C.S. Lewis is well-known today for his popular children’s literature series The Chronicles of Narnia. Several popular films have been made based on the series, not to mention the less popular BBC versions. He is especially popular in American evangelical circles for his book Mere Christianity, based of course on the famed war-time radio talks by Lewis. Various books have been published this year in commemoration of it being 50 years since his death, this day (November 22), in 1963. One of my favorite historical theologians alive today, Alister McGrath, has written an excellent biography earlier this year titled C.S. Lewis – A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet which I have enjoyed immensely and another work which grew out of this one for McGrath titled The Intellectual World of C.S. Lewis. Colin Duriez released The A-Z of C.S. Lewis: A Complete Guide to His Life, Thoughts, and Writings. McGrath has another book coming out next year and John Piper has a collective work including Lewis to be published in 2014 as well. Later this month, C.S. Lewis and the Arts: Creativity in the Shadowlands is to be released by Rod Miller, David C. Downing, Bruce Herman, and Peter J. Schakel. There are undoubtedly numerous others I’ve not mentioned published this year, and that’s not mentioning the new publications of all of C.S. Lewis’ works on top of everything else.
It is without question that C.S. Lewis has left his mark on the world, and the splash and overflow in the academy, in bookstores, in churches, and least of all, in the hearts and minds of readers the world over. As for me, to be perfectly honest, I had not heard much of Lewis until I entered my second college and there was encouraged to read Mere Christianity as it was nearly assumed that all students at the Christian college I attended had already read all of his works. When I first read Lewis, I will confess, I did not like him. I read him at first when I was studying biblical languages for the first time, reading deep reference works with hundreds of pages on a weekly basis, and came from a prior college experience of science. Perhaps, I was too analytical and nitpicky, whatever the case, I read Lewis’ Mere Christianity the first time and found it boring and a bit torturous to plow through. Not that it was difficult to read, but that it was too easy to read and I was used to more difficult reference material. There were a few illustrations that were good, but I ultimately was not a fan of the work.
Then, after some arm twisting by friends who could not settle on my opinion of Lewis, I picked it up a year later and read it a second time. I don’t know what it was that changed in me or in my reading, but reading it a second time was as though my mind was open and Lewis was speaking directly to me out of the book. It was as though I could hear his war-time radio voice giving these lectures on Christianity anew. Perhaps my life was too cluttered with academic material to give notice to what I had read before or maybe the way that I thought was less imaginative, but the second time I read Mere Christianity I was hooked. I immediately read it a third time while simultaneously picking up other works by Lewis and starting to get into those such as The Screwtape Letters and then The Problem of Pain and then A Grief Observed and The Great Divorce. Before long, I was no longer a busied college student ignorant more or less of Lewis, I was a fan. Beyond that, it was as though I was his student as I was reading his works and he was as a mentor to me. I had become a Christian just prior to my second college, so it wasn’t Lewis work only that was opening up to me for the first time, but I was reading the Bible for the first time with a whole new set of lenses through which to understand it. It wasn’t that I was reading about biblical stories and moral life lessons, I was reading about a grand narrative story in which I was playing a part. The Bible leaped off the thin pages at me when reading it as a new believer in a way that I had never imagined possible. A whole new world had opened to me upon becoming a Christian which affected my studies, my ability to read, my desire to learn, and my imagination soared as I was understanding life and the world around me in an entirely new way. Everything was the same, but everything different all at once. I was a changed person.
Such was the context of my first getting into Lewis’ writings. Now, looking back, I’ve got a bookshelf full of Lewis in my own personal library. A far cry from a person who hated reading, even through 2 years of college. I really lacked discipleship upon becoming a Christian. Part of it was something miraculous had happened to me and I didn’t fully understand just what that was until well after the fact I suppose. Looking back, it is easier to see the work of God in our lives through the power of the Holy Spirit, but in the moment it can feel a bit foggier than that, like peering through a glass dimly. I had grown up within a Christian context, both Catholic and Protestant simultaneously. I’m Irish-American, so you can add that in for a laugh. I was familiar with early Christian councils, theological controversies, church fathers from my Catholic background and common Sunday school Bible stories, well-known Bible verses, and the ‘plan of salvation’ in my Protestant background. So, becoming a Christian just prior to my second college, I had to reformulate and go back and understand how all the stuff that I had learned from when I was young made sense and where it all fit. I had no one to really walk with me during that time except for perhaps a patient college professor named Dr. Bobby Kelly who was always willing to answer one of the many questions I had about Jesus, Christianity, faith, and the Bible. Apart from him, there were simply my newfound friends in my reading, many of which deceased, but all of which could speak a great deal to me. More than all of those dead and not silent voices who helped me to understand how to relate and bring my faith from a purely theological and historical place into a more practical, real-world faith was C.S. Lewis.
I am forever grateful to Lewis for what I was learning and discovering as a new believer, he was creatively articulating much of what I had experienced and found to be true through his beautiful and imaginative writing: The constant sense of longing in the world for something more and greater, that is beyond us, as a calling for a home that we’ve never been, a far off place; Believing in Christianity not simply because it is true, but because through it, like the sun, it shines light on all else in the world making sense of all things; The difference between looking at Christianity and looking in and through it at its source; and the power to create worlds with words and to craft those words to explain many deep things of God is a gift for which I am truly grateful.
Lewis, in his writings about his fictional world of Narnia, and in his other works always wrote with that great sense of longing which brought together the worlds of distant and foreign and far off and imaginative together with the real and ever-present world in which we live with all its horrors, and tragedy, and suffering. Lewis, I believe, has taught all of today who have read and benefited from his works, to have a little imagination in our lives of faith. We can get in the habit of separating our real, physical world in which we live from the beautiful, nothing is impossible, heavenly world in which God speaks to us through Scripture. However, with Lewis, these are not two different worlds, but one world. And the world depicted in the Bible is the real world which speaks into the false deceptions and pulls the veil away from the world in which we live to show us the reality of what is really going on and just who we are. God is not separate, distant, unspeaking as a deist view of God would presume, but God is very much real and alive and present. God is not safe, as Lewis shows, He is as a lion. A Gentle, Humble, Good, and Loving Lion, but not a tame Lion by any means that we can teach and train and control.
Lewis spent much of his life writing in such a way that really asks the question, not “Is Christianity true?” but rather “If Christianity is true, what does it mean?” How does it affect our lives and the way we view the world and one another? For Lewis, our ability to imagine and be creative was not chance, but pointed to a Creator who imagines and creates. For many, being behind a desk with a book before you is a boring time away from the world, but for Lewis being behind a desk with a pipe in his mouth and pen in his hand was a place where worlds would open up to him and the mind could soar.
I would like to close this commemorative post with a closing quote that I enjoy by C.S. Lewis from his well-known sermon, The Weight of Glory, preached 8 June 1941 at Oxford University Church of St. Mary the Virgin by the invitation of Canon T.R. Milford. This quote comes at the end of Lewis’ sermon and is the closing remark from the sermon concerning the “weight of glory” which has to do with the reality that each person is destined for heaven or hell, and that it is the responsibility of each Christian to help our neighbor along to faith as the weight of glory rest on each of us for our neighbors in this life for the life that is to come…
The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serous thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you say it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.
There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously – no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner – no mere tolerance, or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbour, he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ veer latitat – the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.
C.S. Lewis. The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses. (New York, NY: HarperCollins Edition, 2001), 45-46.