Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Falicy of Chronological Snobbery: From Mars to Mormons

C.S. Lewis often criticized book reviewers who critique work in a genre they admittedly dislike. He believed only a critic who reads science fiction novels with pleasure and who understands and appreciates the conventions of such novels can say with any authority when a certain author has used these conventions effectively. In deference to Lewis, I readily admit that I am not a fan of science fiction (except for Star Trek, which has more to do with television than literature). Therefore, the only review I will offer of Out of the Silent Planet, the first book in Lewis’ space trilogy, is that overall I found it very entertaining. It was a welcome change of pace from his apologetics and scholarly works.

What I enjoyed most about the book was recognizing general themes that Lewis discusses in other, more “serious” books. The theme that seemed most powerful in Out of the Silent Planet was what Lewis called “chronological snobbery,” the presumption that “the thinking, art, or science of an earlier time is inherently inferior when compared to that of the present.” In other words, older things have less value; newer is better.

This may be true of many things in the 20th (and 21st) Century, especially with technology and medicine, said Lewis. He argued, however, that in the fields of art, music, philosophy, and especially religion, today’s society has lost valuable information and insights by dismissing the things that came before as being inferior to modern thinking. For example, he points out that our views of history have often been skewed by interpreting the actions of “older cultures” using modern standards (e.g., Native Americans thought to have been uneducated savages because they did not act the same as Europeans).

In Out of the Silent Planet, the protagonist, Elwin Ransom, is an English philologist (cultural linguist) who is kidnapped and taken to Mars. Once there, he encounters three different species of rational, sentient beings. He describes the first (the hrossa, pictured at right) as resembling seven-foot-tall seals. What he assumes to be a lower form of animal is actually a class of great warriors and the keepers of the songs on Mars. He lives with them for a long time and is able to learn their language, which turns out to be Old Solar, the original language spoken by all creatures on all the planets in our solar system. The hrossa question Ransom about how things are on earth (the silent planet), and they both become impatient because of his rudimentary knowledge. At one point, the discussion turns to religion and God:

“[There was] a good deal which Ransom did not follow. But he followed enough to feel once more a certain irritation. Ever since he had discovered the rationality of the hrossa he had been haunted by a conscientious scruple as to whether it might not be his duty to undertake their religious instruction; now, as a result of his tentative efforts, he found himself being treated as if he were the savage and being given a first sketch of civilized religion—a sort of hrossian equivalent of the shorter catechism.”

It turns out that the hrossa (and the other creatures on Mars) have extensive knowledge about religion, geology, astronomy and other subjects that he does not have. In addition, he realizes he has discovered a type of society that has virtues that surpass those we have on earth; for example, the creatures are so honest and innocent that the only way they can even conceive of the concept of “evil” is to think of it as being “bent” rather than straight or true.

This shatters Ransom’s ideas of “chronological snobbery”—just because the creatures did not live in skyscrapers or drive fast cars, did not mean they were “less” than our “advanced” society. On Mars, older (seemingly primitive) was actually better (more socially and intellectually advanced). Throughout the book, Ransom has additional experiences that prove his chronological snobbery to be false.

Lewis and Chronological Snobbery

The term “chronological snobbery” was actually coined by Lewis and his friend Owen Barfield (photo at right) in their discussions about religion. Lewis, at that point, was still an atheist. One of his biggest problems with Christianity was that the religion was ancient and didn’t apply to modern man. He reversed this thinking on religion being outdated and wrote of it in Surprised by Joy:

Barfield never made me an Anthroposophist, but his counterattacks destroyed forever two elements in my own thought. In the first place he made short work of what I have called my ‘chronological snobbery,’ the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also ‘a period,’ and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.”

While Lewis overcame his chronological snobbery regarding Christianity, I think there are many people today who still cling to the idea that it is out of date and does not apply to them. I can understand the difficulty non-believers must have when they read the Bible and attempt to find personal meaning, especially if they have not sought the help of the Spirit. Understanding the Bible is often difficult for practicing Christians so no wonder neophytes find it lacks relevance to their lives!

The Old and the New

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints holds a unique place in the Christian World. We are not Catholic or Protestant. We are Restored New Testament Christians: the "latter-day" Church, like the original Church in Christ's day, is led by apostles, served by a lay ministry, and emphasizes service and good works.

Along with the Bible, we use other scriptures, including the Book of Mormon, Another Testament of Christ, which serves as an additional witness to the ministry of Christ and his divinity. Basing Christianity on these two books alone could contribute to Lewis' original belief of chronological snobbery; their contents are about people who lived thousands of years ago so could hardly be relevant to modern man. (This statement assumes the books are read "scientifically" or "clinically," without the guidance of the Spirit.)

What makes it impossible for chronological snobbery to exist in the Church is the fact that, in addition to the two books of "ancient" scripture, we have modern-day revelation from our prophet, President Thomas S. Monson, his counselors, and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Virginia U. Jensen, a past leader of the Relief Society women's organization, explained:

"The Lord's will to Abraham was not sufficient for the people of Moses' time. The will of the Lord to Moses was not sufficient for the people of Isaiah's time. Different dispensations required different instructions. That is true today. The dispensation in which we now live is a dispensation into which the knowledge of all other dispensations of the gospel have merged. What a blessing it is for us to live in this time when the fullness of the gospel is ours to bless our lives.” --October 1998 General Conference

We are fortunate in the LDS Church to have continuing revelation that clarifies and interprets the Bible and other ancient scripture so there is no question of relevance when it comes to Christianity and how it operates in our daily lives. We value the old for the richness of its truths, and cherish the new as a compass that will lead us back to God.

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