CS Lewis’ argument from literary style

Most believers who comment on my blog are kind of drive-by commenters: one post and then they’re gone. But there are exceptions, and not all of them are outright trolls. Sometimes, they even provoke some interesting discussions, and I think (I hope!) that we’ve got one now.

By way of background, this past Easter season brought a lot of attention to a post I made in February 2012 about Matthew’s story of the guards at the tomb. It has been getting consistent hits in my “Popular Pages” log, and has attracted a few comments, most of which are of the “post and run” variety. Two of them, however, are from a commenter named Ben, and these are the ones I’m referring to.

The second of these is quite long, but he brings up some interesting material, and I’d like to address some of it here, starting with his citation of CS Lewis’ argument from literary style. Ben writes:

Here you, the nonbeliever, loudly object that the Gospel forms the main part of the evidential basis for its own claim. And on the face of it this would appear to be a formidable objection…

[The] problem is one which Christian apologists are able to meet with surprising assurance and lucidity. And they do this by drawing our attention to the unique self-authenticating features of their source material.

I can definitely agree that their assurance is surprising, given the nature of their argument.

Ben’s first argument is drawn mostly from CS Lewis. It’s somewhat long, so you’re welcome to skim it or pick it apart as you see fit. My comments will follow.

The first such feature is both the most subtle and, in my view, the most compelling and interesting: The psychological verisimilitude of the narrative style. In a wonderful essay called Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism, the British novelist C. S. Lewis calls our attention to the Gospel of John: to its conspicuous lack of hyperbole so typical of ancient myth; to its striking economy of means; to its inclusion of extraneous but astutely observed details—Christ scratching words in the dust and quickly erasing them before they could be read; a languid conversation with a woman at a well—and also to the striking understatements of the man born blind who, returning home with his sight restored by Christ, is asked by his amazed neighbours to explain why he is no longer blind,


He replied, “The man they call Jesus made some mud and put it on my eyes. He told me to go to Siloam and wash. So I went and washed, and then I could see.”
“Where is this man?” they asked him.
“I don’t know,” he said.
—John 9:11-12


Under what inner compulsion did the author of this scene refrain from putting orotund religious proclamations into the mouth of his character, if not a frightened fidelity to the truth of what he had witnessed? Lewis writes,

“I have been reading poems, romances, vision literature, legends, myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know that not one of them is like this. Of this text there are only two possible views. Either this is reportage—though it may no doubt contain errors—pretty close up to the facts; nearly as close as Boswell. Or else some unknown writer in the second century without known predecessors or successors suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern novelistic realistic narrative.”

So Lewis has been reading “poems, romances, vision literature, legends [and] myths” all his life, but do you notice what genre he doesn’t mention? Parables. Parables are fictional stories that contain a “striking economy of means” and “extraneous but acutely observed details” too, or at least you could attribute such things to them if you wanted. Yet this does not mean that Jesus is either engaging in “reportage…pretty close up to the facts” or else was someone in the first century who “without known predecessors or successors suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern novelistic realistic narrative.” He’s just telling parables, a type of story that’s not in Lewis’ list of allowed fictional styles.

What Lewis is doing here is setting up a classic false dichotomy. He’s cherry picking specific styles of writing and/or storytelling that have the advantage of being both fictional AND dissimilar to the New Testament stories, so that he can then claim the New Testament stories must be non-fictional, since they don’t follow the prescribed style. He completely overlooks the possibility that some or all of the reported New Testament stories might fail to follow accepted literary conventions because they originated with people who were not writers.

What we have to believe, if we are to accept Lewis’ argument, is that no one in the first century ever said anything untrue, either verbally or in writing, unless it was in the form of a formally-specified poem, romance, vision, legend, or myth. No politician ever exaggerated their political accomplishments, no soldier ever told tall tales about his military exploits, no religious charlatan ever twisted the facts to make himself sound like a true prophet of God, unless they did it in one of the specific literary styles authorized by Lewis as being the only possible way a first century story teller could ever say anything other than “reportage…pretty close up to the facts.”

