Friday 5 October 2018

Alister McGrath points and sputters at CS Lewis's 'ill-judged remark'

 Alister McGrath - a worryingly smug face?

I am listening to the audiobook version* of Alister McGrath's very valuable biography CS Lewis: a life (2013; which I previously reviewed). McGrath has many qualities that enable him to write a Lewis biography that is a genuine addition to the earlier examples; and this is indeed an essential secondary resource for the keen Lewis scholar.

However; McGrath is a 'liberal evangelical' theologian and a British Establishment intellectual; in other words he is on the wrong side of the cultural war, including specifically being on the wrong side in the litmus test issues concerning the sexual revolution that have divided and almost destroyed the Church of England.

McGrath is therefore ultimately against Lewis (and, despite his widespread activity as an apologist, ultimately anti-Christian). If there were a barricade, these two men would be fighting on opposite sides. So, despite McGrath's genuine affection and interest in Lewis; there is (I detect) an endemic tendency in this biography towards revisionism and subversion of Lewis's rock bottom convictions which underlies the work and becomes evident from time to time.

For example, on page 228 in discussing the flaws of Lewis's greatest apologetic work, Mere Christianity, we get:

[McGrath's text] Consider, for example, the following ill-judged remarks.

[Quote from Lewis] What makes a pretty girl spread misery wherever she goes by collecting admirers? Certainly not her sexual instinct: that kind of girl is quite often sexually frigid.

[McGrath speaking again] I recall a conversation with a colleague about those two sentences some years ago. We had a copy of Mere Christianity open at the appropriate page. "Why did he write that?" I asked, pointing to the first sentence. "How could he know that?" he replied, pointing to the final part of the second.

That is the full extent of McGrath's 'analysis' of this passage - and he seems to regard it as a knock-down, drag-out argument...

Yet, McGrath does not say why the passage from Mere Christianity really-is 'ill-judged' - he merely tells us that it is. McGrath is simply doing a 'point and sputter' (as, I think, Steve Sailer named it) - and is engaged in 'virtue signalling' to Leftists of his own kind (as Vox Day calls it) - and he is practising Bulverism as defined by CS Lewis himself.

That is, McGrath simply assumes that what he says is ill-judged is indeed ill-judged, and immediately goes on to express abhorrence of the error without showing that it is indeed an error.

The proper answer to McGrath's self-cited rhetorical question 'Why did he wrote that?' - is simply: Because it is true! And if McGrath has genuinely never encountered pretty girls of that type, then Lewis and I have done; and they do indeed spread misery, widely and deeply.

As for 'How could he know that?'... well, there are so many plausible possible answers that I would not know where to start.  Let's just say that from a man of such astonishing breadth and depth of wisdom and perception as CS Lewis demonstrates himself to be in many writings; it is very easy to suppose that he would notice that attractive, histrionic, attention-seeking, manipulative women often are 'frigid' in the meaning implied.

In sum, McGrath is doing something very modern and typical of the political correctness of a Social Justice Warrior: that is, he is treating Lewis's passage as a Hate Fact - something factually true that ought not to be said; and when said must be denied. Because those two sentences from Lewis would nowadays be quite sufficient to get him vilified without restraint throughout the international mass media, sacked from his Oxford fellowship, barred from mainstream publication, and hounded-out of 'polite society'.

And, implicitly, that state of affairs is what McGrath (perhaps unconsciously, through sheer ingrained habit, but certainly) is supporting and endorsing by the way he treats this passage. As I said; McGrath is on the wrong side in the Spiritual War of our age; when the gloves are off McGrath is on the same side as Screwtape.

This may seem a bit harsh but I regard it as a simple fact; and it is unsurprising; given how very rare it is for someone in modern Britain (especially among the high status intellectual elite) to be on the right side: whether they genuinely regard themselves as a Christian, or not. Anyone who is a senior Professor at top universities, and has accumulated multiple high status prizes, awards, medals is almost certainly on the wrong side; and when (or rather 'if', because I can't think of any) they are on the right side... well, they would stand-out very sharply indeed. 

