New light from the insights of C.S. Lewis

Jonathan Luxmoore

The fiftieth anniversary of the death of C.S. Lewis, one of the twentieth century's most influential Christian writers, falls in 2013. This article assesses?Lewis' continuing impact on?Christian popular literature and apologetics. Jonathan Luxmoore is a freelance journalist and writer.?

In a rambling red-brick house on Oxford's western edge, a melancholy desk sits at a bay-window looking out over tangled woodland. Across the battered floor, an ancient ashtray stands broodingly against a worn armchair, while in the middle distance wall maps and pictures depict a fantasy landscape.

When Clive Staples Lewis bought The Kilns, a former brick factory, in 1930, he used its quiet remoteness to produce a stream of literary and spiritual masterpieces, which are still in print, widely read and quoted with reverence today. He achieved greatest fame with stories for children which contained deep Christian echoes, the best known of which, Chronicles of Narnia, has sold 100 million copies in over 40 languages. But he also gained renown for his Christian apologetics, one of which, Mere Christianity (1952), was rated by the US magazine Christianity Today as ?best religious book? of the 20th century, ahead of the documents of the Second Vatican Council and works by luminaries from Karl Barth to Jurgen Moltmann.

Until now, paradoxically, C.S. Lewis has been largely ignored at the university where he taught for three decades until his early death from bone cancer and renal failure in 1963, gaining greater recognition in the US, where the Episcopal Church celebrates a ?Holy C.S. Lewis? day each November.

With three Narnia books ? The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian and Voyage of the Dawntreader ? now blockbuster films, however, things could be changing. Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI are both known to have admired Lewis's insights. As more Catholics show an interest in this most Anglican of writers, Lewis's talent as an interpreter and populariser of the Christian faith looks set to gain ever greater acknowledgement.

?Like his close friend, J.R.R. Tolkein, Lewis expressed his Christian faith through narrative and imagination which seems to be chiming in with the needs of our contemporary culture?, explains Rev Michael Ward, an Oxford University chaplain and co-editor of a groundbreaking 2010 Cambridge Companion to C.S. Lewis. ?People are picking up intuitively again on the timeless religious element in his books, even if they're not directly aware of their fundamentally Christian message.

Lewis won an Oxford scholarship from his native Northern Ireland in 1916, graduating in Classics and English after fighting in the trenches of the Somme, and becoming a Fellow of Magdalen College in 1925. City landmarks include the Eagle and Child pub where his literary group, The Inklings, met to discuss ideas; the walkways where he nurtured his fascination for Nordic, Celtic and Greek legends; and Holy Trinity church in Headington where he lies buried with his older brother, Warren Lewis. Despite his prodigious output, however, and the huge popularity of his lectures, Oxford's academic establishment has traditionally been dismissive of Lewis. The university's Theology Faculty viewed him as a literary intruder and remained divided over his significance. The English Faculty, which Lewis did much to develop, acknowledged his studies on medieval and Renaissance literature, but considered him too preoccupied with Christianity, forcing Lewis to take up a professorship at Cambridge instead.

As a new generation is introduced to the world of Narnia, Judith Wolfe, editor of Oxford's Journal of Inklings Studies, thinks Lewis? Christian vision has gained a new relevance. Lewis was writing at a time of profound change, she points out, when the universal acceptance of humanity's sinfulness was breaking down under the impact of modern Freudian analysis, and the traditional answers offered by Christian apologists no longer carried conviction. He saw how Christianity's witness to the world was diminished by denominational rivalries, and believed his role was to show what united Christians rather than divided them.

?Although Lewis wasn't a professional theologian, he struggled all his life with the question faced by Christians ? what and where is God ? and his acute sense of the world Christianity portrays is just as profound as the best modern theologians'? Wolfe argues. ?He also realised Christian literature was failing to present good and holy characters who were also interesting ? the evil ones were always more compelling. By portraying Christ as the lion Aslan in the Narnia stories, he hoped to reveal the attractiveness of the good in real life.?

