C. S. Lewis in Defense of Culture and His Vocation

I wanted to spend some time looking at Christian engagement in culture and the arts, and naturally, I turned to C. S. Lewis to see what he might have to say on the matter.

In his article, “Christianity and Culture,” he explores whether Christians ought to be involved in producing culture in the first place. In response to those who feel that art is the highest and best pursuit of life, he reviewed the New Testament and writes, “[on] the whole, the New Testament seemed, if not hostile, yet unmistakably cold to culture. I think we can still believe culture to be innocent after we have read the New Testament; I cannot see that we are encouraged to think it important.”

He adds that, “No one, presumably, is really maintaining that a fine taste in the arts is a condition of salvation. Yet the glory of God, and, as our only means to glorifying Him, the salvation of human souls, is the real business of life. What, then is the value of culture?” He notes that education and literature (and other arts, by extension–literature was used simply because it was what he knew best) can cultivate us in non-moral ways, improving our understanding, our minds, and our souls, but doing little for our spirits.

But this doesn’t answer the question of whether it is a worthwhile use of our time. He writes, [On] the real problem–that of relating such non-moral values to the duty or interest of creatures who are every minute advancing either to heaven or hell–[this view] seems to help little. ‘Sensitivity’ [or wittiness, being educated, being artistic  etc.] may be a perfection: but if by becoming sensitive I neither please God nor save my soul, why should I become sensitive?”

the best spot by nosha used per permission of creative commons http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

With this understanding, he proceeds to construct a new view in defense of those who create culture (or art).

“I begin at the lowest and least ambitious level. My own professional work, though conditioned by taste and talents, is immediately motivated by the need for earning my living. And on earning one’s living I was relieved to note that Christianity, in spite of its revolutionary and apocalyptic elements, can be delightfuly humdrum. The Baptist did not give the tax-gatherers and soldiers lectures on the immediate necessity of turning the economic and military system of the ancient world upside down; he told them to obey the moral law–as they had presumably learned it from their mothers and nurses–and sent them back to their jobs.”

He then proceeds to look at culture more particularly.

“[Is] culture even harmless? It certainly can be harmful and often is. If a Christian found himself in the position of one inaugurating a new society in vacuo he might well decide not to introduce something whose abuse is so easy and whose use is, at any rate, not necessary. But that is not our position. The abuse of culture is already there, and will continue whether Christians cease to be cultured or not.

It is therefore probably better that the ranks of the ‘culture-sellers’ should include some Christians–as an antidote. It may even be the duty of some Christians to be culture-sellers. Not that I have yet said anything to show that even the lawful use of culture stands very high. The lawful use might be no more than innocent pleasure; but if the abuse is common, the task of resisting that abuse might not only be lawful but obligatory.”

He goes on to note that, as culture-sellers, we need to make sure we are selling culture and not smuggling in something else. “[When] I speak of ‘Resisting the abuse of culture’ I do not mean that a Christian should take money for supplying one thing (culture) and use the opportunity thus gained to supply a quite different thing (homiletics and apologetics [moral discourses and arguments for conversion]). That is stealing. The mere presence of Christians in the ranks of culture-sellers will inevitably provide an antidote.” In other words, we’d better make sure we’re selling art, as art, and not something in disguise.

taller de ilustracion digital - 381 by sebastiensantanam8qnfs

He closes the articles by noting that “culture is a storehouse of the best (sub-Christian [or sub-spiritual]) values. These values are in themselves of the soul, not the spirit. But God created the soul. Its values may be expected, therefore, to contain some reflection or antepast of the spiritual values. They will save no man…But though ‘like is not the same,’ it is better than unlike. Imitation may pass into initiation. For some it is a good beginning. For others it is not; culture is not everyone’s road into Jerusalem  and for some it is a road out.”

In addition to thus helping some towards Christianity, he argues that art can also play a role in life in the converted. “If all the cultural values, on the way up to Christianity  were dim antepasts and ectypes of the truth  we can recognize them as such still. And since we must rest and play, where can we do so better than here–in the suburbs of Jerusalem. It is lawful to rest our eyes in moonlight–especially now that we know where it comes from, that it is only sunlight at second hand.

[And secondly, whether] the purely contemplative life is, or is not, desirable for any, it is certainly not the vocation of all. Most men must glorify God by doing to His glory something which is not per se an act of glorifying but which becomes so by being offered. If, as I now hope, cultural activities are innocent and even useful, then they also (like the sweeping of the room in Herbert’s poem) can be done to the Lord. The work of the charwoman and the work of a poet become spiritual in the same way on the same condition. There must be no return to the [loftier view of artists]. Let us stop giving ourselves airs.”

It is a humbling, but reassuring view for Christian artists to hold. We simply do the best with what talents God has given us, and our calling is no better than any other “honest labor.” I particularly liked how he noted that our cultural efforts “will save no man,” but yet can be a good beginning in that direction, not by being preachy, but by being art.

Photo by nosha and sebastiensantanam8qnfs, Creative Commons

4 thoughts on “C. S. Lewis in Defense of Culture and His Vocation

  1. Thank you for this post, CS Lewis is a favourite 🙂
    I think you hit the nail on the head in describing his discussion on culture as humbling. I am reminded of what Paul wrote – that we may plant the seed, water it, but God makes it grow. He’s the only one who is able to make it grow. He’s the one who does the saving. Ahhh I love that phrase “let us stop giving ourselves airs”!! And I suspect that can be applied to absolutely any endeavour whether in terms of cultural works, or any other work: a ministry, a trade, a profession, work in the home (which really can arguably be considered a combination of all three). Thank you again for a thought provoking post.

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  2. Wow, this is simply amazing. I am thankful you went through all this work, Andrea, because this is a great expression of Christians and art. There can be a lot of debate on what art to make and why we should or should not participate in certain areas of culture, but I love his comment: “The mere presence of Christians in the ranks of culture-sellers will inevitably provide an antidote” which is a great summation of his whole stance. We weave things according to our worldviews and, even when things aren’t as blatant as allegory, our views are still influencing our work. Case in point: Tolkien. His books were not Christian, yet they are influenced by many of his own views from his Christian life.

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