A Question About “Culture Wars”

In his great work of literary history, Poetry and Prose in the Sixteenth Century, C.S. Lewis devotes a passage to what he describes, with a certain savageness, as “that whole tragic farce which we call the history of the Reformation.” For Lewis, the issues that divided Catholics and Protestants, that led to bloodshed all over Europe and to a seemingly permanent division of Christians from one another, “could have been fruitfully debated only between mature and saintly disputants in close privacy and at boundless leisure.” Instead, thanks to the prevalence of recent invention of the printing press, and to the intolerance of many of the combatants, deep and subtle questions found their way into the popular press and were immediately transformed into caricatures and cheap slogans. After that there was no hope of peaceful reconciliation.

Is Lewis’ claim valid? If not, why not? I, for one, think there is something to his claim. This point is applicable to an extent, despite the obvious differences, to fundamental political differences. What do we find in political discourse: gross generalizations, demonizing the other size, presuming the worst of the other side, reducing people to their political views, assuming others’ intentions for them, projecting the words or actions of one person within a greater movement onto the whole movement, and the list goes on. Is such an analysis valid; if, no, again, why not?

22 Responses to A Question About “Culture Wars”

  1. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Lewis was always an advocate of sweet reasonableness and “Mere Christianity”. I think he is dead wrong in this instance. Most of the Protestant leaders, such as Luther and Calvin, had absolutely no interest in any compromise with the Papists. Luther especially expressed himself on paper very violently, and the older he got the more violent his expressions became.

    “The edict condemning my book was drawn up, I have been told, by Aleandro, a man zealous enough in the service of his masters, the Pope and the Devil. In that edict I was termed a demon in the shape of a man, and in the dress of a monk. The people were exhorted to seize me and my friends, to destroy our property, and burn our productions! Those monsters gave it out that whoever murdered me would render a good service to the Church; but I have been spared to fight against their iniquities, and to wage war against their metropolis of blasphemy. I have seen the fruits of my labours, and I give thanks to God for it this day. It is His doing – it is marvellous in my eyes.”

    That is a fairly mild passage from Luther. When he really wanted to get rough he wrote like this:

    “I can hardly pray when I think on them without cursing. I cannot say, Hallowed by thy name, without adding, Cursed be the name of the Papists, and of all those who blaspheme God! If I say, Thy kingdom come, I add, Cursed be the Popedom, and all kingdoms that are opposed to Thine! If I say, Thy will be done, I add, Cursed be the designs of the Papists, and of all those – may they perish! – who fight against Thee! In this way I pray daily, and with me all the true faithful in Christ Jesus. Nevertheless, I have a good and loving heart for all the world, and my greatest enemies themselves know this well.” Yeah Luther, your good and loving heart for all the world just shines through your writings.

    The technology of the time merely accurately reflected the message that Luther wished to project. Luther and Calvin and most of the other Reformation leaders did not wish to compromise with Rome but to destroy it as a citadel of the Anti-Christ. The moderate temper of Lewis was foreign to the vast majority of the Reformation leaders, and I believe to most of their followers.

  2. Elaine Krewer says:

    “Luther especially expressed himself on paper very violently, and the older he got the more violent his expressions became.”

    Especially when he wrote tracts with titles like “Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants.”

  3. Joe Hargrave says:


    If Lewis was seriously proposing that the differences between Catholics and Protestants – or for that matter, any two warring factions – could have been resolved in the manner he described, I’d say he was incredibly naive. I’d probably want to see the context of that particular quote.

    Even when great historical disputes have been settled without violence – such as, for instance, the conflict between Federalists and Anti-Federalists – they are usually still simmering until they explode at a later date (the Civil War). The sort of things you describe are what happens when we are not quite ready for bloodshed but are, in fact, already at war with one another.

    That’s the thing Eric – the culture war is a real war, and it hasn’t turned violent yet for many reasons I won’t get into here.

    That being said, there are good reasons for the tone of the political debates we see: If we are convinced that our opponents are advocating for something that is wholly evil, we are not going to trouble ourselves with civility, any more than we would if we saw a child being raped. We react with hostility to what we perceive to be evil.

