The Ceremony of Knee-Jerk Reactions

Last week, James Wood showed how Augustinian logic could apply to the recent debates regarding the ethics of Christian attendance or non-attendance at so-called gay weddings. The debates were precipitated by well-known pastor Alastair Begg, who counseled a grandmother to attend her grandson’s same-sex wedding, so long as her disapproval was made known beforehand. The controversy has led to broader discussions about moral complicity and conversations about the nature of British and American evangelical responses to scandals, since Begg, in defending his comments, sought refuge in British evangelicalism’s supposedly superior ability to use nuance.

In light of the British element here, it may be instructive to consider what one British Christian said about the danger of losing our stock responses—stock responses that spare us from confusion and prevent us from barbarism.

C. S. Lewis may be a less surprising source for probing these issues than Augustine is, but the following source is not one of his more well-known works. In 1942, Lewis published A Preface to Paradise Lost after having given several lectures on the subject the year before. In fact, it was a 1940 lecture on Milton’s work by Lewis’s friend Charles Williams that switched on the light bulb for Lewis. One of Williams’s main points in his Oxford lecture was that we can read Milton for delight and wisdom. This point seems obvious to many of us, but Lewis realized how trapped some scholars had been in their debates about Milton’s alleged problems with theology, sex and gender, poetic diction, etc. Lewis thought that the activity of reading Milton had become crusted over with a thick layer of critical blether, and Williams’s lecture helped Lewis to see that the door of the scholarly prison cell was unlocked, and he could simply walk out—meaning that readers ought to appreciate Milton without getting bogged down in too many critical discussions.

In several of the beginning chapters of his Preface, Lewis distinguishes between two kinds of epic poems, which he calls Primary and Secondary. In Chapter 7, Lewis describes the style of “Secondary Epic”—a style that does not include the garlanded singer, altar, or feast hall, which are present in “Primary Epic.” Because it lacks these elements, Secondary Epic employs more specialized poetic diction to compensate, thereby leading readers to feel the weight of the poem more personally. The grandness of the style is elevated by unfamiliar words and constructions, proper names, and constant allusions to the senses.

In Chapter 8, Lewis defends the style of Secondary Epic, but he first introduces the chapter with an epigraph from George Chapman’s sixteenth-century poem Hero and Leander. The epigraph describes the goddess Ceremony, who holds two objects: a crystal ball and a laurel rod. The crystal ball gathers the thousand rays from Ceremony’s eyes and, in an action like something out of the Marvel Universe, focuses them into one ray and burns a personified Confusion to death. With the laurel rod, symbolic of poetry, Ceremony beats back Barbarism, which—if Ceremony were to be killed—would ascend the seats of the gods.

After the epigraph, Lewis acknowledges that some critics might lodge two complaints about his previous chapter: that its positive description of reader manipulation makes poetry seem more like propaganda, and that the poetic evoking of stock responses from readers is a cheap trick (“a miserable attempt to appear high by mounting on stilts”). Chapter 8 is Lewis’s response to both complaints. First, rhetoric, while able to be used wickedly, is inherently noble. Both rhetoric and poetry aim to move the audience by using heightened language. Rhetoric and poetry stir the passions to affect one’s reason and ultimately one’s actions, for, as Aristotle says in his Nicomachean Ethics, intellect by itself “moves nothing.”

Second, certain critics mistakenly assume that appropriate stock responses are naturally inherent and do not need to be taught to readers. But Lewis argues that stock responses reveal one’s moral education and therefore must be trained so that they are proper responses. Furthermore, the loss of stock responses leads to confusion, as seen in the British Romantics who read of Satan’s pride in Paradise Lost and viewed him as the hero. Lewis lists other issues, such as normal sexuality, treachery, death, and pain and pleasure, and for several of these issues, he provides examples of stock responses gone wrong, such as those who find death to be amusing, or who defend national treachery as something that some people might legitimately engage in for a paycheck. Ultimately, Lewis argues that without ongoing training, appropriate stock responses are always in danger of disappearing, and virtue—and perhaps survival itself—depends on the ongoing cultivation of the right kind of stock responses.

The connection to our current situation is that the discourse over knee-jerk reactions could use some rehabilitation. As a metaphor, “knee-jerk reaction” implies an automatic or unthinking response, and the connotation often goes deeper, suggesting an uneducated or bigoted mindset. And I certainly take the point about wanting to engage in careful moral reasoning and not falling prey to a mob mentality that habitually lurches toward sectarianism.

However, one of the ways that physicians check the health of the human body is by testing deep tendon reflexes. They do this by using a medical hammer to examine patients’ sensory neurons to see if normal human reflexes are working properly. In other words, it’s important to see if a patient has a baseline level of functionality. Certainly, a red flag would arise if, upon the physician’s tapping the knee, the physical response were replaced by a merely intellectual response—even if that intellectual response were careful moral reasoning about whether knees should twitch. In many cases, both physical and theological, the twitch is the necessary first sign, and it’s perfectly fine for the reasoning to follow.

We might even say that there is something of a ceremonial nature to stock responses, in as much as such responses are part of the process by which we participate in beating back barbarism. Without such ritualistic behavior, theory becomes separated from action, and in some cases, action itself vanishes into a cloud of meaningless contemplation.

Many laypeople need clear lines, and their failure to wield philosophical terminology does not mean that their gut responses are wrong, immature, backwater, or fundamentalist in a pejorative sense. In many cases, we should be thankful to see stock responses. It is a sign that people have been taught well, and that the effects of that teaching linger.

In fact, it seems tenable to wonder, in the face of something truly scandalous, if there is no knee-jerk or gut reaction, what has gone wrong?

Jeremy Larson is an assistant professor at Regent University, specializing in seventeenth-century literature. He has published book reviews for The Gospel Coalition, Christianity & Literature, Modern Reformation, and Mythlore, and he has contributed chapters to books on Paradise Lost and young adult fiction. He lives with his family in Virginia Beach.


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