The Relevance and Challenge of C. S. Lewis | Mark Brumley | November 29, 2005
Mere Christianity sat innocently on the bookrack at a neighborhood bookstore, right next to end times prognosticator Hal Lindseys The Late Great Planet Earth. The author of Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis, was unknown to me. I confused him with Lewis Carroll of Alice in Wonderland fame. What could a weaver of childrens tales teach me about Christ?
An odd question, given that Jesus himself said that we must become as little children to enter the kingdom of God. Ironic, in another way, too. For Lewis was, unbeknownst to me, renowned for a series of extraordinary childrens books, The Chronicles of Narnia. And he was a great friend of Lord of the Rings creator, J.R.R. Tolkien.
The back cover of the slim, powder blue paperback reported that Lewis had been a Cambridge professor of Medieval and Renaissance literature. Strange, I thought, that a high-brow English scholar would have written a book the publisher so assertively subtitled "What One Must Believe in Order to Be a Christian." (Newer editions of the book removed the subtitle.) Thumbing through the book, I was instantly captured by its obvious Christ-centeredness and clarity.
Lewis quickly became my best friend, theologically speaking. He challenged me to use my mind to understand Christ and his truth, to know what I believed and why I believed it. I devoured everything of his I could get my hands on. Even scholarly essays of literary criticism did not lessen my capacity for Lewisian cuisine, not even his magisterial contribution to the massive OHEL (The Oxford History of English Literature), titled English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Dramaa repast hardly digestible by the sophomore public high school student I was at the time.
More remarkable still is that, humanly speaking, it is largely due to Lewis, an Anglican, that I converted to the Catholic Church, something as nearly inconceivable to me in my Fundamentalist days as becoming a Martian. Now, after more than two decades in the Church, I have met or learned of scores of far more illustrious Catholic converts who likewise list Lewis on their spiritual resumes. The late Sheldon Vanauken, friend of Lewis and former Anglican, once spoke of his mentor as "Moses"one who led the way into the promised land of the Catholic Church yet never entered himself. Even Walter Hooper, faithful secretary of Lewis in his last days, executor of the Lewis estate and an erstwhile Anglican clergyman, made the pilgrimage from Canterbury to Rome. But more in a moment on Lewis Catholic converts and his own failure to "pope".
Interest in Lewis is on the upswing, again, especially with the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe movie and portents of many more in a series of Chronicles of Narnia feature films. What, then, to make of this highly influential, Belfast-born Christian thinker and writer, and his impact on modern Christianity?
Apologetics and Fiction
To state the obvious: Lewis appeal if multifaceted. Reading him, both left and right hemispheres of the brain are fully engaged. He was, on the one hand, a fiercely logical and rigorous thinker, who cut through fallacies like a chain saw through whipped cream. His apologetics works such as The Problem of Pain, Miracles, The Abolition of Man, and Mere Christianity, all manifest a keen mind eager to grapple with the deepest problems of human experience. He is the thinking mans Christian, or as Anthony Burgesss widely quoted New York Times book review blurb has it, "Lewis is the ideal persuader for the half-convinced, for the good man who would like to be a Christian but finds his intellect getting in the way." (Those who would seek a summary of Lewis apologetics, would do well to consult Richard Purtills C.S. Lewis Case for the Christian Faith [Ignatius Press, 2004].)
Meanwhile, Lewis was also at home in the creative realm of imagination. His Chronicles of Narnia and his "space trilogy" still rank among the bestsellers of fantasy literature; his novel Till We Have Faces, a retelling of the Psyche myth, provides a sublime and penetrating insight into the human heart, including its power of self-deception. We cant mention all of Lewis work, of course, but we shouldnt neglect what was probably, until recently, Lewis greatest fictional "hit," The Screwtape Letters, the humorous and spiritually perspicacious depiction of a senior tempter, Screwtape, and his efforts to train his wet-behind-the-ears nephew and junior temper, Wormwood.
With respect to Christian faith, Lewis remains a "draw" because he took Christianity seriously. Christianity was a matter of capital "T" Truth, for Lewis, and such Truth always has consequences. God is real, Christ is real, and the Christian faith is real. Their reality is not trivial, but cosmos-shaking and massive. Christianity must matter to anyone who bothers to look at it with care. As Lewis once told a group of Welsh clergymen, in a talk on Christian apologetics: "Christianity is a statement which, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The one thing is cannot be is moderately important."
Lewis understood the skeptical and unbelieving mind, having once been both skeptic and unbeliever himself. He knew how to reach such a mind because he knew the honest questions such a mind poses to itself and the dishonest dodges to which it can be tempted. In a characteristically direct essay, "Man or Rabbit?," he wrote:
Note the tone of familiarity, as if to say, "I
know you; we are alike," and a direct moral challenge, "You
may not be certain whether you ought to be a Christian, but you know you
ought to be a man." Lewis was master of this style, the informal
and direct moral engagement. He often applied it self-deprecatingly to
himself as much as to his readers.
From the Catholic perspective, that statement requires some careful qualification before it can be energetically assented to. In fact, there are some notable theological limitations to Lewiss "mere Christianity." Yet these are not as great as its benefits, which include diminishing the denominational rancor among followers of Christ and promoting the cause of Christ in united mission before the unbelieving world.
Moreover, Lewiss distinction between the Christian faith as such and any particular denominational formulation of it, whether Protestant or Catholic or Orthodox, has helped foster a more sympathetic assessment of Catholicism among some Protestants and, ironically, has aided in bringing more than a few searching sheep into the Catholic fold. Protestants who tend to equate Christianity with their Protestant version of it will find in Lewis no ally.
