Freud’s Last Session was released on December 22, 2023, by Sony Pictures Classics. The two-hour film depicts a fictional 1939 debate between an 83-year-old Sigmund Freud and a 40-year-old C. S. Lewis, the Oxford literature “don,” or university teacher, who would go on to write the bestselling children’s book series, The Chronicles of Narnia. Sir Anthony Hopkins stars as Freud. Matthew Goode plays Lewis.
Freud’s Last Session is not a bad film, but it’s not a particularly good one, either. And the film doesn’t accurately represent either Freud’s atheism or Lewis’ faith. The film depicts Freud as an intellectual giant who positions science against faith. Lewis, in contrast, is reduced to sputtering in the face of the great man. In real life, as opposed to reel life, Freud’s atheism rested, not on science, but on his own arrogance and ethnocentric bigotry. In this, Freud is a perfect, if anachronistic, exemplar of today’s New Atheists.
Lewis’ Christianity was the product of actual research. Lewis was a serious scholar and it was his scholarship, his knowledge of how the human mind works in an oral society, that contributed to pushing him into belief. A stand-off informed by who Freud really was and the since-discredited, racist pseudo-science he uncritically embraced, and Lewis’ refined scholarship and its impact on his initial atheism, would have made for a better film. More on that, below, after a rundown of the film.
When he was a teenager, C. S. Lewis was “very angry with God for not existing,” and so he became an atheist. In his adulthood, his atheism was intellectually challenged by, inter alia, his friend, the scholar, author, and devout Catholic J. R. R. Tolkien, who also taught at Oxford. Lewis says it was difficult for him to accept Christianity. He became a Christian “kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance to escape … picture me alone in that room … night after night, feeling … the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet … I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps … the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”
Director and screenwriter Matthew Brown’s previous film is The Man Who Knew Infinity, a 2015 biopic of mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. “My father is a psychiatrist and he lives in Cambridge. I grew up with Freud in the house,” the 53-year-old Brown says. Brown determined to depict a civil debate in an evenhanded film with no one side dominating the other. “I thought it was important as the director with this film, in particular, to not take a side … The question of science versus God is the question of this time … it’s become so polarized … Science without religion is lame and religion without science is blind … I know in this culture, these days, people want it to devolve into take a side and bash the other one’s head in, but that was not the story that we were trying to tell.”
Freud’s Last Session emerges out of a course taught for thirty-five years by Dr. Armand Nicholi, clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. In this course, Nicholi compared and contrasted Freud’s and Lewis’ ideas about God. The course inspired his 2002 book, The Question of God: C. S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life. The book, in turn, inspired the 2004 PBS miniseries, The Question of God. These, in turn, inspired prolific American playwright, the 70-year-old Mark St. Germain, to write the 2009 stage play Freud’s Last Session.
Dr. Nicholi, who died in 2017, said, “As a practicing psychiatrist, I came to realize that one’s worldview, or how one answers the basic questions concerning meaning, values, purpose, identity, motivation and destiny, influences not only who we are, but how we live our lives … it was important for students … to have the opportunity to critically assess the arguments for both the worldview that they embrace and some form of the worldview they reject … Freud’s philosophical writings, advocating an atheistic philosophy of life, are more widely read today than his expository or scientific works. His philosophical writings have played a significant role in the secularization of our culture. To this day, Freud is the atheist’s touchstone … Sigmund Freud does not believe that a universal moral law exists.”
Freud’s Last Session has a professional reviewer score of 44% at the aggregate review site, RottenTomatoes. Only 44% of professional reviewers recommend the film. On the other hand, amateur reviewers award Freud’s Last Session a healthy score of 78%.
Freud’s Last Session’s begins as the Nazis invade Poland on September 1, 1939. As Lewis embarks for his meeting with Freud at the latter’s home, he stands at a train station and observes agitated crowds. Children are being evacuated on jam-packed trains out of London, into the safety of the countryside. Barrage balloons hover in the skies overhead. They lend an alien feel to the vista. Throughout the film, every now and then, Freud switches on a radio and one hears historical figures like King George VI and Neville Chamberlain addressing the crisis and announcing that Britain is at war with Germany. Hitler’s deranged screech is also heard in short snippets. In his January 30, 1939 Reichstag speech, Hitler predicts the “annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.”
