Reading C.S. Lewis

A Commentary

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Wesley A. Kort
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , November
     2015.
     312 pages.
     $29.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780190221348.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In Reading C. S. Lewis: A Commentary, Wesley A. Kort has provided his audience with an extended essay about what Kort identifies as Lewis’s overall project. This project is divided into three parts: First, “some reasonable assumptions,” or certain shared human experiences that Lewis uses as a foundation for his works; second, “some cultural critiques,” or critiques of modernity that Lewis includes in his works; and third, “some principles applied,” which refers to the way Lewis applies purportedly universal principles, many drawn from Christianity, to the world. Thus Kort provides a guide to Lewis’s project based on three components: individual chapters that discuss one or two of Lewis’s texts; summarizing chapters that identify a structural component in Lewis’s thought that contributes to his overall project; and a conclusion that provides an overview of Kort’s analysis. Kort has designed the chapters so they can be read either as independent essays about individual books or all together as a whole. Unfortunately, because of this structure, there is some repetition in the chapters, such as the assertion that Lewis was influenced by the increased interest in Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost (1667) that started in the Romantic period (68, again on 145), but these points of repetition do not take away from the book’s usefulness.

Reading C. S. Lewis comes from Kort’s many years teaching a class on Lewis to undergraduates, a point he explains in the preface (vii) and conclusion (266). Because of this, at times Kort references his teaching, explaining, for example, how, when his class reads The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950), he illustrates the idea of Christ’s sacrifice to his students (211–2). These points are helpful for professors who may be considering using Lewis’s texts in their courses. Kort describes himself as “neither a devotee nor a detractor” (vii) of Lewis, and this is one of the strengths of his work. He provides honest commentary throughout his analysis when warranted, highlighting points that he thinks Lewis explains well and demonstrating places where he thinks Lewis has fallen short, especially from today’s perspective. Ultimately, looking at Lewis’s total project, Kort asserts, “While I am not in full agreement with all of it, I think it is a project that deserves to be taken seriously even by those who disagree with it, a project that any attentive reader should treat with respect” (267).

This is not a comprehensive discussion of Lewis’s works, as Kort explains in the preface, but “a commentary on and guide to representative and important texts by Lewis” (vii). The texts covered are included in the title of each chapter, except for Lewis’s work Miracles (1947), which is analyzed in the chapter that covers The Problem of Pain (1940). There are notable works missing. For example, Kort discusses only the first two and last two books (in order of publication) from the Chronicles of Narnia. Also missing is The Great Divorce (1945), though Kort could have mentioned that text in comparison at several points, such as his discussion of Lewis’s views of hell from The Problem of Pain (61) and, from The Screwtape Letters (1942), the subtlety of evil (69–70).

This text is directed at an American audience, as Kort frequently discusses ways in which Lewis’s views contrast with modern American perspectives. He also explains in the introduction the way in which Lewis’s popularity grew in the United States, due in part to the interest in his works among evangelical Protestants (9–11). Then, throughout the remainder of the text, he shows in some places how Lewis’s ideas are relevant for modern readers and modern society, such as applying Lewis’s analysis in The Four Loves (1960) to modern ideas of “comfort” as an ethical norm (227–8). In contrast, he notes where Lewis’s perspective—such as his critique of cities—might not be as relevant today, when many people across the world now live in cities (237). Kort also critiques Lewis’s works from a modern-day perspective. For example, in his discussion of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, he notes the possible concern a modern reader would have for Lucy’s willingness to talk to a stranger—the faun, Mr. Tumnus—and go to his house for tea (209). Similarly, in raising questions of Lewis’s treatment of gender and race in The Last Battle (1956), he argues, “It is not possible, it seems to me, to transport the house he constructed to these shores and times and to move into it” (250). This does not mean that there is no value in Lewis’s work for today, just that we need to read it with a critical eye.

Overall, Kort highlights several themes that appear throughout Lewis’s works. One of these is the emphasis on place. The influence of place on Lewis’s spiritual journey is evident in his autobiography, in the space trilogy, and in the Chronicles of Narnia, which, as Kort reminds us, should be read “not from the beginning of Narnia to its end but from the center to the edges” (236). Others are the concepts of joy and imagination which both appear in Lewis’s own spiritual journey and throughout his other texts. Kort, in his conclusion, also highlights the critique of materialism and the concept of personal identity as important parts of Lewis’s project. Because of the essay style of this book and its overall structure, I am not convinced that this would be a useful companion to undergraduates studying Lewis’s texts. However, this text will be helpful for professors planning to include Lewis’s works in their courses and for graduate students studying Lewis. In the end, anyone appreciative of Lewis’s corpus can find something of interest in Kort’s analysis.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Elissa Cutter is a Postdoctoral Faculty Fellow in Theological Studies at Loyola Marymount University.

Date of Review: 
February 3, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Wesley A. Kort is Professor Emeritus of Religion at Duke University and author of C. S. Lewis Then and Now (OUP 2004).

Keywords: 

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