestle with the modern and post-modern world. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
Louis Markos is professor of English and teaches literature at Houston Baptist University. He also provides a course on Lewis in the Great Courses library.
Markos uses the metaphor or figure of Lewis as a wrestler to contend with science, the New Age, evil and suffering, the arts, and heaven and hell. Each involve a “wrestling match” between Lewis and his “struggle between the rational and the intuitive, the modern and the medieval” that helped to shape Lewis as an apologist (p. x).
In his early days Lewis was an atheist, building his worldview on reason “subjected to ruthless analysis, introspection and demystification” (8) and it was only later, at Oxford, that his wall began to crumble. He found that the natural world did not provide the answers he needed and expected and he began to experience “the argument by desire” (12). He challenged certain assumptions he had held and arrived at a grand compromise: the marriage of reason and intuition—he “tempered his logic with a love for beauty, wonder, and magic” (18).
An early and ongoing wrestling match was with science. Here “the shapers of Western culture had turned “their eyes downward”. Mother Nature replaced God as the ultimate source of the universe and of humanity, including everything “that most define us as a species” (31). Despite the intellectual arguments of men like Darwin, Freud, Mark and Nietzsche, they didn’t work for Lewis. He found that there was a thirst for something outside the natural world and that this desire was proof that there existed a supernatural one. He also found that there were universal ethical standards and they were not the “product of impersonal evolution, [but] rather…a gift of divine revelation” (44). For Lewis, there were four things that could not have evolved: joy, ethics, human reason and religion (48).
Lewis also wrestled with the concepts and assumptions of the New Age. Whereas such people believe that all there is in the universe is matter/nature, thereby “reducing the human race to the level of the animal kingdom” (64), Lewis comments in detail on the medieval perception of a balance between the heavens and the earth. The pantheistic-like perceptions of the New Age have to be understood by the church today. We should remember that not “all religions and cultures that exist outside the walls of the church are made up of lies and darkness” (72). As Markos reminds us, “Paul’s great success as an evangelist was predicated in part on his ability to speak to pagans in their own language” (73).
Lewis would have us rehabilitate the medieval model with “a renewed vision and capacity for wonder [that] can take in the very heavens themselves” (80). His book The Discarded Image can help us in the process by “asserting not only the vastness of space but the comparative spatial insignificance of the earth” (81). We must reincarnate “the sympathetic universe and the inclusivist vision that mark the medieval model at its most exalted [level]” (88).
Wrestling with evil and suffering occupies a large part of Lewis’s thinking and writing. God’s “free will experiment” (96) was to let his fallen creatures make choices, sometimes bad ones, which he does not interfere with. God breathes into us our soul but we then make our own judgments, including how to perceive beauty and to know God in an intimate manner (100). Our suffering can be turned into wisdom.
“Wresting with the arts” is the most interesting chapter to me. I believe he falsely interprets the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure by claiming that he strictly separates the sign (or word) from the signified (what the word points to) and concludes that language is therefore only a man-made structure. Saussure was indeed a linguist structuralist but so was Pike and many other linguists who did not separate a linguistic form from its meaning—to them it was always a composite and relied upon the participation and interpretation of the speaker to judge both form and meaning.
Markos turns to poetry to make his point and claims “that it has traditionally been championed as the highest, most divine of the genres… [holding] out the promise of a pure language untainted by rude, material concerns” (116). It is the form by which to communicate with the will and plans of God.
Of course, postmodernism did not see it this way: the meanings of words and phrases are what we make them to be and cannot have any absolute status. Evangelicals, in an attempt to refute such claims” set out to ground the truth claims of the Bible not on a poetic view of inspiration but on a more scientific view of inerrancy, not on narrative explication of God’s sacred history but on syllogistic proof texts” (121).
Markos searches for a middle ground and uses “the aesthetics of incarnation” (122) as his model, which he believes will provide Christians “with a theoretical defense against the challenges of deconstruction” (123). He reviews St. Thomas Aquinas and other Church fathers who interpreted the Bible on four separate levels: 1) literal or historical; 2) allegorical or typological; 3) topological or moral; and 4) anagogical or mystical (125). These factors enter into a non-linear interpretation of Scripture.
Further, “[i]ndeed any Christian defense of the arts must finally rest on the Incarnation, that most slippery of doctrines” (128). This is because it can show us that absolute truth and meaning exist and are knowable and can be expressed in human language. It “holds out the promise that we and our language (both verbal and visual) will someday be redeemed from the fallen world of decaying signifiers” (ibid).
We can therefore champion the arts for allowing us to identify meaning both literally and allegorically, ascending and descending to God by means of the Son of Man on Jacob’s ladder. Markos allows that this is so because “[a]t the heart of the Bible is not a set of doctrines but a story, a sacred narrative of fall and redemption through which run… a thousand different patterns linked together in a vast weave of false steps, recurrences and typologies” (132).
Without imagination in this incarnational and spiritual sense, we cannot make analogies, understand mysteries, shape the world into a unified whole, envision autonomy and integrity or experience joy and suffering by means of sympathetic imagination (133).
In Markos’s final chapter he has Lewis wresting with heaven and hell. For Lewis, hell is always something that we choose. What ultimately drags us into hell is “a succession of little sins that pulls us bit by bit away from God and his grace” (152). The separation is eternal and is based on the choices we make as we move toward or away from God (161). We can yearn upwardly for God and his reality and truth or downward by means of our egocentric selves.