From "Mere" To "More"
Which brings us back to Lewis and Catholicism. It is a curious phenomenon, demanding explanation, that so many people influenced by Lewis, including some significant Christian thinkers and writers in their own right, have embraced more than "mere Christianity"; they have become Catholics, often crediting Lewis with helping them to cross the threshold. Why has Lewis been such an effective apologist for Catholic Christianity, given that he never became a Catholic? What of Lewiss own position vis-à-vis the Catholic Church?
The latter question was well explored by Christopher Derrick, a long-time friend and former student of Lewis, in his book C. S. Lewis and the Church of Rome (Ignatius Press, 1981). Derrick, a Catholic, held that Lewiss Ulster Protestant background, combined with certain quirks of Lewiss mind, made it difficult for him to see the Catholic Church as "the Church" or the fullest embodiment of Christian truth. Joseph Pearce, in his C. S. Lewis and the Catholic Church (Ignatius, 2003), echoes the point, although less polemically and in a more wide-ranging, nuanced study.
But what Lewis himself could not see in the Catholic Church, others standing upon his broad Christian shoulders, have seen. Hence the steady stream of converts Lewis has helped come into the Catholic fold. Or, to put it in terms more in keeping with Vatican IIs language, into full communion with the Catholic Church. In that respect, Lewis has been called a "Church Uncle," rather than a Church Father.
Surveying Lewis writings, a strong case can be made that he imbibed a significant amount of distinctively Catholic doctrine. Certainly, he was not evangelical Protestant in the typical sense of the term. He was, for instance, a sacramental and liturgical Christian. He believed in purgatory and prayers for the dead. He believed in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, though he refused to take sides in disputes over the precise nature of the Presence. He affirmed a form of doctrinal development and even sometimes behaved as if he thought there was something of a Magisterium, or teaching Church, within Christendom, although he never associated it in any particular way with the Papacy. He regularly went to Confession, a practical allowed for in the "high church" wing of Anglicanism, but not widely encouraged in the Church of England. Furthermore, many distinctively Protestant tenetssuch as the twin pillars of Reformation Christianity, sola scriptura and justification by faith alonereceive little or no emphasis in Lewis.
To be sure, strands of Lewiss Ulster Protestantism occasionally found their way into his writing, and it is clear that he didnt regard Catholicism as adding anything necessary to "mere Christianity." Lewis was no papist (though rumors circulated in Oxford that he was secretly a Jesuit!). Distinctively Catholic doctrines were he contended, at best, items that suited certain temperaments. Nevertheless, the evangelical Protestant who accepts Lewis as a reliable guide to "mere Christianity" will have to accept distinctively Protestant doctrines as likewise optional or "extras." That approach is but one step shy of denying Protestantism, for it implies that what was at stake in the Reformation was not the Gospel itself, as the Reformers thought. The next step is to ask, "What is the Church?", a question Lewis seemingly never fully confronted, but which many of his non-Catholic readers do. And when they do, they often come up with the Catholic answer.
In recent years Lewis has come under attack, even from within the Christian household. Some of the criticism may be justified; much of it certainly isnt. The charge is leveled that Lewiss work often falls outside the exacting lines of professional theology. To that Lewis himself would, no doubt, plead guilty. He didnt claim to be a professional theologian, only, as we have seen, a translator of their work to the people at large.
Other critics point to Lewiss personal life and allege hypocrisy, even that he had an immoral sexual liaison with an older woman. Lacking substantial evidence, those who thus charge him are reduced to rumor-mongering and gossip. Still others criticize his disciples as too eager to quote Lewis blindly and let their master do their thinking for theman accusation with some validity perhaps, but as applied to the "disciples," not to Lewis, who never sought disciples for himself. The disciples he made were for Christ.
The fact remains, to his critics displeasure, that Lewis, born at the end of the nineteenth century, continues to be immensely relevant at the beginning of the twenty-first century. That is, if intelligent, imaginative, traditional, and ecumenically sound Christianity remains relevantwhich we can be certain it does, based on an Authority vastly superior to that of C.S. Lewis.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles:
An Hour and a Lifetime with C.S. Lewis | An IgnatiusInsight.com Interview with Dr. Thomas Howard
C.S. Lewiss Case for Christianity | An Interview with Richard Purtill | By Gord Wilson
Paganism and the Conversion of C.S. Lewis | Clotilde Morhan
Evangelizing With Love, Beauty and Reason | An Interview with Joseph Pearce
The Measure of Literary Giants | An Interview with Joseph Pearce
C. S. Lewis | Ignatius Press resources:
6 By C.S. Lewis (The Great Divorce, A Grief Observed, Mere Christianity, Miracles, The Problem of Pain, and The Screwtape Letters)
C.S. Lewis and the Catholic Church | by Joseph Pearce
Remembering C.S. Lewis: Recollections of Those Who Knew Him
C.S. Lewis for the Third Millenium | by Peter Kreeft
C.S. Lewis' Case for the Christian Faith | by Richard Purtill
The Complete Chronicles of Narnia | by C.S. Lewis (single, hardcover volume)
The Chronicles of Narnia Set | by C.S. Lewis (7-volume set, softcover in case)
Chronicles of Narnia Set (3 tapes)
The Life of C.S. Lewis: Through Joy and Beyond (DVD)
Shadowlands (BBC edition; DVD)
The Magic Never Ends (DVD)
Literary Giants, Literary Catholics | by Joseph Pearce
Literary Converts | by Joseph Pearce
Mark Brumley is President of Ignatius Press.
An former staff apologist with Catholic Answers, Mark is the author of How Not To Share Your Faith (Catholic Answers) and contributor to The Five Issues That Matter Most. He is a regular contributor to the InsightScoop web log.
He has written articles for numerous periodicals and has appeared on FOX NEWS, ABC NEWS, EWTN, PBS's NewsHour, and other television and radio programs.
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