Why C.S. Lewis Was Wrong on Marriage (and J.R.R. Tolkien Was Right)
This brings us back to the oddness of Lewis' concession in Mere Christianity. Certain aspects of the Christianity articulated at St. Anne's are very much en vogue right now. Evangelical Christians are talking about how to build deeper ties to our local communities by shopping local. We're attempting to respect and sustain creation by being less wasteful with our resources. Some of us have a renewed interest in agrarian communities.
We've had many conversations at my church, a broadly reformed evangelical college-aged congregation, about these sorts of issues. My pastor and I recently attended the Prairie Festival at The Land Institute. At Grace, we're trying to articulate a broadly Christian social imagination that encompasses all of life. And we aren't alone in that pursuit. The growing number of evangelical publishers releasing books dealing with Christianity and ecology suggest a broader trend. So far as they go, these are all desires and ambitions that Lewis and Tolkien would warmly commend.
But Lewis—in the majority of his work—and Tolkien would say we must look more closely at the underpinnings of our social ethic. The dominant metaphor for all those commendable activities described above is that of marriage. The ecological, communal, and creational (a far superior word to "environmental") goals are all understood through the metaphor of marriage, by which we mean a permanent, communally recognized, community-sanctioned relationship characterized by affection and fertility. That's the best description you'll find for Lewis' ethic toward the land, but it flows out of his ethic of sexuality. In much of his writing, and especially in That Hideous Strength, that is quite clear. So understood, we can now see that Tolkien's letter is simply Tolkien's attempt to help his friend see that his concession in Mere Christianity actually undermines his larger social vision. That's why Tolkien pushes so hard in the letter above. In staking out his odd position on divorce, Lewis was giving away much more than a single law on the books of a single nation. Rather, he was giving away the metaphor that shapes all elements of the Christian worldview.
On a note more relevant to contemporary evangelicals, this is why we need to be crystal clear on what the defining themes of our social vision actually are. Matt is fond of saying that the problem with the culture war for evangelicals wasn't necessarily the "war" part, but the "culture" part. We were defending certain values in the absence of a culture that can sustain those values. Now younger evangelicals are reacting against that and are attempting to develop a robustly Christian social ethic that holds all of creation accountable to the claims of Christ. It's an undeniably positive and most welcome development.