Wisdom with Lewis: Religion and Literature

All the books were beginning to turn against me.  Indeed, I must have been blind as a bat not to have seen, long before, the ludicrous contradiction between my theory of life and my actual experiences as a reader.  George MacDonald had done more to me than any other writer; of course it was a pity he had that bee in his bonnet about Christianity.  He was good in spite of it.  Chesterton had more sense than all the other moderns put together; bating, of course, his Christianity.  Johnson was one of the few authors whom I felt I could trust utterly; curiously enough he had the same kink.  Spenser and Milton by a strange coincidence had it too.  Even among ancient authors the same paradox was to be found.  The most religious (Plato, Aeschylus, Virgil) were clearly those on whom I could really feed.  On the other hand, those writers who did not suffer from religion and with whom in theory my sympathy ought to have been complete - Shaw and Wells and Mill and Gibbon and Voltaire - all seemed a little thin; what as boys we called "tinny."  It wasn't that I didn't like them.  They were all (especially Gibbon) entertaining; but hardly more.  There seemed to be no depth in them.  They were too simple.  The roughness and density of life did not appear in their books.

Now that I was reading more English, the paradox began to be aggravated.  I was deeply moved by the Dream of the Road; more deeply still by Langland: intoxicated for a time by Donne; deeply and lastingly satisfied by Thomas Browne.  But the most alarming of all was George Herbert.  Here was a man who seemed to me to excel all the authors I had ever read in conveying the very quality of life as we actually live it from moment to moment, but the wretched fellow, instead of doing it all directly, insisted on mediating it through what I would still have called "the Christian mythology."  On the other hand most of the authors who might be claimed as precursors of modern enlightenment seemed to me very small beer and bored me cruelly.  I thought Bacon (to speak frankly) a solemn, pretentious ass, yawned my way through Restoration Comedy, and, having manfully struggled to the last line of Don Juan, wrote on the end leaf "Never again."  The only non-Christians who seemed really to know anything were the Romantics; and a good many of them were dangerously tinged with something like religion, even at times with Christianity.  The upshot of it all could nearly be expressed in a perversion of Roland's great line in the Chason -

Christians are wrong, but all the rest are bores.

The natural step would have been to inquire a little more closely whether the Christians were, after all, wrong.  But I did not take it...

C.S. Lewis, from Surprised by Joy, chp. XIV

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