Author, scholar, novelist, and theologian C. S. Lewis was beloved by many and arguably one of the most-read theologians of the twentieth century. Keep reading to explore thoughts about C. S. Lewis from pastors and authors that will encourage, challenge, and inspire you in your walk with Christ.
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When Everything Seems in Ruins: C. S. Lewis on Calling • by Ryan Pemberton
Why I Like C. S. Lewis • by Ryan Pemberton
4 Ways C. S. Lewis Can Shape Your Faith • by Ryan Pemberton
C. S. Lewis: A Lutheran Appreciation • by Dr. Eric Phillips
C. S. Lewis’ Unique Ability to Speak to All • by Rev. Dr. Tim Perry
When Everything Seems in Ruins: C. S. Lewis on Calling • by Ryan Pemberton
Ryan Pemberton, author of My Journey to C. S. Lewis’s House and Back Again, shares his conversation with C. S. Lewis’ godson about Lewis’ encouragement to him during a challenging experience he faced.
When I get called in to speak, it’s either on the topic of C. S. Lewis or calling. That’s about all I’m good for, I like to joke (half-jokingly). The best is when I can share a bit on both. As a minister for university engagement in Berkeley, I’m often doing some combination of the two. And while C. S. Lewis is quoted as much as any other writer among Christians, it isn’t often that I see others looking to Lewis for wisdom on calling. But I’ve found him to be a helpful guide here, too.
While studying theology at Oxford, I had the privilege of serving as President of the Oxford University C. S. Lewis Society. Nowhere else was my feeling of Imposter Syndrome more acute.
One of the many perks of this role was the opportunity to meet scholars and those who knew Lewis during his life, and to hear firsthand stories of their experience with Lewis. One of the most memorable of those conversations was with Laurence Harwood, C. S. Lewis’ godson.
Laurence was tall and well dressed. He spoke in a calm voice, which peaked to excited high notes when he recalled what it was like to grow up with Lewis visiting his family’s home for dinner.
“I always loved it when Jack came around,” Laurence told us over dinner. “As children, we’d be playing games when he’d come over, and he’d get right down there with us on the floor, at our level. He was genuinely interested in what we were playing, and he’d play with us. Not in a condescending way. He’d always beat us, of course, but we really enjoyed him.”
Before our meal was finished, Laurence shared a difficult experience he faced during his own days as an Oxford student. He told us how, after being struck with double pneumonia, he did not pass his first-year’s preliminary exams, and therefore was not able to return for his second year. He received a letter from Lewis in response to hearing this news.
“At the moment, I can well imagine, everything seems in ruins,” Lewis wrote to Laurence. “That is an illusion.”
Lewis encouraged his godson neither to dwell on this seemingly bad news, nor to consider himself the victim of Oxford’s exam system, but rather to do his best to brush himself off and get on with life. He must trust that this would actually serve to save him much hard work and many years spent traveling in what very well might have been the wrong direction.
Lewis went on to explain that many people, if not most, find this to be one of life’s most difficult periods, struggling from failure to failure, as it had been for him:
Life consisted of applying for jobs which other people got, writing books that no one would publish and giving lectures that no one attended. It all looks hopelessly hopeless, yet the vast majority of us manage to get on somehow and shake down somewhere in the end. You are now going through what most people (at least most of the people I know) find, in retrospect to have been the most unpleasant period of their lives.
But it won’t last; the road usually improves later. I think life is rather like a bumpy bed in a bad hotel. At first you can’t imagine how you can lie on it, much less sleep on it. But presently one finds the right position and finally one is snoring away. By the time one is called it seems a very good bed and one is loath to leave it.1
For those of us standing on this side of Lewis’ remarkable success and achievements, it’s difficult to imagine his experience with self doubt and vocational struggles. And yet, knowing that Lewis struggled here can offer peace to those of us who are yet struggling with disappointment or questions. If nothing else, Lewis’ candid letter is a reminder that faithfulness to the One who calls, rather than to any particular call, is the true measure of success.
Why I Like C. S. Lewis • by Ryan Pemberton
In this article, Ryan Pemberton, author of Called: My Journey to C. S. Lewis’s House and Back Again, shares how C. S. Lewis impacted his faith—and ministry.
