Stephanie L. Derrick The fame of C.S. Lewis. A controversialist’s reception in Britain and America
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018
[A review to be published in Reading Religion.]
Readers might be forgiven for asking how much more there is to be known about C.S. Lewis. The biographical materials for Lewis’ life are relatively small in bulk, and well known, and the published writings are also easily accessible. And scholars have come at the canon itself – the apologetics and the fiction in particular – from every conceivable angle. (There were more than 160 books published on Lewis in the decade after 2000). Alister McGrath, in the final chapter of his 2013 biography (reviewed here), briefly indicated a new direction of travel for Lewis studies, that paid attention not so much to the man and to the works, but to their reception. Stephanie L. Derrick has now given us the first extended essay in the subject, which will shape work on Lewis for perhaps a generation. Her scope is the UK and the United States as two analytic units treated as whole, and the works of Lewis in question are the Narnia stories and the most well-known apologetic works (Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, and others).
The first chapter outlines Lewis’ conscious fashioning of his literary self as a kind of ‘Ulster contrarian’, a ‘Christian dinosaur’ with a vocation to reach popular audiences with his rejection of modernism in both literature and (in a wider sense) theology and society. Chapter 2 sets out Lewis’ reputation with his peers in the UK, and in particularly in Oxford. These two chapters will not surprise specialist readers in matters of detail to any great extent, but they frame the main burden of the book: that there were radically different trajectories in Lewis’ reception in the USA and in the UK, which are to be explained both by specific religious and cultural conditions, but also by the degree to which Lewis was known as an individual alongside his writings. In the UK, academic readers and others in the literary and journalistic fields knew, or thought they knew, a Lewis who was tricksy, unreliable, an invented literary persona; it was unclear where the posture ended and the man began. (Significantly, reference was often made to his Irishness, which meant different things to an English audience than it did in the USA).
Readers in the USA, by contrast, reacted rather more to what Derrick calls a ‘Platonic Lewis’, found in the writings alone, detached from the very specific literary and cultural context into which he intended to speak. Free to shape an idea of Lewis to their own purposes, American readers’ engagement with Lewis had a ubiquity and intensity that far outstripped that in the UK, where there remained a persistent unease with Lewis both as an apologist and as a writer of fiction. Derrick’s exposition of these contrasting national reactions is acute and convincing, although there of course remains room for further refinement within each story, both chronologically and sociologically.
In all this, Derrick’s reading of Lewis’ fame against the religious context in which he was read is fresh and invigorating. The most innovative aspect of the study, however, is in chapter 4, where Derrick examines Lewis and the ‘mechanisms of mass culture’. Religious historians of the twentieth century have not always paid sufficient attention to the means by which religious ideas are communicated. Derrick’s achievement is to direct attention not just away from the man to the reader, but also to the sheer contingency of his fame. Lewis’ reputation was shaped not so much by the intrinsic appeal of the work as the fact that it coincided with particular moments in technological history. Radio broadcasting in the UK during the 1940s; the peculiar liveliness of learned periodical culture after the war; the development of a market for paperback children’s fiction (and marketing devices such as the Puffin Club); patterns in library acquisition; the decisions of the Lewis estate; the control of his works as it passed from publisher to publisher; the internal dynamics of media conglomerates with interests in film as well as print: Lewis’ fame is inexplicable without considering the interactions of all these parts of the broad ecosystem of ideas.
Given this sensitivity to technological and economic context, one curious – and explicit – omission is the impact of Lewis online, especially as Derrick draws attention in her conclusion to the dependence of British evangelicals on American resources, which is surely in part a function of the Internet. This leaves open a significant gap to be filled by other scholars, as there is also for a history of Lewis’ books as designed objects, and of their illustrations in particular.
These cavils aside, Dr Derrick has given us a striking and important study. It should find a wide readership among historians of Christianity and of twentieth century literature, as well as those interested in the history of the media. Well written, generously produced and reasonably priced, it deserves an audience outside the academy.