Freud was an atheist but his ancestry was Jewish. He had lived most of his life in Vienna, Austria. In March, 1938, to escape Nazi persecution, he traveled to London. Before his escape, as the film depicts, Freud’s daughter Anna was arrested and interrogated by the Gestapo. They eventually released her. The film depicts Freud, as the Gestapo are leading his daughter away, surreptitiously handing Anna a cyanide capsule. In fact, Anna had obtained her own lethal dose of Veronal, a barbiturate, for just such an occasion. Freud, suffering from terminal cancer, would die of a physician’s assisted suicide, using morphine, on September 23, 1939.
It’s a masterstroke: using Hitler’s blitzkrieg and subsequent genocides, and Freud’s terminal illness and suicide, as setting for a debate on the existence of God. The importance of this debate is highlighted by looming suffering, atrocity, the immediate promise of death, the death of children, of soldiers, of civilians, and of one 83-year-old man.
The debate between Freud and Lewis takes place, largely, in one room of Freud’s London house. The couch, the wall behind the couch, and the floor are all covered in blood-red Persian-style textiles. The red motif creates a womb-like atmosphere. Freud’s goal was to return his patients to long-ago trauma. The action occurs during one day. Lewis leaves after nightfall. Throughout the day, Freud sips whiskey and morphine. He is trying to manage the pain of his terminal oral cancer.
Freud’s London house was in fact a replication of his office in Vienna. As the house-turned-museum’s website states, “Freud’s study has been preserved just as it was during his lifetime. It contains Freud’s original psychoanalytic couch, on which his patients were invited to recline and say whatever came to mind. The study also contains his remarkable collection of antiquities. Almost 2,000 items fill cabinets and are arranged on every surface. There are rows of ancient figures on the desk where Freud wrote.” We’ll talk more, below, about those 2,000 statuettes.
Freud’s and Lewis’ conversation has a prickly beginning. Freud castigates Lewis for tardiness. Lewis says trains were overburdened by escaping children. Lewis is self conscious that he caricatured Freud in his 1933 book The Pilgrim’s Regress. Lewis says that he was just trying to make the point that “There is a God. One doesn’t have to be an imbecile to believe in him.” Freud, again, is prickly. He scoffs that he never read Lewis’ book.
The tone of a prickly Freud and a gentle but insistent Lewis continues. Hopkins depicts Freud as a geezer gnome and terminally ill trickster. He blurts out random challenges to faith, including, inevitably, the problem of evil and suffering. “Our moral certainty is the Beast. We are the Apocalypse,” Freud insists.
Here Freud alludes to the New Testament book of Revelation, also known as Apocalypse. Both terms, the Latin-derived, “Revelation” and the Greek, “Apocalypse,” mean “uncovering.” In popular speech, “Apocalypse” now means the end of the world. In Revelation, the author, John of Patmos, mentions a “Beast” that does terrible harm. In these lines, Freud is insisting that humanity’s “moral certainty” is the real destroyer, not some “Beast” predicted in religious scripture. Like many who take the modern, relativist position that moral certainty is a bad thing, Freud condemns others’ certainty but champions his own certainty. This is the relativist’s dilemma. The script does not allow Lewis the chance to point this out.
“Why believe that Jesus was who he said he was?” Freud asks Lewis. “I had a patient who thought he was Jesus. Why not believe him?” Freud, and the film, never gives Lewis a chance to answer. Hopkins’ Freud celebrates his mini triumphs of catching Lewis in this or that flawed argument.
It’s unfortunate that the film does not allow Lewis to respond to Freud’s question about the identity of Jesus, because there are good answers. See for example, C. S. Lewis’ famous trilemma, quoted here, and the evidence for the historicity of the resurrection, discussed here.
Freud bemoans the death of his daughter Sophie from influenza. He argues that his grief proves that there can be no God. Again, the script mutes Lewis. Lewis was no stranger to grief. His mother died when he was nine. “All settled happiness … disappeared from my life.” His father sent him to boarding school, which he said, was worse than trench warfare. “I never hated anything so much, not even the front line trenches in World War I.” He could make such an extreme comparison because on his nineteenth birthday he was at the Somme Valley, site of one of the deadliest battles in all history. He was wounded; his best friend was killed. The Lewis intimately familiar with human pain, emotional and physical, does not respond to Freud’s mention of Sophie’s death.
