A Post-Christian “Persuasion”

Michael Metzger

Few Christians seem to recognize what the Netflix version of Jane Austen’s Persuasion signifies. They would if they read one of C. S. Lewis’ lectures.

In July of this year Netflix released its version of Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Updating a classic is not necessarily a bad thing but this version is a far cry from Austen’s book. I doubt however that most viewers will recognize the differences because few have read the book. C. S. Lewis had. He cited Persuasion in his inaugural lecture at Cambridge University.

That was in 1954. The lecture was titled De Descriptione Temporum (“a look at time and its divisions”). In it, Lewis noted that “somewhere between us and Jane Austen’s Persuasion in 1816 runs the chasm between Old Western Man and New Western Man—the Great Divide.” It represents a “vast change” between Jane Austen’s time and ours.

Lewis went on to say this divide was “not yet complete” in 1954. It was complete in the Year 2000 according to Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor.[1] That’s the year he says the Western world entered a post-Christian age. Lewis predicted the same outcome in the radio adaptation of his Cambridge lecture: the Great Divide yields a post-Christian age.

Which raises a question: So what?

Well, for starters, wise Christians understand the times in which we live (like the sons of Issachar). Lewis called the Great Divide “the greatest of all divisions in the history of the West.” He wasn’t given to hyperbole. And since Christians don’t get a pass from being influenced by cultures, it seems to me wise Christians would want to know whether this “greatest of all divisions” created “new” Western Christians very different from the old.

If that describes you, consider these five differences between the old Western world and the new. First, Lewis said that in the old Western world, people came to their senses. According to Lewis, this is found in nearly every Austen novel. There’s always an epiphany wherein the heroine “comes to herself,” as in Anne Elliot coming to regard her faults and self-deception, and hence seeing clearly for the first time.

In the movie version, Anne (played by Dakota Johnson) doesn’t. She doesn’t need to come to her senses as she is in command of them. She’s completely self-aware. We see this in Anne’s narration and eye contact with the audience, all of which establishes her as so advanced from those around her—intellectually, emotionally and in terms of self-awareness.

The second difference is what Lewis called “unchristening.” Lewis told his Cambridge students how in Jane Austen’s day “some kind and degree of religious belief and practice were the norm.” Her writing flowed from her faith. In Jane Austen’s novel, Anne Elliot is a Christian. In the movie version, Anne is not. She embodies “unchristening.”

Lewis knew Jane Austen’s family was representative of older Anglicanism where there is an enormous diet of Bible reading. Every minister is canonically required to say the daily offices, which in a typical day would mean reading about ten or eleven chapters of Scripture. Many Anglican households, including Jane Austen’s, held themselves to this same standard of daily reading of Morning and Evening Prayer with the appointed psalms and lessons.[2] How many new Western Christians—Anglican, evangelical, Catholic, Protestant, independent, you name it—hold themselves to this standard?

The final three differences aren’t in the film but are the norm in the new Western world. “Government by advertisement” is the first. “In all previous ages that I can think of,” Lewis noted, “the principal aim of rulers, except at rare and short intervals, was to keep their subjects quiet, to forestall or extinguish widespread excitement and persuade people to attend quietly to their several occupations. And on the whole their subjects agreed with them. They even prayed (in words that sound curiously old-fashioned) to be able to live ‘a peaceable life in all godliness and honesty’ and ‘pass their time in rest and quietness.’ But now the organization of mass excitement seems to be almost the normal organ of political power. We live in an age of ‘appeals,’ ‘drives,’ and ‘campaigns.’”

Welcome to American politics 2022.

The next difference is a change in art. Lewis felt Picasso was scarcely conceivable in Austen’s time. His lecture however mainly addressed poetry, the art Lewis loved best. In the old Western world, there was one correct interpretation of what a poem means. Lewis cited Donne’s poems, adding that “Donne could have told it to you.” In a post-Christian age there is not the slightest agreement among readers as to what a poem means. It’s all word games.

Welcome to America’s so-called “higher” education.

Finally, and what Lewis might have felt was the greatest of all divisions, is technology, or what he called “the birth of the machines” This fundamentally altered “Man’s place in nature.” In the old Western world, “the cardinal business of life” wasn’t the attainment of goods we don’t have but “the conservation of those we have already.” Lewis felt that the old Western world would be shocked and bewildered if they could visit our day of insatiable acquisitiveness fueled by never-ending discontentment with what we have.

Welcome to The HGTV-ification of America where house hunters look at a perfectly functional kitchen and say, “I can’t cook in that!”

It seems that the old Western world is long ago and far away, about 200 years ago and situated on the other side of Lewis’ Great Divide, tucked away in the enchanting Hampshire cottage where Jane Austen lived and wrote her novels. But if you haven’t actually read Jane Austen’s novels, you probably don’t recognize the enormity of Lewis’ Great Divide and the tragedy of a post-Christian age.

[1] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (The Belknap Press of Harvard Press, 2007), 33.

[2] Laura Mooneyham White, Jane Austen’s Anglicanism (Ashgate, 2011), 33.

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