C.S. Lewis on Approaching Books

C.S. Lewis' Desk and Study

C.S. Lewis' Desk and Study

During our sessions in Oxford, Pastor Earl Palmer noted that many people today have lost the sense of wonder in reading books. Our culture prizes “criticism” and opinion and often asks that we come to an author’s work prepared to “take it apart.” Palmer suggested that Lewis also shared this concern and expressed it in his book Experiment in Criticism.

For Lewis, there is no such thing as a good book, only good reading:

“The necessary condition of all good reading is to ‘get ourselves out of the way’; we do not help the young to do this by forcing them to keep on expressing opinions. Especially poisonous is the kind of teaching which encourages them to approach every literary work with suspicion. It springs from a very reasonable motive. In a world full of sophistry and propaganda, we want to protect the rising generation from being deceived, to forearm them against the invitations to false sentiment and muddled thinking which printed words will so often offer them. Unfortunately, the very same habit which makes them impervious to the bad writing may make them impervious also to the good. … No poem will give the secret to a reader who enters it regarding the poet as a potential deceiver, and determined not to be taken in. We must risk being taken in, if we are to get anything” (Experiment in Criticism, p. 94).

Pastor Palmer read this section from Lewis in our session together, and I was more than a little surprised when he said that Lewis’ comment particularly applied to the reading of the Bible. How could that be? He went on to suggest that in the church, and perhaps the Christian university in particular, we teach people to approach the Bible not as something to be read and experienced but as something to be dissected. Interesting! He did not mean this as an indictment but as helpful advice. I think he is right that we often teach the Bible as a book we have to approach critically: Who wrote this letter? When was it written? What were the social and economic conditions of the time? Certainly such questions are not inherently bad and lead to a greater understanding of the text as a whole. But if our goal in the church and the Christian university is to develop young men and women who experience God’s presence in the stories of his interaction with people in the biblical text, then I believe Pastor Palmer and Lewis are correct.

Earl Palmer

High tea with Earl Palmer and Colleagues

As evangelicals, we often castigate the Pharisees at the time of Jesus for their inability to appropriately “hear” the words of Jesus. Pastor Palmer reminded us that the Pharisee sect actually began prior to Jesus as a group that wanted to emphasize the written text of God’s word; they became the guardians of the Word of God. Yet, by the time Jesus had arrived they had already constructed “fences” around the Word. They had become the defenders of God through adherence to rules and regulations. Thus, when Jesus addressed them they had a very difficult time getting themselves out of the way in order to hear the words of God. In Matthew 9, the Pharisees accuse Jesus of eating with sinners. Jesus responds to them by asking them to discover what this phrase means: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Jesus pointed them to the heart of the argument – the rules are written to draw one to the heart of the matter, not the other way around.

In order for our students and churchgoers to enter into the story of the Bible they must, as Lewis says, “risk being taken in.” We have to “get ourselves out of the way” in order to hear and experience what God is saying. (Lewis later notes that it is not that we never approach the text in an evaluative manner, but he argues that it must be received and experienced first.)

When I was a student at Grand Canyon University some 33 years ago now, I had a wonderful Bible professor named D.C. Martin. (Dr. Martin later married Ruth and me). I took five biblical courses, mostly Old Testament, from Dr. Martin. The courses were very difficult, but they were also beautiful. Dr. Martin began class each day reading a text to us from the Psalms or the minor prophets. He had a deep resonate voice and an imposing presence. He encouraged us to enter into the text for the day and to “hear” the story. He certainly provided evaluative comments on the text, but for the most part he taught us to enter into and to love the story of God’s engagement with people through each biblical text. He taught me to be a good reader, in Lewis’ terms – to come to the Bible each day and risk being taken in by the love story of God and his people. For that gift I will be forever grateful to D.C. Martin, and it is one of my deepest commitments that we make students “good readers” of the biblical text.


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3 Responses to C.S. Lewis on Approaching Books

  1. april says:

    Love this! Love the phrase “to risk being taken in”. I always feel like I need to “study” God’s Word (definitely important), but I love the idea of risking being taken in, and falling in love with the God who so loves us, and his story!

  2. Will Wartenberg says:

    Dr. Martin had a profound impact on my life, faith and my love for the God’s Word. After I graduated, I would write him from time to time and it was always a joy to receive letters in return. They are among some of my treasured memories.

  3. Rachael says:

    I am so glad to find this entry including information on Dr. D.C. Martin. Out of all the people who have taught me about God no one ever taught me clearer how to be in the moment when reading the Bible. His constant refrain “just imagine if these people were real” has always stuck with me and allowed me to see the people in the Bible,and not just characters. It is a whole different book when they are recognised as people and not characters. I do wish there were far more information on D.C. Martin on the web, what a great man whose legacy will fade without documentation, and what a shame that would be.