Despite feeling less than spectacular the last few days (there is a stomach virus going around my area), I am putting together my now weekly reading list. If you haven’t yet, go ahead and check out last week’s poetry reading list.
As always, please add to, disagree with or disparage my choices. What did I put on the list that doesn’t belong? What did I leave out that absolutely needs to be on there? I won’t make it a habit to do reading lists of specific authors. It’s a very restricting and narrow idea. But I’m willing to make an exception for Lewis, since I’ve met very few people who haven’t read at least some of his books, or actively refused to.
But, really, there are three C. S. Lewises, and very few readers are familiar with all three. There is C. S. Lewis the fiction writer, C. S. Lewis the Christian apologist, and C. S. Lewis the literary critic. The third of these is certainly the best but also certainly the least well-known.
But here it is: my Lewis reading list. If you are only going to read a handful of works from each of the three Lewises, this are my picks.
C. S. Lewis the fiction writer
- Till We Have Faces. One of the last works he published, Lewis considered this both his finest and most under-appreciated novel. Drawing on his vast knowledge of mythology and literature, Lewis wove together the story of Cupid and Psyche from the point of view of Orual, Psyche’s ugly sister. The title comes from the ultimate line of the novel, “How can we meet the gods face to face till we have faces?”
- The Great Divorce. More a novella than a novel, the divorce mentioned in the title is not between two people, but between heaven and hell. In this story that draws heavily on the ideas of excommunicated Scottich preacher George MacDonald (who is himself a character in the story), Lewis explores the understanding that hell is the result of people’s free choices. Why would anyone choose hell? That is precisely the question Lewis seeks to rationalize in this series of vignettes, which amounts to ten or twelve case studies of individuals choosing hell for all their various reasons.
- Perelandra. The second volume in a three-part science fiction cycle, Perelandra is my favorite for a few reasons. First, even though it is a sequel, it stands perfectly well on its own as a story. Second, even though it is science fiction (complete with a spaceship voyage to another planet), it is mythic, even cosmological, in scope. Third, it deals with many of the same themes as John Milton’s Paradise Lost, even functions as a commentary on it, dealing with the same themes of universal fall, redemption, pure sexuality, the boringness of evil in its own right. Even if you have no interest in science fiction, per se, you owe it to yourself to see how a master does it.
C. S. Lewis the Christian apologist
- God in the Dock. A collection of essays exploring a wide variety of avenues in Christian thought, the overall project is a defense of more-or-less universal Christian beliefs. The title is somewhat misleading for anyone not familiar with British courtrooms, the dock is the equivalent of the American stand. The title, in other words, is essentially God on Trial.
- The Problem of Pain. This book is a theodicy, an attept to answer the most obvious question that arises in Christian thought: how do you reconcile the belief in an all-good, all-powerful god with the level of suffering in the world? In The Problem of Pain, Lewis gives a classic free-will defense, drawing on all the lights of the Augustinian tradition. What is surprising about the tack Lewis takes is how very near it is to Gregory Boyd’s open theist position.
- A Grief Observed. This book is a look at the same subject from the other side of the fence. Where The Problem of Pain is detached, speculative and philosophical, A Grief Observed is specifically experiential. When Lewis wrote The Problem of Pain he was a recent convert interested in analyzing how previous philosophical objections. When he wrote A Grief Observed he was a grieiving widower, without interest in doctrine or orthodoxy, just in the experience of suffering itself. No words capture the feelings of loss and betrayal at the hands of a perceived good God as Lewis does here:
“Meanwhile, where is God? That is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims on you as an interruption… you will be welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is fain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double-bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become. There are no lights in the windows. It might be an empty house Was it ever inhabited? It seemed so once. And that seeimg was as strong as this. What can this mean?
- The Weight of Glory. A collection of addresses given by Lewis around the time he was composing Mere Christianity. Many of the ideas repeat themselves, but here in these addresses to different audiences we get a look at the ideas presented in isolation from one another. It is a worthwhile comparison. Includes addresses such “Is Theology Poetry?” and “Why I Am Not A Pacifist.”
C. S. Lewis the literary critic
- Studies in Words. Lewis, the professor of philology, takes apart many of the more significant and abstract words in the English language, such as “world” and “freedom,” and routes us back through their history of interpretation, through Greek, Latin, French and German, through Early and Middle into Modern English. The result is a charting of the history of western philosophy, second in scope only to Own Barfield’s History in English Words.
- Preface to Paradise Lost. If a 90 page essay can be called a preface. Paradise Lost was a work Lewis, like all of his generation, dealt with extensively over his life, and while some of his views would not be upheld in the universities today, he was certainly a sober critic, expounding his views with a full range of knowledge and wit.
- Of Other Worlds. This collection of essays covers a broad range of topics, all brought together by a common subject: writing about writing, the act of writing, even the act of writing about writing. Regardless what a reader thinks about Lewis as a fiction writer or a Christian apologist, his insights here are constant and undoubtable.
This is, of course, an incomplete list. Just a biased introduction, really. You’ll notice that Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, and The Chronicles of Narnia are all absent. Mainly, the reason is that I haven’t read them in years. If I had to pick one Narnia book to include, I suppose it would be The Magician’s Nephew. Which one would you include?