Review: C. S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces, 1956 (Part 1)

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. (1 Corinthians 13:12)

Overly ambitious, I recently read C. S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces aloud to my 6th grade Literature class, and I was dismayed to hear one student reflect that he thought the book was profanely irreverent since it discussed other deities and just, well, didn’t seem as biblical as the Narnia series. C. S. Lewis is a household name in American evangelical circles for his fantasy series The Chronicles of Narnia (published 1950-1956) and his nonfiction essays, speeches, and popular apologetics materials such as The Abolition of Man (1943, based on radio addresses from 1941-1944), and Mere Christianity (1952). While the Narnia series positively oozes with Christian symbolism and biblical allusion, in this, his final work of fiction, Lewis effectually communicates what so many thoroughly orthodox theology textbooks tirelessly aim to do: Till We Have Faces (1956) gently coaxes the reader to come to terms with both the futility of quarreling with the Almighty, and the resplendent beauty of the thrice-holy King.

The Original Myth of Eros (Cupid) and Psyche: Prolegomena

Most fairy tales introduce, follow, and largely feature the brave and charming boy or the beautiful and resourceful girl as the lead protagonist of the story, and the story naturally unfolds from that character’s perspective. Till We Have Faces is a retelling of the Greek myth of Eros (better known as the Roman Cupid) and Psyche with a twist. Before considering Lewis’ retelling of the story, one must become acquainted with the original story to appreciate the novelty and beauty of what story Lewis so desired to tell.

The original myth of Cupid and Psyche stars Psyche, a mortal princess born with such uncanny beauty that she rivaled the goddess Aphrodite. Psyche was so beautiful that her countrymen began to venerate her instead of Aphrodite. In envious rage, Aphrodite cursed Psyche, such that she should only desire and eventually marry the most hideous of beasts. However, when Aphrodite delegated this curse to her son Cupid, he was stunned by Psyche’s pure beauty. Accidentally pricked to the heart with his love-poisoned arrows, at once he fell in love with Psyche and snatched her away to betroth her to himself in secret. Rather than Psyche suffering the goddess’ intended curse which would have abased the princess below the most common of women, Psyche instead is enraptured by her doting husband and whisked away from society. The singular rule her mysterious husband (Cupid) gave her is that Psyche is never to know her husband’s identity, for fear that they would be found out by Aphrodite and for fear of what that revelation would do to them if Psyche were to discover the truth that she was married to divinity. For a long time, Psyche is satisfied with this arrangement, given that her husband thoroughly provided for her every need: he furnished her a lavish palace (complete with invisible spirit servants), tenderly nourished her every desire, and enjoyed her love upon their marriage bed at night.

Later, Psyche’s sisters visited at her request, and in their envious rage at their sister’s good fortune, they instructed Psyche to take a lamp and a dagger to bed that night, to expose and slay the beast. They reason: no person chooses to remain secret and hidden if they are true and good and beautiful. Her husband must be a hideous beast, a lying scoundrel, or worse. They sowed seeds of doubt in Psyche’s mind regarding her husband’s rule of anonymity, and eventually Psyche succumbed to their temptations to doubt her husband’s goodness, beauty, and the integrity of his love towards her. Psyche naively obeyed, but her treachery revealed that her beloved is no monster or rogue as her sisters suspected, but he was actually beautiful beyond comprehension. The wax from the lamp dripped on Cupid’s slumbering form as Psyche gazed with rapture at her lover bareface. Startled by the wax, Cupid fled from his beloved Psyche, knowing that she had broken his rule which now endangered them from Aphrodite’s wrath.

Godforsaken, Psyche was doomed to wander in mourning the rest of her life, until she was captured by Aphrodite and tasked (read: cursed) with several herculean tasks by which she might regain her freedom and status. Along her journey, she is miraculously helped with these herculean labors such that she was able to fulfill them one by one. In the end, a merciful Cupid himself interceded for her and won not only her freedom and redemption from Aphrodite’s wrath, but also divine immortality and the right for Psyche and Cupid to be legally married. They married and they all lived happily ever after.