The wardrobe was foreign to me. As was the image of a faun carrying parcels under a lamppost in the snow, and the golden-maned lion, Aslan. All of those characters and features so central to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe were lost on me when I first read C. S. Lewis. I hadn’t grown up reading The Chronicles of Narnia, unlike so many friends. At 19, my first interaction with C. S. Lewis came in the form of Mere Christianity, a compilation of Lewis’ broadcast talks on Christianity delivered over BBC radio during World War II.
I still remember the illuminating discussions in an apartment off Bill McDonald Parkway in Bellingham when our small group decided to read Mere Christianity together, and reading by the light of my desk lamp late into the night. I remember how C. S. Lewis wrote in equal parts rational argument and imaginative analogy to help me consider more deeply the Christian beliefs to which I had consciously and unconsciously submitted myself. In particular, I remember thinking that this was the first time I had read someone who was both an intellectual and a committed Christian. In his writing, Lewis showed me that it was possible to be both. Lewis gave me the permission I needed to fully inhabit my faith.
After college, I worked in a marketing and public relations firm. Spending my days helping clients tell their stories, I spent my evenings and early mornings trying to write in a way that helped tell the Christian story, motivated by C. S. Lewis’ own writing. Soon, I realized I wanted to spend more time and energy on this work. After much prayer and many conversations with my wife, and no small amount of prodding from friends and mentors, I decided to apply to Oxford University to study theology. My hope was to combine my storytelling background with a world-class theological education, writing and speaking in a way that helps others experience the riches of the Christian narrative.
Within a month of arriving in Oxford, I was meeting C. S. Lewis’ former secretary, Walter Hooper, and hearing first-hand stories of Lewis over tea at Lewis’ former home, the Kilns. The following semester, I received a phone call asking if I’d like to serve as a tour guide at the Kilns.
To this day, being paid to speak about C. S. Lewis and show guests from around the world where he lived and worked is still my dream job. That same semester, I was asked to serve as President of the Oxford University C. S. Lewis Society, where I was responsible for inviting and hosting guest speakers to share on the life and work not only of C. S. Lewis, but many of his intellectual and spiritual colleagues: J. R. R. Tolkien, Dorothy Sayers, Charles Williams, George MacDonald, G. K. Chesterton, and others. When we found out that we would need to look for new housing for our second year in Oxford, no longer able to stay in our apartment across the street from where J. R. R. Tolkien lived and wrote in North Oxford, we were distraught.
Fortunately, we received an invitation to move into Lewis’ former home, where I finished my degree as a Scholar-in-Residence at the Kilns Study Centre.
Were it not for reading C. S. Lewis all those years ago, I don’t imagine I would be serving as Minister for University Engagement in Berkeley today, helping university students take the Christian story seriously, as Lewis did for me.
More of this journey has been shared in a memoir I wrote, Called: My Journey to C. S. Lewis’s House and Back Again. While the experiences I had in this historic city were beyond what I could have ever imagined, and still often feel a bit dreamlike, it was what all of these experiences did to my Christian faith that I appreciate most. For me, it was through all of the ups and downs of this journey that I began to learn what it’s really like to live as a disciple of the Living God: scary as anything I’ve ever experienced, but life-giving in a way I wouldn’t trade for the world.
I could not have known the ways reading C. S. Lewis’ work would turn my life on its head when I first picked up his writing as a college sophomore, nor the impact it would have on my faith. But it’s my hope that others who read Lewis will have their own life and faith-enriching experiences. That’s why I am excited to share Walking With C. S. Lewis: A Spiritual Journey Through His Life and Writings, which provides in-depth insights into 16 of Lewis’ books. I wrote the companion guide to Professor Tony Ash’s video lectures, filmed on location throughout Oxford, who not only had a similar life-changing experience of reading Lewis at a young age but who taught on Lewis’ works for nearly 50 years. Here’s hoping Walking With C. S. Lewis will provide even more growth for those who read Lewis’ works, on their own or in community.
Get the 10-segment video series Walking with C. S. Lewis, perfect for individuals and small groups, and through the life, writings, and impact of C. S. Lewis. Jouralist and author
4 Ways C. S. Lewis Can Shape Your Faith • by Ryan Pemberton
Walking with C. S. Lewis is a video series on the writings of C. S. Lewis, featuring Dr. Ash, a longtime professor at Abilene Christian University whose life and faith were profoundly shaped by Lewis’ influence. The excerpt describes the first of four ways C. S. Lewis shaped Dr. Ash’s faith.
