Skip to content


Mythopoeic Society

a non-profit organization devoted to the study of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, the Inklings, and the genres of myth and fantasy


Reviews

A Sword between the Sexes?

A Sword between the Sexes?: C.S. Lewis and the Gender Debates. Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen. Grand Rapids, Michigan: BrazosPress (a division of Baker Publishing Group), 2010. 264 pp. $22.00. ISBN 978-1-58743-208-8.

Buy Online

Reviewed by Joe R. Christopher


[This review originally appeared in Mythlore 113/114.]

This reviewer first met some of Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen’s arguments on C. S. Lewis and gender in a colloquium issue of Christian Scholar’s Review (36:4 [Summer 2007]), where she was one of the two main essayists. She cites her essay in a footnote (14 n1), but the other main essayist—in favor of gender hierarchy—and the four respondents are forgotten. Instead of re-fighting that battle, she has developed her arguments far more fully, particularly on the subject of Lewis and the social sciences, which was much more briefly touched on in the seventeen-page essay. Indeed, she is really arguing three main topics in this book: Lewis’s attitudes on gender, Lewis and the social sciences, and Lewis’s theological distortions. The last one is the surprise. This review will become pretty much a step-by-step survey of the book, because it is a solidly argued work.

The book has ten chapters. The first begins with some parallels between Van Leeuwen’s Scots-Canadian upbringing and Lewis’s Protestant Ulster one, but she turns to a personal account of her responses to Lewis’s writings as an undergraduate: appreciation of his clear discussions of Eros (both homosexual and heterosexual) in Surprised by Joy and The Four Loves, respectively; appreciation for his logical deflation of logical positivism (which positivism she was being taught as a student); and an extreme non-appreciation of Lewis’s “essentialist and hierarchical” view of the two sexes — he “was a major stumbling block to [her] acceptance of Christianity” (28). Essentialist because Lewis sets up the gender roles as built into the universe—with God as the Male at top of the universal hierarchy.

After this personal opening, the next four chapters are differently focused, but they all deal with Lewis and gender. Chapter Two summarizes the Victorian and Edwardian views of women and then turns to a survey of Lewis’s views. Van Leeuwen starts with Jane Studdock in That Hideous Strength and Tinidril in Perelandra; she considers “Priestesses in the Church?” and “Membership.” Such matters are as basic as Ransom’s discussion with Jane Studdock about gender: even if she avoided the masculine at the earthly level, she would find a greater Masculinity at a higher level. Van Leeuwen sees the women in That Hideous Strength—leaving aside such a figure as Fairy Hardcastle—as either dutiful wives or unmarried professionals; Jane is trying to be both, and she is told to be a dutiful wife. But the author finds a shift in Lewis’s attitudes that starts at the time of the Chronicles of Narnia and carries into Till We Have Faces. She points to a change in the essentialist attitude in The Four Loves and the omission of gender hierarchy in The Discarded Image. She finds complete reversals of earlier attitudes in A Grief Observed. This reviewer wishes she had considered two of Lewis’s short stories from his last years, “Ministering Angels” and “The Shoddy Lands,” before she reached her conclusion about Lewis’s change—no doubt the change was true, but it does not seem to be complete.

One digression in this second chapter is on Mark Studdock. It is not on gender, but rather it prepares for the latter part of the book about Lewis and the social sciences. Studdock is a sociologist: “He was […] a glib examinee in subjects that require no exact knowledge” (qtd. 44). Since Van Leeuwen is an academic psychologist, Lewis’s attitudes about the social sciences (and about Freud and Jung) are involving for her—and produce a valuable discussion.

Chapter Three is concerned with Lewis’s sources for his beliefs about gender, both Biblical and (for hierarchy) Aristotelian, and their results. One section is on Lewis’s view of revelation—progressive through a primitive feeling of the numinous, a finding of the Tao, a combination of the two in Judaism, the appearance of Christ, the spread of the faith. Her main point is that Lewis accepted a partial inspiration of pagan writers; she writes of her

adherence to a theological tradition that takes issue with Lewis’s view, more Platonic than biblical, that the activities and things of this life are at most shadows or siren calls meant to beckon us toward the more “solid” and eternal realities of heaven. (69)

Van Leeuwen is a Calvinist in its Reformational tradition. According to the book’s index, Plato is mentioned (mainly in this way, as a bad influence) eleven times. Van Leeuwen catches Lewis in one flat Biblical error in “Priestesses in the Church?” when he says that Mary the mother of Jesus was not at Pentecost. She also traces the (heretical) subordinationism that Lewis as a young Christian found in the Trinity—heretical because it is clearly denied by two of the Creeds that Lewis accepted. However—she points out—near the end of his life, in The Discarded Image, he denied that God the Son was subordinate to God the Father. Even in his early Christian life, in at least some of his letters, Lewis argued more for a hierarchy of gender within the church and the marriage than within other spheres (the passage about the husband dealing with conflicts with neighbors in Mere Christianity is an example in marriage). (This third chapter is also interested in some later writers arguing both essentialism and hierarchy as gender differences, with their citations of Lewis.)