The only valid question is whether McGrath was/ is fooling himself, or whether his rhetoric is deliberately manipulative. Maybe he was 'in transition' between real and fake Christianity when he wrote this book: it seems rather likely.

But the thing about these End Times is that the centre-ground has been destroyed, there is no neutrality, we are either For or Against. We are pushed to one extreme or another, and lack of clarity about this fact, evasiveness about which side we will personally take our stand, rapidly becomes exactly equivalent to lying.

On the plus side; because of this extreme cultural division between Good and evil; one does not need to be an exceptionally subtle and discerning reader to take what is good about McGrath's biography and to leave aside that which is strategically evil. Now the gloves are finally off, subtle subversion becomes de facto impossible - so (thank Heavens!) we need not avoid all mainstream productions!

*Note added. The Audiobook version is only adequate - despite some 'rave reviews online!). The tone is rather monotonous, and a bit hurried; and there are too many mispronunciations and actual misreadings of important words (e.g. Inkling Humphrey Havard is calle Harvard throughout). I don't blame the voice actor for this (Robin Sachs - aka Ethan Raine from Buffy) but the director - whose job is to know the book's background, establish the style, set the pace and monitor the language.


William Wildblood said...

He is,as you say, virtue signalling. Anyone now who is desirous of being thought on the right side of goodness simply cannot allow any adverse comments on the feminine psyche. But this just shows that being perceived as good matters more to them than love of truth. They are of no use to the spiritual powers.

Michael Dyer said...

Maybe I'm missing something, but what exactly is McGrath saying about this passage? I mean, I'm picking up on dismissal but honestly CSL isn't saying anything especially odd here to me. It's actually kind of common knowledge, or at least I thought it was, not especially "red pilled" or esoteric knowledge.

I see the sort of nod and wink in McGrath here that I'm not really picking up on what the specifics actually are. What exactly is he trying to say?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Michael - He's saying that this is a hate fact.

Like all New Leftism, it comes from a fundamentally negative ideology; an ideology of denial. It isn't coherent.

I go into this phenomenon in much more detail wrt the mass media in my mini book Addicted to Distraction

Seijio Arakawa said...

What’s most amusing about “how could he know that” is that the context of the quote implies that the hate fact in question is not some special life experience of CS Lewis he’s sharing with the audience, but is assumed to be already known and obvious to the readers, both male and female. It’s presented as “this well-known behaviour is actually an example of Pride, if you think about it”.

I don’t know which possibility is worse, that people like McGrath genuinely understand women that much less nowadays, or that everyone is required to studiously pretend they don’t.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Seijio - good point.

Chiu ChunLing said...

The key point, I think, is how Lewis would know it.

Lewis would most likely know it by the report of men who had enough sexual experience with women to know the difference between a woman having an orgasm and a woman not having one, who had been attracted to such a woman sufficiently to experience her lack of orgasm compared to other women. Of course, it is obvious from an evolutionary standpoint that the purpose of the female orgasm corresponds to the purpose of the male orgasm, both orgasms exist to transfer semen from the male to the female reproductive system. When a female does not instinctively wish to become pregnant, she is not especially prone to actually orgasm. The type of woman Lewis discusses is never trying to get pregnant, it is contrary to her whole social program and personal identity. So she is unlikely to actually reach orgasm, the pleasure for her is entirely outside of actual sex.

But the evolutionary standpoint is not commonly studied or carefully analyzed even now, much less in Lewis' day. His knowledge comes from report of a disreputable kind of man, or at least one we are supposed to think more disreputable than the kind of girl that creates and trains them. Of course we should be cautious about trusting such reports...but this report is not one likely to be made falsely. The natural social and personal investment of these men would be to hide their experience of failing to bring an apparently readily willing woman to orgasm. They do the opposite because they have come to recognize the futility of trying to lie about it to each other, and this honesty with their fellows leaks out.