Now, I’ll give Lewis the benefit of the doubt here and assume that he is not deliberately lying. But his argument is obvious rubbish. He’s basically saying, “I can imagine these stories being told differently, and there are fictional stories that are told the way I imagine, but the New Testament stories were not told that way, therefore they must be true.” It’s like arguing that hobbits must really exist because Lord of the Rings is written differently than Fifty Shades of Grey.

Notice, too, the strong subjective bias of Lewis’ argument:

The account in John of the discovery of the empty tomb by two myrrh bearing women is also instructive. It is sparing, almost stark, in its development and firmly planted in the gritty realities of first century Judea with scarcely a hint of mythological embellishment. The Gospel of Peter, by contrast, an apocrypha rejected by the church, marshals a whole town to the tomb to witness the resurrection and when Christ emerges he does so in the company of two angels so tall their heads are lost in the clouds and also (I am not making this up) a talking crucifix.

Now, if Lewis is going to be consistent, he needs to reject Genesis (and its talking snake), and Exodus, with its extravagant plagues and pillar of fire and so on. And let’s not even start on the book of Revelation. But he accepts all those things because they’re canonical, and he rejects the Gospel of Peter because it isn’t. I have no doubt that if the Gospel of Peter were the 28th book of the New Testament, he’d have no more difficulty with the talking crucifix than with Balaam’s talking donkey. Hey, if God says talk, you talk (or so the Bible would have us believe).

What Lewis is appealing to is a subjective and unverifiable standard for how much is too much. If you are familiar with the old Charlton Heston movies, maybe all those amazing supernaturalisms feel perfectly fine and normal to you. Meanwhile, the apocrypha (Old and New Testament) are unfamiliar, and also disreputable, so they feel somehow suspect. It’s easy to spot mythological embellishment when you are not predisposed to the conclusion that the story has to reliable reportage, but how are you going to detect embellishment when you are biased in favor of the story being literally true?

In Lewis’ case, maybe you don’t. If we were going to apply a more objective and unbiased standard, however, we might look at things like how the story changes when it’s reported by different people, or at different times. Maybe if an empty tomb becomes an empty tomb with an angel, that then becomes an empty tomb with two angels, perhaps some embellishment is going on. Or we might compare the claims of the story against our verifiable observations in the real world. A young single woman is pregnant, and claims she hasn’t had sex and that God supernaturally made her conceive—and it’s not Mary. Do you accept it as unembellished reportage, since she said nothing about angels having heads reaching up to the clouds? Maybe that might be stretching the facts just a tad as well.

Like so many apologetic arguments, this one is very appealing to believers because it reinforces their biases and redirects their attention away from the problems of the gospel. But the arguments themselves are amazingly shallow and fragile, once you approach them without being biased in their favor.

And speaking of Charlton Heston, here’s a reward for those of you who have made it all the way through this long post:



  1. themadtapper says

    Also to consider is the fact that we do not have the original source material for any of the Gospels. We only have copies of copies of copies of translations of translations of translations of copies of copies of copies. Not only would there be stylistic differences in the source writers, but there could also be stylistic differences in the translators/transcribers.

  2. brucegee1962 says

    I think there’s another point to be made here. I used to be a big Lewis fan back when I was a Christian, so I think I see what he’s getting at. He’s comparing the New Testament to the other mythological literature – the Norse Eddas, Greek and Roman myths, Ovid, Cu Chullain, etc. – and pointing out that it’s entirely different in style. The miracles are portrayed more realistically, if that makes any sense, and the characters behave more believably. And actually, he’s pretty much right – it’s hard to find any earlier or contemporary myth writers that are remotely similar. Maybe when you talk about parables you’re thinking of something different than I am – what pagan parables are comparable?

    But here’s where Lewis shows his hand:

    Or else some unknown writer in the second century without known predecessors or successors suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern novelistic realistic narrative.

