Friday, December 07, 2007


Sometime back around the start of my teen years, an adult friend introduced me to C. S. Lewis's Space Trilogy. Up until that point, I'd read the Chronicles of Narnia, and perhaps Mere Christianity, but I wasn't yet familiar with any of his more grown-up fiction. I remember enjoying the trilogy quite a bit, though the last of the three got off to a slow start. (Fortunately, he warns you of this at the beginning.) I also remember a distinct preference for the middle book, Perelandra, though until now I couldn't have told you why. I'm not sure whether I ever read the trilogy again between then and now, though I've owned it for quite some time. Wendell Berry makes several references to the third book, That Hideous Strength, which got me thinking about reading them again.

The first book, Out of the Silent Planet, begins with the main character, Dr. Ransom, being abducted and taken to Mars. This is something of a surprise element, and I should warn you now that there will be some minor spoilers throughout this post, but it's the kind that readers probably figure out long before the protagonist. Besides, if you haven't read the books yet by now, it's your own fault--they were written and are set in the 1940s, before Sputnik or any manned space travel. (Consequently, they can take quite a bit of license.) Ransom makes it back to earth (another spoiler, but nothing more than you'd get from reading the back of the second book), and in Perelandra he's sent to Venus (Perelandra being its "real" name). The third book is set on Earth, with a clear connection (eventually) to what went on in the first two.

In the world of the Space Trilogy, Earth is the only planet (as far as we know) whose sentient race has fallen. Mars is much older and was already inhabited when Satan fell; Venus is much younger, and Ransom encounters its equivalent of Eve. He is not the only visitor from Earth; a couple of days after he arrives, Weston--the scientist who built the spaceship and abducted him in the first book--shows up, now a liberal/New Age theologian of some sort. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Weston is possessed by some demonic force, which relentlessly works on persuading the Woman to break their one negative command--not to live on the fixed land. (They live on floating islands in a mostly water-covered world.) The effect is reminiscent of the Screwtape Letters through the middle of the book, during which time Ransom struggles in vain to refute what he now thinks of as the Un-man. The demon apparently needs no sleep, and the woman much less than Ransom, so he's constantly waking up to find them already in conversation.

Ransom's internal struggle reaches its climax in chap. 11, when he finally realizes why he was sent to Perelandra and what he has to do. It's at this point that I not only remembered why I liked this particular book so much, but I also learned something about my proto-Orthodox past. I've already commented on my love for Stephen Lawhead's novels and how that seems to have have expressed some latent Orthodox longings. If anything Perelandra goes a step further. Sometimes it seems like C. S. Lewis is perhaps the closest thing we have to an authentically Orthodox Evangelical or perhaps an authentically Evangelical Orthodox. His classical Anglicanism probably helps in this respect, but somehow it seems like there's even more going on here. I'm not going to try to sort it out; I'll just mention it and move on. The point is that by now it wasn't terribly surprising to discover yet again that Lewis wrote something that looks very Orthodox. The surprise was more in knowing that somehow this book touched me in the depths of my teenage soul, and only now I see how I was responding to Orthodoxy before I knew what it was.

If it seemed like it would make much sense on its own, I would just put chap. 11 before you and let you read the whole thing for yourself. But it is part of a larger story, so instead I'll just include a few selections, noting along the way where I think they connect with Orthodoxy:
Inner silence is for our race a difficult achievement. . . .
A great deal of Orthodox asceticism is about achieving inner silence, and the difficulty is widely acknowledged.
. . . And at that moment, far away on Earth, as he now could not help remembering, men were at war, and white-faced subalterns and freckled corporals who had but lately begun to shave, stood in horrible gaps or crawled forward in deadly darkness, awaking, like him, to the preposterous truth that all really depended on their actions; and far away in time Horatius stood on the bridge, and Constantine settled in his mind whether he would or would not embrace the new religion, and Eve herself stood looking upon the forbidden fruit and the Heaven of Heavens waited for her decision. . . .
And, I might add, Heaven waited for the decision of the Virgin--the New Eve, as Orthodoxy calls her. Her greatness is in her "Yes" to God's will; where Eve failed, she obeyed. To speak of her saving us seems blasphemous to a lot of Protestants, but properly understood, it is the very point Lewis makes here.
. . . His thoughts had stumbled on an idea from which they started back as a man starts back when he has touched a hot poker. But this time the idea was really too childish to entertain. This time it must be a deception, risen from his own mind. It stood to reason that a struggle with the Devil meant a spiritual struggle . . . the notion of a physical combat was only fit for a savage. . . .

. . . It would degrade the spiritual warfare to the condition of mere mythology. But here he got another check. Long since on Mars, and more strongly since he came to Perelandra, Ransom ahd been perceiving that the triple distinction of truth from myth and of both from fact was purely terrestrial--was part and parcel of that unhappy division between soul and body which resulted from the Fall. Even on earth the sacraments existed as a permanent reminder that the division was neither wholesome nor final. The Incarnation had been the beginning of its disappearance. In Perelandra it would have no meaning at all. . . .
Salvation comes even through the physical, as the sacraments teach. Because of the Incarnation, we cannot make the spiritual merely spiritual.
. . . Every minute it became clearer to him that the parallel he had tried to draw between Eden and Perelandra was crude and imperfect. What had happened on Earth, when Maleldil was born a man at Bethlehem, had altered the universe for ever. The new world of Perelandra was not a mere repetition of the old world Tellus [Earth]. Maleldil never repeated Himself. As the Lady had said, the same wave never came twice. When Eve fell, God was not Man. He had not yet made men members of His body: since then He had, and through them henceforward he would save and suffer. . . .
Since God became Man, salvation is now mediated through humanity. This is precisely what we see in the Orthodox doctrine of the saints, whose greatness is only to the extent that they are vessels of Christ.

By the end of the chapter, Ransom resolves to fight the Un-man, and his resolution echoes that of the martyrs, who know that their physical suffering is for a greater good. Predestination and free choice merge in his decision, and the sequence of time becomes irrelevant. The conflict in the following chapters parallels the dominant Orthodox conception of Christ's death and resurrection as victory over the enemy. These are just the highlights, but I hope they show as clearly as I feel that somewhere back there in my teenage years I came face-to-face with Orthodoxy, and it stirred my heart. It's good to be back at that point today.

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