Matthew Goode’s depiction of C. S. Lewis was the best feature of the film for me. Goode is a slender and gently handsome forty-five-year-old. In interviews Goode comes across as, simply, adorable. He is open and enthusiastic. He praises Anthony Hopkins, calling him “a walking deity.” He praises Matthew Brown, the director. He is humble about his own contributions. His large and luminous eyes radiate intelligence, curiosity, and openness. If he were a little younger, he could play a British Jesus.
Instead of playing a British Jesus, Goode is playing the next best thing, C. S. Lewis. Goode’s Lewis is never pinned by Hopkins’ Freud, in spite of Freud’s incessant needling. Hopkins has the lion’s share of the dialogue, of the argument, and of the scenery-chewing, but Goode, for this viewer, stole the show. Even when he’s not talking, or arguing, or trying to prove anything or convince anyone of anything, he radiates something that Hopkins’ Freud never manages. Goode’s Lewis is a man who is comfortable in his belief. He listens to Freud’s rantings with bemusement, with intimate understanding – he used to be an atheist himself – and with what looks like it might be pity. He wishes he could rescue Freud from the hell his beliefs have created for himself, but he knows that unless his rescue is invited, any gesture he might make will be rebuffed, mocked, and wasted. And Goode’s Lewis is too astute to waste. He is kind, nevertheless.
The film draws a great deal of attention to Freud’s decaying body. For this viewer, that was a distraction. I came for a brilliant and challenging dialogue, not a reminder of my years as a nurse’s aide. Freud hits the morphine several times. He also gazes repeatedly at his own cyanide capsule. He touches a handkerchief to his pained face. In a hallucination, he sees himself as a little boy who approaches his older self and grabs, hard, at his aching cheeks. Freud refers to his oral prosthesis, which daughter Anna alone is allowed to minister to. Anna is at work, teaching a university course, and Lewis must comfort Freud as the prosthesis is yanked from his mouth, as Freud bleeds profusely. Lewis is tender to Freud in this scene. His tenderness is another manifestation of his faith.
For me, Freud’s Last Session was merely a five out of a possible ten stars. I like looking at well-made images, and this film did not deliver for me. I believe in God but this film made me doubt the existence of cinematographers. Just about every scene, including scenes shot outside in daylight, is dark – and not the dark of, say, a German expressionist film, where darkness is put to good aesthetic use. This was the dull, blurry, sleep-inducing darkness of a room where someone needs to stand up and switch on a decent lamp.
A good two-hander, that is, a film focused on two actors, creates tension and a desire to see what happens next strictly through dialogue. Freud’s Last Session’s choppy script never created that tension. Freud blurts out random arguments against belief in the existence of God, and Lewis gazes in a bemused fashion. There’s no challenging back-and-forth as in a tennis match, no sense of “Wow! How will he respond to that?”
The film, rather than focusing on a thrilling, polished debate, interrupts the conversation and switches to flashbacks, dream sequences, and a subplot concerning Anna Freud. C. S. Lewis enters a forest and sees a distant light and a magical deer. He has a flashback of trench warfare. Freud daydreams of his high life in Vienna. He walks into applause and is awarded the Goethe prize. He hallucinates sitting in a wheelchair, being pushed past a series of erotic statuary. He has a flashback of psychoanalyzing his own daughter Anna, who details for him a sadomasochistic sexual fantasy. Anna (Liv Lisa Fries) is depicted as an unsmiling drudge obsessed with her father’s greatness and her role, essential, she is sure, in protecting and advancing his greatness. Freud bullies, insults, and dominates Anna, and, the film implies, suppresses her career and her lesbian relationship with Dorothy Burlingham (Jodi Balfour).
The scenes with Anna reveal Freud’s historically accurate arrogance, selfishness, misogyny, ambition, and amorality. That’s a good thing, because the movie itself and the publicity for it is worshipful of Freud. The Anna subplot, though, doesn’t go anywhere interesting; in a final scene Anna and her lover Dorothy sit, stiffly, across from Freud and stare at him balefully. This stare-off is no dramatic crescendo. It just looks like an awkward moment on public transportation. It would have been better for this film to dramatize Freud’s darker qualities in his debate with Lewis rather than in an Anna subplot.
The publicity for Freud’s Last Session is idolatrous and elitist. Freud and Lewis are repeatedly referred to as great minds, great intellectuals, the best minds, etc. All this talk of great minds coming down to educate the masses sounds like something out of the past, a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman. “Hey! I can introduce you to the thoughts of people superior to yourself! That will clear up this God thing for you!”