Commitment to Unity
Lewis was no stranger to a debate, but he refused to debate his friends on the inferiority or superiority of various Christian traditions. Whether the Lord’s Supper should be understood this way or that was of little interest to Lewis, and certainly not worth debating, he suggested, precisely because it did not encourage unity. And unity is something our Lord takes very seriously (John 17:20–23). So, too, must we. “Be kind to those who have chosen different doors and to those who are still in the hall,” Lewis writes. “If they are wrong they need your prayers all the more; and if they are your enemies, then you are under orders to pray for them.”2
Christians are to strive toward unity among their sisters and brothers rather than resorting to so much time spent trying to prove that their own particular tradition is superior to others. This is one of the great lessons that Professor Ash has taken from C. S. Lewis’ work.
One of the other great lessons Professor Ash has taken from Lewis’ writing is that he is nearly always making a personal appeal to the reader. Though Lewis may not fit perfectly with our expectations of an evangelical Christian—depending, of course, on who you ask—his writing was perfectly evangelical in that he was concerned with inviting readers to live into the Christian tradition for themselves.
At the end of so many chapters of Mere Christianity, for example, Lewis encourages readers that right here, right now, they have the opportunity to take seriously the claims of Christianity and to live them. As a result, Lewis’ faith was contagious; the fire that had been fanned into a flame inside of him by God’s grace and the faith of others produced light in so many other lives. May the same be true of each of our faith walks.
A Case for Absolutes
In a pluralistic, postmodern culture in which absolute values and morality are frequently traded for “what’s right for you,” C. S. Lewis’ work stands out for his insistence in objective virtues. This, too, is an aspect of Lewis’ work that Professor Ash highly values.
There are many places in Lewis’ writing in which his insistence on absolutes can be found—such as Mere Christianity and That Hideous Strength. As Professor Ash notes, though it is one of Lewis’ most dense works, The Abolition of Man makes an astounding case for absolute values that do not change, no matter the season or climate of our contemporary culture. Humans can no more argue against the idea of absolute, objective values, C. S. Lewis insists, than they can create an entirely new system of virtues. That is why any attempt to write off all of the virtues history has handed down as simply “old fashioned” is ultimately hopeless.
In our postmodern context, Lewis’ insistence on the undeniable reality of absolute virtues is, for many, a refreshing perspective.
Person of Prayer
Concluding on a more personal note, Professor Ash admits his deep appreciation for C. S. Lewis’ commitment to prayer. Far from writing off prayer as a childish practice that a man of his intellect does not need, Lewis frequently talks about his own prayer life, encourages others to do the same, and even asks those to whom he was writing to remember him in their prayers.
Written at the very end of his career and published after his death, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer is a series of letters Lewis wrote to a fictional friend on the subject of prayer. In this book, readers can find Lewis’ thoughts on a variety of different types of prayer, from communal and liturgical to private and petitionary prayer. This writing is not based in years of studying prayer in a clinical or academic setting, but out of his own experience as a devoted man of prayer. And one of the greatest lessons of prayer, for C. S. Lewis as much as for any one of us, is that it reminds us of our absolute need for and dependence on God, which is not a lesson we will ever advance beyond in this life.
Get the 10-segment video series Walking with C. S. Lewis.
C. S. Lewis: A Lutheran Appreciation • by Dr. Eric Phillips
This article by Dr. Eric Phillips, pastor of Concordia Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod) in Nashville, Tennessee, ponders whether a Lutheran version of appreciating Lewis exists.
Twice a genius
In sitting down to write an essay on “how Lutherans appreciate C.S. Lewis,” I am confronted with the question of whether there is a distinctly Lutheran version of this appreciation.
I could write for a long time about my own admiration for the man and his work, but I suspect that most of my points would be echoed by most of the other essayists who are participating in this tribute. In fact, if this were not the case—if Lewis were not immensely attractive to Christians from across the denominational spectrum—this project would never have been conceived. He was first and foremost an apologist, whose goal and special talent was to explain Christianity to the modern mind. Whether that mind is in other respects a Lutheran mind, or a Baptist, Anglican, or Roman Catholic mind, or a secular and unbelieving mind, hardly matters. His message gets through and is little changed by the various filters.
