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The Relevance and Challenge of C. S. Lewis | Mark Brumley | November
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
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
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
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:
"Honest rejection of Christ, however mistaken, will be forgiven
and healedWhosoever shall speak a word against the Son of
Man, it shall be forgiven him. But to evade the Son of Man, to
look the other way, to pretend you havent noticed, to become suddenly
absorbed in something on the other side of the street, to leave the
receiver off the telephone because it might be he who was ringing up,
to leave unopened letters in a strange handwriting because they might
be from himthis is a different matter. You may not be certain
yet whether you ought to be a Christian, but you know you ought to be
a Man, not an ostrich, hiding its head in the sand."
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.
"When I began, Christianity came before the great mass of my
unbelieving fellow countrymen either in the highly emotional form offered
by revivalists or in the unintelligible language of the highly cultured
clergymen. Most men were reached by neither. My task was therefore simply
the of a translatorone turning Christian doctrine, or what he
believed to be such, into the vernacular, into language that unscholarly
people would attend to and could understand."
No Faith-Fee Substitute
Another reason for Lewis potency: he was no innovator. He presented
Christ and Christianity, not Lewis and Lewisianity. The publisher of that
paperback edition of Mere Christianity that I mentioned at the
outset got it only half right when on the back cover Lewis was dubbed,
"The most original Christian writer of our century." I say "half
right" because insofar as Lewis was a superb stylist who incarnated
the Christian vision in fiction as well as essay, not to mention a uniquely
effective theological popularizer, he was indeed "original."
But he was not "original" in the sense of concocting his own
theological synthesis or customizing his own creed. "We are to defend
Christianity itself," he told the Welsh clergymen in his talk on
Christian apologetics, "the faith preached by the Apostles, attested
by the martyrs, embodied in the Creeds, expounded by the Fathers. This
must be clearly distinguished from the whole of what any one of us may
think about God and Man
we are defending Christianity,
not my religion."
Nor did Lewis regard himself as a theologian in any proper sense of the
term. Whenever a finer point of theology arose, he directed people to
the "real theologians." His job, as he saw it, was to be a faithful
and fluent translator of the historic Christian message into the vernacular
of present, not someone out to revise the message.
For Lewis, fidelity to Christ and his gospel includes not diminishing
it by mixing it with unbelief. He was an inveterate opponent of what is
sometimes called "liberal" or "modernist" Christianity,
or as he dubbed it, "Christianity and water." This was "Christianity"
with all the supernatural aspects removed or downplayed. According to
Lewis, the issue was, plainly and simply, a matter of honesty. People
expected a bottle labeled "Christianity" to contain Christianity,
not a faith-free substitute.
But fidelity to the Faith, though necessary, is not sufficient. Lewis
also felt called to fluency in it so he could more easily translate it
into the modern parlance. He insisted that Christians learn to speak to
modern man in terms he can understand, without tailoring the message to
suit the tastes either of the hearer or of the messenger. In a rejoinder
to "liberal" theologian Norman Pittenger, Lewis wrote:
Yet another reason for Lewiss success: his "mere Christianity"
was solidly ecumenical. That is, it represented a reliable core of common
Christian affirmations, which Baptists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Anglicans,
and Catholics generally all acknowledge. This was not some diluted "common
ground" or "least common denominator" religion. Forcefully,
Lewis insisted that "mere Christianity" is "no insipid interdenominational
transparency, but something positive, self-consistent, and inexhaustible."
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.
Case for Christianity | An Interview with Richard Purtill | By Gord
the Conversion of C.S. Lewis | Clotilde Morhan
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:
By C.S. Lewis (The Great Divorce, A Grief Observed, Mere Christianity,
Miracles, The Problem of Pain, and The Screwtape Letters)
Lewis and the Catholic Church | by Joseph Pearce
C.S. Lewis: Recollections of Those Who Knew Him
Lewis for the Third Millenium | by Peter Kreeft
Lewis' Case for the Christian Faith | by Richard Purtill
Complete Chronicles of Narnia | by C.S. Lewis (single, hardcover
Chronicles of Narnia
Set | by C.S. Lewis (7-volume set, softcover in case)
Set (3 tapes)
Life of C.S. Lewis: Through Joy and Beyond (DVD)
(BBC edition; DVD)
Magic Never Ends (DVD)
Giants, Literary Catholics | by Joseph Pearce
Converts | by Joseph Pearce
Brumley is President of Ignatius
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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