(I have been asked by a former student to write a short appreciation for C.S. Lewis as part of the roll out for Logos Bible Software’s new C.S. Lewis Collection. Here is what I wrote).
I spent a good deal of my early adulthood avoiding C. S. Lewis. After my childhood enthrallment with Narnia, I largely left the Oxbridge don behind. The reason was simple: everyone else was suggesting I should read him. So, I didn’t. There was more to it than that, of course, but not much. I tried dipping in to Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, the Space Trilogy, and other works, but none could hold me like the adventures of the Pevensie children in the wonderful land between the lamp post and Aslan’s country. So, why am I here writing an appreciation?
The answer is simple. My appreciation has grown out of Lewis’s ability to speak to people who don’t care a whit about Christian faith; his ability to prod the un-churched to reconsider the claim that the “spiritual” or “religious” worldview might not be such obvious claptrap after all. While Lewis is considered passe by many in my church, he seems to be enjoyed by students in my religious studies classes at the local university. So for example, The Problem of Pain occupies a major spot in my syllabus for a course on Sin and Evil and if students come, as they often do, to think the issues are there too tidily described, I send them to A Grief Observed. Similarly, The Four Loves starts the second semester of a year-long course on the nature of human love. That book’s devastatingly simple thesis, that human loving, although multivalent, is transformed and becomes more fully itself through an encounter with the Love that is God often offers students an opportunity to reflect on the transcendent in a way that unites intellectual, volitional and emotional elements for the first time. Lewis, perhaps because he was an adult convert from the naturalistic worldview many of my students have simply inherited and never had the opportunity to query, seems uniquely able to make them pause and reconsider whether religious faith in general and Christian faith in particular deserves a first hearing and then, perhaps, a second.
In short, Lewis is able to stand between the two worlds of naturalism and theism in a way that many of on both sides of the gulf are not. He simply takes my students by the hand and leads them first to Plato, and then to Augustine or Aquinas, and finally to church. And all the while he asks them whether they would not be wiser to think through their metaphysical commitments carefully before they declare one way or another. He patiently and calmly assures them that the questions they have about transcendence, God, and even Christianity are neither brand new nor unanswerable and has the unique ability to set out classical Christian answers without rushing a reader to a decision. Because there is no compulsion to be found, whether rhetorical or other, they seem more willing to journey with him.
I have heard some readers criticize Lewis for being too dated and too certain to be of much value for a contemporary audience. It is obviously that case that many passages bear the stamp of an Oxford don writing in the mid-twentieth century, and sometimes longing for a world much older. But I have yet to find that to be a problem for my students, who seem willing to suspend moral judgments for older authors until they’ve gotten to the nub of what they have to say. As for his certainty, it is again true that Lewis does not adopt the perspective of an author on the margins of faith. He would regard this, I think, as a fundamental dishonesty with the reader. He writes as someone convinced. He is not, however, a bully who comples or cajoles agreement. My students, again, know the difference and welcome someone who writes with conviction without belittling them in their disagreement.
C. S. Lewis’s turn has come round again and we are better for it.