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"A Challenge to C. S. Lewis"
By Peter Milward
Fairleigh Dickinson University Press
138 pp.; $29.50
Lewis once wrote to a Roman Catholic critic of his, "One of the most important differences between us is our estimate of the importance of the differences." He might have said the same thing had he read Peter Milward's new book, which argues that Lewis's Irish Protestant sensibility distorted his work as a cultural historian and literary critic. Milward presents his critique in 15 brief, alphabetically ordered essays with broad headings such as Allegory, Historicism, The Reformation, Shakespeare, and Words.
Partly because of the book's curious organization, its central thesis emerges only gradually and is not fully articulated until the final chapter. There Milward argues that Lewis's recurring insistence that literary texts be studied primarily as literature--not as philosophy, biography, or history--is a distortion of vision resulting from Lewis's Irish Protestant background. Milward charges that Lewis's academic work is tainted throughout by his Reformation allegiances, as shown by his neglecting the importance of Mary in the medieval world-picture and his downplaying the cultural disruptions in England caused by the break with Rome. Milward also claims Lewis's concern about critics' reading too much philosophy into literature reveals a distrust of secular culture inherited from Luther and Calvin.
Milward's critique is thoughtful, but too cursory and impressionistic. Lewis's adult faith was far removed from what he called the "dry husks of religion" of his Ulster boyhood. And the targets of Lewis's literary barbs were not fellow Christians of any denomination, but rather secular intellectuals seeking to establish a Religion of Culture. Sometimes Milward simply misreads Lewis, as when he speaks of his "horror of Darwinian evolution," comparing Lewis to Samuel Wilberforce debating Thomas Huxley. Other times Milward extrapolates Lewis's whole view on a subject from a sentence ...