    The truth is that what Luther and other Protestants espoused were some of the same old heresies the Church had already combated, repackaged and updated. There has been a conflict of theologies and philosophies among Christians since before the Rebellion (I will not call it a “reformation” since all it did was plunder and destroy).

    There was violence before the 16th century – peasant uprisings partially inspired by heretical theology, the “crusades” against European heretical sects, and so on. The “wars of religion” of the 16th/17th centuries were simply the flowering of those earlier conflicts.

    The inevitability of conflict and the ultimate pointlessness of civil discourse is a reality that is difficult to accept. But it is, in my view, a reality. We can play relatively nice in the meantime and try to win a convert here or there – on the other side are always well-meaning people who have been lead astray and can be won over. But there will always be, for a variety of reasons, a dedicated core on the other side of this cultural divide which will not be swayed under any circumstances by any argument or appeal – any more than you or I will be persuaded to abandon the pro-life position or another fundamental position.

    Whether or not this will lead to bloodshed, I cannot say. We have been trained to think that nothing is sacred – nothing is worth fighting for, dying for, or especially killing for. Life is to be enjoyed in comfort and safety, everything is open not only to criticism but to mockery and ridicule, and our system of democracy will ultimately settle all disputes and resolve all differences. This is the creed that the post-modern man lives by. The ancients knew that systems of government come and go, but the post-modern man knows American democracy and the electoral college will last forever. It’s unbelievable.

    Sorry to digress. The point is, the war has already begun. What you note in our speech are merely the verbal equivalent of bullets, guns, bayonets, bombs, etc. Because I am a post-modern man, I fight with words, and I do so consciously – when I rant against the culture of death, my goal is to hurt it.

    But there is also a time for patience and mercy – if an enemy soldier waves the white flag and wants to talk, that makes brings me much greater joy than the dirty work of shooting and stabbing with words.

  4. Joe Hargrave says:

    I’ll also add that I don’t mean to contradict what I said about pro-life pragmatism in an earlier post. I do believe in working through the political process and waging the culture war. When I describe post-modern man, I’m not excluding myself, and when I describe him in a less than flattering way, I don’t necessarily mean to elevate the ancients. A world of constant bloodshed and military campaigns is not more desirable than a world where most of the wars are waged with words and political campaigns.

    But with the good of whole generations of peace comes the bad of the complete vulgarization of everything, indifference, arrogance, and the weakening of our sense of sacredness for anything.

  5. Eric Brown says:

    But even in “war” there are still boundaries. Moreover — who is the enemy here? Other human beings? Or there an enemy?

    I’m very concerned that warfare where “anything goes” — namely the things I described — makes those of us fighting the “good fight” look like hypocrites seeing as we’re willing to ignore some of our own principles in order to win.

  6. Rick Lugari says:

    To add to Don and Joe’s observations of the shortcomings of Lewis’ narratives. The revolution against the Church (I don’t like to call it the Reformation because it wasn’t at all) would probably have not gotten very far if it weren’t for the societal structure of the time, coupled with the faults of rulers. The social order was intimately linked to Church. What faith a ruler chose was more or less what dictated where that realm was going. It’s been a number of years since I read about the politics of the revolution, but my lasting impression was that most of it was driven by power politics of the different principalities rather than the faithful just deciding one day that they had been believing a lie (and I’m not referring to Henry VIII here, even though he’s an extreme and obvious example – it was a much subtler type thing on the continent). Perhaps Don can confirm or add to that.

    As to Eric’s broader point, I think there is much truth to it. I think it makes things very difficult because when those techniques are used it’s not about fighting for what is right or trying to persuade or lead. It’s just feeding one’s ego or trying to end run justice to get one’s way and the effect is to just further alienate or distance. The other reason it’s problamatic is because it is what it is. Where people don’t respect the dignity of others and lack the ability to empathize (which is something you must do in order to truly understand the other person’s view), you’ve lost even when you’ve won and nobody is the better for it.

  7. Lewis is wrong on several counts.

    1) He sets up an elitist division between the “saintly” experts and the “common” people.

    2) He assumes that the “common” people would not have been interested in such debates unless they were “let in on them” by the experts through technological advancement.

    3) He assumes that the theological experts were not also engaged in caricatures.

    I rarely agree or even concur with Donald. In this case I concur: Lewis is wrong.

