C.S. Lewis & The Crushing of Nature

In which I offer a brief cultural critique on power, corruption, and technology.

This post is a slightly edited version of a cultural rant I wrote in “Stories” on Instagram. Where appropriate, I’ve inserted links, quotes, and portals to other related articles. Feel free to print this post for group discussions or kindling. I’ve included this video of me reading it for those who’d like to sit back, make a cup of tea, and listen.

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The end of C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength is brutal. Lewis shows the result of mankind's attempt to rule or crush nature.

The novel is eerily prophetic. We are literally living it right now. I'm no alarmist. And I believe Lewis's exhortation to continue creating beauty in wartime remains our marching orders.

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But we should not be fools. We are living through a war. It is the war Lewis outlined in his Durham lectures, The Abolition of Man.

Lewis reminds us that the technology we wield does not make us smart or powerful. Owning an iPhone is simply an act of consumption. Lewis reminds us that the few in power who own the technology, who wield the power, are in control. And they will subjugate all for the sake of power and money. Do we think these men, women, and corporations have altruistic visions for humanity? They don't.

People ask me about AI and writing. Elon Musk recently said that AI can now write poetry as well as a human and faster. Will this make the writer obsolete?

Some say technology’s intent is to make the world better. But what we don't realize is that we actively participate in making ourselves obsolete. Not in a moral sense. But in a power sense. AI is already affecting the writing world. Soon, you'll read a novel written by a computer.

But a computer cannot sense the divine in a beautiful moment (sensus divinitatis). A computer does not quiver in the pangs of longing created by the majesty of a waterfall. But we don't seem to care about the beautiful as a society. We emphasize the utility of capitalism at the expense of the uselessness of beauty (Ruskin).

In That Hideous Strength, Mark Studdock, one of Lewis’s protagonists, is traveling with an officer of N.I.C.E. to a quaint village that Lewis describes with charm, tenderness, and beauty. The officer reminds Mark that this is just the kind of village that needs to be erased. Burned to the ground.

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We tend to have this weird fascination with cities—Christians especially who hold trendy “missional” or “evangelistic” or “redeeming culture” perspectives. I've always wondered why so-called Christian leaders point us to the cities as if God only cares about them. I'm not saying they aren't important, but I am saying that the places of charm and tenderness in rural areas need to flourish. Places like this possess the essence of the human community. We should not guilt those who live in places that brim with natural wonder, breed solitude, and breathe life into society.

Lewis shows a disparity between places of industry and spaces of beauty. Industry feels like progress. But this is not always so. Not even close. Industry breeds corruption. And feeds a mindset of control through the exercise of power.

I am not one of these theologians who are skeptical of “empire.” I don't believe in post-structural ideas that plant all things evil into structures, thus removing individual culpability. I don't think Lewis was, either. We make decisions about what we fill our intellect and imaginations with. We choose to live in ways that divide and fester. And we often do this to the diabolical tune of propaganda. Note Lewis's quote from That Hideous Strength over 80 years ago.

We want you to write it down—to camouflage it. Only for the present, of course. Once the thing gets going we shan't have to bother about the great heart of the British public. We'll make the great heart what we want it to be. But in the meantime, it does make a difference how things are put.

For instance, if it were even whispered that the N.I.C.E. wanted powers to experiment on criminals, you'd have all the old women of both sexes up in arms and yapping about humanity. Call it re-education of the maladjusted, and you have them all slobbering with delight that the brutal era of retributive punishment has at last come to an end.

Odd thing is—the word 'experiment' is unpopular, but not the word 'experimental.' You must'nt experiment on children; but offer the dear little kiddies free education in an experimental school attached to the N.I.C.E. and it's all correct!

—C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength

“But Tim,” you say. “For not being an alarmist, you certainly sound like you're sounding one. An alarm that is.”

“Ah, yes,” I reply. “I see your point. I suppose, in my own small way, I am. Perhaps a more upbuilding conclusion is warranted.” (Thank you, Kierkegaard.)

Roger Scruton said that beauty is banished from our world because we as a society no longer value life. Life is sacred. It's one of the essential aspects of Christian theology. When a society regards life itself as just another commodity to be controlled, mutilated, exterminated, or sold, then you have the power of Lewis's diabolical organization: N.I.C.E. (Love Lewis’s use of irony here.)

But this is where Lewis's address during wartime comes into play.

Set about getting to work, he says. Pursue your calling (vocatio). Dig into your craft (poietes). Create the beauty that overcomes darkness.

John says the darkness cannot comprehend the Light. Nor can it seize or overtake the Light. The implication of this Johannine verb is one of force. The darkness is not latent or nonchalant. It is actively, forcefully trying to bring perversion and destruction to this physical world, and yet, this force is nothing against what Kenneth Boa calls the Strong Force.

In Christ Jesus, the lifeline of darkness is drawn to a point of end (telos). This power of Jesus—the Light of Life!—is what Paul exhorts us to do our utmost to seize, grasp, and hold. The weight, the height, and the depth! Oh, to hold it!

This height. This depth. This should be the grasping nature of our work. Our art. Our families. Our endeavors. Let the world see you grasping for beauty in your job. Let the world gasp at your grasping in your vocatio, art, teaching, finance work, and ministry.

At the end of Lewis's brilliant novel, nature conquers the insidious powers of evil. It is brutal. Then, there's a settling. And peace is restored.

The cross showed us the nature of spiritual war. Though spiritual, it manifests in very real and physical ways. The hallmark of such evil is the pursuit of the abolition of man.

The hallmark of the Christian?

Joy.


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