[A review forthcoming in the Journal of Beliefs and Values ]
John Carter Wood This is your hour. Christian intellectuals in Britain and the crisis of Europe, 1937-49
Manchester: Manchester University Press
978 1 52613253 6 (hardback)
The period immediately before and during the Second World War was a moment in which the whole political and social life of Europe seemed to be in flux, and indeed in mortal danger. In the ‘low, dishonest decade’ of the 1930s, the liberal capitalist settlement in the UK, inherited from the Victorian age, was widely thought to have failed, even before the outbreak of war. The search for new directions was given additional impetus by the war and subsequently by the need to reconstruct. Christian and non-Christian thinkers alike broke in every direction: for the kind of strength and stability that authoritarian nationalism seemed to offer; for a communist alternative; and for all manner of paths between. One of the most concentrated attempts to find such a middle way was by the group gathered around J. H. Oldham, which manifested itself in the informal ‘Moot’ discussion group, the Council on the Christian Faith and the Common Life, the later Christian Frontier Council, and the weekly (and later bi-weekly) Christian News-Letter.
The ‘Oldham group’ was active only for a short time, from the 1937 conference in Oxford on community, church and state until 1949, by which time the coming of peace and the creation of the institutions of the welfare state seemed to have removed the earlier urgency, though the questions the group had been asking remained. It has attracted significant historiographical attention before, not least for the eminence of some of those associated with it: Alec Vidler, prominent Anglican theologian and cleric and editor of the journal Theology; the sociologist Karl Mannheim; the literary critic John Middleton Murry; academic theologians and philosophers such as John Baillie and H.A. Hodges, and (most strikingly) T. S. Eliot. Although the group tended to set itself apart from, or at least in a critical relationship to, established organisations including the Church of England, its members were very well connected, not least to William Temple, archbishop of Canterbury. But this attention from historians has been paid only to parts of the group’s activity (notably the Moot) and to individuals. John Carter Wood’s fine new book is the first study of the group as a whole, and in its fullest context, and seems set to be definitive.
Unsurprisingly, given the intellectual ferment both within and outside it, the group produced no manifesto, and Wood is assiduous in tracing these tensions, and the group’s achievement of a kind of unstable consensus that evolved over time. The approach is thematic, with early chapters on the relationship of religion, society and the secular in general, and on the particular effect of the war and the ‘crisis of civilisation’ that it appeared to signify. The book then deals with the group’s envisioning of a Christianised political economy that was neither Marxist nor a value-free pursuit of Mammon, and to of a patriotism that was nonetheless committed to the international order and the acknowledgment of national failings. Wood then moves on to the group’s attempt to frame a relationship between the person and the state that preserved an appropriate freedom without an atomised individualism free of obligation to God or neighbour. The final chapter deals with the balance between an egalitarian impulse to economic redistribution and the idea of a reformed intellectual elite, formed not by birth but by expertise, that might help shape and then direct the new society thus created.
The picture that emerges is of a group that, though it teemed with ideas and dissent, had nonetheless a sense of common purpose, and a unity in its way of thinking. Ecumenical, though largely Protestant, British and from a particular social class, the group was nonetheless ever in between poles of thought, committed both to finding a middle way, and to the idea of the ‘middle axiom’, a Christianised principle of politics, economics or social life that was concrete yet stopped short of detailed policy.
All this Wood documents with deftness and precision. All students of British intellectual history of the period will want to read this book, and no serious historical library should be without it. Clearly written and generously produced, it merits a paperback edition to reach the wide audience that it deserves.
[A review for the journal British Catholic History.]
Aidan Nichols, OP, Alban and Sergius. The Story of a Journal. Leominster: Gracewing, 2019, pp.xii + 514, £25, ISBN: 978-0-85244-937-0
Rare in the scholarly literature are what one might call ‘biographies’ of periodicals, but Sobornost, the subject of this useful and important study, is no ordinary academic journal. Founded in 1928 as the Journal of the Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius, it provided a channel through which Orthodox writers and (usually, but not only) Catholic thinkers in the Church of England could interpret themselves to each other. The author, the theologian Aidan Nichols, a Dominican of Blackfriars in Cambridge, has himself written extensively on two of the towering figures of Russian Orthodox theology – Vladimir Lossky and Sergei Bulgakov – and this book will surely establish itself as indispensable to those interested in the theological history of England in the twentieth century, and of the ecumenical movement in particular.