The reader will likely recognize several elements of this story from recent retellings of fairy tales, whether in print by such storytellers as the Brothers Grimm or more recently popularized in the English speaking world by musical theater in animation by Disney princesses. Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (1991) is the closest parallel—the pivotal song in the Disney animated film, “Tale As Old As Time” even heavily features Cupid imagery to solidify the connection. Disney’s Cinderella (1950) also suffers and triumphantly fulfills (by the help of compassionate animals and faeries) the same kinds of herculean chores to which Psyche is subjected in order to reach her beloved.
But Lewis’ story packs quite a bit more punch than your average Disney princess story (or Greek myth), and has a more powerful (if more subtle) message that every believer shall enjoy: God in Christ by the Spirit has loved unlovely and ungodly rebels, that they might lovely be. I will summarize and analyze this story in Part Two.

©Joseph Pollard. All Rights Reserved.

You can find the whole series here.


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  1. I’m surprised to see this on the Heidelblog. I understand that C. S. Lewis had some very unReformed views and was criticized by the likes of Martin Lloyd Jones and Kevin DeYoung. Even John Piper criticizes Lewis for having a defective view of justification by faith and substitutionary atonement.
    Lewis thinks purgatory is a good thing because Christians would want to be purged, since they would not want to be foul and dirty entering heaven. (Christ has not cleansed us sufficiently it seems.) Lewis also claims people could be saved through other religions, even if they had never heard of Christ. He thinks mystical experiences were a way to get out of this world before death and that this was common to all religions. He believes his prayers for them would benefit the dead. He thinks certain parts of the OT were inspired stories rather than facts. These include Noah’s Ark, Jonah’s whale and Job’s boils. He congratulates himself, on his efforts to overcome the differences between Catholics and Protestants in Mere Christianity, and that Christians should stop quarreling about different denominational “formulations.” (I suppose he is referring to doctrines.) Evidently he thinks people should just accept his minimalist, ecumenical ideas instead. So I wonder if it is not dangerous to recommend Lewis to Christian readers. Lovely allegories that have some nice Christian messages may lead to uncritical acceptance of other aspects of Lewis’ writing. It seems that his views would fit better with the Liberalism that is criticized by Machen. But then maybe part two will explain.

    • Angela,

      C. S. Lewis is among the most important writer in the English language in the 20th century. Joseph is reviewing an old and classic at work not necessarily commending every aspect of everything Lewis ever wrote. The work that he is reviewing is a piece of fiction, not a work of theology. As a regular reader of the HBU have seen me quote Roman Catholics, Atheist Lesbians, and writers of all sorts. The Reformed are not fundamentalists nor obscurantists, who refuse to read or grapple with the great writers and minds of the age.

      I owe an incalculable debt to Lewis on many fronts. I do not apologize for publishing a review or even commending him as I do.

      Of course, readers should always exercise discretion when reading any theologian and especially a lay theologian such as Lewis.

    • Now I’m just shocked. Glad you pointed that out, I had no idea you were helped by Lewis despite his aberrant doctrinal views.

  2. Well, Lewis taught that Christ was a false prophet in one of his last works, The World’s Last Night and he denied the sufficiency of Christ’s atonement in his last work, Letters to Malcolm. He made up for it though by writing the most horrific commentary on the Psalms and saying the most vile things about Psalm 23. He was a bad dude and his prominence in Christendom reveals everything we need to know about why it is in such a dead and non discriminating state.

    • Good grief. He was a ‘bad dude’ as we are ‘bad dudes’, friend. Not one of us has perfect theology. 😉

      Can you please cite (in context) what you’ve mentioned above? Where exactly (and in context) may I find these bad-dude errors. I assume you’ve read the works you’ve mentioned?

    • Mary, does the denial of Christ’s claim, in John 14:6 that he is the way, the truth and the life and there is no way to the Father but through him, qualify as just an imperfect theology? In Mere Christianity pp 64 to 65 Lewis writes: “Is it not frightfully unfair that this new life should be confined to people who have heard of Christ and been able to believe in Him? But the truth is that God has not told us about His arrangements about the other people are. We do do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him” For me this was such a tacit denial of the Christian faith, and a dishonour to Christ when I read it, that I put the book in the garbage.

    • Dr Clark, If the disagreement is about the exclusive claims of Christ to be the only way to stand accepted before God is the issue, then I fail to see how I could learn anything about Christianity from a person who denies that faith in Christ is to be saved.

      • Angela,

        I read people regularly Who are wrong about important things and learn from them.

        Lewis’ Main contribution was in literature and literary criticism. As a young Christian I did find Mere Christianity helpful. I have found some of his apologetic works helpful. The thing from which I have benefited the most, however, is his work on the history of English literature and his literary criticism. I have learned more about writing from him than from anyone else.

