A review of C.S. Lewis’s “First and Second Things”

This collection of essays on Christian thought, life and apologetics contains a brief Preface by Walter Hooper, who outlines how the essays express the antithesis of modernist or ‘broad’ theology.  He also lists the original source of each essay.  As well as being originally published in newspapers and periodicals, some were introductions or prefaces to other books, for example his essay on ‘Modern Translations of the Bible’ was his preface to J.B. Phillips ‘Letters to Young Churches: A Translation of the New Testament Epistles.’  His essay on ‘Vivisection’ appeared first as a pamphlet from the New England Anti-Vivisection Society (1947).

Reading these essays is as refreshing as breathing the fresh sea air. Lewis gently provokes and stimulates us to really think through some of the most challenging issues for the individual and for society as a whole.  He has a knack for an allusion or metaphor that clarifies rather than obscures.  He is intensely serious and does not shirk from outlining how some behaviours and strains of thought could (and do) have a devastating effect on all our welfare.  And yet the tone of these essays is not oppressive or ‘preachy.’  Rather you feel a good friend is talking to you, engaging and entertaining you, whilst discussing issues and their view of them out of an absolute concern for your well-being.

So to the essays: ‘Bulverism’ outlines the paradox in contemporary thought, then and now, of skipping the proof of error or diagnosis of disease, before proposing the cure.

‘First and Second Things’ warns of making secondary things e.g. a love of the arts, and end in themselves.

‘On the Reading of Old Books’ urges the reader not to be afraid of older works, in that they provide the valuable foundation to much thought and have stood the test of time.

‘Horrid Red Things’ outlines the difference between ‘thinking’ and ‘imagining,’ how they inform each other and what happens when they are confused.  For example, how myths and mythic archetypes serve as short-hand for complex, multi-layered concepts and truths.

‘Work and Prayer’ is an exploration of the efficacy of prayer.

‘Two Lectures’ looks at opposing views of evolution:  does life come down from something bigger or develop from something smaller? Does the acorn come from the Oak or the Oak from the acorn?

‘Meditation in a Tool-shed’ is a warning against over-conceptualising and analysing things before you have looked at their most direct message or gift to you.

‘The Sermon and the Lunch’ looks at the challenge of family life; how it is not a panacea, it’s another front-line where we have to work hard to be principled and behave well, nourished, not absolved or excused by, love.  Personally I would single out this essay as especially helpful to anyone who has thought that things at home would all be better if only their own self, and only their own self, were a better person.  The essay is a tonic against the delusion that families are designed to be a harmonious refuge and any discord is a huge sin that probably springs from a fault in the self.  Good and proper thinking and behaviour will help, but the domestic utopia is not a realistic expectation.

‘The Transmission of Christianity’ looks at religious education, and makes the point that it’s a generational issue.  No amount of state or syllabus control will help if the teachers have been brought up by and are rooted in secular thinking.

‘The Decline in Religion’ looks at how most ‘religion’ was historically only forced observance or societal routine.  Once that goes, all that’s revealed are real believers; so no decline, only a clarification as to who was really ‘there’ in the first place.

‘Vivisection’ is an excellent and passionate attack on the dire results of what happens when we objectify life.

‘Modern Translations of the Bible’ puts clarity over poetry, and makes the point that the original Greek of the New Testament was pragmatic and functional as opposed to grand and high flown language.

‘Some Thoughts’ explores why we should bother to do good works in the world if we believe in eternity.

‘The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment’ explores the danger of abandoning concepts like ‘deserts’ and ‘punishment’ in favour of seeing all criminal behaviour in need of a ‘cure.’  Lewis doesn’t jettison rehabilitative approaches, but passionately argues that they need to lie in a punitive framework that gives people the dignity of deserving justice.

‘Xmas or Christmas’ explores the absurdities of the commercial ‘Xmas’ in the style of a piece by Herodotus.

‘Revival or Decay’ looks at the sustainability of roots of the (then) contemporary revival, and again, whether reported ‘decay’ really is that, or just a clarification of who really believes once a lot of the going through the motions of societal expectations drop away.

‘Before We Can Communicate’ looks at the different class uses of language (see also ‘Learning in Wartime’ in ‘God in the Dock’), and how they can be used in worship.

This is a varied and nourishing collection, helpful, challenging ad entertaining reading.

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