The narrative arc that Nichols traces is easily summarised, and is given briefly in the introduction, and then at slightly greater length in the first chapters of each of the book’s two parts. Those two parts cover two periods: the first from the beginnings until the end of the 1960s, and the second, the period from that point to the present. Between the wars, exiled Russians and Catholic Anglicans found things of benefit in each other. In the Anglicans, the Russians found sympathy and a willing audience. As well as that, given the apparent strength of Anglo-Catholicism in the 1930s, the idea of organic reunion between the churches was not entirely fanciful, and any hope of such reunion (from an Orthodox point of view) was contingent on the strength of that part of the Church of England. For their part, Anglicans were in need of ecumenical partners, caught as they were between an apparently aloof Rome on the one hand, and ecumenical advances to the Free Churches on the other. In the Orthodox they found an episcopally ordered church, organised nationally, with strong traditions in spirituality and liturgy. In its attempt to balance and place in dialogue voices from both traditions, Sobornost provided what Nicholls calls ‘a spiritual and intellectual feast.’ The majority of the dominant figures in Anglican Catholic theology were either involved with the Fellowship or at least wrote for the journal. Michael Ramsey, future archbishop of Canterbury, was among them; Gregory Dix, Gabriel Hebert, Lionel Thornton, Eric Mascall all make their appearances.
From the late 1960s, however, the character of the journal changed, to one that was much more univocal, broadcasting from east to west, and which also shifted from Russian to Greek. This shift Nicholls attributes to changes on the Anglican side. The change was gradual, and to an extent masked by the official, and highly visible, Anglican-Orthodox dialogues that began in the 1970s. But the Anglo-Catholicism of the late 1960s and onwards lacked the confidence of the earlier period, having been profoundly unsettled by the Second Vatican Council. The impact of the radical liberal theology of the Sixties, added to the apparent relaxation of Anglican sexual ethics and the impending ordination of women, all combined to make ecumenical conversation with Anglicans seem less promising. Anglicans had, it seemed, taken too many wrong turnings to be reliable as ecumenical partners. Though one might want to question the accuracy of all this as a depiction of the real state of the Church of England, as a periodisation of perceptions it is certainly convincing enough.
Following the two chronological chapters at the beginning of each part there follow a sequence of thematic chapters, in which Nicholls characterises the content of the journal, pausing for moments of direct theological dialogue with its contributors, and to draw out that which he considers to be of continuing value. It is of these chapters that criticism can be made, at least from the point of view of the historian reader. What certainly emerges is a rich and detailed picture of the contents of the journal, which is very valuable. However, the account is often rather too full, as Nicholls makes extensive use of extremely long paraphrases of certain articles, of three or four pages or more at a time. For this reader, these are both wearying and arguably unnecessary, since the articles themselves are widely available in print. As it is, these chapters could well have been drastically shortened without any loss of impact.
More widely, what is often obscure in Nicholls’ account is the wider historical context. The names of authors flash by, but are too often not fully placed in their context. How accurate is the picture of their churches that these authors paint? How representative are these authors, and of which strains of thought in their churches? How do these authors come to be published, and not others? What can be known of the networks of individuals that lie beneath the public output? To be sure, it would be too much to ask that this study answered these questions exhaustively, but more was required nonetheless.
These cavils aside, Aidan Nicholls has provided a valuable study which will form part of the infrastructure for future research on ecumenical relationships in England and beyond. The absence of an index is a grave defect in a work so full of individuals, but the book is generously produced and reasonably priced. It deserves a wide readership.
Peter Catterall Labour and the Free Churches, 1919-1939. Radicalism, righteousness and religion
London, Bloomsbury, 2016; paperback edition 2018
[A forthcoming review for the Journal of Beliefs and Values.]
As Peter Catterall notes in the introduction to this important book, the existence of an intimate relationship between the Labour party and the Free Churches was once axiomatic: in the immediate post-war period it was commonplace in the general understanding of the party’s history that, as one secretary of the party noted, Labour owed more to Methodism than Marx. The connection was also articulated by Alan Bullock in 1960, but has become occluded in subsequent historical writing. Catterall’s aim is to examine the relationship afresh, in which he succeeds splendidly. The book will be required reading for anyone interested in the relationship of faith and politics between the wars.
