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How should Christians relate to modern culture? Should they try to identify with culture so they are indistinguishable from their secular peers? Or, would it be better for them to stand aloof from a society espousing a worldview diametrically opposed to their own?

C.S. Lewis would recommend a different course. He would be saddened by Christians who felt compelled to pander to the ideals of contemporary culture. At the same time, he would be offended by disciples of Jesus who deemed themselves too enlightened—or, God forbid, holy—to stoop to engage with modern civilization.

In his essay “Christianity and Culture,”* Lewis begins by pointing out that the omnipresence of culture makes us unconscious of its independence from our religious worldview.

At an early age I came to believe that the life of culture (that is, of intellectual and aesthetic activity) was very good for its own sake, or even that it was good for man. After my conversion, which occurred in my later twenties, I continued to hold this belief without consciously asking how it could be reconciled with my new belief that the end of human life was salvation in Christ and the glorifying of God.

After this epiphany, Lewis began to consciously explore the proper relationship a believer should have with culture. And, his conclusion rejected both of the aforementioned extremes.

Culture has been on my mind since reading the 2019-20 schedule of the Fellowship of Performing Arts. I have written about two of the Lewis-related plays presented by this wonderful theatrical community in the past. The Great Divorce and C.S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert were both superb. I’m hoping that The Screwtape Letters will return to Seattle soon. All of their work is deeply inspiring.

The founder of FPA, Max McLean, affirms how their mission—producing quality “theatre from a Christian worldview meant to engage a diverse audience”—continues to guide their efforts. This includes a new rendition of Paradise Lost which will debut on Theater Row in New York in January. You won’t get to see the new play outside of New York City, but check this site for a list of their touring casts to see what wondrous performances may be available near you.

McLean writes, “In the arts world, Christians are seen as cultural critics, not culture makers. Mainstream opinion is that Christianity is a regressive idea that has nothing to add to the cultural conversation.”

McLean, like C.S. Lewis, encourages us to challenge this misinterpretation. After all, even if some Christian communions have retreated from the modern Areopagus, most of the great cultural accomplishments of the Western world owe a great deal to Christianity. And that is a debt of gratitude we can increase when we choose.

Culture is Not Our Enemy

Lewis posed an interesting contrast in “Christianity and Culture.” Speaking of the positive aspects of culture (for there are assuredly many shortcomings), he writes:

Culture is a storehouse of the best (sub-Christian) values. These values are in themselves of the soul, not the spirit. But God created the soul. Its values may be expected, therefore, to contain some reflection or antepast of the spiritual values. They will save no man. They resemble the regenerate life only as affection resembles charity, or honour resembles virtue, or the moon the sun.

But though “like is not the same,” it is better than unlike. Imitation may pass into initiation. For some it is a good beginning. For others it is not; culture is not everyone’s road into Jerusalem, and for some it is a road out.

This final observation—that immersion in culture can lead one on a path away from Life—is profound. I have witnessed this in the action of some who make cultural sophistication an end in itself.

In a far different essay, “Learning in War-Time,” C.S. Lewis elucidates how culture is a given. Even the most earnest prayers of the eremites can dispel it. No cloister has walls so impenetrable that they make culture irrelevant.

In the context, then, of education, Lewis describes the necessity of Christians engaging deeply with culture.

If all the world were Christian, it might not matter if all the world were uneducated. But, as it is, a cultural life will exist outside the Church whether it exists inside or not. To be ignorant and simple now—not to be able to meet enemies on their own ground—would be to throw down our weapons, and to betray our uneducated brethren who have, under God, no defence but us against the intellectual attacks of the heathen.

Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered. The cool intellect must work not only against cool intellect on the other side, but against the muddy heathen mysticisms which deny intellect altogether.

Most of all, perhaps, we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion.

A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village: the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age. The learned life then is, for some, a duty.

And so, just as the “learned life” is a duty for some, so too is an “artistic life.” It is a good thing, perhaps even an excellent thing, when Christians excel at the arts and talents esteemed by one’s local culture.

What might change if Christians decided to forego their identity as mere cultural critics and strove to become cultural leaders? Now that’s a question worth pondering.


