For the past couple of posts I have been sharing some of the ways that the writings of C. S. Lewis speak to Christians interested in history. Lewis is probably best known today for the fabulously popular series of children’s books, The Chronicles of Narnia. Many Christians also know him as one of the twentieth century’s most influential Christian apologists. A half century after his death, Lewis still speaks to truth seekers through works like The Screwtape Letters, The Abolition of Man, and, above all, Mere Christianity.
But in addition to being a novelist and Christian apologist, Lewis was also an internationally recognized scholar of medieval and renaissance literature, first for nearly three decades at Oxford University, then for the last years of his life at Cambridge. I think it was Lewis’ passion for old books that more than any other factor accounts for his value to the historian. He knew that the past had something to say to the present, something that the present very much needed to hear. But it was not enough simply to convince his students to read old books; they had to be taught how to read if their conversation with the past was to be life changing.
Lewis makes this point marvelously in one of his least known essays, a piece titled “De Audiendis Poetis” (“On Hearing the Poets”) that was found among his personal papers after his death and published posthumously in a collection of his essays (Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, 1966). Lewis begins matter-of-factly: “There are more ways than one of reading old books.” As with his introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, Lewis’s observations with regard to literature are almost precisely what the student of history needs to hear as well.
As Lewis does so often, he makes a complex truth understandable by fashioning an analogy to everyday life, in this case by comparing the study of the past to visiting a foreign country. FYI, in recent years academic historians have frequently employed this exact same analogy. They often quote, without always citing the source, the opening line of the 1953 novel The Go-Between, by British writer L. P. Hartley. “The past is a foreign country,” Hartley proclaims in the novel’s opening line, “they do things differently there.” I do not know if Lewis drew his analogy from Hartley, but the two were contemporaries, and The Go-Between came out not too many years before Lewis penned “De Audiendis Poetis,” so the connection is at least possible. Here is how Lewis develops the analogy:
There are two ways of enjoying the past, as there are two ways of enjoying a foreign country. One man carries his Englishry [great word!] abroad with him and brings it home unchanged. Wherever he goes he consorts with the other English tourists. By a good hotel he means one that is like an English hotel. He complains of the bad tea where he might have had excellent coffee. He finds the “natives” quaint and enjoys their quaintness. . . . But there is another sort of traveling . . . . You can eat the local food and drink the local wines, you can share the foreign life, you can begin to see the foreign country as it looks, not to the tourist, but to its inhabitants.
Lewis’s analogy reminds us that when we study the past we can count on encountering both what seems familiar to us and what strikes us as strange. And just as with his hypothetical tourist, our natural tendency is to stay within our comfort zone, to seek out the familiar in the past (or what appears to be so) and camp out there. Is there anything wrong with that?
The answer depends on your objective. The English tourist who hangs out with the other English tourists “may have a pleasant time.” But the tourist who immerses himself in the local culture comes “home modified, thinking and feeling as [he] did not think and feel before.” The difference is immense.
To be educated is to experience transformation, Christian writer Parker Palmer observes. Authentic education, among other things, always changes who we are. Part of history’s priceless potential is its ability to introduce us to ways of thinking and knowing that challenge and convict us. But unless we are careful, we will ignore the strangeness of the past—those parts that challenge us—and exaggerate the familiar aspects that comfort and confirm. Particularly is this true when we know in advance what we want to find in the past.
With all due respect to popular Christian writers like David Barton or the late Peter Marshall Jr., we must be wary any time we study the past primarily to “prove points” in contemporary “culture wars.” When we ransack the past in search of ammunition rather than illumination, we predictably find what we are looking for, but we rob history of its power in the process. History loses its potential to surprise and unnerve us, ultimately to teach us anything at all. We learn nothing beyond what we already “know,” which is another way of saying that our study of the past ceases to be educational. We may have a “pleasant time” on our excursion, but we will come home unchanged.