Born in Belfast in November 1898 into the Anglican Church of Ireland, Lewis abandoned his faith at school, recalling in Surprised by Joy (1955) how he had been confirmed and received communion ?in total disbelief, acting a part, eating and drinking my own condemnation?. His letters and diaries suggest his atheism was articulate and serious. But Lewis attributed much of it to Christianity's ?ugly architecture, ugly music and bad poetry?, insisting he was largely motivated by ?hatred of authority? and a ?monstrous individualism?. Nor did he ever rid himself of a yearning for what he called ?joy?, a sense of unsatisfied desire.

When he was eventually reconverted at Oxford in September 1931 by the devoutly Catholic Tolkein, author of The Lord of the Rings, it was enough to send him ?kicking, struggling, resentful, darting my eyes in every direction for a chance to escape?. ?That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me?, Lewis confessed. ?I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England?.

It was in the ?true myth? of Christianity, he realised, that religion had ?reached its maturity?; and this required ?orgy and ritual?, as well as ?intellect and conscience?. ?Every step I had taken, from the Absolute to 'Spirit' and from 'Spirit' to 'God', had been a step toward the more concrete, the more imminent, the more compulsive?, Lewis concluded in Surprised by Joy. ?There could be no going back to primitive, untheologised and unmoralised Paganism. The God whom I had at last acknowledged was one, and was righteous. Paganism had been only the childhood of religion, or only a prophetic dream?.

Lewis disappointed Tolkein by declining to become a Catholic, and remained a broad church Anglican. But he was sympathetic to the Catholic doctrines of confession, purgatory and prayers to the saints, and retained an ecumenical focus ? perhaps in reaction to the bitter religious divisions of his native Northern Ireland. Meanwhile, his return to faith released new powers of imagination and launched him on a new career as an interpreter and populariser of Christianity.

Lewis' Mere Christianity, based on acclaimed wartime broadcasts for the BBC, tackled popular objections to Christianity from a sceptical viewpoint, stripping it down to its essentials with simple, striking arguments and observations. It showed how the Christian experience began ?not in comfort but in dismay?, and explained the importance of authority, charity and forgiveness, as well of going to church, receiving sacraments and resisting the ?great sin? of pride. The book also demonstrated how the devil played on ?conceit, laziness and intellectual snobbery?, and set out the idea of a binding universal morality that was known to all ? a notion Lewis dubbed ?deep magic? in the later Narnia stories.

Two years before the first of his seven Narnia Chronicles appeared, Mere Christianity had earned ?Oxford's C.S. Lewis?, in September 1947, a Time Magazine front cover. By then, he had achieved further renown with The Abolition of Man (1943), which cited Plato, Aristotle and St Augustine in defence of natural law and objective values, as well as That Hideous Strength (1945), part of a science fiction trilogy, and a discourse on Miracles (1947).

Diarmaid MacCulloch, Oxford University's Professor of Church History, thinks Lewis' non-denominational approach to Christianity, which pre-dated the shift in ecumenical attitudes signalled by the 1962-5 Vatican II, explained his particular popularity in the US. The same ?lowest-common-denominator? approach, MacCulloch believes, gives him fresh appeal today.

?Lewis has attracted more conservative Christians at a time when religion is undergoing a great realignment between the forces of tradition and change?, explains MacCulloch. ?This tension runs right across the theological categories, and can now unite a conservative Catholic with a conservative Protestant in a way which would not have happened half a century ago. Among such supporters of traditional religion, Lewis is seen as a standard-bearer?.