In place of the hagiography of Freud’s Last Session, let’s get real, and talk a bit about how the real Freud and the real Lewis differ from those presented onscreen. Understanding them both better brings us closer to their arguments about God. Their actual biographies deepen and complicate their respective positions.
Sigmund Freud wanted both fame and power. Like other ambitious people, he cultivated a marketable image. He sold himself, quite explicitly, as a “conquistador” – his word – who defeated the ignorant masses and, like Prometheus, brought cleansing and enlightening fire to benighted lesser mortals. You can hear Sigmund Freud deliver a truncated version of this self-flattering, mythical, hero’s origin story here.
Was Freud a true scientist, and was his atheism founded on firm scientific principles? No, and no. Freud “started out with a theory and then worked backward, seeking out tidbits to reinforce his beliefs … ‘Freud passed himself off as a scientist. He was very sensitive to objections and would simply laugh at an objection and claim the person making it was psychologically ill,'” according to Freud biographer and Berkeley Professor Frederick Crews.
“There is literally nothing to be said, scientifically or therapeutically, to the advantage of the entire Freudian system or any of its component dogmas,” writes Crews. “From a scientific point of view, classical Freudian psychoanalysis is dead both as a theory of the mind and a mode of therapy … No empirical evidence supports any specific proposition of psychoanalytic theory,” writes Berkeley’s Richard and Rhoda Goldman Distinguished psychology Professor John F. Kihlstrom. “One of the main reasons for the decline of psychoanalysis is that the ideas of Freud and his followers have gained little empirical support. Freud’s theoretical model of the mind and of child development has been challenged and refuted by a wide range of evidence … The absence of solid and persuasive evidence for the theory may be the consequence of its self-imposed isolation from the empirical sciences. The philosopher Karl Popper considered psychoanalysis to be a pseudo-science because it has produced so many hypotheses that cannot be refuted empirically,” writes McGill psychiatry Professor Joel Paris.
And there’s more. Freud wasn’t very nice. He and his ideas did real harm to real people. See for example the disastrous impact of Freud’s ideas on Emma Eckstein and Ernst Fleischl von Marxow. And Freud was no lone conquistador. There were others before him and his contemporaries who were working on the same questions and attempting similar solutions. “A huge slice of Freud’s work is simply plagiarism,” as a reviewer of the Crews’ Freud bio puts it.
Yes, Freud remains influential. No, that influence is not an example of applied science. Armand Nicholi was correct when he stated that “To this day, Freud is the atheist’s touchstone … Sigmund Freud does not believe that a universal moral law exists.” Exactly because of Freud’s continued influence, it is important to understand the pseudo-science he cited to support his atheism. To understand that, we must make a short foray into the history of anthropology.
Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, it is said, made it intellectually respectable to be an atheist. Darwin, champions of this flawed idea say, eliminated any need for a creator. Freud eliminated any need for Judeo-Christian morality that guided and enhanced lives through moral behavior. The psychoanalyst would replace the priest, the judge, and the healer. That proposed replacement is the key to the 2,000 religious tchotchkes cluttering Freud’s office and, now, museum. In Freud’s Last Session, when Lewis challenges Freud’s ability to differentiate one image of a saint from another, Freud retorts that he is familiar with religious iconography because of his “art appreciation.” The movie seems to be implying that Freud is yearning for something he has rejected, religious faith, including the faith of his beloved Catholic nanny.
No. Those 2,000 Buddhas and Hanumans and pharaohs were not primarily about “art appreciation.” They were trophies, comparable to a hunter’s stuffed tiger or gorilla-hand ashtray. Freud was showing off what he had contempt for, what he killed, what he conquered, and all that he replaced. All the mystical power inherent in that statuary now accrued to him, the new and improved moral arbiter, mythmaker, judge, and healer.
Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution influenced nineteenth and early twentieth-century anthropologists. Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917), the “father of anthropology,” took the idea of evolution and applied it to human beings. In the same way that life moved from, say, fish to reptiles to mammals to humans, human evolution moved from savages to barbarians to civilization. Victorian gentlemen, like Tylor himself, occupied the top of the evolutionary ladder. Material culture, the things people owned and made, helped place humans in a lower or higher evolutionary position.