I might add that a set of perversions which have seen an exceptional rise in popularity and acceptance (even among heterosexuals) relate to simulating the female orgasm to some degree. The prevalence of and asserted preference for these implies that a large and growing fraction of sexually active men have never brought a woman to orgasm.

Perhaps such an observation is also an "ill-judged remark".

Bruce Charlton said...

@CCL - I think, from context and the usage in my youth; that 'frigid' here does Not refer to orgasm; but to the fact that - despite sexualised behaviour - sexual interest is absent, and is being simulated (e.g. in order to manipulate).

Having made this distinction - I wonder whether McGrath's colleague made the same assumption as you did; which might explin the flavour of his reaction?

Chiu ChunLing said...

I'm afraid I don't understand the distinction you're making.

Or rather, I should say I fail to see why you're attempting to make a distinction between an honest interest in ordinate sex (I suppose I should clarify here that by "ordinate" I mean "as God intended in the design of creation") and likelihood of functional female orgasm.

I think that such a distinction is readily possible and necessary when speaking of male function, because of the possibility of the male reproducing successfully despite abandoning the child immediately after conception. So the male orgasm has biological functionality outside of the ordinate sexuality. This is far less true of the female orgasm (at least, complete orgasm, but a fuller discussion would be an unsuitable tangent from this topic).

It may be that you are talking about situations in which a woman's conscious intentions are contrary to her unconscious intentions, particularly such that her unconscious intention is ordinate while her conscious intention is not. I think such may often be the case but I do not assign it great moral import, it is a mental health issue but not a serious moral one. When a woman really does want to marry a man and bear his children, but is in denial of this about herself, she is simply mentally ill and needs therapy.

Bruce Charlton said...

@CCL - I think you are missing the point. Lewis is here talking about the kind of woman that behaves seductively towards men - but Not with a primarily sexual aim; rather in order to get something from the man - which may be money, gifts, fame - or may simply be his attention, infatuation. This is a stereotypical behaviour of the Hysterical/ Histrionic/ Narcissistic type of 'personality disorder'. For such women sex appeal is a tool, not a means to getting sex or marriage.

Avro G said...

I see McGrath's subtle treachery as a flinch response typical of theologians who seek to maintain a "respectable" place in academia and the media. They know from a mile off that Lewis's plain assertion, whether true or not, is red-hot "trigger" language. Like an oyster, they reflexively envelope the irritant in a pearly-smooth shell so it glides right past critics, Christian and Christ-hating alike, without exposing the ostensibly sympathetic biographer to a charge of crediting such medieval bigotry. So he has his cake and eats it, too. The reformed wing of Christianity (the one I am most familiar with) is rife with such behavior.

Chiu ChunLing said...

That would be precisely what I am getting. What I am not getting is how her lack of interest in sex for its own sake is different from not having an interest in sex for its own sake.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Avro - That sounds about right.

This comes very naturally because leftism is deeply ingrained and almost unconscious in so many British people - particularly those who work in the 'public sector' of the economy.

For example, many British people, especially the middle classes, Equate medicine and health care with the National Health Service: state provided bureaucratic services are regarded as morally superior, and the bigger the bureaucracy, the more superior - the European Union is superior to the UK, the United Nations superior to the EU - and this by prior assumption, completely unrelated to what the organisations actually Do.

This ingrained leftism is, I believe, mostly responsible for the continual erosion of Christianity - perhaps especially among evangelicals. It is, at the least, an Achilles heel.

All that said; I should emphasise my original point that McGrath's biography is - overall - an extremely important and positive contribution to Lewis scholarship; the level of detail is much greater than in any other. It would Not be a good first biography to read, because it does not capture the essence of Lewis - it is more like a detailed critique and supplement of the pre-existing biographies, of which George Sayers's is the best.