    Well, yeah. Occam’s razor totally applies here. Which is more likely: that some early writer in a credulous age figured out a method of realistic mythmaking that was extremely successful – so successful that the religion it was designed to promote caught on in a big way, since there wasn’t much else like it that was out there – or that a guy rose from the dead and walked on water? Which explanation for the stylistic anomalies stretches our credulity more?

    And here’s another point. The Gospels don’t read much like Herodotus or Julius Ceasar or any other historical writer in their description of events, either. They’re a lot more detailed, for one thing, which makes them far more interesting to read, and more memorable too. So even if you accept that everything described in the gospels is true, you still have to also admit that their ur-writer was uniquely gifted. In other words, Lewis’ “apology” doesn’t really explain anything – unless you believe that there’s no way that an author could ever write a best-seller unless he or she is divinely inspired. In which case the 50 Shades books would indicate that we’re all in big trouble.

  3. says

    My favorite reply to that is the scene from the Iliad, where Hector is talking to Andromache about the war, and their baby is scared by his horsehair plume, and starts to cry. They both laugh for a minute, and then carry on.

    And can we therefore consider that Lewis thinks Matthew is made up, what with the earthquakes and the zombies coming out of their graves and walking around Jerusalem?

  4. Phillip Hallam-Baker says

    It is an astonishingly silly argument. Over five hundred years separates the writing of the gospels and the books of the Old testament, the tales of the Olympian Gods, etc. So what the argument comes down to is that writing styles changed somewhat over five centuries.

    Mark is in fact written in a style that was exclusively used for fictional accounts at the time, chiasmus. One of the reasons for the economy of language is to make the chiasmus fit.

  5. ottotellick says

    Some time ago I came across a video of a lecture by Bart Ehrman: Misquoting Jesus in the Bible.

    About 33 minutes into the lecture, he talks about the story of Jesus and the woman found in adultery, which is the focus of Lewis’s point about the alleged significance of a particular narrative style appearing the work of “some unknown writer in the second century.” Here’s part of what Ehrman says about the story:

    This story was not originally in the gospel of John. This is a story that was added to the gospel of John by later scribes… This story is not found in any of our early or best manuscripts of the gospel of John. The Greek authors who wrote commentaries on the gospel of John over the centuries don’t mention this story until the 10th century.

    I guess we should give Lewis the benefit of the doubt: rather than conclude that he was lying about when this story was written, let’s just say he was misinformed (or unaware due to lack of diligence) about the matter.

    Maybe I’m over-thinking this a bit, but if the text in question actually originated 800 years later than Lewis assumed it did, doesn’t this make his conclusion suspect, to say the least?

  6. Ben says

    What an honour!

    I just wanted to be the first to point out that “acutely observed details” is a woeful malapropism. Obviously, I should have written, “astutely observed details.” Or something. Anyway, a particularly unacceptable mistake in an argument from literary style! Oh, well.

    I was wondering what your post was going to say against Lewis. Parables? Well, that’s an argument I guess.

    The thing is, though, a parable is a succinct story written to communicate a moral truth. I’m no authority on parables but I would expect that, given the job of a parable, we could expect there to be absolutely no fat on one and certainly no extraneous details. The point about the inclusion of Christ scratching some words in the dust is that no one recorded what those words are: They do not communicate a moral idea; they do not fit in with later narrative developments; those words and that detail serve no purpose whatsoever beyond adding a touching of realism to the narrative.

    And if that is the main thrust of your argument against Lewis, it does not seem to me that you have done away with him. The best reply you can make here (along with some of the commenters below) is, “If it must be so then so be it: ‘Some unknown writer in the second century without known predecessors or successors suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern novelistic realistic narrative.'”