As a distinguished scholar of both British political history and of the Free Churches, Catterall is well placed to examine the relationship between the two, having already made important contributions to the parallel story in the Conservative party. Here his case is unfolded carefully and in detail, resisting the lure of easy simplification, and though difficult to summarise adequately in the small space available here, it richly repays a patient and attentive reading. It is a relatively uncommon form of historical writing: the comparitive history of two institutions, quite distinct from each other but both with claims to make in the national conversation about the common good and the means of achieving it. As such it blends intellectual, political, social and economic history, and successfully at that.
Chapters 4 and 5 concentrate in particular on the sociology of Labour and the Nonconformists, as voters, in local government, in the trade unions, and in Parliament. A complex electoral picture emerges, as Labour gained some Nonconformist votes that previously went to the Liberal party almost as of right, whilst Stanley Baldwin’s Conservatives captured the support of others. However, Nonconformists were disproportionately represented in local government, as union officials and as Parliamentary candidates. Catterall convincingly attributes this to the unique opportunities that the chapels provided for the working man: to debate ethics, to organise and to preach. A generation of men emerged that were recognised for their drive, their skills as speakers and as organisers, and for their honesty. Even though by 1939 the numbers had fallen, the effect was still significant.
Perhaps of particular interest to readers of this journal is Catterall’s interpretation of the theological and moral trajectories taken by both the churches and the party. Catterall shows that the ‘Nonconformist conscience’ took a complex and interesting turn in the interwar years (chapters 2 and 6). At least some Nonconformists remained exercised by the traditional causes of temperance, gambling and the Sabbath, and individual voices within Labour continued to promote them. But the tone was tempered by a growing realisation that these were not simply individual moral failings but part of a complex interaction of economics and politics, and the effects of war. Issues such as unemployment were no longer seen as the product of individual sinfulness and vested interest, but the imperfect workings of a impersonal system. Within Labour, whilst those individual voices were present and largely took over a role played before by Liberal MPs, the legacy of the Nonconformist conscience was not at the level of specific policy but in a certainty and a righteous of tone: the rhetorical deployment of an ethic of the New Testament without its soteriology (chapter 6). Labour MP George Thomas referred to a ‘feeling of crusade’ amongst some of the MPs of the Attlee government (p.154).
Chapters 1 and 8 demonstrate the subtle but remarkable shift in Nonconformist opinion in its attitude to the state. From being an instrument of oppression and religious discrimination, the apparatus of the state became the means by which Christian ethical ends might be achieved, even if in the long run there was disappointment in the effects the welfare state had in practice. At the same time, the disestablishment of the Church of England became an old man’s cause as the relationship of that church with Parliament shifted with the Enabling Act of 1919, and as ecumenical contact between the churches grew. The last major instance of organised anti-Anglican Erastianism was the campaign against the 1902 Education Act.
If there is any criticism to made, it is at a structural level, as the thematic organisation of the book tends to obscure the chronological interaction of those themes, and there is some occasional repetitiveness. Many names also come and go; this reader, at least, would have welcomed a more detailed placing of these (mostly) men in their particular context, and to be reintroduced to them as they appear again. That said, Catterall’s book is a landmark in the history of the British churches in the interwar period, and will most likely remain a key starting point for scholars for some considerable time.
The Devil’s Music. How Christians inspired, condemned, and embraced rock ‘n’ roll
Randall J. Stephens
Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 2018, ISBN: 9780674980846
When viewed in a long perspective, the modern history of popular music has very often been one in which new styles are adopted by the young in spite of (and indeed because of) the incomprehension and disapproval of their elders, only to enter the mainstream as those young people age. At the same time, Christians, when confronted with the arts of the societies in which they find themselves, have variously ignored, embraced, adapted and tried to replace or eradicate those arts both in worship and in public. It is in these two ongoing stories (in their American variant) that Randall J. Stephens makes a timely and important intervention. It will be required reading for students of modern American cultural history, but specialists in the religious history of other countries will also find much of value in it, as will the growing number of theologians and musicians concerned with the relationship between the churches and the arts. No serious academic library will want to be without it, and since it is generously produced and sensibly priced, it should find a wide readership outside the academy amongst Christians and ageing rock fans alike.
