This week marks the anniversary of both the birth (Nov. 29) and passing (Nov. 22) of one of the most remarkable Christians of the last century. Believers of the various denominations may not be able to agree on much at all, but they nearly all assent to the great value of this unexpected champion of the faith. He possessed a wit and wisdom that even those outside the faith cannot deny even as they deny his claims. In an era when proclaiming the truth of Christianity seems harder than ever, we can take great hope from the life and letters of C. S. Lewis.
A difficult task has recently become much, much harder. Every Christian knows that Jesus’ ‘Great Commission’ gave marching orders to His church to go into all the world and make disciples. That was simple enough, as far as it goes, back when we could reasonably expect that the person on the other end of the conversation just might have the faintest idea what we’re talking about when we say “Jesus is Lord!” But even that small comfort has gone the way of all flesh.
As Francis Schaeffer put it decades ago:
One could tell a non-Christian to ‘be a good girl’ and, while she might not have followed your advice, at least she would have understood what you were talking about. To say this to a truly modern girl would be to make a ‘nonsense’ statement. The blank look you might receive would not have meant that your standards had been rejected, but that your message was meaningless.
Today, it has moved beyond even what Schaeffer prophesied a generation ago. Now, instead of getting that blank look, you are almost certain to be on the business end of righteous indignation, once this fictional girl figures out what you’re really saying, that you’re not simply expressing your spiritual side, but you actually mean that Jesus is her Lord, too. In the face of this daunting prospect many Christians have given up in despair. Why bother preaching the Word when all you get in return is apathy or anger?
Yet our divine commissioner has not left us without support. In what can only be the mark of his humorous nature, the Lord we are to proclaim gave us as a pattern to follow in reaching our discombobulated age a man, who, on paper, should be the last sort we would expect.
As an archetype of a herald to this anti-everything age, a seemingly stuffy expert on Medieval and Renaissance literature is not who springs to mind. In the life and letters of CS Lewis, we find a man uniquely crafted to slip behind the most valiant of defenses. Our bastions of icy cynicism and ironic detachment somehow melt before the simple warmth of this genuine human being, even as this same warmth contains within it an incisive mind, passionately loyalty to what are, today, radical truths.
In the life and letters of CS Lewis, we find a man uniquely crafted to slip behind the most valiant of defenses. Our bastions of icy cynicism and ironic detachment somehow melt before the simple warmth of this genuine human being, even as this same warmth contains within it an incisive mind, passionately loyalty to what are, today, radical truths.
In our world, which sees any belief older than yesterday as a mere pretext for power or shields for insecurity, Lewis’s path belied such comforting illusions. We assure ourselves that the forms of religion matter less than our sincerity as we express our communal search for eternity. At first Lewis’s meandering progress through a series of late 19th and early 20th century religious views fits snugly within our early 21st century perceptions of life as a journey. Though born into a nominally Christian family in a nominally Christian realm, our hero soon came to despise his culture’s religious expression, rejecting it for more than half his life.
Left there, Lewis would be more of an asset to today’s intellectual climes than the subversive force he turned out to be. After a road filled with twists and turns—a little atheism and agnosticism over here, a period of pantheism and spiritualism over there—Lewis found himself stumbling back first into theism and then, to his great horror, classical Christianity.
Unlike the spiritual pilgrimages of our time, for which the travelling matters far more than any arrival, Lewis embraced the faith of his fathers in spite of himself. As he said in God in the Dock, “I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”
His willingness to abandon his culture’s faith and to forge ahead on his own quest would gain accolades of the highest order from today’s cultural gatekeepers. His determination to follow that path to the end, even if that meant a return to traditional Christianity, is something that the watching world doesn’t really have a category for.
Our professedly enlightened age will admit to no truth as eternal, save the truth that no one can claim to know the truth. Now, we may well believe that something is true for perhaps an individual or a group, but they are unlikely to think that it is in any way true in a general, universal sense. Ethical standards for one society would not be “true” for yet another across the globe.
Lewis undercut this sort of thinking by appealing to a morality lurking behind all cultures. Calling this the Tao, he disarmed a common criticism posited by postmodern thinkers. However, by looking to non-European cultures, to shared ideas of right and wrong, virtue and vice, held by people around the world, Lewis turned the inclusive claims of postmodernism on its ever-so tolerant head. Enlightened critics from our time are then put in the delightfully ironic position of saying that these cultures and their ideologies are wrong, while their own very contemporary Western vantage point is right. The hunter becomes the hunted.