Sir James Frazer (1854-1941), author of The Golden Bough, also applied an evolutionary model to humans. In Frazer’s paradigm, the lowest level of human evolution was one where humans practiced magic. After that, they evolved into the religious stage. At the pinnacle of human development was science, when humanity finally left religion behind. “Frazer … viewed his anthropological work as exposing the rotten foundations of religion. He came to see a primitive propensity towards human sacrifice as at the wellspring of both Judaism and Christianity. He advanced a theory of humanity progressing through three stages: magic, religion, and science. In this scheme, religion was marked off as an outmoded way of thinking. In his studies of the Old Testament, likewise, Frazer sought to expose the savage beneath the sacred,” writes Timothy Larsen, Carolyn and Fred McManis Professor of Christian Thought and Professor of History at Wheaton College. Frazer “used ethnographic facts to try and knock the last nail in the coffin of religion in the name of objective science,” writes Robert Ackerman, Frazer’s biographer.
Today we appreciate scholarly pioneers like Tylor and Frazer, but we don’t accept their ideas uncritically, any more than surgeons practice surgery as surgeons did in the nineteenth century. Tylor and Frazer, for example, were armchair scholars. Neither had much interest in actually interacting with the people they diagnosed as lower down on the evolutionary ladder, an evolutionary ladder whose pinnacle they themselves occupied. Frazer gathered much of his material from questionnaires he sent to imperial personnel and missionaries. No doubt his imperial informants had some biases; no doubt their ability to understand the colonized peoples they dominated was limited. Frazer famously claimed, “I have never met a savage in my life.”
In 1914, Bronislaw Malinowski didn’t just meet, but he began to live with the people the Darwin-inspired evolutionists dismissed as “savages.” The so-called “savages” – a word Malinowski uses also – had reasons for doing what they did, reasons that armchair scholars could never begin to guess at. Malinowski was no saint, as his shocking fieldwork diaries reveal, but his focus on living with the people you write about and discovering their reasons for doing what they do changed anthropology forever, and turned people like Burnett and Frazer into historical footnotes rather than living role models.
Unfortunately, the idea of applying Darwinian evolution to human beings did not go away quietly. Applying an evolutionary ladder to humans, making some humans low and others high, inevitably morphed into malignant forms of social Darwinism, typified by the monstrous American author, Madison Grant. Grant’s atheist evolutionary model called for “elimination of the unfit,” that is those lowest down on the evolutionary ladder. Hitler called Grant’s 1916 book Passing of the Great Race, his “Bible.” The defense at the Nuremberg Trials cited Passing in attempts to exculpate Nazis.
Sigmund Freud was influenced by Tylor and Frazer. He takes the outmoded and disreputable concept of a human evolutionary ladder, in which savages are low down, peasants are in the middle, and Victorian gentlemen like Tylor, Frazer, and Freud himself are at the top, as accurate. With this inspiration, Freud went on to pen one of the wackiest and least scientific books ever written. Totem and Taboo articulates Freud’s case for atheism. He cites Frazer dozens of times. He cites Tylor, as well as Darwin, several times. Freud is basing his case for atheism on scholarship considered, today, not only outdated and inaccurate, but inescapably racist.
In Totem and Taboo, Freud argues that our distant ancestors lived in a primal horde. The dominant male had sex with all the females and would not allow other males access. These other males rose up, killed, and ate the father. “One day the brothers who had been driven out came together, killed and devoured their father.” Religion emerged as a system in which those who killed and ate their father entered into “a covenant with their father, in which he promised them everything that a childish imagination may expect … longing for the father is the root of all religion.”
Humans living since that event, and all of us today, have, through some supernatural process, memories of this event. We may remember this event through a “collective mind,” a “psychical endowment,” or through “psychical continuity.” And that is why we believe in God.
Christ’s “mythical” death on the cross, Freud insists, is just one example of Freud’s theory. Christ – who never existed but was only a myth – died on the cross to redeem mankind from the sin of killing and eating the ancestral patriarch. Christ is no different from Dionysus or any other mythical Pagan deity.
Is Freud’s position “science”? Today scholars reject Sir James Frazer’s dying and rising god theory; it’s been debunked by scholarly works like Tryggve Mettinger’s The Riddle of Resurrection: Dying and Rising Gods in the Ancient Near East. “Frazer is an embarrassment,” writes Robert Ackerman, Frazer’s biographer. “No one wants him for a professional ancestor.” The historical consensus is that Jesus was a real person, and the Romans crucified him. In other words, both Frazer and Freud were incorrect in their understanding of Jesus as a mythical figure.