(AN Wilson's is error-ridden, and a cunningly dishonest and misleading book - designed deliberately to subvert Lewis's reputation - which it may be better to avoid - except for Wilson's excellent discussions of Lewis's Engllish Literature scholarship, although even these parts are marred by malice. Wilson is just a high-level hack; but clever and knowledgeable, and usually very professional in biographies - however, he has acknowledged that he thoroughly disliked Lewis and this poisoned his biography and made him sloppy.)

Back to your main point - I think we would both agree that this kind of 'subtle treachery' is actually lethal to real Christianity; and very rapidly leads to fake Christianity: which is adjusted to fit current leftist pieties. (Instead of real and fake we could say primary and secondary Christian - secondary to politics; knowing that to be a secondary Christian is Not to be a Christian.)

It is not easy for these Establishment intellectual Christians whose whole personal, as well as professional, life depends on their continued leftism; e.g. Rev Prof Alister McGrath is married to an Anglican priestess (as is Rev Dr Malcolm Guite, another prominent Inklings scholar) - however, this makes the situation very stark, black and white; and it therefore nowadays quite easy to distinguish the real from the fake Christian (in terms of their core tendency) - regardless of that person's (genuine or insincere) self-identification.

Avro G said...

It is a powerful temptation to subordinate Christ to the grim, Magus-like obsession with material power, as such (AKA, leftism, of which the dialectical politics of our time is but an avatar). It's true that those so ensnared always tip their hand in spite of their professed beliefs. The truth will out.

Anonymous said...

It's worth noting Arend Smilde's detailed attention to Alister McGrath's biography:

(I was surprised when I first learnt he was working on a biography - we could somehow never get him to speak to the Lewis Soc when he was at Wycliffe in the 1980s.)

Interesting, and not uncharacteristic, little refining qualification, there, I think, in that "quite often", making the example clearer and more pointed. Would it also be interesting to compare and contrast with the more richly, complexly developed later examples of Jane Studdock, Susan Pevensie at a certain age, and Orual?

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

Thanks David - I'll need a bit of time and stamina to work through that! The significant inaccuracies I noticed were mostly in relation to Tolkien.

My point was to try and strike a balance between the fact that this biog has a (to me) surprising amount of worthwhile extra information, which made me glad that I read and re-read it; while also making clear that its general tone is rather negative, dull, nit-picking - and therefore I would regard it as unsuitable to be the first biography someone read.

I found McGrath's suggesting re-dating of the events of Lewis's conversion to be completely convincing - and (given the importance of Lewis's conversion story among Christians) this is a significant achievement.

Anonymous said...

Hmm... having corresponded with Arend Smilde and then read all he has published and put online, I have just ignored the McGrath bio, assuming I needn't bother... but it sounds like there is argument deserving attention (if he seem to re-date, convincingly: I thoroughly enjoyed A.N. Wilson's paper on Lewis's two-step conversion in Penfriends from Porlock (1988), and hoped it boded well for his bio, together with enjoying his company in the Lewis Soc (alas, no!)).

Your remarks about a "surprising amount of worthwhile extra information" in contrast to "general tone" make me think of my experience of Keith Thomas's Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971)...

David Llewellyn Dodds

William Tighe said...

No one here has yet to mention that McGrath is a strong supporter and proponent of the pretended ordination of women, and his wife is an Anglican "priestess," a subject on which Lewis expressed himself strongly and negatively. This is enough in itself to reveal the great religious gulf that separates them.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WT - I was almost sure that this was the case, since I understood that McG had headed a theological college that trains female ordinands - but I was unable to confirm this from an internet search. My guess is that McG probably avoided making public statements on this subject - because he self-identifies as an evangelical, wheras most serious evangelicals do not recognise women pastors. I think he must actively have avoided it, because it was the number one issue in the Church of England for a long time from the 1980s right through until about a decade agon when the sexual orientation agenda began to take-over.