Other experts concur that Lewis succeeded in capturing the Christian imagination where the doctrinal formulations and theological abstractions of churches often fell short. Today too, his combination of convincing argumentation and a witty, communicable style appears to be meeting a contemporary need. In The Screwtape Letters (1942), a series of imagined exchanges between an older and younger devil, Lewis satirises human weakness and self-deception with a still relevant insight, showing how the Church can be corrupted with ?the uneasy intensity and defensive self-righteousness of a secret society or a clique?. In The Great Divorce (1946), he exposes the vulnerability and insubstantiality of human self-awareness, while in Reflections on the Psalms (1958), he retraces Christian and Jewish perspectives on justice, mercy and oppression, and explains why the Old Testament's contents, however ?terrible and contemptible", are needed to show humanity in its true colours. He also tackles the growing confusion, highlighted since by writers such as Karen Armstrong, over the respective places of God and Christ in the Christian narrative.

?Of all bad men, religious bad men are the worst?, Lewis warns. ?The relentlessness of the Psalmists is far nearer to one side of the truth than many modern attitudes which can be mistaken, by those who hold them, for Christian charity?. In Letters of Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (published posthumously in 1964), he reminds Christians that their prayers, even though heard, may be refused. ?I don't say the resurrection of this body will happen at once?, Lewis wrote in his final months. ?It may well be that this part of us sleeps in death and the intellectual soul is sent to Lenten lands where she fasts in naked spirituality?. Lewis' many essays also contain observations with a contemporary application.

In Christian Apologetics (1945), based on a speech to Welsh clergy, he urged Christians to keep up with science, while also recognising its provisionality. In The Decline of Religion (1946), he warned of a time when hostility to Christianity will ?fling his whole weight against us?, but offered the reassurance that religious decline could even be ?in some ways a blessing? if it merely signified the disappearance of ?a vague Theism?.

Walter Hooper, a American who lived with Lewis at the time of his death, remembers him as affable and hard-drinking, but also generous and discerning, a man who made a sincere attempt, against difficult odds, to live a Christian life. Now 81 and a trustee of Lewis' estate, Hooper has spent decades editing his letters, diaries and poems ? some apparently rescued from a bonfire two months after the writer's death ? as well as authoring companions to Lewis' work and preparing his unfinished stories for publication.

He thinks interest in Lewis is now also growing, significantly, among Catholics, led by both recent Popes. During a 1988 Cambridge University lecture, the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger praised Lewis' rejection of ?destructive relativism? in The Abolition of Man, while in a 1994 US talk on the encyclical Fides et Ratio, he quoted from The Screwtape Letters. Hooper recalls how the late John Paul II also revealed a knowledge of Lewis' works when he met him at the pontiff's request after a 1988 Rome general audience, particularly lauding his 1960 work, The Four Loves, and Lewis' devotion to a practical apostolate. ?Lewis owed it to his fans to avoid complexities and set Christianity's core beliefs in place?, says Hooper, who was ordained a Church of England priest but later became a Catholic. ?But he was adamant those core beliefs, the deposit of faith, must always remain, no matter how things change. If you get rid of Christianity's sense and meaning, you'll have nothing to come back to?.

Judith Wolfe, editor of the Journal of Inklings Studies, thinks pressure is growing for fuller academic recognition of Lewis at his old university. His work has appeared on reading lists in both English literature and systematic theology, and Lewis has become the subject of doctoral theses. A C.S. Lewis Society is hosting weekly seminars at Oxford's Pusey House, and in summer 2012 for the first time, the Theology Faculty provided lectures on Lewis for aspiring Oxford students.

Academic books and papers are also being published, and the Church of England's two archbishops, Rowan Williams, recently retired from Canterbury, and John Sentamu of York, are both keen Lewis fans ? as exemplified by Dr Williams' book, published in August 2012, The Lion's World: A Journey into the Heart of Narnia.

Meanwhile, there are signs that Lewis is also becoming better known in Europe. His works have been written about by phenomenologists in France, and an Inklings Gesellschaft is meeting in Germany, together with a symposium devoted to Lewis' correspondence with the Catholic neo-Thomist philosopher, Josef Pieper (1904-97). In Scandinavia, a C.S. Lewis Association was founded recently in Denmark, while five of Lewis' books, including Mere Christianity, are now being reissued by Finland's largest Christian publisher.

