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The Thought and Work of C. S. Lewis | Carl E. Olson
| December 9, 2005
Theres no doubt about the ongoing popularity of C.S. Lewiss
work, as the excitement about the movie Narnia: The Lion, The
Witch, and The Wardrobe demonstrates. He is one of the best-selling
authors of all-time; his Narnian series alone has sold some 85 million copies
since it was first published fifty years ago. His works of Christian apologeticsincluding
Mere Christianity, The Great Divorce, and The Screwtape Lettersare
read and admired by Christians ranging from Catholics to Baptists to Methodists
to Eastern Orthodox. And his lesser-known works of literary criticism, such
as The Discarded Image, a study of the medieval view of the world,
and English Literature in the Sixteen Century Excluding Drama, are
still greatly admired by specialists and students.
Like many prolific and accomplished authors, Lewis possessed formidable
skills, discipline, and focus. Those who knew him were often astounded at
his prodigious intellect; he could quote entire pages of medieval poetry
from memory and most of his books and essays were "first takes"
he rarely revised a first draft. As a young man he was a top student
who read widely and deeply, the recipient of a traditional classical education.
The Desire for Joy
However impressive his learning and skills, there is a much more mysterious
quality behind the distinctive features of Lewiss writing and thinking
the reality of Joy. It is for good reason that Lewiss
account of his formative years was titled Surprised By Joy since
the elusive experience of "Joy" powerfully shaped his life and
thought, as he indicated in many of his writings.
As a young boy of six Lewis experienced the sensation of "enormous
bliss" on a summer day, accompanied by the memory of a toy garden in
his nursery. "It was a sensation, of course, of desire," he wrote
in Surprised By Joy, "but desire for what?" That sudden
sensation ceased but "in a certain sense everything else that had ever
happened to me was insignificant in comparison." That elusive Joy was
the subject of early poetry, of his first work of prose, The Pilgrims
Regress, and of his famous sermon, The Weight of Glory.
Closely related to his search for Joy was his love for myth and mythology.
As a young man, Lewis again experienced Joy when he immersed himself in
Norse mythology. Yet he also abandoned Christianity because he became convinced
it was just one myth among many and a product of human invention. But a
long conversation with J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson in September 1931 opened
his eyes to the uniqueness of the "true myth" called Christianity.
"Now the story of Christ," he wrote, "is simply a true myth:
a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous
difference that it really happened." It was this true myththe
life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christthat Lewis would devote
much of his energy and ability toward explaining and defending for the next
thirty years of his life.
Retired professor of English literature Dr.
Thomas Howard has studied C.S. Lewiss work for over fifty years
(he corresponded with Lewis in the 1950s and met him briefly in England)
and has written numerous articles and a book about the famous author. Asked
about the continued popularity of Lewiss books, Dr. Howard states:
"Lewiss popularity derived, I am sure, from the remorseless clarity
of everything he wrote, plus his glorious imagination, plus his splendid
mastery of the English language. Of course his gigantic intellect and his
rigorous training in argument . . . set his work altogether apart from most
other writers, especially popular writers
" Lewiss ability
to powerfully convey the deeper truths of the Christian Faith with clarity,
liveliness, and conciseness is undoubtedly a significant part of his wide
In addition, as a former atheist, Lewis understood the thinking and objections
of unbelievers and met them on their ground, using their standards of empirical
proof and rational thinking in combating their challenges to Christianity.
Although not a theologian, he was trained in philosophy and was well acquainted
with the many philosophical schools and ideological fads of his time. Two
such "isms"subjectivism and scientismwere often addressed
in his works of fiction (Out of the Silent Planet, for example) and
non-fiction (Miracles and The Abolition of Man). Since Lewis
defended "mere Christianity" against those "isms" antagonistic
to traditional Christian doctrines and mostly avoided intra-Christian controversies,
it is not altogether surprising that he is widely read by Catholics, Protestants,
and Eastern Orthodox.
Imagination and Analogy
Lewiss fiction has sometimes been criticized for being too obviously
Christian (a complaint made by J.R.R. Tolkien). But Lewis always insisted
that his stories came not from the desire to make a point or press an argument,
but from pictures and images in his mind that he wove together into a story.