  8. Such a lack of charity ! Luther was mentally ill. The latest flowering of the mentality of Luther is the Episcoplaian lesbian bishop.Polycarp burned for this?

  9. I love Lewis, but this is naive. While I think he might have had a point that at the time the populace was particularly vulnerable to propaganda that helped cleave b/c they lacked any kind of education from which to approach the issue (which is not really the fault of the populace), the Church was unpopular enough that any debate that could justify the seizing of its valuable lands was going to end up causing such a fight. People (the lords in Germany and elsewhere) wanted the power and used Luther to justify taking it from the Church. One wonders if they much cared at all what Luther said as long it discredited the Church.

    However, I think we can take Lewis’s point about cheap slogans & caricatures causing permanent division very seriously, as well as promoting education such that the populace is better able to see through this kind of stuff and be able to engage in debate in order to allow unity despite disagreements, instead of the “two camps” philosophy we see dominating today (CNN v. Fox News, GOP v. Democrats, etc.)

  10. Pinky says:

    I hope it’s not unfair to point out that Lewis really wanted his interpretation of the Reformation to be true. He lived his life calmly discussing those issues with mature people. He wrote a book which posited a “mere” common Christianity. One of his characters (I forget which) had the epiphany that freewill and determinism were the same thing. Arguably, Lewis never stepped up and chose a clear path, so it would be natural for him to project that thinking onto the Reformation.

    As for the application of his thought to the current political / social debate, I’ll have to mull it over. Good topic.

  11. Joe Hargrave says:


    “But even in “war” there are still boundaries.”

    Of course there have always been physical limits to what is possible. But that is what makes a verbal war, a spiritual war, so much worse – all boundaries are effectively removed.

    “Moreover — who is the enemy here? Other human beings? Or there an enemy?”

    Other human beings, yes, and as Scripture tells us, spirits and forces of evil. Did not Christ Himself warn us that he did not come to bring peace, but a sword? He was not endorsing warfare and violence, but speaking of the inevitability of conflict over His teachings, either with one another over the meaning, or with non-believers over the interpretation. Christianity is message of hope and love for all people of good-will – and a declaration of war on people whose hearts have hardened and whose souls have gone rotten with evil.

    “I’m very concerned that warfare where “anything goes” — namely the things I described — makes those of us fighting the “good fight” look like hypocrites seeing as we’re willing to ignore some of our own principles in order to win.”

    I don’t believe in “anything goes.” If this is what you meant before by boundaries, then yes, I agree. We ought to make the strictest effort to conduct ourselves as Christians.

    I didn’t make too many friends when I criticized some of the methods of Lila Rose (though I think what she’s doing now is ok).

    But in the eyes of some people, calling things by their rightful names and simply speaking the truth will fall into the categories you bring up before. There is a limit to how civil we can be while speaking truth to evil, Eric.

  12. I think I’m more sympathetic to Lewis’s argument here than many on the thread. As I would see it, the implication would be: In a world without the populizing media technology of the printing press, a Luther might have arisen, but he would not have been able to gain a continent-wide following and thus become useful to secular powers wanting to move in on Church priviliges without the disseminating power of the printed word. Thus, Luther might have been a fiery local peacher, and might have been responsible for some sort of local unrest or been squelched in a heresy purge, but he wouldn’t have had the wide and rapid impact that he did without that technology.

    I could see some support for that in the history of the Middle Ages. During that period, if you wanted to make off with Church lands or power, you didn’t support a figure like Luther, you got involved in the investiture controversy, or supported your own anti-pope, or kidnapped the pope and moves the seat of the Church to your own kingdom, etc. One could argue that it was the lack of printing (and the literacy that accompanied it) that prevented Medieval populist heresies from gaining the wide and lasting support of which Luther and Calvin enjoyed.

    On the other hand, I think you could also make a case that the difference between the post-Reformation wars of religion and the Medieval wars of religion is mostly only that there aren’t any modern survivors of the creed and schismatic groups which were involved in uprisings and civil strife in the Middle Ages, while Protestants are still around, and thus they and Catholics can look at each other and be inspired to go read about how badly they treated each other during the 1500s and 1600s.

    It seems to me there might be some validity to both of these ways of looking at things, and I’m not sure where the majority of the truth lies.

