by Dr. Bruce L. Edwards
Sister Penelope, a winsome, lifelong correspondent of C. S. Lewis, had written to him about the provenance of his first space travel adventure, Out of the Silent Planet, a volume remarkably full of theological insight. He replied whimsically: “Any amount of theology can now be smuggled into people’s minds under cover of romance without their knowing it.” (C. S. Lewis, 9 August 1939, in The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis.)
When Lewis speaks to Sister Penelope of “smuggling” theology into the minds of an audience, deceitful as it sounds, he is not confessing a breach of ethics, but, rather, revealing a strategy for embedding important content that would otherwise be ignored. In his vocation as a science fiction novelist and Christian apologist, Lewis preferred, with utmost integrity, a more straightforward approach, preparing his readers, announcing, narrating his premises as much as possible, so that they could follow, if they wished, his reasoning. Lewis was not trying to trick his readers, but to reach them, even at the popular level where he was writing, albeit suffused with deeper-level meaning.
Perhaps if they saw and heard the message, meeting the grand narrative in a different setting, within a different genre, like science fiction or the fairy tale, they could be “surprised by joy” in the same way Lewis himself was when he returned to faith as an adult. Thus, in science fiction, Lewis himself had discovered a worthy vehicle for reinvigorating and reinserting relevant discussion of Christian ideals and the biblical worldview into popular discourse. Later in his letter to Sister Penelope, Lewis underscored the inability of hail-fellow, well-met literary reviewers of Out of the Silent Planet, even to recognize the biblical source of his themes:
You will be both grieved and amused to learn that out of about 60 reviews, only 2 showed any knowledge that my idea of a fall of the bent One was anything but a private invention of my own? (C. S. Lewis, 9 August 1939, in The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis)
While Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet depicted space exploration as an endeavor that would yield the discovery of superior species of sentient beings who could teach earthlings how to live more abundantly and morally in the cosmos, and Perelandra presented an unfallen Eve and Adam in New Eden (Venus) choosing to thwart an attack on their primordial innocence, the third volume of Lewis’s trilogy, That Hideous Strength, offered the warning to humankind that science practiced without ethical and historical context, untouched by revelation, becomes mere scientism, individual personhood sacrificed on the altar of preservation of the species, and a threat not just to Earth but to the cosmos at large.
Thus Lewis sought to create new myths that could serve as an “alternate histories,” winsome, redemptive, inclusive tales whose worldview would restore personal dignity and a promised destiny to those with ears to hear, and eyes to see. A history alternate to what? Simply put, alternatives to the false histories all about them written in the rise of a dehumanizing and disenchanting determinism that reduces men, women, children, even whole civilizations to instincts, impulses, genetics, environment: “cosmic accidents” whose dreams and visions nevertheless point them to longings they cannot account for in starkly “scientific” terms.
Even today, nearly 75 years after their first appearance, Lewis’s cosmic trilogy still has the power to provoke and persuade readers far removed from the specific historical circumstances Sister Penelope originally wrote him about.