Yet it is also clear that many of his works of fiction contain implicit
denials of secularism and endorsements of theism.
This ability to connect concrete images to abstract thoughts is a notable
strength of Lewiss popular apologetics. There are many example of
this use of analogy in Mere Christianity, considered by many to be
one of the finest works of popular apologetics ever written. He employs
the analogy of reading music in distinguishing between instincts ("merely
the keys" of an instrument) and the universal Moral Law ("tells
us the tune to play"). And in arguing for the transcendence of God
he writes that "if there was a controlling power outside the universe,
it could not show itself to us as one of the facts inside of the universeno
more than the architect of a house could actually be a wall or staircase
or fireplace in that house." As Chad Walsh observes in The Literary
Legacy of C.S. Lewis (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979), this use of
analogy "transforms an abstract philosophic proposition into a mental
picture." He adds that these analogies "are little poems interspersed
in the prose text," bringing to life ideas that might otherwise sound
dry and dull.
Even those Catholics who express great admiration for Lewis point out that
one of the weaknesses of Lewiss theological and apologetic writings
is a weak, or hazy, view of the Church. In an otherwise glowing analysis
of C.S. Lewis recently published in First
Things magazine ("Mere Apologetics", June/July 2005),
Avery Cardinal Dulles, author of A
History of Apologetics, wrote: "As Lewis greatest weakness,
I would single out his lack of appreciation for the Church and the sacraments.
His mere Christianity is a set of beliefs and a moral
code, but scarcely a society. In joining the [Anglican] Church he made a
genuine and honest profession of faithbut he did not experience it
as entry into a true community of faith. He found it possible to write extensively
about Christianity while saying almost nothing about the People of God,
the structure of authority, and the sacraments."
Howard is even more blunt, saying that Lewis "avoided, like the black pestilence,
the whole topic of The Church":
He hated ecclesiology. It divided Christians, he said (certainly
accurately). He wanted to be known as a "mere Christian," so he simply
fled all talk of The Church as such. He would not participate in anything
that remotely resembled a discussion of matters ecclesiological. He
was firm in his non- (or anti-?) Catholicism.
But would Lewis have remained an Anglican if he were alive today? "People
ask me if he would by now have been received into the Ancient Church,"
Howard stated, "and I usually say yes. I dont see how, as an
orthodox Christian apologist, he could have stayed in the Anglican Church
during these last decades of its hasty self-destruction." Joseph Pearce
writes in C.S.
Lewis and the Catholic Church:
We cant know for certain what Lewis would have done had he
lived to see the triumph of modernism in the Church of England and the
defeat of "mere Christianity". There is no doubt, however,
that he would have felt strangely out of place in todays Anglican
church. There is also no doubt that todays Anglican church sees
him as a somewhat embarrassing part of their unenlightened and reactionary
past. The sobering truth is that even if Lewis had not chosen to leave
the Church of England, the Church of England would have chosen to leave
him. (p. 167)
The irony, Pearce notes, is that although Lewis is today ignored by most
Anglicans, he is embraced by two groups with whom he had, at best, an uneasy
relationship: conservative Evangelicals and orthodox Catholics.
Lewis modestly insisted that his work was not original, nor did he care
to be original. Yet however orthodox his beliefs and traditional his views,
Lewiss superb style, articulation, and creativity stand out as
does his ability to touch the human heart. He honestly speaks to spiritual
longing that all of us experience, but often cannot articulate. Lewis encountered
and pursued Joy and through his writings millions of others have been led
to embrace the true myth of the Incarnate Word.
A shorter version of this article appeared in the December 4, 2005 issue
of Our Sunday Visitor
newspaper and was titled "The Man Behind The Lion."
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.
He is the co-author of The
Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code and author
Catholics Be "Left Behind"? He has written for numerous
Cathlic periodicals and is a regular contributor to National Catholic
Register and Our Sunday Visitor newspapers.
He resides in a top secret location in the Northwest somewhere between Portland,
Oregon and Sacramento, California. Visit his personal web site at www.carl-olson.com
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