Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Lewis vs. Tolkien: Cage Fight on Christian Marriage?

J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were two of the most successful authors of the 20th century. Lewis is famous for, among other things, the Chronicles of Narnia and The Screwtape Letters, while Tolkien is revered for The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

These two Christian men also happened to be good friends. But they had their disagreements, though not strictly speaking any cage fights or smackdowns. For instance, they disagreed about something Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity about marriage (Book III, Chapter 6: Christian Marriage):

Before leaving the question of divorce, I should like to distinguish two things which are very often confused. The Christian conception of marriage is one: the other is the quite different question -- how far Christians, if they are voters or Members of Parliament, ought to try to force their views of marriage on the rest of the community by embodying them in the divorce laws. A great many people seem to think that if you are a Christian yourself you should try to make divorce difficult for every one. I do not think that ... My own view is that the Churches should frankly recognise that the majority of the British people are not Christians and, therefore, cannot be expected to live Christian lives. There ought to be two distinct kinds of marriage: one governed by the State with rules enforced on all citizens, the other governed by the Church with rules enforced by her on her own members. The distinction ought to be quite sharp, so that a man knows which couples are married in a Christian sense and which are not.

In a draft of a letter found tucked away in Tolkien's copy of Christian Behaviour (1943), which later was compiled as part of Mere Christianity (1952), Tolkien took issue with Lewis on a number of points in relation to the chapter on Christian marriage quoted from above (see letter 49 in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter).

"But I should like to point out," wrote Tolkien, "that your opinion is in your booklet based on an argument that shows a confusion of thought discoverable from that booklet itself." Tolkien suggests that since Lewis wrote of the importance of Christian marriage as the proper way for the "human machine" to function, to loosen the rules on it, as Lewis seems to suggest in his chapter, is by its very nature going against Lewis's own statement that the human machine should function a certain way, as ordained by God, in Christian marriage.

After a bit more wrangling on some points, Tolkien wrote, "I should like to know on what grounds you base your 'two-marriage' system!" then goes on to describe a marriage ceremony he attended that involved both religious and civil ceremonies. "I felt it was an abominable proceeding -- and also ridiculous ..."

Lewis obviously took his own thoughts on the matter of "two distinct kinds of marriage" seriously, as he married Joy Davidman in a civil ceremony ostensibly to help her avoid getting deported, but after they fell in love Lewis thought it quite important that they have a Christian ceremony. The close friendship between Lewis and Tolkien, by the way, seemed to cool somewhat after Lewis married Joy, perhaps suggesting Tolkien's disapproval.

There's much to think about in the Mere Christianity excerpt including issues regarding the legislation of morality in a pluralistic culture. Lewis appears to take the position that in a diverse culture one can't expect to ask or demand by law that everyone behave as though they were under the stipulations of distinctly Christian and biblical morality. However, most laws touch upon morality in some sense. Consequently, morality is indeed being legislated to one degree or another.

Lewis argued strongly in favor of natural law as being foundationally evident in moral behavior as evidenced by various ethical statements found in different religions, philosophies, and cultures the world over (see, for instance, his appendix in The Abolition of Man). But in the excerpt above he appears opposed to imposing distinctly Christian moral stipulations on society in the area of marriage.

It would be interesting to consider what Lewis would think of contemporary public discourse on marriage and government legislation on the matter. He would not take the position of theonomists/reconstructionists or those who see their mission as restoring distinctly Christians values to society.

Rather, Lewis would appear to hold to a pluralist position on morality and the interaction between Christians and culture, but without denying the sacredness and significance of Christian marriage.


Ben Mordecai said...

I too advocated the two-marriage system until seeing a few indications in the Bible to disagree with it.

I would be careful in advocating a two-marriage system, because there are plenty of places in the Bible where unbelievers have wives.

Also, Christians who were married while they were unbelievers are advised to stay married.

Melanie Reed said...

Ben, I agree. At first, I was very impressed with the relationship between Lewis and Joy Gresham, but on review, what it did was again find a "loophole" that endangered the sacrament of marriage in the community of God. We sinners have a tendency to look at precedent rather than at the sacred meaning of things and the necessity of sacrifice for the larger wellness of the Body of Christ. Aside from the movie's rather romanticized version of what went on, it appears that in real life, Joy, while a betrayed wife, encouraged her husband's sinful tendency by leaving him alone with her cousin in the same house while she pursued a platonic relationship with Lewis. My heart goes out to her. But in the end, what happened is that readers were focused on the "at last true love" aspect of rescue from a difficult marriage in Shadowlands, rather than facing the ultimate consequences of trying to escape a bad marriage that would lead others to rationalize years later, their own departures. Critical reading and critical thinking need apply here in remembering our Lord's realignment of biblical standard: "a wife should not leave her husband, but if she does, let her remain unmarried or else make up again with her husband. And a husband (notice the distinct lack of parallelism here) must NOT depart from his wife." Jesus goes on to reiterate that when a man does the unthinkable and does leave: "he makes her a subject for adultery." why? Because God's law's while being perfect also entails reality of what would happen as a consequence of disobedience: women are not equal in strength or in resources to men. Not by any means in any age despite what the modernists and postmodernists love to point to as isolated examples. She would be tempted out of dire necessity and desire for the security of family to forget her covenant. Men today who have influenced our courts systems regarding divorce have done so influenced by the facade of our economic prosperity to the detriment of women and children and the intact covenant family.

Robert Velarde said...

Both Shadowlands films have their flaws, though the BBC version to a lesser degree. On Joy Davidman see Lenten Lands by Douglas Gresham, her son, and Lyle Dorsett's biography of Joy, And God Came In, reissued as A Love Observed.

By the way, Lewis had a hard time finding an Anglican minister who would perform the marriage ceremony between himself and Joy. Eventually a former student, Peter Bide, agreed to perform the ceremony, without permission from the Anglican Bishop of Oxford.

Chapter 9 of my book Conversations with C.S. Lewis addresses Lewis's views of marriage in a dialogue between Lewis, Joy, and Peter Bide.

Melanie Reed said...

Mr. Valerde,
Thanks for your response. I am getting ready to read Lenten Lands (just picked it up) and I will add "And God Came In (A Love Observed)" next. Thanks for the recommendations. I have just finished reading a number of books on Lewis including "Through the Shadowlands" by Sibley. Your piece came up on research while reading Duriez' book on the relationship between Tolkien and Lewis.

Robert Velarde said...

You're welcome. I have Sibley's book, but have not yet read it. Duriez authored one of my favorite reference guides to Lewis - The C.S. Lewis Encyclopedia.