Generalizations (& Those Who Criticize Them)

“That’s the worst of girls,” said Edmund to Peter and the Dwarf. “They never can carry a map in their heads.”

“That’s because our heads have something inside them,” said Lucy. (C.S. Lewis, Prince Caspian).

It seems that if an author wishes to alienate vast swaths of readers today, they need do no more than “generalize.” Thus, C.S. Lewis has received unjust criticism due to some passages such as this.

To make a judgment such as Edmund’s leaves unmentioned the implied fact that there are, indeed, many useful things that are manifestly present in the heads of girls. But this example of difficulty in reading maps refers to a common perception . . . and if you’ve never heard it voiced before you read it here, you have led a shockingly sheltered life.

No one believes that there are no women capable of defeating even well-trained men in rigorous navigational competitions. Likewise, I have no doubt there are many gifted female cartographers. But please reseal the tar barrel and restuff the pillows; Lewis’ use of this dialog is not intended to be offensive!

I long for the days when a reader gave the writer the proverbial “benefit of the doubt.” A time when our assumption was that they meant something other than the meaning which offended us . . . or, at least, that they intended no malice.

I can’t speak for the rest of the world, but in most of the United States, such days of literary curtesy are long behind us. Today we often read things with an eye to finding the “problem” (ignorance, prejudice, or political viewpoint foreign to our own).

My wife and I attempted to raise our children with critical minds. (Critical in the best sense of the word.) We taught them that there are absolute truths. We informed them that, while people are entitled to hold to all sorts of notions and beliefs, that fact does not make the contending concepts “true.”

At the same time, we did our best to teach our children to respect others. To recognize that all human beings are created in the image of God. To understand that not even the basest man or woman is beyond redemption and restoration.

One practical element of this education in basic virtues took the shape of an adage we taught our kids. I’m sure others have advised this throughout history, and that many have voiced it far more eloquently, but we simply said: Judge everyone and everything by their best cases, rather than their worst.

In practice, this would mean that when a teenager compliments his dad on his wisdom, the dad does not immediately assume his prodigy is attempting to manipulate him. Now, further conversation and “investigation” may certainly prove that manipulation is indeed the goal, but it should not be the very first suspicion of the father.

As a pastor, one of your greatest challenges (and joys) comes in the pulpit. One major difficulty is discussing some extremely complex subjects in a relatively brief period of time. Pastors sometimes lapse into a sort of theological shorthand—which can be confusing or troubling to those unfamiliar with the underlying presuppositions. Taken out of context, individual statements may sound strange, or even heterodox.

I have always encouraged the members of my congregations and (especially) visitors to specifically ask me about what was meant by any statement or phrase that left them uneasy. It is no exaggeration to say that 98% of the time, that has cleared the air in and of itself, as I’ve had an opportunity to elaborate and clarify. (Of course, the other 2% of the occasions constitute a second pastoral “joy.”)

It saddens me when I hear people berate C.S. Lewis for a handful of passages that critics deem to be misogynistic or racist. They fail to extend toward him the goodwill he strove to offer to others. Most of these very few passages can simply be explained by the age in which he lived. It is disingenuous to judge by today’s standards someone who died a half century ago.

Like Lewis’ peers (and, in fact, all human beings), on occasion Lewis himself generalized. Let those who have never done the same cast the first stone. I confess that I’m guilty of it. In fact, returning to the quotation with which we began, I could most definitely echo Edmund’s words in reference to my wife. Ironically, they would be utterly inaccurate in reference to my daughter. For many years she was my “official navigator” as our family often drove across country (relying upon those seven foot by seven foot paper maps that are nearly impossible to refold.)

So, in my own nuclear family I’m batting .500 in terms of the accuracy of this generalization. The next generation may decide. Four of my six grandchildren are girls, and since the oldest girl just turned five, it’s about time to set them out in the woods with a map and a compass to see how they do!