Poor Alex and Martin. Misters King and Ketley had no idea that their forgettable English textbook would unleash one of the twentieth century’s most eloquent and destructive critiques of modernism, with the two of them in the marksman’s crosshairs.
The Control of Language: A Critical Approach to Reading and Writing, was published in 1939 as a textbook for upperform students in British schools. Little did Alex King and Martin Ketley know that their work would catch the ire of Oxford don and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis. But ignite his ire it did, and the result was one of Lewis’ most important books, The Abolition of Man.
In his first chapter, “Men Without Chests”, Lewis graciously gave King and Ketley the pseudonyms Gaius and Titius, and to The Control of Language he gave the title The Green Book. But beyond his civility towards their persons, Lewis gave no quarter when it came to his criticism of their book. For within the book, Lewis found an error that was pernicious and destructive, and one with the power to subvert young minds.
Their error has now become a commonplace in our day. They comment on Coleridge’s experience of hearing two tourists see a waterfall, one describing it as “sublime”, the other calling it “pretty”. Coleridge endorsed the former and was disgusted at the latter. King and Ketley wanted their readers to see this through modernist eyes, however. They wrote: “When the man said This is sublime, he appeared to be making a remark about the waterfall… Actually … he was not making a remark about the waterfall, but a remark about his own feelings. What he was saying was really I have feelings associated in my mind with the word “Sublime”, or shortly, I have sublime feelings.’”
And here Lewis released his truth bloodhounds. For contained in that statement is the germ of modernism, naturalism, and even atheism. Beauty, or sublimity (a form of beauty), according to King and Ketley, is not a real attribute of persons, places, things or ideas in the universe. Beauty is not something that can be predicated of another with any coherent meaning. Instead, beauty simply refers to pleasure in the subject. Beauty is the happy approval of observers.
From there, a logical connection is quietly made in the young person’s mind: we are not to make judgements of value about the world, calling things true, good or beautiful. Instead, we are simply to say, “Such and such is beautiful to me” or “I feel pleasurably attracted towards such-and-such”. All we are allowed to do (by the rules of modernism) is make statements about our thoughts and feelings. To make value judgements about the world would be to assume a meaningful universe that can be judged for meaning – including its beauty.
Lewis knew that this view was an Enlightenment revision, and an anti-Christian one. He wrote, “Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it—believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence or our contempt.”
One wonders how many pulpits are occupied by men like Gaius and Titius.
“When you say that certain music is beautiful, what you of course mean is that it is beautiful to you, and that you know according to Romans 14 that it may not be beautiful to another Christian.”
“To say that Isaac Watts wrote beautiful poetry is true. But is it not true that a child’s prayer is just as beautiful, in its own way?”
“What style of music we like is simply a preference. That we all defer to one another’s preferences is what really pleases God. God has no musical preference.”
Whether or not they realise it, men who say these kinds of things, and the churches that approvingly nod, are heirs of King and Ketley. Finding the path that Lewis reminds us of may be a difficult task, but it is the original path of Christianity, and the one we must follow.