Sunday, November 30, 2014

Lewis's Memory

So, I've now finished reading Leslie Baynes's article "C. S. Lewis's Use of Scripture in the 'Liar, Lunatic, Lord' Argument" in THE JOURNAL OF INKLINGS STUDIES (Vol 4 No. 2 p. 27& ff), and I think it probably has to be ranked as one of the major essays in Lewis studies. Not for its specific topic and thesis, which are very narrowly focused, but for its larger ramifications.

In brief, Baynes is writing about Lewis's argument, in MERE XIANITY and elsewhere, that it's impossible for anyone to view Jesus as a great moral teacher but a fellow mortal. Instead, Lewis argues, anyone who made the claims about himself that Jesus did could only be a villain, a madman, or God himself. I've never taken this argument very seriously, given that it's self-evidently false: millions of people, from Gandhi to Thomas Jefferson,  HAVE taken Jesus to be a great man but not divine.

Rather than address the question of Jesus's divinity, about which he seems fully in agreement, Baynes's concern is with Lewis's citations from scripture in support in his dictum. He reaches the surprising conclusion that Lewis's argument fails because Lewis quotes inaccurately, conflating the various gospel accounts. And, more seriously, Lewis takes words that appear in the gospels not in their original meaning but as they were defined by church councils in the 4th century. This is startling, because one of the things Lewis is known for as a literary scholar is his insistence that a modern day reader must be aware of the historical meanings of words. That is, if I read Shakespeare or Spenser, I need to be mindful that some words they used have changed meaning over the past five centuries. For me to read those words in the modern sense is to misunderstand what the author from an earlier time is saying. And yet Baynes demonstrates that Lewis does just that when he puts on his theological hat, particularly when it comes to terms like "Son of Man" and "Son of God", which had different meanings in Jesus's time than they did at the time of the church councils that established Catholic orthodoxy.

So, Baynes shoots a hole in Lewis's 'lunatic/liar/lord' theory through the backdoor method of showing that Jesus didn't make the claims Lewis claims he did, and that what Jesus did say meant something quite different from what Lewis thought it did. That's interesting in and of itself, but relatively minor so far as I wd be concerned, since it only applies to one argument Lewis made that I thought floundered under its own incoherence even as he was making it. But to extrapolate from Baynes is to raise a far larger point, with consequences for CSL's literary work: just how reliable was CSL's memory, and how accurate or otherwise are his citations?

Anyone who reads much C. S. Lewis biography comes to be familiar with the claims that CSL had an enormously retentive memory for books.* Yet there's reason to think his memory was less photographic than legend makes it. For example, we know of one case when he was asked about a book he'd read just a few months before about which he could not remember the author, nor the title, and had only a distorted memory of its contents.** What if his memory for literary quotes is no better than Baynes had demonstrated his theological citations to be? Hence, I'd be curious to hear from anyone who has ever checked Lewis's citations against the originals in his scholarly articles, to hear how accurate they turned out to be. I suspect that CSL's literary citations will turn out to be more accurate than his theological ones, but it'd be nice to know.

--John R.
current anime: GOLDEN TIME
current reading: THE SIMON IFF STORIES [1917-1918] by Aleister Crowley

 *In part this may just have been a side-effect of his fondness for re-reading favorite books over and over again; thanks to Janice for that thought.

**This occurred in his first (1942) letter to E. R. Eddison.  I was surprised, a while back, having always read that Charles Williams was venerated by the Oxford undergrads he lectured to, to find he was a figure of fun among the undergrads for his habit of always misquoting poetry. I don't think anything of the sort is true of CSL; merely that he might have been a little less superhuman than is generally believed.

1 comment:

David Bratman said...

As it is indeed self-evidently false "that it's impossible for anyone to view Jesus as a great moral teacher but a fellow mortal," it might be useful to note, in the spirit of being mindful of what authors actually say and what their words mean, that that's not Lewis's claim.

Lewis's opposition is to what he calls "the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. ... let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to."

There's numerous responses and rebuttals that can be made to that, including Baynes's, but it's clear that Lewis did not believe nobody held the view. It's all too common a view, which is why he bothered to rebut it. He just thought it was foolish nonsense of a view, no matter who held it. Declaring that great thinkers who happened to disagree with him were not just wrong, but purveyors of foolish nonsense, was a regular habit of Lewis's.