Mere Christianity was only one of his many books, but the project defines his whole corpus. In the preface to that work, he famously described Christianity as a great house and the individual Christian communions as rooms within the house. While he counseled his readers to find a room, and not “live in the hall,” his primary goal was to convince people to enter the house in the first place:
Ever since I became a Christian I have thought that the best, perhaps the only, service I could do for my unbelieving neighbors was to explain and defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.
This was indeed his forte, but in so doing he also explained the faith to all of us who already believe, with the result that we understand it better and are made bolder in the face of contrary Modernisms, having been shown how flimsy are their claims next to those of the Christian Church. I like to say of Lewis that he was twice a genius: first to have the thoughts he did, second to be able to communicate them with such clarity and simplicity. Many great intellectuals can speak to the public only through interpreters. C. S. Lewis speaks for himself.
Lutherans and a mere Christianity
Lewis is the great apologist and exponent of “mere Christianity” i.e., Christianity-vs.-Secular Modernism. This endears him to most Lutherans (of the theologically conservative variety, at least, who are the only ones I am really qualified to speak for), but not in a way that’s substantially different from how it endears him to the rest of the conservative Christian world.
Where the distinctively Lutheran observations begin is also the point at which “mere Christianity” becomes less attractive, because the Lutheran Church is a strongly confessional church, one of the “rooms” most insistent about the doctrines that distinguish it from the others, and therefore least enthusiastic about the hallway and the other rooms. We acknowledge the basic accuracy of the model, but we also insist, for example, that justification by grace alone, through faith alone, is “the doctrine on which the Church stands or falls.”
So Roman Catholics are in the house with us, not because this is a nonessential doctrine—one that defines the Lutheran quarters but not the house—but because (or to the extent that) they really do put all their trust in Christ and not in their own works, despite some of their official doctrinal pronouncements.
I think it is similar to the way that the Roman Catholics, after Vatican II, recognize Protestants as housemates without conceding that submission to the pope is a nonessential doctrine. They say we are in the house because (or to the extent that) we actually are in fellowship with the pope, although we don’t realize that we are. In other words, while both Lutherans and Roman Catholics may love Mere Christianity, we also both deny that such a thing exists, except as a mental construct that is useful when comparing Christianity to competing –ities and –isms. There is pure Christianity, and then there are various declensions from it, in which people may still be saved because they do not generalize their errors in such a way as to destroy faith in Christ (the Lutheran explanation) or the love of God (the Roman Catholic explanation).
The distinctions I have just made may be surprising and distasteful to some of my readers. There are good reasons, as Lewis explains in the preface, why he carefully omitted all such questions and considerations from Mere Christianity, even going so far as to circulate Book One among four clergymen from different confessions as an external check on his own Anglican bias (none of these four was Lutheran because Lewis was, well, English).
He writes, “I think we must admit that the discussion of these disputed points has no tendency at all to bring an outsider into the Christian fold,” and such content would also have impaired the nearly universal appeal that the book holds for Christians of varying confessions. I don’t fault him for his method, and I do agree that one of the fruits of his project has been to show that “the Highest Common Factor turns out to be something not only positive but pungent, divided from all non-Christian beliefs by a chasm to which the worst divisions inside Christendom are not really comparable at all.”
In short, I am not criticizing Lewis when I say that “mere Christianity” is a mental construct. I think he realized this himself:
I hope no reader will suppose that ‘mere’ Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions. . . . If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. — Preface
Still, the point is central to the essay at hand: when we begin talking about specifically Lutheran appreciation of Lewis, we are moving away from this construct that defined his approach and has contributed so much to his wide popularity.
The deeper, Lutheran appreciation
It would be pointless, though, to turn the rest of this essay into a catalog of points on which Lutherans are critical of Lewis, just because those might be the most distinctively Lutheran interactions.
For one thing, many of the other contributors could do the same, and for basically the same reasons, and that would be boring. For another thing, it would be ungrateful. What’s great about the man is how he appeals to all of us. So how can I be appreciative and distinctively Lutheran at the same time, when so much of what I appreciate is his ability to speak for all Christians? I think the best way will be a personal approach because I did not grow up Lutheran—and by the time I converted, I had already read quite a bit of Lewis. There are three books I have read only as a Lutheran (Until We Have Faces, Surprised by Joy, and Letters to Malcolm), but there are many more that I read initially as a Baptist-like Evangelical, and then reread as a Lutheran: The Chronicles of Narnia, The Space Trilogy, Mere Christianity, The Great Divorce, The Screwtape Letters.
If I compare my pre-Lutheran appreciation of Lewis to my post-Lutheran appreciation of Lewis, I can perhaps isolate a distinctively Lutheran appreciation.
The Chronicles of Narnia
The Chronicles of Narnia are at least as good now that I’m a Lutheran.
The themes that appear in every book (trusting God and not leaning on your own understanding, the love and care of Jesus for his children, the need for boldly doing the right thing, the way that pride and dissension will get you into trouble) translate well across confessions. The scene in The Silver Chair in which the Emerald Witch tries to defeat the heroes by demythologizing the world above-ground, and concepts such as “lion” and “sun,” is just as clever and wonderful as ever.
Lewis’ depictions of heaven and hell at the end of The Last Battle are just as plausible and intriguing, and his experimentation with the idea of “anonymous Christians” in the person of the virtuous Calormene just as problematic. If any are saved in the end without having believed in Jesus in life, this will not be based on the relative virtue they displayed; why would Christians be saved by grace through faith, but pagans by their works? This is one of the very rare cases in which I think Lewis is simply wrong, but I thought that before I became a Lutheran too.
The changes I note are both in the direction of increased appreciation:
1. I no longer object, even mildly, to his employment of the Ransom (“Devil’s Rights”) Theory of the Atonement in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Although the Lutheran emphasis (like the general Evangelical emphasis) is heavily on substitutionary atonement, our theology manages to do justice to both biblical themes. In his Small Catechism, Martin Luther explained the work of Christ in these words: “[Christ] has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the Devil” (II.2). Since Lewis makes it clear that the White Witch has this right only as a provision of the Emperor’s Law (“the Deep Magic”), the two theories mesh rather well. There’s even a suggestion of the central Lutheran principle of “Law and Gospel” in the distinction between the Deep Magic and the Deeper Magic.
2. I no longer have a theological problem with the apostasy of Susan in The Last Battle. It’s still terribly sad, especially when I’m rereading the earlier books, but Lutherans do believe, as Lewis apparently did, that it is possible to stop believing the gospel and lose one’s salvation.
The Space Trilogy
I love The Space Trilogy too: the depiction of Earth as the silent planet and the classical gods as good angels worshiped against their own will by fallen man, the critique of the specifically technological kinds of human rebellion made possible in modern times (Weston is in many ways a science-fiction version of Uncle Andrew from The Magicians’ Nephew), Lewis’ insight into the nature of sin and temptation in Perelandra, Ransom’s realization that the only way to save the Green Lady is to have a fistfight with the devil (yes, there is a place for holy violence!), his battle cry as he heaves a rock at the Unman: “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit . . . here goes!” It’s all good stuff, and I could say more, but I don’t think being a Lutheran actually helps or hinders my appreciation here.
Reading Mere Christianity as a Lutheran, I was happy to notice something I certainly hadn’t agreed with the first time I read the book: that Lewis lists Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, along with belief, as the three things “that spread the Christ-life to us.” He also says that we can lose “the Christ life.” On both these scores, I appreciate the book more as a Lutheran.
Now, when it comes to the central idea of “mere Christianity,” as I said above, I approach it much more cautiously than I used to when I was going to an independent Bible church and was not aware of inhabiting any particular “room” in the “house” myself. But I think my present appraisal is closer to what Lewis meant.
For the most part, my appreciation for the book is unchanged. It’s a brilliant work, and I frequently remember points from it, especially now that I’m a pastor and I get to do a lot of teaching and preaching. Most of these have to do with the seriousness of sin: his point that a king may appear to be a worse sinner just because he has more power to do bad, but a common man might be just as bad and no one knows it; his point that a sin that seems not so bad to us now could take on hellish dimensions after a thousand years (see also The Great Divorce); and his point that people who ask why God doesn’t come to fix the world are generally unaware that they are part of the problem, and part of what must be fixed.