Stephens’ argument is relatively easily summarised, although the introduction to the book does not do so adequately. Chapter one shows the close linking between the early development of rock and roll and the music of the Pentecostal churches, such that (although some Christian critics did not care to admit it), the stylistic differences between music inside and outside some churches were small, even if the lyrics were very different indeed. Striking here is the relationship between the Pentecostal televangelist Jimmy Lee Swaggart and Jerry Lee Lewis, his cousin, but similar debts of influence were owed by James Brown, Little Richard, Johnny Cash and indeed Elvis himself. Stephens’ exploration of the agonies of conscience that some suffered as a result of the disapproval of their own churches is vivid and convincing.
Chapter two describes a short but intense period of concern, not to say panic, over the dangers of rock and roll in the years before 1958, followed by a period of relative calm as several of the stars either died or were kept out of trouble in the armed forces. Stephens evokes the cluster of interrelated concerns in play: of the impact of ‘savage’ music (the possession of a subjugated culture) on white America; a more general anxiety about the young in an increasingly affluent and consumerist context, and their apparent slipping out of the control of their elders; there are overtones too of the fear of Communist infiltration. This is all deftly done, but it would have been useful to examine more closely the degree to which these concerns were distinctively religious (or, the prerogative of religious people), as opposed to those of a particular race, class and generation. After this period of calm, chapter three then shows the remarkable storm of dispute with which the Beatles were met after John Lennon’s famous comment to the London Evening Standard in 1966 that the Beatles were ‘more popular than Jesus now’. Though Stephens is not quite right in saying that the comments made little impression among British Christians, the protests were of a quite different order in the USA: radio stations ceased playing their records, death threats were made, and effigies of the band burned in Dixie.
Chapter four and five, taken together, deal with the central paradox of the story: from the late 1960s onwards, how did part of the evangelical constituency come to see that these forms of popular music were not passing phenomena and as such were to be reckoned with, and perhaps used, rather than simply rejected? Stephens is vivid on the interconnection between the new ‘Jesus rock’ and an ongoing Christian negotiation with the wider counter-culture of the period, as Billy Graham, previously an opponent, grasped the need for a different approach to the extent that for a time he wore his hair long. For proponents of Christian rock then and since, it was possible to adopt an artistic form while changing its content; medium and message were separable. At this point Stephens’ book intersects with other recent work on the subject, notably that of David W. Stowe, and it appears at almost the same time as a new biography of the Christian musician Larry Norman, by Gregory Alan Thornbury.
Chapter five documents the backlash amongst other Christians, which Stephens calls the ‘fundamentalist reaction’. For these preachers and moralists, the proponents of Christian rock were variously too effeminate, too emotional, their stage acts too sexualised, and too closely associated with the charismatic movement. More often, though, the issue at stake was one of genre: rock, because of the associations it carried, could never be turned to a positive use and had to be shunned. Nonetheless, as Stephens’ story ends in the years after the millennium, Christian rock had become ubiquitous in American churches of an evangelical kind, with the remaining redoubts against it becoming fewer, and crossover artists had achieved mainstream recording and touring success.
All of this is wholly convincing as a characterisation of the period and as a chronology. This reviewer would wish, however, to make some criticisms on grounds of method and analysis, not so much to contradict the argument as to draw out and make explicit some things that are latent in it but which Stephens does not spell out.
Stephens’ method is documentary rather than narrowly analytical, which has both advantages and disadvantages. Having unearthed a vast, teeming field of Christian voices arguing about rock and roll, Stephens’ evocation of this cacophony is brilliant; his ear for the cadences of the preacher and the moralist is acute, and his ventriloquising of their concerns rings true throughout. Just occasionally the style becomes overripe, however; preachers ‘thunder’ and ‘howl’ in ‘raging fires’ of controversy but rarely just speak; guitars blast and drums thump but rarely do musicians just play or sing. In short bursts, the heightened register that Stephens adopts is vivid and evocative; over the length of a whole book it becomes somewhat wearing. It is also the case that quite often the argumentative thread is lost amongst the clamour of voices, and there is a tendency to repetition, as the same themes recur again and again; we hear about the length of Billy Graham’s hair at least four times.
