May 14, 2011

C.S. Lewis' Latin & an epic poem for evangelicals

I could be wrong, but I'm guessing Rick Warren's next book will not be something he translated from the Latin.

Nor Al Mohler's or John Piper's. T.D. Jakes', Max Lucado's, John Eldrege's or Tim Keller's. Even Brian McLaren or Donald Miller or Shane Clairborne, I don't think so.

It's difficult for me to even imagine that any of the marquee-name evangelicals are, somewhere, working on Latin translations -- Augustine, say, a line at a time in a journal, or Cicero in private in the evening. Maybe they are. There's some who could be, of course. N.T. Wright, etc. I doubt it, though.

It's not that there aren't evangelical figures who could be doing some messing around with Latin in their private study, it's just that it isn't done. It's not the style.

Even less likely is a major evangelical encouraging young evangelicals to spend some time with ancient Romans in the original, to read the poets or rhetoricians, the soldier-thinkers or myth makers. You can't find Virgil's Aneid in a Christian bookstore, for example, or in an average church library.

At least you couldn't.

C.S. Lewis, again, after being dead for however long, is expanding evangelical horizons.

He legitimizes evangelical fiction, for evangelicals, and natural law philosophy, which is more typically the domain of Catholics. He is -- and has been, long before Rob Bell was on the scene at all -- the first way most young evangelicals are introduced to the idea of universalism and different and creative ways to try to think about heaven and hell. He acts as introduction to certain struggles within that tradition of Christianity. He's the first exposure for many to the idea of reading the Bible as literature, on focusing, for example, on the theatric structure of Job or Jonah, and setting aside issues of historicity.

Things that make conservative evangelicals uncomfortable -- Lewis is right there, just over the line.

Considering that someone like Billy Graham is still sometimes controversial, I don't understand, really, how C.S. Lewis is so accepted. He's like the saint, the Pope, the golden one who, whatever he says, it is evangelicalism. Even though maybe no one else would be allowed to say it and even though it's not entirely clear that he was an evangelical.

He's such a gateway to things that conservative evangelicals are often really uncomfortable with.

Last time I was in the U.S. I went to a Christian bookstore, and Lewis could be found in basically every section of the store -- theology, fiction, inspiration, etc. -- and there were more editions of his work than any other single author. There's really no one figure like Lewis operative among American evangelicals.

Tolkein, a little bit. In a more limited way and to a much smaller circle. Or Francis Schaeffer. A lot of homes, Schaeffer's the only reference to art or philosophy to be found. He's the introduction to Michaelangelo or Heidegger, limited though that intro may be.

Lewis is a rock star compared to them, though, in the evangelical world.

It doesn't surprise me particularly to read that his translation of Virgil isn't actually that good. Or that it won't be a major contribution to Aeneid scholarship. That's not who Lewis is, and asking the question, I think, "is his translation good?" is a basic misunderstanding how he works and why he's important.

The way Lewis might put it, using one of his favorite metaphors: his translated fragments of the Latin epic are going to act as secret doors.

It's more like a trap door, though. Sometimes some kid will step on it wrong and -- pow! -- plummet violently out the other side of what he or she once thought was the floor of Christianity. That's unique to Lewis position on the evangelical bookshelf. Sometimes he opens up spaces for people to fall through.

Still, he can translate parts of the pre-Christian epic poem of gods and war and the founding of Rome -- "Arms, and the man I sing, who, forc'd by fate, / And haughty Juno's unrelenting hate, / Expell'd and exil'd, left the Trojan shore." -- and that'll be a Christmas gift, even from people who just the name "Rome" makes them uncomfortable.

No one else could translate something from a dead language and have there be an evangelical market for it, I don't think. Lewis' next book, though, is translated from the Latin.

Who else could do that?