It’s not just Freud’s departure from facts that is problematical. Freud’s attitude repels. Freud saw savages, mentally ill people, and children as comparable. The subtitle of Totem and Taboo was On Some Points of Agreement between the Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics. Savages – Africans, Native Americans, Australian Aborigines – needed to improve and become civilized like Freud. Mentally ill people needed to become healthy. Children needed to mature. All these inferior people, savages, mentally ill people, and children would reach their best state by becoming more like Freud, and by abandoning any belief in God. Belief in God, for Freud, was a badge of savagery, a mental illness, and childish. He, Freud, was the civilized, mentally healthy, adult “cure” for religious faith.
Religion did not offer a rational moral system. Rather, it was an artifact of savagery “It may begin to dawn on us that the taboos of the savage Polynesians are after all not so remote from us … the moral and conventional prohibitions by which we ourselves are governed may have some essential relationship with these primitive taboos.” Custom, morality, and law are comparable to “the obsessional prohibitions of neurotics.” When Christians are Jews avoid a behavior they understand to be immoral, they are merely reacting to their ancestral memory of killing and eating an oppressive ancestral patriarch.
In his atheism, no less than too many New Atheists today, Freud was no representative of science. He was an arrogant bigot who invented his own mythology that relied on supernatural phenomenon: some magical force that causes every human on the planet to retain a memory of the primal horde’s patricidal, cannibal meal. We don’t just remember that cannibal meal, we are controlled by that subconscious memory. We don’t realize this, but Freud does. Freud alone can save us. Freud invented his own myth and ordained himself as its high priest.
Freud was his own messiah, against his own world-destroying enemy. He was a deeply flawed Messiah, as his obsessive hostility to Christianity blinded him to the Beast rising against him. As Nazism rose, Freud insisted, in 1930, that “a nation that produced Goethe could not possibly go to the bad.” “In 1937 the French analyst Rene Laforgue traveled to Vienna to urge Freud to leave and was shocked by Freud’s attitude toward the Nazis. ‘He responded almost with contempt,’ Laforgue recalled. ‘The Nazis? I am not afraid of them. Help me rather to combat my true enemy.’ Astonished, I asked him just what enemy was in question, and I heard him reply: ‘Religion. the Roman Catholic Church,'” reports Todd Dufresne, in The Late Sigmund Freud.
- S. Lewis is a direct contrast to Freud, in both the scholarly support for his conversion to Christianity, and the personality of the man. In Freud’s Last Session, a flustered Lewis sputters to Freud that he believes the Gospels are true because no myth would be written so badly. Freud is able to dismiss this argument, “You are convinced of Christ’s existence because of bad storytelling.” That exchange is intellectually lame.
Let me walk you through what Lewis should have been allowed to say in Freud’s Last Session. We are a literate society. We run on printed words. We are not a premodern, traditional, oral society and we don’t understand how oral societies worked. Spoken words are taken very seriously in premodern, traditional, oral societies. This is true the world over. As Malinowski described, the Trobriand Islanders of the South Pacific had the same genres of narrative that we have. They differentiated between myths, legends, and fairy tales. For such people, the difference between each genre is almost a matter of law. To present a myth as a fairy tale would be like breaking the law. Such a confusion of genres would violate the cultural scaffolding, the skeleton of the tribe. There were times and places where one could tell one genre, and where one absolutely could not. There were even personages who could tell one genre, and personages who could not. Did such societies rigorously differentiate between the narrative conventions of one genre and another? Absolutely they did.
To say that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are not myths, but, rather, are reportage, that is a non-fiction account of true events, is to state a fact supported by scholarship in study of narrative. This was scholarship that Lewis, as a teacher and eventually a professor at world-class universities, knew perfectly well. Not only did Lewis know the conventions of various narrative genres; Lewis was multilingual and he knew these traditional narratives in their original tongues, including ancient Greek.
As Lewis said, “I have been reading poems, romances, vision literature, legends, and myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know none of them are like this. Of this text there are only two possible views. Either this is reportage … or else, some unknown writer … without known predecessors or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern novelistic realistic narrative.”
Scholarship on narrative is a lot less sexy than sons rising up and killing and eating their father and then having sex with the women of the tribe. But for those intellectually curious persons interested in how narrative scholarship can be applied to the Gospels, two excellent resources are The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition and Lord or Legend?: Wrestling with the Jesus Dilemma, both by Gregory A. Boyd and Paul Rhodes Eddy.
