To celebrate the annual aesthetic dissonance between what Political Twitter and Christian Twitter have to say about the auspicious date of January 6th, I decided to eschew the Internet entirely and plug in my headphones and listen to as much of That Hideous Strength as I could whilst cleaning my house.
This is probably my fourth or fifth time through the book. The first time I read it, I actually did read a physical copy, all the way back in 2004 or 5, without ever having touched the first two volumes of the Space Trilogy. I have a sort of horror of Science Fiction, and was afraid of Lewis’ strange thoughts about science and the universe. But the Anglicans were having their troubles—still are, I suppose—and someone said, ‘Oh, you have got to read That Hideous Strength,’ so I bit the bullet and launched in.
And, well, it was horrifying. I had troubling dreams. I hated all of it. I didn’t notice any of the humor or the shape of the story. I didn’t even finish it—whenever the Fairy got a hold of Jane I skipped to the last chapter, saw it turned out ok, and shoved the thing at the back of a cupboard. Nevertheless, I was able to see, however sketchily, the way that Whither speaks in the book is exactly the way that Frank Griswold (then Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church) did, and I was both relieved and alarmed to discover that Lewis could have seen so far ahead in time to be able to create, on the page, such a perfect rhetorical picture of that awful man.
Much much later, when I was scrolling around audible looking for something else, the book was offered as a free listen, along with Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra, and so, again, with much fear, I decided to give the whole Trilogy a go. Since then I have listened to That Hideous Strength at least another two times, possibly more. And yesterday, as I was glorying in the gentle hum of my new, Christmas vacuum, watching the world silently transformed by snow, it almost ascended the literary heights to become my favorite book by Lewis—although, of course, Till We Have Faces cannot be loved too much.
Just as an aside, I’m still annoyed by those wretches on Twitter who say that Tolkien and Lewis are overrated. I keep stumbling over them, like somehow it’s fine to sniff at this particular body of literature, because “we” know better or something. Imagine the hubris of using a platform like Twitter to say such a thing. But then, it belies a deep ignorance about what had happened and was happening to the world when those two literary prophets were writing. Anyway, that must be a post for another time. So also my intense desire that someone will write a fanfic of That Hideous Strength where Lewis rises up from his grave to terrorize and liberate Harvard or some academic N.I.C.E. like that. Why hasn’t anyone done this yet?
Anyway, That Hideous Strength isn’t just prophetic, it is the book, more than any other that I have read in the last three years, that illuminates the emotional world that a Christian ought to purposely cultivate and inhabit as the culture devolves into the almost total uglification of people and places. Many lovers of the book point to the phenomenon of the Inner Ring. Others have drawn out how farsighted Lewis was about totalitarianism and science. If you read Planet Narnia you will discover charming and wonderful proto-Narnian elements. But what I find so deeply comforting about the book is how Lewis wordsmiths a sharp, even unnerving aesthetic dichotomy. There are two worlds. One is ugly and one is beautiful. Which one is it going to be—for you?
I have been perplexed and annoyed, lately, by how many false dichotomies we’re constantly being made to swallow, especially in online Christian situations. You have to pick between loving people or hating sin, even though you are meant to do both. You must choose between justice and mercy, even though both belong to God. You either believe “the science” or believe the bible and if it’s the latter, you are a fool. You must follow your heart–by buying a lot of junk on Amazon–or martyr yourself, even though that’s a completely dumb way of thinking about human relationships. All of these choices are fake, and, like the president of Harvard, Gay.
But sometimes a choice is required. Sometimes you ought to recoil from something at a heart, or gut level. And often these kinds of choices—I’m pretty sure this is described very well in The Righteous Mind—are not ones you think about, so much as feel with your whole body. But in order to feel them, you have to be a person who has been shaped over your whole life, from childhood, to inhabit a world that is good, and brave, and beautiful. A land, one might say, where the Bible has been allowed to set the tone and the categories and the aesthetic assumptions. It should be that when you read the Bible, your body and soul and mind vibrate at the proper frequency, that your sorrow and joy mingle together and that when you wander off to do something else, you necessarily feel the proper feelings of anger, or shame, or happiness, or hope that each moment or context requires. Your sensitivity to beauty becomes so deep that, when you react to something ugly, it might take you a moment to articulate the assumptions that formed your response. You remake, in other words, your emotional and intellectual world long before you ever encounter Wither or the Fairy or the N.I.C.E.
This comes to a crisis for Mark when he finally looks at himself and discovers that he never enjoyed anything in his whole life. He threw over his good friend, as a child, for the approval of others who, it turned out, never really cared about him. He twisted around his relationship with his sister so that she would adore him, but they would never know or appreciate each other. He chose his career—everything—because he was so desperate to be accepted by other people. It’s such a simple thing, and, in some sense, one might say, not that big of a deal. But, tragically, it is the basis of our entire culture. The pleasure of the body is being destroyed by a rash and false and hideous gospel of acceptance, an acceptance that turns out to be a ruin, an affirmation that twists and destroys the inner person.
The gospel reading for this morning is about John the Baptist anticipating the appearance of Jesus, and then recognizing him when he does come. St. Mark puts it like this:
And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
John had so concentrated his whole being on waiting for Jesus, that when he saw him, and understood who he was, he was willing to let go of everything to have him. He would have stooped down to touch his sandal. He relinguished every other comfort for the perfect comfort of seeing the Lord.
The astonishing thing about Jesus—and this, I think, is the world Lewis illuminates—is that you can, and will, completely wreck everything. You will choose and love everything and everyone you shouldn’t, bending the heavens and the earth to your desires, trying to recreate some comfortable space but by your efforts destroying it and making it ugly. But, because God is stronger than you, and you don’t have the power to unmake him, his mercy, at just the right moment, will thwart you and unravel your lie. The heavens will always be rent open when it really counts, and you will either be saved or be destroyed. You won’t be able to overcome God. You can’t unseat him from his throne. You aren’t strong enough. And, if you look at Jesus and admit that he is mightier, all the comfortable and lovely joys that you ever tasted, however blandly, will be yours in their fullness.
So anyway, go to church! But also, don’t die in the snow. And also check out my substack.