Some of the impression of repetition could have been avoided had Stephens included a more precise analytical framework in which to work, into which his narrative could have fitted well. The first such structure that is missing is a musicological one. The music here is ‘driving’, ‘revved-up’, ‘blasting’ or (in the case of the Christian metal band Stryper) ‘schlocky’, but to really apprehend what is at stake this reader at least needed a clearer sense of genre, instrumentation, performance practice, melodic and harmonic structure and so on. To borrow a quotation often attributed to Elvis Costello amongst others, writing about music is like dancing about architecture: exceptionally difficult to do well, but here the reader needed more nonetheless. As it is, readers without Stephens’ prodigious knowledge of this music are left with a great deal of work to do.
The second area in which the book would have benefitted from a clearer analytical framework is in the definition of different strands of Christian opinion. There are here pentecostal voices, Southern Baptists, Roman Catholics: denominational divisions that are reasonably robust as analytical categories. But Stephens never quite defines the differences between those who are ‘evangelical’, ‘fundamentalist’ and merely ‘conservative’. The term ‘fundamentalist’ is particularly difficult to define, and Stephens only meets the task head on in chapter six. ‘Fundamentalism’ has often been defined in strictly doctrinal terms, particularly concerning the authority of the Bible; the virgin birth, nature and eventual return of Christ; and the doctrine of the atonement. Defined in this way, several of those within the Christian rock movement appeared very ‘fundamentalist’ in their views of the Bible and on the issues that tended to trouble those with a conservative view of Biblical authority, such as gender, sexuality, and creationism. Stephens instead defines fundamentalism in terms of a determination to separate the faithful from the culture around them. This is clearly what is happening amongst some Christians during the period, but even if such cultural separatism was a marker of those Christians who were ‘fundamentalist’ in doctrine, it is not at all clear that they were the only Christians who took such a view of culture. On its own, cultural separatism seems insufficient as a definition of the term.
And it is the theologies of culture in play here, the guiding principles that underlie the rhetoric, that are often submerged in Stephens’ account and that most needed to be named and analysed. From time to time they briefly break the surface only for the reader to be swept downstream in the chronological and rhetorical flow. Christians have historically taken the arts seriously for two main reasons. The incarnational sense that all human creative endeavour was a sharing in the creative work of God was the key element in the Catholic recovery of the modern arts in the 20th century. Stephens notes in several places the pervasive sense amongst secular critics that Christian rock was more often than not mediocre, a poorly executed example of an art form. This ( at least in the British context) was also the objection raised by Christian critics of ‘church pop’ in the 1950s and 1960s; if there were Christian voices in the USA making the same point, it would have added to the narrative to hear more of them.
However, this incarnational understanding of the arts has historically been a minor theme at best in evangelical thought, with many being prepared to embrace bad taste in the service of the gospel. Evangelicals have been more interested in how the arts can be made to communicate a message, and (correspondingly) most exercised by the particular dangers posed if the arts were made to carry the wrong kind of message. The phenomenon of Jesus rock, far from being an anomaly, is part of a long tradition of evangelical efforts to adopt an artistic style for use in worship and/or evangelism while rendering it safe by supplying appropriate words, performed by those whose personal lives met the required moral standard. The insistence that a certain style of music – a certain arrangement of sounds in time, produced by a certain combination of instruments – could never be sanctified; that an element in God’s creation could never be redeemed for His use, is only one of the several theological options available to evangelical Christians, and has been the option least often chosen in evangelical history at large. All this is implied in Stephens’ account but only comes into focus in chapter six; it would perhaps have added to the impact had it been placed front and centre, earlier in the book.
To reiterate, none of these criticisms is fundamental to Stephens’ argument, and to adopt a more analytical structure and style may have lessened the significant media attention which the book is attracting at the time of writing, which it deserves. That said, although The Devil’s Music is a timely and important book, it leaves the reader with some work to do.