When it comes to reliable scholarship as applied to the Gospels, Lewis was the representative of science, and Freud was the representative of one atheist’s arrogant, self-serving myth. How do the two men compare in terms of personality?
Freud was his mother’s pet. Freud’s sister Anna, like many other middle class girls, was taking piano lessons. “Though Sigmund’s room was not near the piano, the sound disturbed him. He appealed to my mother to remove the piano if she did not wish him to leave the house altogether.” Anna was forced to give up the piano. This stance reportedly continued throughout Freud’s life. “There was never a piano in the Berggasse and not one of his children learnt to play an instrument. This was unusual in Vienna then, and would probably be thought unusual today: because to be able to play the piano is considered to be an essential part of middle-class education.”
In contrast, according to reports by people who knew him well, C. S. Lewis was patient when his writing was interrupted. Douglas Gresham is Lewis’ stepson. As a child, Lewis took the nickname “Jack,” from his pet dog who had been killed by a car. Like most people, Gresham called Lewis “Jack.”
Gresham reports that “Jack was someone who would accept interruption every ten minutes if necessary while he was working very hard on a book without the slightest degree of irritation. He was able to behave as if he believed – which he did – that our own personal work is nowhere near as important as the interruptions to it. The interruptions are the real substance of God’s job for us.”
In several different interviews, Gresham tells and retells his account of meeting C. S. Lewis. It’s an important anecdote that reveals a great deal about Lewis’ character. Gresham’s mother, Joy Davidman Gresham, an American writer who traveled to England and met with Lewis, had told her son that he was about to meet the author of the Narnia books.
In one telling of this meeting, Gresham reports, “I was a little American boy who had never seen anyone who was dressed as shabbily as Jack was dressed that day. His baggy gray trousers were scattered with cigarette ash; his shoes (though one could hardly have called them that) were slide-on slippers, the heels of which were crushed; and his jacket was in total shambles, torn holes in the elbows and other tears here and there. His shirt, though, was clean, and the collar of it spread out over the lapels of the jacket.
“Initially I was taken aback and beginning to worry about what our Mommy had gotten us into. And then Jack started to talk. His whole face became a smile and he said ‘Hello, hello, hello! Welcome, welcome!’ His speech, and his eyes glowing with joy, suddenly changed him from a shabby scarecrow into a vibrant and friendly man glowing with wisdom and happiness … I very soon learned to like Jack and later on to love him dearly. Now I miss him all the time. Jack was a pure man, a kind, gentle, and loving man, and all of those qualities were increasingly evident as I grew to know him better.”
In another telling of the same event, Gresham says, “I was convinced that” the author of the Narnia books “would be in silver armor and wearing a crown and be about eight feet tall … Instead of my dream, he was a stooped, balding, professorial looking gentleman with nicotine stains on teeth and fingers. He was a complete disappointment. Within about half a minute, his enormous personality, his warmth, his welcome, and the fact that there was more in this man than you could ever see from outside of him struck me as being something important and I suddenly lost an illusion and gained a very, very good friend and later a wonderful step-father … he was exceptionally wise, enormously charitable, and he had the most amazing sense of humor I’ve ever met … When I talk about this man, most people find it very hard to believe that he was real. He gave away two thirds of his earnings … From Jack I learned the great value to be found in helping others, that helping other people not only rewards those being helped but even more, helps the person doing the helping.” And, “I wasn’t aware that my mother married one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. Jack didn’t come across that way at all. He didn’t ever appear to be a great man. He was just Jack.”
“He didn’t ever appear to be a great man.” That’s one thing no one will ever say about Freud.
I’d like to see a movie that dramatizes a fictional meeting between the real Freud and the real Lewis. One, an atheist who creates a myth that elevates himself. The other, a former atheist nudged to faith via, inter alia, narrative scholarship that identifies the Gospels as reportage.
Postscript: I, too, was inspired by Armand Nicholi to make my own humble contribution to the dialogue. After watching PBS’ The Question of God, I shot off a snarky email to one of the panelists, atheist Michael Shermer. To my surprise, he wrote back, and very graciously. We corresponded for a year. My fictionalized memoir, Save Send Delete, was inspired by our exchange.
Danusha Goska is the author of God Through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery