Controversy Piety Quotations

C.S. Lewis vs. Matthew Arnold (Tomorrow)

Since I will be either in the air or in the airport for most of tomorrow, here is a long something to make everyone glad that I periodically become incommunicado.

Below are a catena of statements where C.S. Lewis addresses issues that impinge on the question of the value of refinement and culture to a Christian, as well as addressing that point explicitly. The title arises since Lewis specifically distinguishes himself from Matthew Arnold –which perhaps those who have more restraint and diligence can tell me if he is always as mind-numbingly pompous and turgid as in his comments on Johnson’s Lives.

“Christianity and Culture”, Lewis’ side of an exchange originally carried on in the pages of Theology is quite a logical place to start (and can be found in the book called Christian Reflections, along with other essays that touch on the topic of the Christian attitude to culture). There we find several pertinent statements:

I felt that some readers might easily get the notion that ‘sensitivity’ or good taste were among the notes of the true Church, or that coarse, unimaginative people were less likely to be saved than refined and poetic people. In the heat of the moment I rushed to the opposite extreme. I felt, with some spiritual pride, that I had been saved in the nick of time from being ‘sensitive’. The ‘sentimentality and cheapness’ of much Christian hymnody had been a strong point in my own resistance to conversion. Now I felt almost thankful for the bad hymns. It was good that we should have to lay down our precious refinement at the very doorstep of the church; good that we should be cured at the outset of our inveterate confusion between psyche and pneuma, nature and supernature.

A man is never so proud as when striking an attitude of humility. Brother Every will not suspect me of being still in the condition I describe, nor of attributing to him the preposterous beliefs I have just suggested. But there remains, none the less, a real problem which his article forced upon me in its most acute form. No one, presumably, is really maintaining that a fine taste in the arts is a condition of salvation.


If, as I now hope, cultural activities are innocent and even useful, then they also (like the sweeping of the room in Herbert’s poem) can be done to the Lord. The work of a charwoman and the work of a poet become spiritual in the same way and on the same condition. There must be no return to the Arnoldian or Ricardian view. Let us stop giving ourselves airs.


Being fallen creatures we tend to resent offences against our taste, at least as much as, or even more than, offences against our conscience or reason; and we would dearly like to be able—if only we can find any plausible argument for doing so—to inflict upon the man whose writing (perhaps for reasons utterly unconnected with good and evil) has afflicted us like a bad smell, the same kind of condemnation which we can inflict on him who has uttered the false and the evil. The tendency is easily observed among children; friendship wavers when you discover that a hitherto trusted playmate actually likes prunes. But even for adults it is ‘sweet, sweet, sweet poison’ to feel able to imply ‘thus saith the Lord’ at the end of every expression of our pet aversion. To avoid this horrible danger we must perpetually try to distinguish, however closely they get entwined both by the subtle nature of the facts and by the secret importunity of our passions, those attitudes in a writer which we can honestly and confidently condemn as real evils, and those qualities in his writing which simply annoy and offend us as men of taste. This is difficult, because the latter are often so much more obvious and provoke such a very violent response. The only safe course seems to me to be this: to reserve our condemnation of attitudes for attitudes universally acknowledged to be bad by the Christian conscience speaking in agreement with Scripture and ecumenical tradition. A bad book is to be deemed a real evil in so far as it can be shown to prompt to sensuality, or pride, or murder, or to conflict with the doctrine of Divine Providence, or the like. The other dyslogistic terms dear to critics (vulgar, derivative, cheap, precious, academic, affected, bourgeois, Victorian, Georgian, ‘literary’, etc.) had better be kept strictly on the taste side of the account. In discovering what attitudes are present you can be as subtle as you like. But in your theological and ethical condemnation (as distinct from your dislike of the taste) you had better be very un-subtle. You had better reserve it for plain mortal sins, and plain atheism and heresy. For our passions are always urging us in the opposite direction, and if we are not careful criticism may become a mere excuse for taking revenge on books whose smell we dislike by erecting our temperamental antipathies into pseudo-moral judgments.


If any real disagreement remains between us, I anticipate that it will be about my third point—about the distinction there drawn between the real spiritual evil carried or betrayed in a book and mere faults of taste. And on this subject I confess that my critics can present me with a very puzzling dilemma. They can ask me whether the statement, ‘This is tawdry writing’, is an objective statement describing something bad in a book and capable of being true or false, or whether it is merely a statement about the speaker’s own feelings—different in form, but fundamentally the same, as the proposition ‘I don’t like oysters.’ If I choose the latter, then most criticism becomes purely subjective—which I don’t want. If I choose the formed then they can ask me, ‘What are these qualities in a book which you admit to be in some sense good and bad but which, you keep on warning us, are not “really” or “spiritually” good and bad? Is there a kind of good which not good? Is there any good that is not pleasing to God or any bad which is not hateful to Him?’ And if you press me along these lines I end in doubts. But I will not get rid of those doubts by falsifying the little light I already have. That little light seems to compel me to say that there are two kinds of good and bad. The first, such as virtue and vice or love and hatred, besides being good or bad themselves make the possessor good or bad. The second do not. They include such things as physical beauty or ugliness, the possession or lack of a sense of humour, strength or weakness, pleasure or pain. But the two most relevant for us are the two I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, conjugal eros (as distinct from agape, which, of course, is a good of the first class) and physical cleanliness. Surely we have all met people who said, indeed, that the latter was next to godliness, but whose unconscious attitude made it a part of godliness, and no small part? And surely we agree that any good of this second class, however good on its own level, becomes an enemy when it thus assumes demonic pretensions and erects itself into a quasi-spiritual value. As M. de Rougemont has recently told us, the conjugal eros ‘ceases to be a devil only when it ceases to be a god’. My whole contention is that in literature, in addition to the spiritual good and evil which it carries, there is also a good and evil of this second class, a properly cultural or literary good and evil, which must not be allowed to masquerade as good and evil of the first class. And I shall feel really happy about all the minor differences between my critics and me when I find in them some recognition of this danger—some admission that they and I, and all of the like education, are daily tempted to a kind of idolatry.

I am not pretending to know how this baffling phenomenon—the two kinds or levels of good and evil—is to be fitted into a consistent philosophy of values. But it is one thing to be unable to explain a phenomenon, another to ignore it. And I admit that all of these lower goods ought to be encouraged, that, as pedagogues, it is our duty to try to make our pupils happy and beautiful, to give them cleanly habits and good taste; and the discharge of that duty is, of course, a good of the first class. I will admit, too, that evils of this second class are often the result and symptom of real spiritual evil; dirty finger-nails, a sluggish liver, boredom, and a bad English style, may often in a given case result from disobedience, laziness, arrogance, or intemperance. But they may also result from poverty or other misfortune. They may even result from virtue. The man’s ears may be unwashed behind or his English style borrowed from the jargon of the daily press, because he has given to good works the time and every which others use to acquire elegant habits or good language. Gregory the Great, I believe vaunted the barbarity of his style. Our Lord ate with unwashed hands.

I am stating, not solving, a problem,. If my critics want to continue the discussion I think they can do so most usefully by taking it right away from literature and the arts to some other of these mysterious ‘lower goods’—where, probably, all our minds will work more coolly. I should welcome an essay from Brother Every or Mr Bethell on conjugal eros or personal cleanliness. My dilemma about literature is that I admit bad taste to be, in some sense, ‘a bad thing’, but do not think it per se ‘evil’. My critics will probably say the same of physical dirt. If we could thrash the problem out on the neutral ground of clean and dirty fingers, we might return to the battlefield of literature with new lights.

I hope it is now unnecessary to point out that in denying ‘taste’ to be a spiritual value, I am not for a moment suggesting, as Mr Bethell thought (May, 1940, p.357), that it comes ‘under God’s arbitrary condemnation’. I enjoyed my breakfast this morning, and I think that was a good thing and do not think it condemned by God. But I do not think myself a good man for enjoying it. The distinction does not seem to me a very fine one.

Or we could take something like this:

“Christianity and Literature” also in Christian Reflections

The Christian will take literature a little less seriously than the cultured Pagan: he will feel less uneasy with a purely hedonistic standard for at least many kinds of work. The unbeliever is always apt to make a kind of religion of his aesthetic experiences; he feels ethically irresponsible, perhaps, but he braces his strength to receive responsibilities of another kind which seem to a Christian quite illusory. He has to be ‘creative’; he has to obey a mystical amoral law called his artistic conscience; and he commonly wishes to maintain his superiority to the great mass of mankind who turn to books for mere recreation. But the Christian knows from the outset that the salvation of a single soul is more important than the production or preservation of all the epics and tragedies in the world: and as for superiority, he knows that the vulgar since they include most of the poor probably include most of his superiors. He has no objection to comedies that merely amuse and tales that merely refresh; for he thinks like Thomas Aquinas ipsa ratio hoc habet ut quandoque rationis usus intercipiatur. We can play, as we can eat, to the glory of God. It thus may come about that Christian views on literature will strike the world as shallow and flippant; but the world must not misunderstand. When Christian work is done on a serious subject there is no gravity and no sublimity it cannot attain. But they will belong to the theme. That is why they will be real and lasting—mighty nouns with which literature, an adjectival thing, is here united, far over-topping the fussy and ridiculous claims of literature that tries to be important simply as literature. And a posteriori it is not hard to argue that all the greatest poems have been made by men who valued something else much more than poetry—even if that something else were only cutting down enemies in a cattle-raid or tumbling a girl in a bed. The real frivolity, the solemn vacuity, is all with those who make a literature a self-existent thing to be valued for its own sake. Pater prepared for pleasure as if it were martyrdom.