Jason Lepojarvi, a theologian from Helsinki University, read Lewis' The Problem of Pain (1940) during his military service and is now a leading devotee. He thinks interest in Lewis will increase as his insights into faith and society gain in prophetic quality. For many Protestants, uneasy and dissatisfied at their own churches' ?social conformism?, Lewis' Christian orthodoxy and ethical conservatism are proving attractive, says Lepojarvi. So is his ability to write without jargon, to entertain while avoiding superficiality. Lepojarvi particularly admires Lewis's writings on Christian love, which were shaped in part by his reactions to work the Swedish Protestant theologian, Anders Nygren. Whereas Nygren's two-volume 1930-6 Eros and Agape set out a bleak anthropology of human love, pitting ?need-love? and ?gift-love? against each other, this was rejected by Lewis, who argued that both were aspects of true human love. Echoes of their influential disagreement can be found, Lepojarvi believes, in Benedict XVI's first 2005 encyclical Deus Caritas Est, with the Pope clearly embracing an optimistic outlook closer to that of Lewis. Even then, Lewis' The Four Loves, which was influenced by the Swiss writer, Denis de Rougement (1906-85), has a cautionary purpose. ?In an age of Hollywood-style sentimentality, he saw how superficial notions of love were providing a moral alibi for virtually every sin ? lies, betrayal, infidelity, abandonment?, the Finnish theologian points out. ?This is still powerfully evident today, causing great heartache and sorrow. So Lewis' reminder that love cannot be divorced from morality and goodness is still highly topical. It has real consequences and can save marriages and lives?.

Lewis has been harshly attacked by celebrity atheists in Britain and the US, including the fantasy novelist, Philip Pullman, author of His Dark Materials, who's accused him of every sin from racism to sexism, and of opposing the development of free will. Meanwhile, most professional theologians still maintain a haughty disdain for Lewis, who was not even indexed in an 820-page anthology, The Modern Theologians, published by Blackwell in 2005. Although the Cambridge Companion's introduction describes Lewis glowingly as ?almost certainly the most influential religious author of the Twentieth Century in English or any other language?, one prominent contributor, Stanley Hauerwas, dismissed him in an October 2012 Oxford lecture as no more than ?a fairly interesting Church of England thinker?, who fell far below the stature of G.K. Chesterton. Even Diarmaid MacCulloch, while praising Lewis' story-telling imagination, has doubts about his originality and coherence, and thinks much of his work has more in common with astrology and pagan mythology than Christianity.

Walter Hooper, his editor and one-time companion, disagrees. He thinks current attitudes call into question the role of theology in a sceptical, secularised world, where the Christian faith is in danger of being ignored and all Christian thinkers should be making efforts, as Lewis put it in Mere Christianity, ?to draw men (sic) into Christ, to make them little Christs?. Against this background, Lewis' contribution to popularising Christianity deserves greater acknowledgement, Hooper believes. So does his unique achievement in rallying a group of Christian writers who, besides Tolkein, included the mystic Charles Williams and playwright Dorothy L. Sayers, at the very moment in modern times when their inspirational work was most needed.

?Lewis believed he had a responsibility to spread the Gospel through his writings, and showed how Christianity could be presented in almost any form ? from science fiction to children's fables?, Hooper explains. ?Because the academics wouldn't touch him with a bargepole, it's taken a long time for his works to be acknowledged. But Lewis couldn't deal with anything without illuminating it; and I think many people are now appreciating the inspirational power which runs through his work?.

Back at The Kilns, the rooms still exist where Lewis received Tolkein and other associates, where he played scrabble with his American wife, Joy Davidman, a former communist and fellow-convert, before she succumbed to cancer, aged 45, and where he died on 22 November 1963, the same day as President John F. Kennedy. The once-derelict house, restored as a study centre by US volunteers in 1993-2002, is now owned by the California-based C.S. Lewis Foundation, and stands in a suburban landscape much changed from Lewis' own days. But visits are increasing as interest grows worldwide in this dynamic and insightful Christian visionary.

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