    And anyway, the plausibility of his argument is not proportional to the plausibility of a resurrection. And that is because, in acknowledging the enigma of the literary style found in some of the Gospels, we are not forced to follow Lewis to the conclusion that Christ WAS resurrected. It seems to me that that is what is happening here: Based on an assumption that we are so forced, you are pre-committing yourself to refuting him at all costs and on the basis of whatever arguments you can cobble together.

    This is clear from all your subsequent examples: lying politicians, lying religious charlatans and soldiers. Most assuredly, yes: lying existed in the first century. No one is denying that, least of all Lewis. Indeed the possibility is implicit in his argument: If these ARE lies, the form in which they are presented is unexpected, unprecedented, anachronistic, and therefore rather mysterious.

    Since I started looking into the evidence for and against the resurrection, I’ve noticed that no one is least inclined to give it a fair shake than the ex-believer. I suspect that there are paradigm pressures and worldview commitments at play here—an incipient or vestigial fear of being dragged back in to a way of life that they found to be suffocating may motivate pre-commitment to refuting every argument for, and favouring every argument against, the resurrection in such a way that goes a little beyond the merits or demerits evidence itself.

    But that’s just a little pet theory.

    • Deacon Duncan says

      My goodness, you sure have put a lot of energy into trying to refute what I thought was a fairly obvious observation. The reason I mentioned parables is because it’s an immediate example of a fictional story style that Lewis left out of his arbitrary list of styles he was willing to accept as legitimate first century literary forms. You can make any sort of story “unexpected” if you cherry pick the list of styles you’re willing to expect. Parables are just one example.

      I think you yourself realize that we have examples of first century writing that does not fall into any of the categories Lewis allows for fictional stories, and yet are nevertheless untrue accounts. After all, you’ve taken great pains to distance yourself from any commitment to the idea that Matthew’s story of the guards (for example) is necessarily accurate reporting. And you agree that the New Testament accounts are contradictory and inconsistent, and thus not the infallible reportage that so many believers think it is. Lewis’ argument from style is simply wishful thinking plus confirmation bias.

      As for skeptics being unwilling to consider alternatives to their preconceived ideas, I think perhaps believers should be careful about making such accusations, given the profligacy with which so many of them spontaneously invent excuses for not believing any of the evidence against the story of the resurrection. I came to my own conclusions about the Gospel from within the Church, and was only convinced when I quit deceiving myself and stopped trying to rationalize away the evidence. There is no end to the conflicts and inconsistencies whenever you commit yourself to trying to reconcile the gospel with the real world, but once you realize that it is merely a myth invented by men, everything falls into place simply, consistently, and universally. I never could understand God’s will when I was a believer, but now I understand Him so well, I know exactly what He is going to do all the time. He’s going to behave just like any other imaginary friend.

      And you know what? He always does.

  7. Holms says

    If containing a “striking economy of means” and “extraneous but acutely observed details” means a story is likely to be true, then this Ben needs to read some <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Lawson"Henry Lawson, a master at sparse prose that nevertheless capture a scene very well by use of just enough detail to make it seem genuine. One of his very shortest sketch stories is also regarded as one of the best of that style, and puts those principles to good use:

    (The only setting information you need is that virtually all of his stories were written and set at around 1900 in rural Australia, often featuring swagmen a.k.a. itinerant labourers)

    “I’d been away from home for eight years,” said Mitchell to his mate, as they dropped their swags in the mulga shade and sat down. “I hadn’t written a letter–kept putting it off, and a blundering fool of a fellow that got down the day before me told the old folks that he’d heard I was dead.”

    Here he took a pull at his water-bag.

    “When I got home they were all in mourning for me. It was night, and the girl that opened the door screamed and fainted away like a shot.”

    He lit his pipe.

    “Mother was upstairs howling and moaning in a chair, with all the girls boo-hoo-ing round her for company. The old man was sitting in the back kitchen crying to himself.”

    He put his hat down on the ground, dinted in the crown, and poured some water into the hollow for his cattle-pup.