There is quite a succinct statement to be found in one of his letters:

Letter to Dom Bede Griffiths, O.S.B., 16 April 1940

I do most thoroughly agree with what you say about Art and Literature. To my mind they are only healthy when they are either (a) Definitely the handmaids of religious, or at least moral, truth – or (b) Admittedly aiming at nothing but innocent recreation or entertainment. Dante’s alright, and Pickwick is alright. But the great serious irreligious art – art for art’s sake – is all balderdash; and, incidentally, never exists when art is really flourishing. In fact one can say of Art as an author I recently read says of Love (sensual love, I mean) “It ceases to be a devil when it ceases to be a god”. Isn’t that well put? So many things – nay every real thing – is good if only it will be humble and ordinate.

Returning to Christian Reflections here is an extract from the essay “On Church Music”:

The first and most solid conclusion which (for me) emerges is that both musical parties, the High Brows and the Low, assume far too easily the spiritual value of the music they want. Neither the greatest excellence of a trained performance from the choir, nor the heartiest and most enthusiastic bellowing from the pews, must be taken to signify that any specifically religious activity is going on. It may be so, or it may not. Yet the main sense of Christendom, reformed and unreformed, would be against us if we tried to banish music from the Church. It remains to suggest, very tentatively, the ways in which it can really be pleasing to God or help to save the souls of men.

There are two musical situations on which I think we can be confident that a blessing rests. One is where a priest or an organist, himself a man of trained and delicate taste, humbly and charitably sacrifices his own (aesthetically right) desires and gives the people humbler and coarser fare than he would wish, in a belief (even, as it may be, the erroneous belief) that he can thus bring them to God. The other is where the stupid and unmusical layman humbly and patiently, and above all silently, listens to music which he cannot, or cannot fully, appreciate, in the belief that it somehow glorifies God, and that if it does not edify him this must be [p.97]his own defect. Neither such a High Brow nor such a Low Brow can be far out of the way. To both, Church Music will have been a means of grace; not the music they liked, but the music they have disliked. They have both offered, sacrificed, their taste in the fullest sense.


But I must insist that no degree of excellence in the music, simply as music, can assure us that this paradisal state has been achieved. The excellence proves ‘keenness’; but men can be ‘keen’ for natural, or even wicked motives. The absence of keenness would prove that they lacked the right spirit; its presence does not prove that they have it. We must beware of the naïve idea that our music can ‘please’ God as it would please a cultivated human hearer. That is like thinking, under the old Law, that He really needed the blood of bulls and goats. To which an answer came, ‘Mine are the cattle upon a thousand hills’, and ‘if I am hungry, I will not tell thee.’ If God (in that sense) wanted music, He would not tell us. For all our offerings, whether of music or martyrdom, are like the intrinsically worthless present of a child, which a father values indeed, but values only for the intention.

Or we can take a concise statement that summarizes much of what appears above from “Learning in War-Time” from The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses:

We are now in a position to answer the view that human culture is an inexcusable frivolity on the part of creatures loaded with such awful responsibilities as we. I reject at once an idea which lingers in the mind of some modern people that cultural activities are in their own right spiritual or meritorious—as though scholars and poets were intrinsically more pleasing to God than scavengers and bootblacks. I think it was Matthew Arnold who first used the English word spiritual in the sense of the German geistlich, and so inaugurated this most dangerous and most anti-Christian error. Let us clear it forever from our minds. The work of a Beethoven and the work of a charwoman become spiritual on precisely the same condition, that of being offered to God, of being done humbly “as to the Lord.”

I think that is a wide enough selection to establish quite thoroughly that for C.S. Lewis, while culture can be innocent and useful, it does not intrinsically possess spiritual value. If we are to spoil the Egyptians, what we must not do is give to their possessions the same value that they did; and, as we see in the case of Achan, or of Demas, sometimes the lure of spoil is one that brings you to destruction.

