Sixty-seven years ago today, on D-Day, American paratroopers told a parable.
Parables are designed to connect friends and confuse foes. Landing behind enemy lines, American paratroopers had one, called a clicker. It located allies yet was lost on the enemy—the same reason C.S. Lewis penned his own parable a year earlier, in 1943.
On D-Day, paratroopers of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions landed behind German lines. Scattered across the countryside, they had devised a way to reconnect since many German soldiers had donned American uniforms and spoke impeccable English. The solution was clickers, simple sprung-metal clips. One click-click identified an Allied soldier. A response of double click-click identified the second soldier as an American. Clickers confused the enemy, since they sounded like a cricket. They distinguished between friend and foe—which happens to be the purpose of parables.
“Parable” means “to throw alongside.” It’s a story thrown alongside truth that also throws off opponents. Parables are for wartime, which is why Jesus used them. Early on, he faced opposition from the teachers of the Law who attributed his works to Satan. To distinguish between friend and foe, Jesus spoke in parables, clueing in his compatriots: “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, ever hearing but not understanding.” Parables are for those with “ears to hear” (Luke 8:8).
This is why C.S. Lewis told a parable about the pitfalls of modernity and the Enlightenment idea of knowledge. From antiquity until the close of the Middle Ages, knowledge was a seamless circle of fact, myth, and truth. Real knowledge begins with facts, which are experiences, as the Latin “fact” means “something happened.” Knowledge requires the whole body, not just the brain. Myth is imagination, the songs and stories making experiences meaning-full. Truth is reason, our rational capacities recognizing meaning-full truth.
This is why Lewis described himself as an “almost naturalized” citizen of the Middle Ages.1 Before the Enlightenment, in the Middle Ages for example, “religion was not a particular way of life but the way of all life.”2 The Christian faith was a resource for the knowledge of reality. It was the foundational culture-shaping force according to Norman Cantor. “Medieval culture was a culture of the Book, and in the Middle Ages, the Book was the Bible.”3 This changed in the Enlightenment.
In his book De Lubac: A Guide for the Perplexed, David Grumett describes how the 11th and 12th century represented a shift from hands-on learning to a mastering of rational truths. By the 17th century, the German Enlightenment of Kant, Lessing, Goethe, and Hegel had successfully elevated thinking over doing. The deepest knowledge became cerebral, not necessarily doing anything. As a result, individuals and institutions could claim to know all sorts of things without getting their hands dirty. The seamlessness of knowledge—fact, myth, and truth—was torn asunder.
Lewis saw this as madness, but as a professor of English at Magdalen College, Oxford, he also recognized he was operating behind Enlightenment lines. To connect with Middle Ages compatriots and confuse modernist combatants, he penned a wartime parable in 1943, in Perelandra. It’s the second book of Lewis’ space trilogy, beginning with Out of the Silent Planet and concluding with That Hideous Strength. The first book is about a young man named Ransom who is kidnapped from planet Earth, the fallen or “silent” planet. Ransom eventually becomes a Christian and, in the second book, is sent to Perelandra, an unfallen world. Perelandra is a re-telling of the story of the Garden of Eden.
In this story, a Beast (a physicist this time, not a snake) tries to tempt Eve (the Green Lady) into breaking the only taboo set by God. As Ransom watches the Beast unravel what God had commanded, he becomes aware that the “triple distinction of truth from myth and both from fact was in fact part and parcel with the fall.”4 Ransom’s epiphany was Lewis’ clicker. Ransom was realizing how knowledge is a seamless circle of fact, myth, and truth. The unraveling of this circle—disconnecting them from one another—was part and parcel with the fall of humanity on planet Earth. It was in danger of happening again. Lewis was “clicking” to friends that the consequence of the fall was culminating in modernity. It is a “click” confusing those in the Western church.
Western churches enjoy a “kind of comfortable cohabitation with the Enlightenment,” wrote Lessie Newbigin. Dallas Willard says one consequence is the Western church “lives in a bubble of historical illusion about the meaning of discipleship.”5 It pulls apart head, heart, and hands, accounting for “the practical irrelevance of actual obedience to Christ and for the weakened effect of Christianity in the world today.”6 The modern church can claim to “know God” without genuinely experiencing him. Modern believers can claim to be “servants of Christ” by simply studying “servanthood” rather than serving others. Lewis saw this as part and parcel with the abolition of man.
Effective discipleship, as well as genuine educational reform, require recovering the ancient understanding of knowledge. But this will likely confuse modernists Christians who don’t hear Lewis’ “click,” but that’s the wages of wartime. Lewis had no reservations about being opaque, just as American paratroopers had no qualms about confusing enemy combatants on D-Day.
1 C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature (Canto) (Cambridge University Press, 1994), 75.
2 Christopher Dawson, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture (Sheed and Ward, 1950), 271-72.
3 Norman Cantor, The Civilization of the Middle Ages (Harper Perennial, 1994).
4 C.S. Lewis, Perelandra (Scribner and Sons, 1972 edition), 122.
5 Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (HarperCollins, 1998), 214.
6 Willard, Conspiracy, XV.