C. S. Lewis (not) on the Coronavirus

For almost a week, friends have been sending me emails and texts about this blog post (“C. S. Lewis on the Coronavirus”) asking if it is in fact genuinely Lewisian. Are these the words of Clive? The truths of Jack? During this time of COVID19 lockdowns and social distancing, does Lewis really want me to not only pray, read, and listen to music but to also chat with my friends over a pint and a game of darts in the local pub or tavern where presumably there are many other people for whom social distancing is a thing to be eschewed by smart folk who smirk?

They ask me this, I presume, because I get mighty curmudgeonly about the glut of Lewis misquotes in print, digital, and spoken discourse (see here and here and here for starters) as well as the egregiously errant mis-numbering of the Narnian books – but I digress).

In answer to my friends’ questions: Yes. Lewis did write the three paragraphs quoted in the blog post. And thirteen subsequent paragraphs, which are definitely not about the Coronavirus (not even obliquely) and not even about the atomic bomb (primarily). Instead they are about acknowledging and admitting (being “waked” as Lewis put it, which I suppose is akin to being “woke” in this, our superlatively advanced and intellectually brilliant 21st-century)

“that the important question is not whether an atomic bomb is going to obliterate ‘civilization’. The important question is whether ‘Nature’ — the thing studied by the sciences – is the only thing in existence.” (“On Living in an Atomic Age,” Informed Reading, vol. VI [1948], pp 78-84, par. 7)

Lewis wrote this essay in 1948, when the possibility of a civilization-obliterating atomic bomb was a very real thing, and when most Europeans, including Lewis, were living not just under but within and among the realities of a gruesome war that often pounded on their backdoor.

In other words, Lewis wrote this essay under circumstances that were entirely unlike those in most of today’s world, especially America, and were absolutely unlike our current battle (skirmish? combat? struggle?) with covid19.

We have been asked to wash our hands scrupulously. To not stockpile more than we need. To avoid unnecessary travel. To stay home if possible, as much as possible. And for certain to avoid such things such as crowded (or even under-crowded) taverns and pubs where one might be “chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts.” (par. 3)

Certainly do read Lewis’s full essay since true meaning is most assuredly found in full reading. And certainly do take the time to discern if there are relevant ideas and concepts worth pondering (e.g. the limitations of naturalism, the existence of a Creator, the true essence and meaning of life).

But as you read, contextualize wisely. Do not pluck a Lewis quote – even a real one – out of context in order to either satisfy yourself or to be smirkingly provocative (which is not what the referenced blog’s author seemed to be doing, but is certainly what some re-posters are doing).

Lewis played by the rules – whether he was teaching, tutoring, soldiering, rationing, caring for sick and elderly, or quarantining himself during illness. His letters reveal a man who, for all of his worldly renown, did not presume to knock aside the rules or guidelines delivered by those in authority, which isn’t to say he didn’t grumble or grouse about them if he was having a grouchy day or if the occasion warranted.

To those who have read just three paragraphs of Lewis’s 1948 essay addressing the very real fear of atomic annihilation and see within it Lewisian approval to toss aside what may feel like unnecessary and life-squelching limits on certain types of social interaction, I get it. No one likes to be told what to do. And maybe in months or years, the telling will turn out to have been overly reactionary and unnecessary.

But unless the telling defies the laws of decency or requires one to deny Christ, we would all do well to pay attention.

We would also do well to pay attention to Lewis’s underlying and ultimate messages in the essay.

Be sensible: do the necessary daily work (such as bathing babies) as though they matter and have value, which they do.

Be joyful: read books, listen to music, chat with friends as though such things matter to our souls, which they do.

Be thoughtful: consider how the deeper truths of life, the supernatural world, and the Divine inform and intersect with our very existence, which they do.

Be Christlike: sacrifice humbly, love deeply, embrace the here-and-now earthly things that embody this present life, but pursue the now-and-not-yet heavenly things that point towards and reflect the only Real & Lasting Life itself, which they do.

Postscript: And if the current events provide occasion to read (joy!), and if you should choose to read the Chronicles of Narnia (joy, indeed!), then be literarily and Lewisianly orthodox: read them in the order the books themselves propound and the author himself planned:

  1. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
  2. Prince Caspian: The Return to Narnia
  3. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
  4. The Silver Chair
  5. The Horse and His Boy
  6. The Magician’s Nephew
  7. The Last Battle

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