Wednesday, March 13, 2013

James Bond & C.S. Lewis

Two novelists of the 1950’s, Ian Fleming and C.S. Lewis, both of whose works soared in sales previous to their deaths in the early sixties, had some interesting similarities. Ian Fleming died in 1964 and C.S. Lewis in 1963. Just a little while earlier, in 1962, Sean Connery played the Ian Fleming character, James Bond, in the highly successful film Dr. No. In it, James Bond combats an evil organization known as SPECTRE (Special Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion). Although the Communist powers are always involved somewhere, this is not Fleming’s imaginative threat to civilization. This is a noteworthy fact, given that while the novels were being written, Communism was the most perceived threat to civilization. It is not as if one couldn’t identify them as a threat in a novel, many journalists and novelists did. But I think the fact that Fleming chose SPECTRE and not the KGB as Bond’s archenemy may hold some of the reason for the success of the novels.
In the fifties, we are talking about post-war England, a world where literate men have set down their weapons and returned to office work, walking their dogs, and attending their wives’ tea and cocktail parties. To a greater or lesser extent, attending their parish church was involved. Furthermore, there was something plaguing the man of the fifties and he felt it very deeply. He had fought a war and now he had returned to a different kind of war. It was the war in which the challenge to make money was a daily battle. As a returning veteran said in the 1946 film The Best Years of our Lives, “Last year it was kill Japs, this year it’s make money”. Finding a way to do business better than the other company involves certain challenges and temptations. To get intelligence from the competitor, to extort, terrorize and be vengeful are all temptations which a business man is prone to and it is exactly what SPECTRE is. SPECTRE is a money making organization and not an espionage organization which is spying patriotically.
It was in this fifties world that organizations like the Free-Masons, Rotary, Kiwanis Club and veterans associations thrived on the membership of men of war turned men of business. It was this culture in which Playboy magazine was born and became popular. Have you looked at a picture of Hugh Hefner smoking his pipe and compared it with C.S. Lewis smoking his pipe? Ian Fleming was interviewed by Playboy magazine shortly before his death. Needless to say, C.S. Lewis, James Bond and Playboy magazine remain popular half a century later. Yet they had their beginning in a world in which the hardest kind of soul for the Church to reach, the family-man-making-money-while-middle-aged, was trying to find his place in the world again.
Let us look more closely. Unlike some spies, James Bond is a gentleman, relatively speaking. Ian Fleming once described James Bond and said, “He’s not a Sidney Riley”. Anyone knowing about the spy Sidney Riley knows that Riley was no gentleman. James Bond is the kind of spy that an Englishman wearing the old-school tie and carrying an umbrella can identify with. When we come to C.S. Lewis, we find a veteran with whom a veteran can identify. Lewis was no saint, struggled with his faith and struggled with lust. We now know him as a saintly writer of Christian devotion and children’s books. Nevertheless, he did not consider himself a saint and married a divorced woman, something an aging bachelor in the fifties was surely tempted to do.
When it came to his convictions, C.S. Lewis, like the Englishman of the fifties, was a quietly devout Anglican, so much so that many reading his works are completely unaware of his denomination. It isn’t, of course, that he wasn’t outspoken. But I wonder sometimes if we met him on the street today if we would not wag our fingers in his face. Unlike some contemporaries, like Thomas Merton, who found their faith in their bachelorhood, he didn’t go off to a monastery. Therefore, in the medieval sense of Summum Bonum, he did not seek the highest good and enter the contemplative life. On the Evangelical side of the spectrum, he did not take his anti-atheistic convictions on the road like Billy Graham. He continued to fight, indeed, in one of the most intellectual arenas in Christendom. Yet he did not follow the logical course to the highest good as sometimes visualized within Catholic and Protestant circles. He did, however, follow the course which would lead to his blessedness.

C.S. Lewis sanctified a kind of Anglican gentleman writer, a kind which included Ian Fleming, as well as Somerset Maugham and Rudyard Kipling, both of whom also wrote spy novels. C.B. Moss, the Anglo-Catholic theologian, argued that figures like Kipling and Lord Baden Powell, with their Masonic leanings, represent the worst of English Christianity because of their Pelagian do-good-ism. In their defense, men like Kipling and Powell (who practiced espionage) were patriotic gentlemen and nominally Christian. When I say, “nominal”, I mean Masonic leaning and devoted to basic duty, not given to following the logical course leading to the Summum Bonum, which Moss might well consider true Christianity. What most reading Kipling’s If consider mere Christian gentlemanliness, Moss seems to consider “broad and lazy” English churchmanship. Despite Moss’ objections, Kipling and Powell’s ‘do-good-ism’ is precisely the kind of Christianity which a man returning to his desk in 1946 could see as relevant to his life. It was this kind of basic and practical churchmanship which Lewis was able to tap into and profoundly illuminate in a way not seen, perhaps, since William Wilberforce.
To conclude, the kind of man who returned to his desk in 1946 was the kind of man who also espoused this basic patriotic Christianity and might be tempted to read Fleming and Playboy when his wife wasn’t looking. When he watched his best friend spill his blood on the battlefield and woke up with nightmares for the rest of his life, he didn’t think to himself that he did it for Anglo-Catholicism or Methodism or the Southern Baptist Convention any more than he did it for the Labor party or Republican party. He did not sacrifice for the sake of some logically complex and idealistic ‘highest good’. In the end, he did it for the basic good of freedom and ‘Mere Christianity’. He was glad to see as he returned to his desk day after day during the fifties that there were still men fighting against atheism and the worst of unethical business practices. Whether it was James Bond or C.S. Lewis, he identified in these personalities something he himself was – merely heroic.        

1 comment:

  1. Interesting. You might expand it some day to account for some of the other great 20th century English authors who come to mind in the area of faith and espionage, empire, colonialism, & WW II. The RCs Graham Greene (whose espionage works included The Ministry of Fear, Our Man in Havana, and The Human Factor), Evelyn Waugh, and Anthony Burgess. Often the religious themes of their works are overpowering (e.g., Greene's Brighton Rock, The Power & the Glory, The Heart of the Matter, & The End of the Affair). The non-RCs would include Kingsley Amis (who wrote a James Bond novel after Fleming's death, Colonel Sun) and George Orwell. The period from about 1930-1990 was quite amazing for English authors.