The Life and Writings of C.S. Lewis
Reviewed by Paula Bergstrom
[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 48:4 (#345) in April 2011.]
With a twice-a-day hourly commute and a desire to learn more about C.S. Lewis (I’m more familiar with Tolkien), I selected this course from the ‘The Great Courses’ lecture series held by my local library. Since 1990, the Teaching Company has produced hundreds of university-level courses (in CD and DVD formats) taught by highly-regarded professors. Many of the Teaching Company’s chosen lecturers have won teaching awards, i.e., they are selected not only for their academic knowledge, but for their ability to condense and convey broad areas of art, music, history, literature, science, and other subjects to an interested, informed listener. Louis Markos, Professor in the English Department at Houston Baptist University, is no exception. Having contributed lectures to the Great Minds of the Western Intellectual Tradition series (2001) and as sole lecturer for From Plato to Postmodernism: Understanding the Essence of Literature and the Role of the Author (2002), Markos has also spoken on a wide variety of subjects (ancient Greece, Greek mythology, horror films, etc.) to an array of audiences. Besides teaching at the university level, he has written Lewis Agonistes: How C.S. Lewis Can Train Us to Wrestle with the Modern and Postmodern World (2003), a book for the general public. His extensive knowledge of Lewis is also illustrated in the course guidebook where he provides an eleven page bibliography that includes not only Lewis’s work, but a list of biographies and works of criticism. More recently, he has written Apologetics for the Twenty-first Century (2010), and his book, On the Shoulders of Hobbits: What Tolkien Can Teach Us Today (Moody Press) is due out in 2011.
Covering C.S. Lewis’s entire life and canon in 12 half-hour lectures is no easy task. Yet that is what Professor Markos enthusiastically attempts to do. After a brief survey of Lewis’s life, Markos plunges into an overview of Lewis’s major nonfiction works in the first half of the course, and then into his fiction, especially The Chronicles of Narnia, in the second half. And this is precisely what I was looking for when I selected this course as my entry into learning more about Lewis.
Markos begins the course by clearly stating that C.S. Lewis has had a profound effect on his life and that he has read Lewis’s works numerous times — but not to worry, he does not intend to preach. And much of the time, he doesn’t. However, as others have noted in the online reviews of this course (http://www.teach12.com), Markos has a rapid, staccato style of lecturing. Though he enunciates clearly, his delivery can become so fast, usually in the second half of a lecture, that he interrupts himself and doesn’t finish sentences. This is likely due to his enthusiasm for Lewis’s work. But, coupled with his occasional insertion of Biblical scripture and his insistent, adulatory approach to Lewis’s Christian perspective, Markos comes close to ‘badgering’ his listener. I appreciate a lively lecture. In fact, I can get rather expressive myself when speaking to undergraduate students about counter-intuitive elements in population genetics. But too much animation can distract a listener from the subject matter. Midway through the first half of the lecture series, I dipped into Lewis’s Mere Christianity and read, with relief, a more seasoned, even-tempered approach to his apologetics. For debates dealing with the Christian faith, I prefer Lewis’s clever coaxing to Markos’s occasionally shrill stridency. On the other hand, with his brisk lecturing style, Markos covers a lot of ground.
In lectures two through five, Markos provides an overview of Lewis’s major nonfiction work, including his books addressing morality, the desire for God, the importance of free will, the nature of damnation, and the existence of heaven and hell, along with Lewis’s critical view of certain medieval texts. Using his expansive background in literature, history and religion, Markos provides a rich backdrop for Lewis’s diverse works. After learning of Lewis’s view of ‘chronological snobbery’ (Lecture 6), I began to question my own view of medieval societies — although I wouldn’t go so far at to warrant them ‘true environmentalists’ as Markos does.
However, in a supposed alliance with Lewis’s critical view of modernity, Markos is at times anti-science. For example, in Lecture 4, Markos describes a ‘cartoon’ featuring an atheist and a Christian answering the question of what happened to Jesus’s body after he died. The atheist declares that a starship beamed it up and transported it to another dimension. Clearly Markos is lampooning certain viewpoints. But Markos further states that this is not just an atheist’s view, but a scientific response — as if both would be identical. Frankly, for this to be an example of a scientific answer is ludicrous, and perhaps Markos knows this. But unlike Markos, Lewis indicated a greater awareness of — and respect for — the separate realms of science and theology (Mere Christianity).
Furthermore, after stating that God created the complexity of life in an instant, Markos declares that he doesn’t believe in evolution and then briefly explains why — there are too many factors he’d have to accept. That is his choice, of course. However it’s likely that a listener to these lectures is more interested in what Lewis thought about evolution. But Markos skips over any mention of the complicated, nuanced view of Lewis. He neglects to mention that Lewis referred to Genesis as a myth of Holy Scripture (The Problem of Pain) or as written in ‘the form of folk tale’ (Miracles) or that Lewis did not oppose the idea that humans descended from animals in his discussion of a pre-Adamic fall (The Problem of Pain). By not pointing out the distinction between his and Lewis’s views, Markos lets an unwary listener assume that he and Lewis share a similar perspective. Although Lewis had grave concerns about the over-extension of the application of evolutionary theory, he never publicly opposed evolution despite being pressured to do so (see Ferngren and Numbers, “C.S. Lewis on Creation and Evolution: The Acworth Letters, 1944–1960”, published in The American Scientific Affiliation, for a fuller discussion).
In the second half of the lecture series, Markos gives an overview of Lewis’s fictional works. Again, he moves quickly — covering the Space Trilogy, all seven books of The Chronicles of Narnia, and then Lewis’s Till We Have Faces. Markos then ends his lectures with a brief look at Lewis’s marriage to Joy Davidman set against one of his final works, A Grief Observed. For each work, Markos provides a synopsis and then connections to Lewis’s Christian philosophy. If the listener is not familiar with the entire story of Narnia (and surely I am not the only one … am I?), it will likely take two times of listening to these lectures (plus the guidebook) to understand the overall trajectory due to the myriad characters and their storylines. Markos also describes the books in the sequence of their publication rather than the actual timeline of the story.
This lecture series introduced me to the breadth of Lewis’s work and is a comprehensive starting point for those interested in a general overview. From his frequent references to poets, classical works, and their authors, Markos undoubtedly has a rich background that he brings to his lecturing, and his contagious enthusiasm encourages further exploration into Lewis’s books. In addition, the listener is well-equipped to continue their reading of Lewis due to the additional resources in the guidebook. Although Markos’s strident speaking style may annoy some listeners, a greater weakness lies in some of the content. By presenting his own view against evolution and science without clarifying Lewis’s position, Markos fails to acknowledge the careful, complex approach of Lewis.