        He was wrong about a number of things but he was also write about a lot of things. He was a product of his time and place. He does not fit neatly in any box. He was not a theological liberal but neither was he, as you indicate, entirely orthodox.

        I make it a practice most summers to read at least one thing that he wrote and to meditate on it. I enjoyed his work on the Psalms But I also argued with him as I think he is high-handed relative to the imprecatory psalms. I have benefited from his work on evil, even though I disagreed with him on that topic as well.

        He was a thoughtful and devout Christian. I have an entire shelf of his stuff by my left hand, in my study.

        it was fairly common, in that period, in England, for people to say the kinds of things he said about universalism. he was not, in that sense a strict evangelical in the classical sense. but he clearly loved the Lord and wanted others to believe in Christ.

        Theologically his is a mixed legacy.

        My advice to my students to read everything but not to believe everything they read. We need to read all human authors critically. only holy scripture is above criticism.

        I think I can learn something from almost anyone in particular away from one who is as well read and as thoughtful as he was.

    • Dr. Clark, as you say, “We need to read all human authors critically. Only the holy scripture is above criticism.” As J. C. Ryle warns: “Beware of supposing that a teacher is to be trusted, although he holds some unsound views, he yet ‘teaches a great deal of truth’ Such a teacher is precisely the man to do you harm. Poison is always most dangerous when mixed with wholesome food.”

    • As the Heidelblogger points out above, Lewis is frustrating because when he is right, he is right with such clarity and ‘bloom’ (to use his own term) that it throws his occasional wrongness into high relief. I think we have to remember that the context that Lewis was talking into in his apologetic writings was a nation in which most of his middle-class audience had grown up with a childhood adherence to nominal Broad-Church Anglicanism which had been eaten away at by the horror of the previous war, fear of the present one, and the casual assumption that the chief value of Christianity probably lay in the Sermon on the Mount as a pattern-book for Building a Better World, or at least, Being a Good Chap. The ground had been laid for Bishop Robinson and ‘Honest to God’ to insist that complete ‘demythologisation’ was the way forward and that it was possible for a practical atheist to be in orders in the CoE with a good conscience. Lewis came barging into this complacency with the simple message that you must either accept the Christ of the Bible or reject the whole thing.

      I think that he genuinely believed that the only meaningful division in Christianity was between those who accepted Nicene orthodoxy and supernaturalism (The Mere Christianity that he borrowed from Baxter) and those who denied it. As to his odd leanings on justification, it must be remembered that he admired Chesterton before he was a Christian and that many of his friends were Roman or Anglo-Catholics — but, unlike Chesterton, he never joined them. As someone who can attribute part of my own childhood awakening to the Voyage of the Dawn Treader, I think I can say that the children’s books are in some way better grounded than his conscious apologetic writing: no-one can read the account of Eustace’s conversion without remembering that its author had an Ulster Low Church upbringing and a Presbyterian nanny.

      Lewis knew that his value as an apologist lay in the fact that he was not a clergyman or professional theologian — so that no-one could say that he had a vested interest in the Church as a source of income — but it was also his great weakness. Having said that, his introduction to another’s translation of Athanasias ‘de Incarnatione’ shows that he submitted to the Great Tradition in Theology Proper. At the end of the day, I think he does more good than harm.

      The enthusiasm for Lewis that one finds among Americans of the Wheaton College variety has always puzzled and amused me, but I suspect it is largely made up of slightly regretful sentimentality about the Old Country, which feeds itself on visions of tweed, pipe-smoking and the mist rising from the Cherwell. As Helene Hanff recalled a friend saying, if you go to England looking for the England of English literature, you will find it. If you are not careful, you will also find a lot of less desirable things, like kebab shops, Millwall supporters and the Hammersmith Flyover.

  3. I just don’t get Lewis. Maybe cause I’m not English or into literature or deep philosophy. I don’t find his work too stimulating or edifying. His thought is often beyond me and his content bordering on bland – but maybe I wasn’t patient enough.

    Comparing Hawthorne’s short story The Celestial Railroad with Lewis’ The Pilgrims Regress, I found The Celestial Railroad the superior, more relatable work. I was recently listening to Lewis’ audiobook of Out of the Silent Planet and although the themes seemed interesting, I just could get into it…. The guy has his finger on the pulse of many humanistic and cultural realities but he’s not my personal go-to for such insights & commentaries … fiction or non.

  4. I take the jibe against milwall supporters in this thread to contravene the Moral law. Are all Nebraska football fans, inbred, ungulates who feast mostly on drool?

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