Is C. S. Lewis more pomo than Rob Bell?

Responding to a comment on my recent review of Rob Bell’s Love Wins, I pointed out how consistently Bell echoes C. S. Lewis’ enigmatic novella The Great Divorce. Which begs the question: Why has Bell suffered such scrutiny while Lewis seems to have walked away unscathed? No doubt it has much to do with the current cultural moment and the vigor of contemporary American evangelical identity. But I think it goes deeper than that. Even my mostly favorable review of Bell posed some though questions that never occurred to me any of the numerous times I’ve read The Great Divorce. I suspect this is because Lewis’ storied style simply does not expose any of the mechanical problems in that are obvious in Bell’s account. Which raises another question: Does C. S. Lewis, the great prophet of modernism, give an account of heaven and hell that is more postmodernists Rob Bell’s?

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2 responses to “Is C. S. Lewis more pomo than Rob Bell?

  1. Watson

    Forget ‘more;’ Lewis is a better postmodern than Bell. Even at a half-century remove he has all the pomo insights with none of the contemporary compromises in imagination and doctrine. More people are reading Lewis today than ever–far more than when he lived. Indeed, many people reread The Great Divorce, year after year after year. Will anybody be reading Love Wins in a year? in a century? Jelly-fish wash-up on the beach everyday; but not whales.

    And aside from these considerations, even based purely on content the comparison here is misleading. The only connection is that both works deal in the afterlife. Lewis’ Divorce is not about how Love Wins, but rather about the terrible struggle of souls against Joy: about how many, indeed, care not for it, or care more for something else, or cannot conquer their idols nor relinquish their grievances nor sacrifice their egos. Which is to say that it’s rich in the language of virtues and beauties and hurts and demands. And it’s thick in themes of deception, arrogance, stubbornness, weakness, fear; the principle lesson when learned being that of submission, cooperation, pain, and purgation; and the whole vista being bright with colors upon colors of glory; and the whole endeavor hurling human hearts before immensities too magnificently and menacingly real to bear. So that many are blind before it, and many flee from it, and many willfully scorn it because they cannot submit to nor suffer its gracious belittlement. There’s simple but profound psychology all through Lewis’ Divorce. It has a powerful anchor point in the attitudes and actions of individual souls even as it rides the fantastic waves of this heavenward high country. Can such be said for Bell’s winning book?

    Mechanical problems, you say? In the end there are those who say to God ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, ‘Thy will be done.’ Bell seems to generally whisper the latter and skirt the former. How little weight words like classically Christian ‘obedience’ have for him. Indeed, the very concept has evaporated in the heat of his Love. The fact that Bell has such trouble communicating coherently with the Christian tradition is troubling to me, even if I concede with the likes of von Balthasar that perhaps we dare hope that all men be saved, and pray accordingly.

    By the measure of tradition I’d say Lewis is more robustly Christian than Bell; to say that he’s more postmodernist is too vague to be a worthwhile statement. He’s post-modern in all sorts of good ways, but he’s also ancient in all sorts of ways that make him a bad postmodern. He was a self-professed ‘dinosaur’ after all, and has impossibly less to say to Derrida than to Plato. If you’re going to make the comparison and raise the question, you’ve got to supply more specific content, otherwise the whole enterprise is somewhat preposterous. Like asking whether Reagan is more constitutional than Jefferson.

    • Joe

      Thanks for your comments, Watson!

      You’re point is well taken: Bell’s account really is pretty anemic with regard to the great tradition. It’s unfortunate because for the most part he fits within the broad stream of historic Christianity, even if he’s giving the minority report. That he didn’t deal with Origen, the Cappadoicians, Barth or von Balthasar is a real weakness. But it does raise the question: Who’s he trying to convince?

      That said, I do think that the comparison between Bell and Lewis is legitimate. That Lewis is deeper and more profound than Rob Bell goes without saying. And the influence goes only one way—one certainly hears echoes of Lewis is Bell, but I doubt anyone will ever read Lewis and say “Hey, this reminds me of Rob Bell.” But there are more points of contact than you give credit for. Specifically I was referring to the notion that the boundary between heaven and hell is permeable. It’s there in germ form in the Bible (Luke 16:19ff), Lewis tells it as a story, and Bell makes it explicit in prose. This stylistic clarity in Bell’s account is what opens him up to what I called “mechanical questions.” Like, “How do we keep away from people who insist on violence and destruction if they can just take the bus up any time they want?” It’s also why I suggested that Lewis is “more postmodern” than Bell. Really it was meant more as a joke than a serious comparison of their work. Lewis’ style is characteristically rationalistic while Bell is made out to be some sort of poster-boy for postmodern theology. #Irony

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