The Relevance and Challenge of C. S. Lewis
by Mark Brumley
Mere Christianity sat innocently on the bookrack at a neighborhood bookstore, right next to end times prognosticator Hal Lindsey’s 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 children’s 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 children’s 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 Drama–a 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 man’s Christian, or as Anthony Burgess’s 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 Purtill’s 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 can’t mention all of Lewis’ work, of course, but we shouldn’t 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 healed–‘Whosoever 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 haven’t 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 him–this 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.
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 … as apologists … 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:
"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 translator–one turning Christian doctrine, or what he believed to be such, into the vernacular, into language that unscholarly people would attend to and could understand."
Yet another reason for Lewis’s 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 Lewis’s "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, Lewis’s 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 Lewis’s 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 Lewis’s Ulster Protestant background, combined with certain quirks of Lewis’s 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 II’s 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 tenets–such as the twin pillars of Reformation Christianity, sola scriptura and justification by faith alone–receive little or no emphasis in Lewis.
To be sure, strands of Lewis’s Ulster Protestantism occasionally found their way into his writing, and it is clear that he didn’t 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 isn’t. The charge is leveled that Lewis’s work often falls outside the exacting lines of professional theology. To that Lewis himself would, no doubt, plead guilty. He didn’t 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 Lewis’s 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 them–an 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 relevant–which we can be certain it does, based on an Authority vastly superior to that of C.S. Lewis.
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Copyright © Mark Brumley
. All rights reserved. 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.