Friday, December 10, 2010

The Conversion Experience in Christian Fiction

One thing that I love about C.S. Lewis's That Hideous Strength is just how classic it is. I don't mean "classic" as it is popularly used. What I mean by "classic" is that it is so steeped in the Romantic and the poetic culture of greater literary times that it has reached, about sixty years after its initial publication, transcendent status. Especially in terms of Christian fiction

This novel, the final installment in Lewis's Space Trilogy (of which Perelandra, the second installment, is the best episode and the true masterpiece of the trilogy), is by its author's intention a genre novel. Yet compared to the genre novels today, whether they are "Christian" or not, it is so high above them, so impossibly better, it's a wonder modern readers even bother with it at all. But I know some still do, and that is probably most due to Lewis's rightful status as the most important and influential Christian thinker of the twentieth century.

The passage I want to share is rather long, so I better cut to the chase. When I encountered this part of the story, wherein the novel's heroine Jane Studdock has her "official" conversion experience, I was so overwhelmed with not only how brilliantly and artfully Lewis conveys it but also with how authentically and truthfully he does so. This scene of transformation verifies Lewis's genius. But I especially want to mention how it would never fly in today's Christian fiction. When characters "come to the Lord" in fiction these days, we usually get the cliched weeping penitent hitting his knees and reciting some variation of The Sinner's Prayer. Or if not that specific, we get something vague and open-ended, evidence of the author trying too hard not to be didactic. (Imagine the typical "Are you there God? If You are, I want You . . .")

In this passage from THS, though, we find neither extreme. Lewis is both extremely specific and truthful, yet Jane's conversion is not routine or pat or common. Lewis -- as only Lewis can, I think -- captures the tremendous beauty and supernatural awe and overwhelming awakening of one's salvation. See if you don't agree:
For one moment she had a ridiculous and scorching vision of a world in which God Himself would never understand, never take her with full seriousness. Then, at one particular corner of the gooseberry patch, the change came.

What awaited her there was serious to the degree of sorrow and beyond. There was no form nor sound. The mould under the bushes, the moss on the path, and the little brick border, were not visibly changed. But they were changed. A boundary had been crossed. She had come into a world, or into a Person, or into the presence of a Person. Something expectant, patient, inexorable, met her with no veil or protection between. In the closeness of that contact she perceived at once that the Director's words had been entirely misleading This demand which now pressed upon her was not, even by analogy, like any other demand. It was the origin of all right demands and contained them. In its light you could understand them; but from them you could know nothing of it. There was nothing, and never had been anything, like this. And now there was nothing except this. Yet also, everything had been like this; only be being like this had anything existed. In this height and depth and breadth the little idea of herself which she had hitherto called me dropped down and vanished, unflattering, into bottomless distance, like a bird in a space without air. The name me was the name of a being whose existence, she had never suspected, a being that did not yet fully exist but which was demanded. It was a person (not the person she had thought), yet also a thing, a made thing, made to please Another and in Him to please all others, a thing being made at this very moment, without its choice, in a shape it had never dreamed of. And the making went on amidst a kind of splendour or sorrow or both, whereof she could not tell whether it was in the moulding hands or in the kneaded lump.

Words take too long. To be aware of all this and to know that it had already gone made one single experience. It was revealed only in its departure. The largest thing that had ever happened to her had, apparently, found room for itself in a moment of time too short to be called time at all. Her hand closed on nothing but a memory. And as it closed, without an instant's pause, the voices of those who have not joy rose howling and chattering from every corner of her being.

"Take care. Draw back. Keep your head. Don't commit yourself," they said. And then more subtly, from another quarter, "You have had a religious experience. This is very interesting. Not everyone does. How much better you will now understand the Seventeenth-Century poets!" Or from a third direction, more sweetly, "Go on. Try to get it again. It will please the Director."

But her defenses had been captured and these counter-attacks were unsuccessful.
Dear God, please help me write like this some day!

I especially like how Lewis writes the logical antithesis of the angels rejoicing when a soul is saved -- he has the demons freaking out, then trying to talk her out of it (shades of Screwtape?), and then trying to distort the meaning of her experience. But nothing -- not even angels or demons -- can separate Jane from the love of God.


Will said...

Thanks for this. I will go discover the space trilogy.

Gabe said...

I'm recently going back through Lewis and reading the full Narnia series to the kids. At the end of each I'm going to walk them through the equivalent biblical narratives that inspired the books.

This account for salvation is close to my own it's staggering. And, knowing Lewis' own account, it makes me wonder. The only difference between this character's account and my own was that this character didn't believe in anything before. I believed in myself and thought I was saved with no reference for what that meant.

Thanks for writing this, I needed it. Maybe it's what I need to break my block.

Jason said...

I wish I had 1/100th the skill of C.S. Lewis.

Dubbahdee said...

I read OOTSP and P in my late teens. I had to try THS three times. The first I could not complete it. The second I finished but did not grok. The third it struck me like a mountain falling.

I have since read each several times. I agree in your assessment of Perelandra. I return to it several times a year to read favorite passages.

The thing that strikes me about this passage that you quote is that Jane is brought in to Christ almost against her will, not even fully comprehending what it is...or at least not being able to express it in common religious terms. Or perhaps...realizing the incapacity of common religious terminology to describe the Truth of it. This is deeply revealing of a gospel wakefulness.


Thefallout said...

Absolutely love this whole trilogy, Lewis captures a whole slew of pieces of the Christian life in vivid metaphor. I would also highly recommend Dekker's Circle Trilogy (specifically the book Black) as another amazing example of a massively powerful conversion experience put into fiction. In my opinion it's even better than Lewis' here.

Rebecca LuElla Miller said...

I read THS when I was young. It was my least favorite of the trilogy because it was so dark. Now I think I need to re-read it.

Just last year I re-read Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis's autobiographical account of his coming to faith. This passage wonderfully mirrors that.

Another of his that I love is . It's lesser known--a Christian retelling of an ancient myth. The conversion is very different, but I think it's very powerful and memorable. Quite visual.

Anyway, thanks for posting this.