  13. Eric Brown says:

    Points well taken. If Michael can agree with Don, it must be a pretty valid argument.

  14. Donald R. McClarey says:

    “One could argue that it was the lack of printing (and the literacy that accompanied it) that prevented Medieval populist heresies from gaining the wide and lasting support of which Luther and Calvin enjoyed.”

    A fair argument, except that Arius in the fourth century spread his heresy throughout the Roman Empire and beyond partially because he was a superb writer of hymns, as was Luther incidentally, and his heresy was as successful for centuries as Protestantism has been. The Hussites in the first half of the fifteenth century did very well for themselves also prior to the printing press. The Protestants benefited from the printing press but so did the Church during the Counter Reformation in regaining much of the lost ground. Technology can help any movement but I think tends to balance out the advantages gained for the sides in any struggle given enough time.

  15. Just to clarify – I agree with Don’s judgment that Lewis is wrong, but I do not agree with everything Don wrote.

  16. Gabriel Austin says:

    Eric Brown questions December 11, 2009 A.D. at 4:26 am
    “But even in “war” there are still boundaries. Moreover — who is the enemy here? Other human beings? Or is there an enemy?”

    Question already answered:
    “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, walks around like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Peter 5:8).

    I realize that Satan has become a concept in the liberal catholic mind; but for all that he is real. As C.S. Lewis was aware.

  17. Gabriel Austin says:

    There is just that about C.S. Lewis which is “tea and crumpets in the vicarage”. I doubt he would survived outside Oxbridge.

    On tother hand he seems to have been responsible for many conversions [except his Ulster opposition to his brother’s].

  18. Good points, Don.

    I’m trying to think if I could argue that Arianism functioned more like a division within the Church, with most regions being almost entirely Arian or orthodox according to the leaning of the bishop, while Protestantism was a populist heresy which resulted in much greater mixing (and thus opportunity for conflict at a local level). It seems like ordinary people (however little they may have understood all the theological fine points involved) may have been more passionately set against each other at a local level by the Reformation than by the Arian heresy.

    But I’m not sure to what extent the distinction holds.

    And I don’t know a whole lot about the Hussites.

    I certainly wouldn’t pitch the idea as being wholly responsible for the for an increase in strife and factionalism (religious and political) at the populist level since the invention of mass media. But it does strike me there’s some validity to seeing the strife of the 17th to 20th centuries as tending more towards mass, populist movements and wars, while earlier conflicts were based more on either loyalty to different leaders, who were personally clashing, or else from the clash of wholly different cultures/civilizations (Christian vs. Saracen, Tuton vs. Slav, Roman vs. Goth, Mongol vs. Russian, etc.)

    The interesting question would be whether mass media (and the ability to fragment a culture which it allows, by allowing ideas to circulate more freely) allows one to have conflicts much more like the latter civilizational clashes even within a culture which is theoretically common in origin.

  19. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Arianism started out like Protestantism as a faction within the Church. Like Protestantism its main staying power came from being associated with secular political power due to the conversion of most of the Barbarian tribes to Arianism, the Franks being an all-important exception. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire the successor barbarian states were Arian, with the exception of the Franks under Clovis. The conversion of these states to Catholicism is a great chapter of Church history that has yet to find a historian worthy of the topic.

    The growth of the divine right of kings theory in the Seventeenth Century was in part I think a reaction to the unleashing of popular passions by the Reformation in the Sixteenth Century and the sweeping away of many of the institutions that served to restrain medieval kingship, most notably in Protestant areas a Church that was not restricted to one polity. In France the Catholic Church became a national Gallican Church for all intents and purposes as fallout from the terrible wars of religion in France that weakened the Church and ulimately strengthened the Monarchy.

    Mass media came into its own of course during and after the French Revolution.

  20. Donald R. McClarey says:

    “There is just that about C.S. Lewis which is “tea and crumpets in the vicarage”. I doubt he would survived outside Oxbridge.”

    He did survive a tour in the trenches as an infantry officer in 1917. Lewis was tougher than he looked or than he reads. However, like the good Oxford don he was, he always had too much faith in reasoned debate and good manners solving the problems that beset the world.

  21. Pinky says:

    DC, I’d bet that we know about the internal divisions within dioceses better in recent history, but that old heresies were just as divisive.

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