Jessica Hooten Wilson, Brazos Press, C.S. Lewis, Space Trilogy, Abolition of Man, community, culture

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Be a Human with a Chest

We are formed by the company we keep, by our community, by the culture where we live, work, and play. C.S. Lewis' stories teach us how to look for the good ones.

In 1943, C. S. Lewis gave a series of talks about this middle sphere of the human person, which he calls “the chest — the seat of Magnanimity, of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments.” This part of the person is what makes us human beings. It is our heart, the place where morality is felt and willed. According to Lewis, “It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man.” Whereas the world allows us only two options — we are either beasts ruled by our guts or we are brains who rule by the power of our intellect — Lewis prioritizes this third part as the true indicator of humanity. He published these talks as The Abolition of Man.

The book centers on education and culture, seeking to answer the question, How do we cultivate human beings with chests? While it may seem like a strange undertaking for Lewis to have written a book about education and culture in the midst of war and the Holocaust, Lewis knew the necessity of such a work. Nazis did not rise up from hell to impose their viciousness on Europe. They were formed by the schools that were controlled by the government, the cowardly withdrawal of many churches, and the misuse of language that encouraged masses of people to swallow evil as though it was a palliative. Lewis explains that the formation of Nazis may begin with something as seemingly benign as a textbook that unwittingly dismantles objective beauty and discards our emotional responses as irrelevant.

As a storyteller, however, Lewis knew that the most compelling work was not a collection of essays on education but a novel (though I highly recommend everyone read The Abolition of Man regularly if you care about a flourishing human culture). Lewis had already published Out of the Silent Planet, the first in his space adventure trilogy. He and J. R. R. Tolkien had agreed to write the kind of stories they themselves enjoyed, what Lewis calls in the dedication of the book a “space-and-time-story.” At the end of that story — a rather crazy romp on planet Mars — the main character, Dr. Ransom, a philologist (who seems to be based on Tolkien), decides to publish his experience as fiction. For one, his story seems unbelievable and would not be heard as fact. Second, fiction has “the incidental advantage of reaching a wider public.” In this decision, we glean from Lewis his desire to proselytize, to ensure that a large audience change after reading his book. By the time Lewis writes the third novel in the series, That Hideous Strength, he informs his reader in the preface that the book is a storied version of The Abolition of Man: “a ‘tall story’ about devilry though it has behind it a serious ‘point.’”

What is that serious point Lewis hopes readers draw from That Hideous Strength?

In The Abolition of Man, Lewis argues that good education must not merely tear down jungles but also irrigate deserts. He means by this metaphor that, more than dismantling false conceptions of the world, we must teach people what they are to love. In the novel, Lewis disillusions readers of their mistaken assumptions about evil while showing us a beautiful picture of the good. Good and evil do not exist as entities “out there” but rather are planted and grow within a community through small and gradual actions that assent to or dissent from warring powers. In other words, the small decisions matter. For instance, if we lie to the DMV about whether we drove our car after the registration was expired (not that I’m speaking from experience), we have increased the strength of evil. And if we offer a room in our home to a student for a semester while she figures out finances for college, we have participated in increasing the strength of God’s kingdom. It’s like the Netflix show Stranger Things: The darkness grew stronger or weaker based on people’s actions.

Even better than a show or film that portrays reality with truthfulness, his novel That Hideous Strength teaches readers the necessity of being formed by good culture. Those with all the head knowledge in the world still don’t stand a chance against evil if they have not cultivated a strong chest. Without chests, even those who fashion themselves as “heads” will devolve into beasts. In That Hideous Strength we witness both a community that nurtures a culture of holiness and its opposite, an infernal world that drags down the most dedicated of humanists. Lewis offers an illustrative warning based on Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians: “Bad company corrupts good character” (1 Cor 15:33). But he also shows us what the church, in its highest ideal, could look like.

Holiness as a Communal Virtue

In Leviticus, the Lord details for Moses all the laws for the Israelites to follow to set themselves apart as God’s people. What we sometimes overlook is that these commands are communal in nature, not to be pursued as individuals. The Lord commands Moses to say “to all the community” and uses the plural form of “you”: “You must be holy, because I, Yahweh your God, am holy” (Lev 19:2). Saints are never saints by themselves any more than a person can practice virtue on an island. Even St. Anthony, who spent 20 years as a hermit in Egypt fighting off devils, was followed around by others who imitated his life and colonized the desert. Many saints from church tradition have chosen to live in religious communities, where the rhythm of their days is dictated according to prayers, worship, work, and service. For the vast majority of 21st-century Christians, however, our days feel chaotic and sporadic. Whenever I read stories about saints such as Hildegard of Bingen or Teresa of Ávila, I wonder whether it was easier to be holy if you didn’t have toddlers screaming at you. Then I remember: My children are my community. They are the family with whom I am pursuing holiness, as are my neighbors, my friends, my church, as well as the strangers with whom I daily interact.

We all suffer from a radical individualism: I want to self-improve; I want to be more like Jesus. But none of us are on these journeys alone. We were born to parents; we carry the history and genes of generations; we speak the language of those who taught us. In our daily lives, we are drawn to churches, educating alongside others, participating in institutions. Yet our culture is removing human-to-human engagement, especially coming out of the pandemic. Your groceries can be delivered, so you never see others at the store, not even a cashier. You can watch church from the comfort of your home. During the pandemic, households everywhere got a taste of what schooling from home looked like. (Because of this stressful new experience, Jimmy Fallon joked that this would be known as the generation taught by day drinkers.) Separation from one another causes us to put unrealistic expectations on our relationships — others are there to serve our needs. When people disappoint us, annoy us, or require more investment than they seem to be worth, it is easy to label them as “toxic” and pull away.

However, as Lewis said of books — if you’re not reading good ones, you’re reading bad ones — so too with community: If you don’t have a good community, you will have a bad one. Solitary confinement is a punishment or is symptomatic of a disorder. It is not the ideal. The good and right community flourishes together so that no one stands alone. Jesus did not pursue his ministry as a one-man show: He called 12 disciples and sent out 72. The Godhead itself is relational between Father, Son, and Spirit. And the early church is an example of the necessity of community for sanctity. We are all called to be saints together.

Adapted from The Scandal of Holiness by Jessica Hooten Wilson, ©2022. Used by permission of Brazos Press.

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