2 replies on “C.S. Lewis vs. Matthew Arnold (Tomorrow)”

“I am not pretending to know how this baffling phenomenon—the two kinds or levels of good and evil—is to be fitted into a consistent philosophy of values.”

This is a question I’ve thought about a lot and I don’t know how to fit it in either. I’ve never seen anyone systematize this. But the distinction must be important.

Lewis’ sentiments do not completely address the problem of music in church. I’m not sure his philosophy has proved to a lasting answer to our current problems. What he saw as a matter of “taste” he was certainly right to urge Christians to sacrifice to one another for mutual edification. However,

1) What is it about the nature of music that fits it to embody any ideas about God? And does musical form ever descend so low that it is no longer capable of doing so, or no longer capable of doing so honestly? Did Lewis see Christian rap coming when he talked so genially about low and high? Will our grandchildren call Christian rap a matter of taste?

2) Is music givent to the church for more than edification? I.E. Is it’s highest purpose to worship the Lord? If so, while Lewis’ discussion of the cattle on a thousand hills is an important part of this equation, it does not completely answer the question of what constitutes the difference between an accpetable offering and one that is not. If it is intention only, then we have to ask the following question: do people of good intentions offer dull, innexpressive, or flippant music to God when honest fare is available? And if more than intention matters, as I was taught as a child – if we have to be right and not merely intend to be right – then we have even more questions to answer.

3)If music can’t be good and bad in a spiritual sense, what are these “spiritual songs” that the scriptures instruct us to sing to one another and the Lord?

It would be wonderful to actually have a coherent body of thought on these things. We’d be the first people in our day to achieve it, I’m convinced. Slogans like “The medium is the message” and “guilt by association” just don’t qualify.

And as for culture…I’m not sure the term has been defined in this (broader) conversation. I’ve been thinking of culture as society preserving its best works and being in turn shaped, consciously or unconsciouly, high-class or ignorant, by the sentiments and knowldge contained in those works. When Lewis uses it he seems to be talking about an individual person attaining a first-hand knowledge of those works, and he connects it with refined manners and a taste for elegant forms of expression.

Lewis may not have had the answer; but it’s hard to demonstrate that since I don’t think we’ve tried his answer of love and mutual self-sacrifice. Since his death in 1963 to the present time has there been any noticeable practice in us of the “mind that was in Christ Jesus”? In many individual cases, no doubt there has been; but as congregations, denominations, fellowships? As the Church? So I don’t think we can rule Lewis out yet.

I don’t know that I am qualified to answer your questions about the nature of music: not because you have to be a musician, but because I have not collated the Biblical materials for a theology of music as thoroughly as should be done: it would have to take into account the singing of the sons of God, the development of music among humans first among the descendants of Cain, God’s instructions for music in the temple, and the singing in Revelation, merely to demonstrate the breadth of the task –not a study one can do before 5:00 a.m. at an airport!

But I believe I can state that intention alone is not enough (witness Uzzah, Nadab and Abihu): but neither is any sort of quality without intention. It is essential, but not sufficient. But here is where I take what is perhaps a simpler line than many people: God defines what is acceptable to Him. We are not left to puzzle it out with reference to preference and taste and arbiters of elegance: our task is to see what God has approved. One thing He approved is the stench of burning animals, of meat and bone seared to carbon and ashes: so we ought to come to such a study prepared to be offended by God’s tastes.

As far as “spiritual songs” go, I would question whether from the force of that expression you could go beyond the content, or perhaps the poetic structure. I’m sure you’re aware that in the LXX some Psalms are labeled specifically as “songs”. While I don’t believe this gives us quite the support for exclusive Psalmody that our strict Presbyterian brethren would, it might provide a hint as to the differentia of a spiritual song from a psalm or a hymn.

Slogans almost never qualify: but here again it is as well to be careful. What to me seems quite blank, may to a better person be very full of suggestive ideas.

I agree that your use of culture is not quite Lewis’; in your case, it seems to me, you are using it as we would when we say “British culture” or “Eskimo culture”. You are abstracting the adjectives to identify the idea that can exist in such particularities. But in that case it includes more than Shakespeare: it also includes characteristic weather patterns and manufacturing. And in order to validate the worth of any individual element in a given culture, it must be able to point beyond itself to something transcendent. The boundless wealth conferred by metal needles or fishhooks among the Eskimos is not a value that will still be true in Boston. And so in its relation to the spiritual world, each culture must have a standard independent of itself to gauge by: otherwise we are once again imbibing the poison of subjectivism.

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