    “The girls came rushing down. Mother was so pumped out that she couldn’t get up. They thought at first I was a ghost, and then they all tried to get holt of me at once–nearly smothered me. Look at that pup! You want to carry a tank of water on a dry stretch when you’ve got a pup that drinks as much as two men.”

    He poured a drop more water into the top of his hat.

    “Well, mother screamed and nearly fainted when she saw me. Such a picnic you never saw. They kept it up all night. I thought the old cove was gone off his chump. The old woman wouldn’t let go my hand for three mortal hours. Have you got the knife?”

    He cut up some more tobacco.

    “All next day the house was full of neighbours, and the first to come was an old sweetheart of mine; I never thought she cared for me till then. Mother and the girls made me swear never to go away any more; and they kept watching me, and hardly let me go outside for fear I’d–”

    “Get drunk?”

    “No–you’re smart–for fear I’d clear. At last I swore on the Bible that I’d never leave home while the old folks were alive; and then mother seemed easier in her mind.”

    He rolled the pup over and examined his feet. “I expect I’ll have to carry him a bit–his feet are sore. Well, he’s done pretty well this morning, and anyway he won’t drink so much when he’s carried.”

    “You broke your promise about leaving home,” said his mate.

    Mitchell stood up, stretched himself, and looked dolefully from his heavy swag to the wide, hot, shadeless cotton-bush plain ahead.

    “Oh, yes,” he yawned, “I stopped at home for a week, and then they began to growl because I couldn’t get any work to do.”

    The mate guffawed and Mitchell grinned. They shouldered the swags, with the pup on top of Mitchell’s, took up their billies and water-bags, turned their unshaven faces to the wide, hazy distance, and left the timber behind them.

    That’s the entire story. No plot, just a scene in the lives of two swaggies with just enough attention to small, humanising detail to make it completely believeable, despite being fictitious.

    • Deacon Duncan says

      I like it, thanks for sharing. I think Ben would likely respond that his point (or rather Lewis’ point) applies to stories written in the first century AD, so I don’t think he’d accept this as a counter example. But it’s still a good story.

      • Holms says

        Worse than that, I rather suspect the criterion will be ‘does it suit christian apologetics.’

  8. says

    I alway really enjoy your posts, either the ones you write yourself or the ones you quote. Always interesting, alway thought provoking.

    Side note. I read all of Lewis in my twenties, and was very impressed. Now that I am in my late fifties I think Lewis was a self-deceived idiot who was easily swayed by poetic images and flowing language. He lived a supremely isolated life as an Oxford don, far from any gritty reality or any challenge to his worldview.

    I have always from it VERY telling that a writer who covered most of his life and thoughts in great written depth dismissed the total of his experience of serving at the front in WW1 in one sentence as (quoting from memory) “all I could think was this was exactly how Homer described war in the Iliad.” Then he put the whole messy, nasty, raw business in a box and put it on the back shelf of his mind.

  9. says

    I read your blog regularly along with a handful of others, but I only comment very rarely. I receive most of the posts I read directly in my email, so I might not even show up as a site hit to you, if you count that sort of thing. I read all of these things now only for my own interest and secular spiritual development, not because I know any religious people to share it with.

    From my point of view there are only two kinds of Christians (or religious people in general), the delusional who are addicted to fears they feed themselves, and those who put on religion mainly because they are afraid of the first type. The second type of people is so wide a spectrum and a vast majority as to include people who claim to be Agnostic and I would presume that they are mostly agnostic even if they won’t go so far as to admit it.

    The first type of people simply can’t be reasoned with on any level. All of their mental faculties will be deployed against the tiniest irrefutable point. It was about five or six years ago I watched someone curl up in a catatonic state that I realized that their problems have nothing to do with religion, only that religion is occupied in taking advantage of such diminished capacity of mind. Such a person can actually be fairly intelligent, well including earning real academic credentials. Such a person rightly considers that they are capable of engaging in rational debate. Debate format allows for the faithful to avoid and evade inconvenient facts and arguments, to the point that a True Believer will balk at any conditions denying him or her to do so.