Lewis had an ability to take what was complicated, even for the believer familiar with Christian concepts, and have them make perfect sense for just about anyone. I was once told by a friend that reading Lewis made him feel smart. He said that when he finished reading one of Lewis’s books, he found that ideas that he had previously thought to be beyond his comprehension were suddenly grasped with an attitude of, “Oh, I already knew that.” Now, you could pass this off by saying that this simply flowed from the nature of Lewis’s profession. After all, who could be better to explain things than a man whose whole life was words?
But, that cannot be all that is going on here. There are innumerable of books by the Literati that are completely unfathomable to nearly everyone else, lining dusty bookshelves and rotting into oblivion. Lewis’s brilliance as a writer and effectiveness as an apologist was that he could present deep truths in simple forms. He said that the “problem is often simply one of translation.” The eternal truths of God revealed in ancient times remain as true as ever, but we must work to explain them using today’s terms.
Lewis used examples that readers could taste. Beginning his study on universal morality, he started, not with Platonic Forms but with issues of fairness his readers would encounter every day: sharing a bit of orange or keeping one’s chair. He distinguished the reliability of true belief from its flawed believers with an anecdote of a little girl who thought poison consisted of “horrid red things.” He explained the difference between merely studying and actually living Christianity by a memory of an afternoon spent in a tool-shed. You can go for pages on end without encountering even a wisp of a technical phrase or theological jargon, all the while letting the deepest of doctrines seep into your soul.
This easy nature of his writing style lent his works an insidious aspect. Much in the same way that tens of millions of people in the past decades have unknowingly absorbed huge amounts of a Christian Worldview through “The Lord of the Rings” films, skeptics who have picked up Lewis’s books are in immortal danger of Christian infection. His light style and engaging manner has kept readers off their guard long enough for his message to get under their skin.
Lewis used examples that readers could taste. Beginning his study on universal morality, he started, not with Platonic Forms but with issues of fairness his readers would encounter every day: sharing a bit of orange or keeping one’s chair.
In one sense Lewis has been able to reach so many people for Christianity because he has refused to treat his religion as religious, at least in the modern sense of religious as something set apart from “real life.” Some of this is just his use everyday words, but some of his “non-religious” technique is that he never acted as though Christianity was otherworldly.
This was wonderfully manifested was in his Space Trilogy. On its own merits the series stands as an excellent trio of novels. The characters are vivid and, while his speculations about the nature of space travel may seem quaint in retrospect, they are certainly imaginative and show keen insight.
It is intriguing that a reader can get quite far into the story without realizing that there is Christian underpinning to the narrative. All you know is that a man has been whisked away on a great adventure in the stars. Even when the hero meets what is obviously, at least to a Christian, an angel, our author does not present this celestial being in an expected way.
Most people, drawing on some combination of “It’s a Wonderful Life” and Renaissance paintings, will not notice that the “Eldila” and “Oyarsa” are angels. Less still will most people realize that Maledil and the Old One refer to two persons of the Christian Trinity. By approaching his tale in this way, Lewis manages to de-religicize these Biblical beings. These are not the willowy apparitions of popular culture, inducing diabetic fits with their simplistic sweetness, but solid entities with dangerous power that are all the more believable for their menacing possibilities.
Without a real supernatural order spilling over into the natural, without the natural world intimately tied to the supernatural, without a creation that is the work of a Creator, all the hopes and dreams of our enlightened society fall as nothing more than ephemeral dust dancing about a meaningless cosmos. While those of the world think they are reading the words of an unusual Christian who “gets it,” little by little they find that it is his Christianity that is getting them.
The works of Lewis have been uniquely effective in reaching out to non-Christians. Much of his success has been due to his winsome nature and appeal to common sense, common ethics, and common ground. But, left there, with nothing more than modifying vocabulary to suit this moment and all those that follow, we would be left with a mediocre faith, a faith lacking its own meaning and its own message.
Lewis did not gain his great following by being a better writer or cleverer advocate for Christianity. He earned the respect of the watching world by creating works of excellence which spoke in familiar ways and in resonating motifs. Yet, like the biblical writers before him, who used the styles of their day to penetrate the defenses of their world, he did not leave the content of his works to the whims of literary fashions. Rather, he took up the forms of the age only to let the dynamic message of Christianity burst the old wineskins of contemporary belief. Speaking the language of the world, Lewis subversively infused these words with new meaning and thereby turned his readers’ eyes towards a new world.
Timothy D. Padgett, PhD, is the Managing Editor of BreakPoint and the author of Swords and Plowshares: American Evangelicals on War, 1937-1973 as well as editor of the forthcoming Dual Citizens: Politics and American Evangelicalism.
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A version of this article was originally published in Critique. You may go there here.