C.S. Lewis’s Guidelines for a Christian Journal

In April 1947, C.S. Lewis wrote to Laurence Whistler with advice on the creation of a Christian literary journal which Whistler was hoping to start.[1] Here are some of Lewis’s guidelines:

  1. ‘I think the Periodical ought to come before the public with no explicitly religious pretension at all’.
  2. ‘[T]hose who run it should in fact all be Christians’.
  3. ‘The standard they actually apply in admitting or rejecting contributors should not be that of agreement or disagreement with the Christian Faith, but that of agreement or disagreement with what may be called the “good Pagan” range of rationality and virtue’.

What might be surprising here is that C.S. Lewis, famous and outspoken apologist for Christianity, is advocating that a Christian journal not wave a Christian flag.

It may seem as if Lewis is appealing to natural philosophy and theology – what can be known by reason alone – as a higher standard of truth than the special revelation which belongs to faith. However, Lewis goes on to write that his reason for using ‘good Paganism’ as his standard for acceptance ‘is not that I consider the good Pagan standard more important than the Christian, but that I consider the tactics I have suggested more likely in the long run to do what a periodical can towards the conversion of educated people in England’. In other words, his goal for the journal is Christian – the conversion to faith in Christ of a particular class of people in a particular nation. He suggests that the journal would be ineffective in this goal if it publicly proclaimed itself to be Christian, because, among other reasons:

  1. ‘It would attract only those who are already converted or near conversion.’
  2. ‘No unbiassed criticism of it [would] occur in the press: it [would] be derided, and welcomed, on purely partisan lines.’
  3. ‘(which is the really important reason in my mind). In every other age the preaching of Christianity has been able to presuppose the light of nature in its hearers… Where there is total scepticism the call to repentance and the promise of forgiveness must fall completely flat. Earlier [Christian] preachers were fighting for the Supernatural against Nature. What we are up against is the anti-Natural. The rehabilitation of the Natural (tho’ only of course as a preliminary to its conquest by the Supernatural) seems to me the greatest service that a periodical [could] do to-day.’[2]

I would like to suggest that we can apply Lewis’s suggestions for a Christian journal to the creation of art by Christians. Christian artists often face pressure to make their art explicitly religious and/or evangelistic, in order to justify it. Even when they do not face such pressure, many Christian artists still create in the hope that others will find God in their work, and that their work may help others come to faith in Christ, even when they do not believe that such outcomes are the only justification for artistic creation. As a theatrical producer myself, I have struggled with how publicly I should share the religious reasons behind my choices of shows to produce.

What Lewis does is suggest that Christians who do have evangelistic aims with their work can actually accomplish those aims more effectively by not creating explicitly evangelistic work, but instead by addressing a gap between the prevailing culture and the Gospel – such as the gap between a culture which does not acknowledge a moral law, and a Gospel which offers forgiveness for violations of that law. In my next post, I will look at how artists can prepare the way for the Gospel by presenting, not the Gospel in artistic form, but a world in need of the Gospel, in their art.

***

1. The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Vol. 2, ed. Walter Hooper (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2004), pp. 772-74. See also Lewis’s letter to Mr Whistler of 9 Jan 1947, p. 758 in the same volume.
2. Emphasis from ‘tho’…Supernatural’ added.

3 Comments

  • DJ Dycus says:

    Thanks for this. I was teaching Annie Dillard a few weeks ago to some undergrads, and I was trying to communicate why her work wasn’t more explicitly Christian (which is what they had expected to find–something more along the lines of Donald Miller: example from nature -> lesson about Jesus). I did bring up the evangelistical subtlety of the fiction of Lewis and Tolkien, as a point of comparison, but I’ll pass this along to them as well. Thanks again.

  • Adam B. Shaeffer says:

    Great stuff! I keep coming back to this line of thinking as I sit down to write. I think there’s freedom here to be who God made us to be, freedom to be who we are right now, and freedom to create as we feel moved to create.

    Thanks for sharing.

  • Cole Matson says:

    Glad you enjoyed it, Adam and DJ! Lewis is generally compared to Tolkien as the more explicitly evangelistic Inkling, so it’s always helpful to be able to point out where he “plays against type”.

    Cole

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