    The second type of people are easily seen not to be very interested or not interested at all in any details of fact or argument. They regard the very discussion of religion to be treading dangerous ground. These are the people who say you shouldn’t discuss religion or politics, and rarely does any discussion of religion drift away from politics. They characterize such speech as drama. But surprisingly, these same people never say that when True Religious people are talking. True Believers are always allowed to speak freely.

    Now, the reason I wrote all of the above is that when I used to be a True Believer, I felt strongly influenced by Blaise Pascal and CS Lewis, and I feel that I shared their outlook on Christianity. They didn’t live long enough to see the error of their ways, but if they could have lived ten thousand years they may not have learned. You see, these men allowed themselves to be driven by their passions which shifts fear down to a relatively lower place, and it’s because of this diminished role of fear that reason didn’t abandon them. Unfortunately their reason was beholden to an ideology and ultimately anything they thought had to fit together with what was established. What comes from someone who takes up apologetics based on emotional intuition is ultimately a rationalization for that broad spectrum of people who want to live in a world without drama, while actually being the exact opposite.

    What I mean by the above is that I’ve never been one of those second lot of Christians, and I disagree entirely with the idea that if we all just kept our mouths shut we would be able to live in peace, and consider that CS Lewis would agree. What someone like CS Lewis would prophecy is a world in which everyone is open about their passions, but somehow everyone is going to have the same passion, Jesus Christ, because if you don’t have that exact passion you must not be a True Believer.

    So how does one go from being a True Believer to not being a True Believer? It has nothing to do with facts or arguments. Facts and arguments work on people who aren’t afraid. Since I’m not presently afraid, I have an unquenchable thirst for knowledge of all sorts. For the True Believer who is steeped in fear, they need to learn by some means that their fears are not to be taken seriously. They are basically children who need to repeat to themselves “there is not a monster under my bed or in the closet” over and over and then actually dare to take a look under the bed and in the closet. A True Believer is a child laying awake all night motionless in fear waiting for the dawn for mommy and daddy to scare the monster away. And I recall this story where there really is a giant spider in the closet and the child awakens to find mommy and daddy have been cocooned up because a True Believer can’t be convinced that there’s no monster in the closet because he or she actually needs there to be a monster in the closet. The True Believer accuses you of being a fool and unwittingly serving the Devil.

    Why? Because of abject cynicism. Christianity conditions you to believe that you are absolutely worthless, and that everyone else is too, and that harsh threats are required to keep you and everyone else in line or the world will collapse in Sin. But God isn’t the one watching you to make sure you don’t Sin. Everyone else is. The world is a prison without guards, only prisoners guarding each other. Eventually you might recognize the cream of the prisoner crop are called Capos (the True Believer lot) and they are the worst that humanity has to offer, and the rest, the second lot are only afraid of the Capos. You might realize that everyone hates and fears the Capos and you’re not as bad as all that, and maybe you don’t need someone watching you all the time or the hassle of people suspecting you of Sin based on gossip or the fact that you aren’t under scrutiny as much as they’d like.

    But in order to achieve this state, you’d actually already have to be unafraid of the consequences, and here is where Christianity does its real work. Christianity sells itself as a false community where everyone is afraid to leave. It’s a prison where everyone is so afraid to leave that if you even mention thinking about leaving, you’ll be threatened with getting thrown out. It’s a bizarre joke that’s too ironic for any True Believer to consider. I can’t imagine how CS Lewis or Blaise Pascal would react to such a revelation. It should be pretty obvious that many young people are in situations where they can’t afford to get thrown out of prison, but that as soon as they are able they will leave on their own but be compelled to engage in frustrating argument, fighting really, with their parents and eventually come to the conclusion that drama is bad and it’s better to shut up and that’s what you do to be considered an adult. So we somehow fall short of having very many people outside those first two groups than mostly rebellious teenagers, which manages to suit True Believers much too conveniently.

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