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    What is Debunking? Understanding What C.S. Lewis Meant

    February 22, 2014 by Brandy Vencel
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    If you will forgive this very elementary question about debunking. I struggle with some of C.S. Lewis’ writings and one of them is the Abolition of Man. So Brandy, would you be able to explain debunking and its issues?

    Heather asked this question in the comments of this post, and I started to answer and soon my answer grew into a post and I thought I’d go ahead and publish it as one in case anyone else was wondering. I really had to spend some time reading and thinking before I stumbled upon a way to explain it. It was a fun question to ask myself as I’ve often used the word unthinkingly.

    So. I’m going to try my best to explain it and I hope {1} that this makes sense and {2} that I am at least sort of right. I wish Lewis were here to check my work!

    I think a great way to figure out what Lewis meant by debunking is to look at what he thought was a good alternative. In the context, the writers of a textbook {whom Lewis dubs Gaius and Titius} take a silly advertisement and “debunk” it. Lewis says:

    If Gaius and Titius were to stick to their last and teach their readers (as they promised to do) the art of English composition, it was their business to put this advertisement side by side with passages from great writers in which the very emotion is well expressed, and then show where the difference lies.

    Lewis offers a few options — selections the authors might have used as good examples. Then he says:

    The Abolition of Man
    by C.S. Lewis

    A lesson which had laid such literature beside the advertisement and really discriminated the good from the bad would have been a lesson worth teaching. There would have been some blood and sap in it — the trees of knowledge and of life growing together. It would also have had the merit of being a lesson in literature: a subject of which Gaius and Titius, despite their professed purpose, are uncommonly shy.

    Now, that is a lot of quoting, but I think it makes our point. Lewis would have them uphold something that is admirable. What is interesting is that the advertising is capitalizing on real human emotions or passions. In this case, the emotion is that feeling we get when we walk upon hallowed ground — that feeling which comes to us whenever we are in a place where something Important and Old has happened. This feeling is probably the root of why I often link to articles about uncovering the dead bones of ancient kings — the reason why the Indiana Jones movies were so popular. Who doesn’t get all tingly looking at photograph of Stonehenge?

    Lewis thinks the passion is okay, but the writing is bad. This passion, like all passions, deserves good writing {and right ordering ahem}!

    The authors, however, don’t deal with the actual fault in writing. According to Lewis, when they debunk they

    point out that the luxurious motor-vessel won’t really sail where Drake did, that the tourists will not have any adventures, that the treasures they bring home will be of a purely metaphorical nature, and that a trip to Margate might provide ‘all the pleasure and rest’ they required.

    Basically, they show their readers why what is said is stupid, not why what is said is badly written. The result, says Lewis, is:

    What [the student] will learn quickly enough, and perhaps indelibly, is the belief that all emotions aroused by local association are in themselves contrary to reason and contemptible.

    So, in debunking, (1) the emotion itself is patronized or mocked and (2) the result, when it works, is that the emotion itself is seen as invalid.

    Lewis then reminds us that there are two distinct ways of becoming immune to advertising:

    [I]t falls equally flat on those who are above it and those who are below it, on the man of real sensibility and on the mere trousered ape who has never been able to conceive the Atlantic as anything more than so many million tons of cold salt water.

    The one who is “above” it is the man of sensibility — the man who knows what the emotion looks like at his best. The one who is “below” it is the one who thinks the emotion itself is bosh. He’s the cynic and, truth be told, a bit dead in his soul.

    In the case of our example here at hand, of James K.A. Smith and patriotism, there are two ways to help us become “untouched” by this cultural liturgy. The first is to show us real, admirable patriotism, and help us see that excessive flag-waving and song-singing is not its truest or best embodiment. This is what is accomplished by, say, Charlotte Yonge’s Book of Golden Deeds, more or less.  The second way is to show us how stupid and silly it is, and to question the validity of the emotion itself. Smith clearly chose the latter path.

    So, in short: debunking? Debunking {according to Lewis} is when someone {usually someone cynical} takes a bad expression of an emotion and holds it up to the light for the purpose of invalidating that emotion.

    Updated to add: Kelly once wrote a wonderful post that cataloged examples of debunking within Lewis’ Narnia books. You’ll definitely want to read them!

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