* T.S. Eliot wrote a book with the same title. Published seventy years ago, he assessed a cultural conflict that has only grown more acute.

The problem of leading a Christian life in a non-Christian society is now very present to us, and it is a very different problem from that of the accommodation between an Established Church and dissenters. It is not merely the problem of a minority in a society of individuals holding an alien belief.

It is the problem constituted by our implication in a network of institutions from which we cannot dissociate ourselves: institutions the operation of which appears no longer neutral, but non-Christian. And as for the Christian who is not conscious of his dilemma—and he is in the majority—he is becoming more and more de-Christianized by all sorts of unconscious pressure: paganism holds all the most valuable advertising space.

C.S. Lewis and the Stage

December 6, 2018 — 8 Comments

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Sadly, we can’t presently spend an evening with C.S. Lewis . . . but what’s the next best thing?

A week ago my wife and I joined some dear friends at the Seattle performance of C.S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert. It was riveting.

The presentation used Lewis’ own words—from a variety of his works beyond his autobiography—to explain his extraordinary faith pilgrimage. Lewis of course began as a simple, trusting child. Events and educational influences caused him to reject that youthful faith. For many years he was an outspoken atheist.

As God drew Lewis closer to himself, the future author of the Narnian Chronicles resisted fiercely. Eventually he surrendered to the evidence that there most certainly was some creative force. This did not make him a Christian, of course. It was merely a conversion to Theism.

Only later would Lewis recognize just what that creative force is. Not “what,” but more accurately, “who.”

Since the engaging drama focuses on Lewis’ conversion, it does not pursue other topics such as his marriage. (This is obviously due to time constraints, since a full telling of the author’s life would require meals and evening lodging.)

Max McLean himself, founder of the Fellowship for Performing Arts,  does an outstanding job as Lewis. The production team is also superb.

The proverbial icing on the cake comes with an informal discussion following the performance. McLean takes a seat on the stage and fields questions from the audience. Coincidentally, the previous performance location was in Berkeley, where they made the tickets so inexpensive for students that they comprised at least half the audience. McLean’s description of the play’s reception and the serious conversation which followed, was fascinating.

The Fellowship for Performing Arts is based in New York City, but fortunately tours each year. I have written in the past about their insightful performance of The Great Divorce,  which happens to be my personal favorite among Lewis’ amazing corpus.

I strongly encourage you to check out their future dates and locations across the country. Some venues will be treated to The Screwtape Letters this season.

In writing this piece, the question that came to mind was—what would Lewis have thought about having his life brought to the stage. Obviously, he was quite open and vulnerable in sharing his life with others. He made no pretense to holiness, beyond that which he received by grace as a child of God.

Still, having one’s words read is quite different than having yourself portrayed on stage or film. I suspect Lewis would have felt uncomfortable with the latter, and preferred that we stick to literary avenues for learning about him.

It’s not that Lewis was averse to the stage. In Surprised by Joy he describes how one of his favorite relatives assumed some responsibility for Jack and his brother Warnie after their mother’s death. Early exposure to the theater was apparently one element in his “civilization.”

Lady E. was my mother’s first cousin and perhaps my mother’s dearest friend, and it was no doubt for my mother’s sake that she took upon herself the heroic work of civilizing my brother and me.

We had a standing invitation to lunch at Mountbracken whenever we were at home; to this, almost entirely, we owe it that we did not grow up savages.

The debt is not only to Lady E. (“Cousin Mary”) but to her whole family; walks, motor drives (in those days an exciting novelty), picnics, and invitations to the theater were showered on us, year after year, with a kindness which our rawness, our noise, and our unpunctuality never seemed to weary.

We were at home there almost as much as in our own house, but with this great difference, that a certain standard of manners had to be kept up. Whatever I know (it is not much) of courtesy and savoir faire I learned at Mountbracken.

For those who wish to consider more deeply the relationship between C.S. Lewis and the theater, I recommend “Faithful Imagination in Theater.”  The author admits that “quality theatre presented from a Christian perspective is hard to find,” but offers hope from Lewis. The article concludes with a worthy challenge.

There is a great need for more imaginative engagement with “mere Christianity” in theatre. So let’s get to it.