The fourth chapter continues this concern with sources—in the general influence of the Edwardian Age.  But the main topic of the chapter is a contrast of Dorothy L. Sayers and Lewis—some parallels in their Edwardian backgrounds, but differences in their attitudes toward gender, Sayers insisting that women are simply human beings, neither better nor worse than men.

If Van Leeuwen had accepted George Sayer’s three statements of the affair between Lewis and Janie Moore, she would have had another balance between Sayers and Lewis, since she discusses Sayers’s out-of-wedlock son.  Some details in the chapter contain errors: Arthur Greeves did not destroy all of Lewis’s letters that refer to sexual matters (100)—he blacked out the passages (perhaps two months of Lewis’s letters seem to be actually missing). Lewis did not—if this reviewer remembers correctly—ever take part in amateur theatricals (91). Sayers did not direct the productions of her two plays at Canterbury Cathedral (89). But these are trivialities and do not affect the overall value of the chapter.

This comparison of Lewis and a woman is fine as far as it goes (Sayers says some delightful things), but a comparison of Lewis and one of his male friends on gender might have been valuable also. Dom Bede Griffiths appears three times in the index—he was the Roman Catholic whom Lewis had vet some of the theological statements in Mere Christianity—but one would not know from Van Leeuwen’s comments that he was not a extremely conservative Catholic. Bede Griffiths writes in his Return to the Centre (1976), “The whole creation comes forth eternally in the Word from the abyss of Being which is both Father and Mother” (Ch. 3). It does not sound like something Lewis would have written. Griffiths’ description of the Trinity is no doubt orthodox, but it is hardly traditional: “All is one Infinite Being, Knowledge and Bliss, being in pure consciousness of unending bliss” (Ch. 5). Less orthodox is another passage, “May we not say that the Holy Spirit is feminine? It is the eternal Wisdom, which in Hebrew, Greek and Latin is always feminine, the divine Sophia” (Ch. 8). Of course, he states it as a question, not a doctrine. Still, one does not hear Lewis here. (His whole book is an attempt to reach the basic center of Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism.)

Van Leeuwen’s fifth chapter discusses Lewis’s dealings with specific women (in addition to Sayers), finding him better than his early theories. The main women discussed are Mary Shelley Nylan, Stella Adwinckle, Sister Penelope Lawson, Ruth Pitter, and Elizabeth Anscombe. The first, third, and fourth discussions are basically based on Lewis’s letters. Van Leeuwen has an excellent discussion of the debate between Lewis and Anscombe over three aspects of one of his chapters in Miracles. The author has the clearest summary, that this reviewer remembers, of the points of disagreement and Lewis’s revision correcting them (in so far as Lewis agreed with Anscombe’s critiques). Further, at one point Van Leeuwen disagrees with one of Lewis’s remaining either/or arguments (136). Lewis’s dualistic views here are called by Van Leeuwen “Cartesian,” being characterized by Descartes’ mind-body dualism.

This discussion of Anscombe provides the transition to the following chapters, which deal with Lewis and the social sciences. Van Leeuwen sums up an aspect of Lewis’s thought still found in the revised version of his chapter of Miracles: “The physical aspects of human beings are amenable to cause-effect exploration, but their mental life can only be studied in terms of meaningful ideas” (136)—that is, by ground-consequent exploration. Lewis’s ruling out of scientific, or cause-effect, exploration leaves sociology and academic psychology as invalid—as well as cultural anthropology, economics, and political science. Obviously Van Leeuwen, as an academic psychologist, is going to dispute this.

The next four chapters take up this topic. Some of this material, while valuable for understanding Lewis’s ideas, is not directly about gender; some is. Van Leeuwen has an interesting discussion of Lewis’s “Psycho-Analysis and Literary Criticism” in the sixth chapter, arguing against Lewis’s position on Freud on Van Leeuwen’s own Christian grounds. She says too often Lewis believes that the things of this world are completely, or nearly completely, corrupted— “fallen” in Christian terms. Lewis’s Platonic tendencies lead him toward dualism (the things of this world are just images of greater things in Heaven, although Plato would not use “Heaven”). She also treats Lewis’s praise of Jung, finding the Animus and Anima another form of duality.

An incidental but interesting comment in this sixth chapter is that the “oral tradition in psychology” says that the philosopher Augustine Castle in B.F. Skinner’s novel Walden Two is based on Lewis (144 n17). That is one that David Bratman’s “The Inklings in Fiction: An Annotated Bibliography,” in Mythprint January 2010, missed.

