A little over a week ago, my friend Mette posted a link on her Facebook page to an article entitled “Finding a Feminist Theology in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia.” I was sufficiently intrigued — since C.S. Lewis didn’t seem to be an especially feminist writer — to click through.
The article starts out recounting Lewis’s many critics who call him out for fearing and disliking women, disliking sexuality, and equating “ultimate good” with “ultimate masculinity”. Then it moves on to talk about a new view of Lewis’s work which is presented in Monika Hilder’s book The Feminine Ethos is C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. So far this all sounds like an academic cat fight, right? A clutch of post-modern professors and lit crit snobs mixing up it for the sake of entertainment.
Except that (echoing Hilder’s text) the authors suggest that the modern idea of feminism misses the point.
In an age that worships the cult of personality and aggrandizes the “virtues” of the energetic, the magnetic, the stunning, and the forceful – because these traits lead to more materialistic wealth and power – what room left is there for the fruit of the Spirit? Qualities such as self-control, meekness, patience, and peace sound quite out of vogue; “Let’s see how far the meek, patient, and peace-loving female can succeed,” I can hear the cynic ask. Hilder, though, suggests that our struggle for independence, power, and autonomy echo Satan’s thirst for domination more than Christ’s model of humble servanthood.
Take a moment to consider that last line. When was the last time you heard someone — anyone — praised for being a good and humble servant? That’s crazy talk, right?
If we are uncomfortable with some of the female characterizations throughout Lewis’s series, perhaps we should reconsider where this discomfort stems from. While we as women are right to strive for gender equality, we are wrong to measure it according to mere chauvinistic ideas of accomplishment. As Hilder states, “to the extent we have not examined our own chauvinism, we demean the ‘feminine’ qualities and extol the ‘masculine’—not noticing that Lewis does the opposite.” And indeed, it is in doing exactly that opposite that Hilder suggests Lewis’s radical theological feminism can be found.
More importantly, Lewis seems to be saying that the servant-minded approach cuts both ways. Men, as well as women, should strive to live up to that lofty standard.
Lewis’s idea of true spiritual strength— for both men and women— rests in openness to our Father, community, submission, compassion, truth, grace, and humility. So, when Lewis has Lucy run towards Eustace-the-dragon and bestow upon him grace only expressible in a child’s unrestrained kisses, or Lucy and Susan weep with Aslan while he is on the stone table, or, even Mrs. Beaver demonstrate foresight and responsibility for those in her care (or one could even dare say, community mindedness) in bringing along her domestically stigmatized sewing machine, Lewis wasn’t belittling these characters. I can learn that true spiritual strength, or spiritual heroism as Hilder terms it, “establishes the kingdom of heaven through humility,” not independence.
The article goes on to talk about how much of what we perceive to be sexism reflects our own biases more than the objective truth. That wasn’t what stayed with me after reading the article, though. I kept coming back to the idea of servanthood being the mark of a successful adult.
I encountered that idea again a few days later when we attended a Mass for the Admission to the Candidacy for the new Deaconate class in Utah. (A friend from our parish is one of the candidates.) The second reading was from Matthew.
But Jesus summoned them and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave. Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Oh. Right. Jesus mentioned this idea a couple of millennia back. At the time it was clearly a challenging idea; unusual and non-intuitive enough that he felt a need to address it with his disciples. You would think that in the past 2,000 years this idea would have caught on. I’ve read a goodly number of books about leadership and management and I’ve attended lectures and seminars and institutes, but all of them focused on ways to consolidate exploit power. Sure, there’s been talk of “servant leadership“, but it’s always in the context of “getting the job done”. The implication is that there is some goal to be achieved or target to be hit and it’s the leader’s responsibility to make sure that happens. If servant leadership can get you there, great. If not, find some other tool and keep pressing forward.
In other words, the modern ideal of leadership is the accumulation and application of power. Whether you’re a man or a woman, your goal should be to reach the top.
Except there’s this one guy who keeps telling a different story. In case you’ve missed the theme of humility in the homilies, interviews, and public talks Pope Francis has given in the past several months, he kindly included it in Evangelii Gaudium — his first Apostolic Exhortation.
I’m a long way from having read all 244 pages, but I’ve skimmed a bit of it and read some reliable commentaries from trusted sources, and the thing which sticks out is how deeply counter-cultural it is. In a world which judges us largely on how well we “succeed”, Pope Francis is calling for us to step out of the game. He’s not telling us to lose the game. He’s telling us to get out and spend our energy on something better. He even goes so far as to point out that we are guilty of this kind of thinking within the bounds of our religious practices.
(93) Spiritual worldliness, which hides behind the appearance of piety and even love for the Church, consists in seeking not the Lord’s glory but human glory and personal well-being. It is what the Lord reprimanded the Pharisees for: “How can you believe, who receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (Jn 5:44).
(94) …those who ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past. A supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline leads instead to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying.
(271) It is true that in our dealings with the world, we are told to give reasons for our hope, but not as an enemy who critiques and condemns. We are told quite clearly: “do so with gentleness and reverence” (1 Pet 3:15) and “if possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all” (Rom 12:18). We are also told to overcome “evil with good” (Rom 12:21) and to “work for the good of all” (Gal 6:10). Far from trying to appear better than others, we should “in humility count others better” than ourselves (Phil 2:3). The Lord’s apostles themselves enjoyed “favour with all the people” (Acts 2:47; 4:21, 33; 5:13). Clearly Jesus does not want us to be grandees who look down upon others, but men and women of the people. This is not an idea of the Pope, or one pastoral option among others; they are injunctions contained in the word of God which are so clear, direct and convincing that they need no interpretations which might diminish their power to challenge us. Let us live them sine glossa, without commentaries. By so doing we will know the missionary joy of sharing life with God’s faithful people as we strive to light a fire in the heart of the world.
When he was first elected, we knew there was something different about Pope Francis. His humility was refreshing and his simplicity endearing. Now he is asking the same as us; he is inviting us to follow him in humility. For those of us who grew up in western nations where “success” as a human being is defined by power and wealth, this is tremendously challenging idea. I wonder how many of us will be willing to follow through?