Half a century after C. S. Lewis joined the Church Triumphant, the Oxford don’s works are still offering almost-prescient insights into our culture. In one of my favorite Lewis books, “The Abolition of Man,” he describes and predicts with eerie accuracy trends that have come to define the society we live in today.
In the first chapter, entitled “Men without Chests,” Lewis slams the schools and the textbooks of mid-twentieth century Britain for abandoning the teaching of virtue.
Using the analogy of the head to represent the intellect, the belly to represent the passions, and the chest to represent rightly-ordered affections, Lewis laments that modern education has allowed young chests to shrivel by teaching students to dismiss transcendent truth and morality as nothing more than personal preferences. Instead of freeing them to think, he argues, this regimen enslaves them to their bellies—their animal passions—and leaves them easy picking for propagandists.
As Chuck Colson documented in the “Doing the Right Thing” video series on ethics, the 2008 financial collapse and recession were largely the result of a society-wide failure to say no to our own desires. Yet we were shocked and angry when this dearth of virtuous decision-making brought the world economy to its knees.
“In a sort of ghastly simplicity,” Lewis writes, “we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”
A recent ad campaign promoting Obamacare in my home state suggests the kinds of fruits we can expect. An image features a wolfishly grinning man beside a young woman gleefully brandishing her insurance-funded birth control. In the caption she squeals, “…all I have to worry about is getting him between the covers. I’ve got insurance.”
In other words, you can have what you want now with no consequences! Utter nonsense.
As I told a group of educators recently, one of the things I love about C. S. Lewis is that much of what he wrote in his non-fiction he also personified in fiction. For example, we meet the boy-without-a-chest in Lewis’ fifth Narnia book, “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.”
“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb,” reads the book’s opening line, “and he almost deserved it.” Eustace is everything Lewis detests about education in his time. His head is filled with facts about “beetles pinned to cards,” and “fat foreign children doing exercises in model schools.” And he's the type who calls his parents by their first names.
And most tellingly, he’s never read what Lewis calls “the right books”—books that stir the moral imagination, books with dragons in them. And when he finds himself transformed into a dragon because of his unrestrained selfishness, he learns the hard way that it’s well-trained moral instincts—not head knowledge—that guard us against our own sinful passions.
But Lewis also created a character with a stout chest: Reepicheep, the very small but brave mouse who offers Eustace a picture of what moral instinct looks like. Reepicheep not only knows what’s right—he loves it, exercising honor and courage even in the face of danger. It’s a remedial education Lewis no doubt wished every child in England could receive.
“The task of the modern educator,” Lewis wrote, “is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. The right defense against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments.”
And speaking of inculcating just sentiments, next Monday on the NRB cable network launches our brand new TV series, “Worldview from the Colson Center” featuring Chuck’s “Doing the Right Thing” series on ethics. Or in other words, how we can cultivate the chest.
Come to BreakPoint.org and click on this commentary for details.
BreakPoint is a Christian worldview ministry that seeks to build and resource a movement of Christians committed to living and defending Christian worldview in all areas of life. Begun by Chuck Colson in 1991 as a daily radio broadcast, BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today’s news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print. Today BreakPoint commentaries, co-hosted by Eric Metaxas and John Stonestreet, air daily on more than 1,200 outlets with an estimated weekly listening audience of eight million people. Feel free to contact us at BreakPoint.org where you can read and search answers to common questions.
John Stonestreet, the host of The Point, a daily national radio program, provides thought-provoking commentaries on current events and life issues from a biblical worldview. John holds degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (IL) and Bryan College (TN), and is the co-author of Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview.
Publication date: November 20, 2013