The seventh chapter is subtitled “The Psychology of Gender since C.S. Lewis.” Van Leeuwen surveys the meta-analyses of the literature on gender (with a chart, 181), finding negligible or small differences between the sexes in most areas (math problem solving, reading skills, aggression in adults, moral reasoning orientations, etc.). On bell curves, the sexes may peak at slightly different points, but male and female average differences are much smaller than the variability within each sex. One of the specific studies Van Leeuwen emphasizes is in moral reasoning: the “care” orientation is by .28 “effect size” female (within the small range) and the “justice” orientation is by .129 male (within the negligible ranger). So Lewis’s argument in Mere Christianity that the husband should deal with neighbors and the wife with their own household has a very slight support, but not enough to justify Lewis’s fiat—it depends on the individual husband and wife.

The eighth and ninth chapters discuss Lewis on divorce and parenting—two topics on which he was right, despite the secular academy of his day. In the eighth, Van Leeuwen discusses the Lewis—(divorced) Joy Davidman marriage; but the main development is on studies of the effects of marriages and divorces. The ninth chapter is largely biographical—Lewis’s responses to children (godchildren, evacuees from London during World War II, stepsons). Van Leeuwen finds Lewis to have treated them well as individuals, without gender bias. (It seems odd that Maureen Moore does not come into the discussion; surely Lewis learned something about women from watching her grow up.)

The tenth chapter is essentially a summary of the previous arguments that Lewis changed his attitudes toward gender through his life; the chapter is nicely done with some fresh details. (The author does misidentify Roger Lancelyn Green—not by name—as an Inkling, though [250].)

The number of slight factual errors in this book—such as that about Green—is not of great importance. Van Leeuwen is a psychologist, not a Lewisian scholar, who has been pulled into writing this book by her undergraduate attitudes toward Lewis and the invitation to give “the annual C.S. Lewis lecture at the University of Tennessee in March of 2004” (13). Presumably the reason for the invitation, although she does not say so, is because she had occasionally “crossed paths with Lewis via his pronouncements about science, social science, and relations between the sexes” (14)—one assumes that means she had incidentally, in publications, disagreed with his comments. (Her essay in Christian Scholar’s Review was based on her lecture.) What matters is that she deals well with Lewis within her framework. She does an excellent job on establishing Lewis’s early essentialist and hierarchical view of the sexes; she shows that Lewis grows silent about the gender differences later and, in A Grief Observed, says things incompatible with the earlier positions. She also shows that his treatment of women was always better than his theories. Her second major area of concern is a defense of the social sciences against Lewis’s distrust of their validity.  She certainly trusts the validity of what is called “meta-analyses”—that is, sophisticated combining of earlier studies, with numerical results.  Probably most of those who consult her book will agree with her arguments on this point—the results seem common sense among the educated in the modern world. But in this matter one has to trust her generalized explanation of how the meta-analyses are done (either that or consult the introduction mentioned by Van Leeuwen [180 n22]). And, of course, the common sense of one era is not that of another, as Van Leeuwen’s discussion of the effects of divorce on children shows. Her third major area, about Lewis’s type of Christian belief, is more problematic. Quite frankly, a large variety of beliefs appear within the general Christian community. The Cambridge Platonists of the seventeenth century can be cited as forerunners, to some degree, of Lewis. Van Leeuwen says that Aristotle, not the Bible, gave Lewis his hierarchical system; that Plato, not the Bible, gave Lewis his distrust of the value of all earthly systems (as part of a dualism). But the Bible may be variously interpreted (the other major essayist in the colloquium in Christian Scholar’s Review used it to defend gender hierarchy). Van Leeuwen does not try to argue from the Bible for the most part (she mentions once that her husband is an Old Testament scholar); but she does comment that the presence of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and other women on Pentecost is often used as an argument for sexual equality in Christianity—this is when she points out Lewis’s mistake on the facts.

Overall, this is an important book. It provides the fullest discussion of Lewis and gender hierarchy that students of Lewis have. It at least answers Lewis on the topic of social sciences as well as (and probably slightly better than) he attacks them. It does not settle matters on Lewis’s variety of Christianity, but it certainly contributes to the discussion. It has smaller topics nicely developed, such as the discussion of the Lewis-Anscombe debate. No bibliography but very full notes at the bottom of pages. Satisfactory but not an excellent index (e.g., Griffiths is listed three times, but he is mentioned in the book eight times).


A Sword between the Sexes?: C.S. Lewis and the Gender Debates. Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen. Grand Rapids, Michigan: BrazosPress (a division of Baker Publishing Group), 2010. 264 pp. $22.00. ISBN 978-1-58743-208-8.

Buy Online