The Screwtape Letters
The Screwtape Letters is diabolical fun, and so perceptive. The way it leads us to see our own weak spots, the things that we fall for, and the ideas that lead us astray is helpful not only in combating them but also simply in teaching us the truth of what we confess in theory, but do not always feel acutely: we are sinners to the bottom, in desperate need of divine protection, able to be saved only by grace. “Still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe.” Again, I greatly value Lewis’ insights on the subject of our sin. This is also one of the best features of The Great Divorce. To see the ghosts squirm and justify themselves is to see ourselves: or at least, what we would all become if there were not Another to justify us. These are very Lutheran themes, although I appreciated them deeply in my pre-Lutheran days, too.
When I return to these two books now, I find them just as amazing, but I begin to miss something, too. I wish he would talk more about the promise of the gospel, about the sacrifice of Christ. Because what is stronger than the Word of God to counter the deceptions of demons? What is surer than the gospel to strengthen the soul of one who knows himself a sinner? And Christ is “the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing,” without whom we cannot face the Devil. The emphasis in The Screwtape Letters is on prayer as a way to escape the likes of Screwtape and Wormwood, and the emphasis in The Great Divorce is on repentance—simply on admitting that one is wrong and miserable and entirely helpless. These are fine emphases, but prayer is greatly strengthened when the one praying is reminded of the gospel promises that invite such prayer, and true repentance is made possible only by the blessed message that Christ has died for all your sins so that you don’t have to.
There is one wonderful passage in The Great Divorce where this is powerfully evoked: “I’m not asking for anyone’s bleeding charity” [says a ghost]. “Oh, then do so [says a blessed soul]—at once! Ask for the Bleeding Charity. Everything is here for the asking and absolutely nothing can be bought.” But it seems that every one of those conversations should have some explicit appeal to Christ and the cross. In The Screwtape Letters, everything is phrased from the perspective of the demons, so it’s probably understandable if there’s a lack of such objective reinforcement, but in The Great Divorce, the blessed souls are trying to save the ghosts. What else saves but the gospel? This is definitely something to which I’ve become sensitive during my time as a Lutheran.
The Great Divorce
The Great Divorce is actually my favorite book by Lewis, which makes it one of my favorite books, period.
In the context of a highly speculative (but ingeniously justified) setup, Lewis explains what might be the hardest doctrine for modern folk to accept: eternal damnation. And he makes it make sense. Sinners collapse in on themselves in selfishness and pride. They don’t want to be happy, really. They just want their own way. “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell, choose it.” This is an amazing achievement, and so valuable to the Church in our day. Judgment is not arbitrary, not cruel. It is simply the natural and inevitable wages of sin.
Then as a bonus, he also tackles the question of predestination in a discussion that I find a good deal more impressive as a Lutheran than I did when I was influenced by Calvinism. He speculates again about the possibility of salvation for those who did not die in the faith, but he does so in a much more responsible manner than in The Last Battle. The one ghost who stays in heaven is able to do so because he repents and abjures his pet sin, not because he has lived a virtuous life. But still, in the long scene where he is working up to this repentance, there is no reference to Christ and his sacrifice. He is promised help, happiness, innocence, freedom; Lewis certainly believed, and his Christian reader knows, that all of this is possible only through “the Bleeding Charity,” but no one tells that to the poor ghost.
I know I said that I wasn’t going to list Lutheran criticisms of Lewis, but I think I’ve done it anyway, just because there are so few, and because they pale next to the thousand points on which he is not only orthodox, but brilliant, fertile, and eminently convincing.
I thought he was a genius before I became Lutheran. I think I appreciate him a little more now.
C. S. Lewis’ Unique Ability to Speak to All • by Rev. Dr. Tim Perry
This is an article by Revd. Dr. Tim Perry, Rector of the Church of the Epiphany (Anglican) in Sudbury, ON, and teacher in the Joint Faculty of Religious Studies at Laurentian University, also in Sudbury. Dr. Perry reflects on Lewis’ unique ability to speak to all types of people.
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 into 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’ ability to speak to people who don’t care a whit about Christian faith; his ability to prod the unchurched to reconsider the claims 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 love, 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 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 certainly 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 certainly 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 compels 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’ turn has come round again, and we are better for it.
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- Spirits in Bondage: A Cycle of Lyrics by C. S. Lewis
- The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis by C. S. Lewis
- C. S. Lewis, My Godfather, 125.
- C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Preface (HarperOne), 2009.
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