Book Reviews

A Sword between the Sexes? C. S. Lewis and the Gender Debates

Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen Grand Rapids 2010-02-01

Van Leeuwen, professor of psychology and philosophy at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania, is a well-known voice in the evangelical egalitarian/complementarian discussion, having written several works on sexual identity and the psychology of gender from a moderate egalitarian perspective.

She traces the development of Lewis’s views on gender throughout his life. Her thesis is that Lewis’s early works show a marked tendency toward male headship but that Lewis came to affirm greater parity of gender later in life as a result of his remarkable marriage to Joy Davidman (he was fifty-eight, and she was forty-one). The author sketches a portrait of Lewis amicable to egalitarians.

Van Leeuwen begins by exploring her own relationship with Christianity and the parallels between her life and Lewis’s. She describes the influence the renowned professor had on her both positively with regard to striving for excellence in Christian scholarship, and negatively in what she judged his misogynist statements. Chapter 2 explores from Lewis’s published works and personal letters the trajectory of his views on gender. Chapters 3 and 4 examine his early, stiffly traditional views on gender in light of his upbringing in Edwardian England and as an Oxford professor. His bias against women, it is alleged, was a product of his environment. Chapter 5 contends that Lewis was “a better man than his theories” in that he always treated women and children with kindness and respect despite his gender-biased writings. Chapters 6–9 evaluate Lewis’s perspectives on gender and family through Van Leeuwen’s own profession of psychology. She contends that modern research invalidates Lewis’s understanding of male and female roles but supports his perspectives on divorce and parenting. The book concludes with a sympathetic assessment of Lewis and a final exhortation: “We need to incorporate into our worldview, and our activities, the less-frequently cited insights of the C. S. Lewis who gradually set aside his views on class and gender that could starkly oppose male to female, and finally stated a ‘preference for people’ ” (p. 259).

A Sword between the Sexes? is a gender-focused biography of C. S. Lewis—a dimension ignored by other Lewis biographers. Researched extensively and literarily keen, the work explores fascinating aspects of Lewis’s world. For example Oxford dons were not allowed to marry until the 1870s (the majority were bachelors through the 1940s), and women were not granted Oxford degrees until 1920. One of those early graduates, Dorothy Sayers, stated that for much of Lewis’s life he was “a rather frightened bachelor” (p. 256).

In her quest to rehabilitate Lewis from traditional male-female roles Van Leeuwen’s case largely rises or falls with her reading of A Grief Observed, Lewis’s personal musings after the death of his wife. Joy Davidman was Lewis’s intellectual equal and through their relationship his admiration for the female gender obviously increased. Van Leeuwen intimates that given a little more time Lewis would have renounced gender roles in family and church altogether. However, evidence for this is largely implicit. Lewis’s purpose was to explore the emotions of his very human loss. This lack of explicit evidence regarding Lewis’s later perspective on gender order is noticeable also in her cullings from his later books. While Lewis surely did mature in his respect for women, his views regarding male headship in the home and in the church are left unspoken. Readers may rightly ask if the author is portraying a picture of Van Leeuwen and her struggle with Lewis or of Lewis himself?

In the end the value of The Sword between the Sexes? lies in the author’s detailed exploration of Lewis’s historical, social, and gender-conflicted milieu. With intelligent commentary and literary finesse Van Leeuwen’s reconstruction of Lewis’s personal growth through relationships with women—most of all his wife, Joy Davidman—is masterful and well worth reading.

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J. Scott Horrell
The author of From the Ground Up: New Testament Foundations for the 21st-Century Church, Dr. J. Scott Horrell is professor of Theological Studies at DTS. He has been a theologian in various world cultures including years spent as a missionary in Brazil. Along with cofounding and editing a leading Latin American theological journal, he has written several books in Portuguese and English. He especially loves to introduce students to a global understanding of Christian faith, often taking teams of them with him as he travels.
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