Apostle of the Imagination
Jeremy Halcrow — editor/journalist with Anglican Media Sydney
Not many Christians, let alone Christian academics, have their lives turned into a Hollywood movie. Yet, the release of Shadowlands in 1993 points to the amazing impact C. S. Lewis has had on the late 20th century.
Lewis has been called the unofficial spokesperson for Christianity. This was certainly true during his lifetime, but more astonishingly, for the 35 years since his death. This was brought home to me while doing research for this article. I was struck by the great diversity of Christians who greatly love and admire Lewis: mainstream evangelicals, traditionalist Anglicans, Roman Catholics and even members of Eastern Orthodox churches. What they share with each other is what they share with Lewis: a belief in 'mere' Christianity - a belief in the literal truth of the Bible's teachings about the Son of God's life, death and resurrection. The way Lewis stripped back Christianity to its most basic teachings - which are acceptable to all orthodox believers - explains Lewis's popularity among Christians of various backgrounds and denominations.
Yet, Lewis's overall popularity is much broader than this.
He emerged during World War Two (WWII) as a religious broadcaster and writer, and was famously dubbed the 'apostle to sceptics' (see Time magazine) especially in the United States. His talks seemed to touch a raw nerve with many, and after his first talk on BBC radio hundreds of people wrote to the broadcaster asking for more. The talks were said to 'comfort the fearful and wounded'1 , showing how belief in Christ could give hope through the uncertainty of war. In his last talk The New Men, Lewis said, "Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in."
Lewis's talks were timely, doing much to bolster the morale of civilians and those serving in the Armed Forces during WWII. Perhaps British Air Chief Marshal Sir Donald Hardman sums up public sentiments about these talks best.
"The war, the whole of life, everything tended to seem pointless. We needed, many of us, a key to the meaning of the universe. Lewis provided just that. Better still, he gave us back our traditional Christian faith so that we could accept it with new confidence, with something like certainty."2
Lewis's radio broadcasts led him to being offered an Order of the British Empire (which he declined), and were eventually collected and published as Mere Christianity in 1952. During the war, he also published a number of his other most famous apologetic works The Problem of Pain, The Screwtape Letters, The Abolition of Man and The Great Divorce.
It is understandable that Lewis's popularity in Britain was kick-started by these radio talks, but he was (and is) as well known in America. Alan Jacobs, an English lecturer at Wheaton College, Illinois, argues that Lewis's popularity in America was driven by his Englishness (that Lewis was in fact an Ulsterman, Jacobs suggests, was too subtle a distinction for Americans).3 To American evangelicals, Lewis's work had the air of sophistication and culture, which seemed in stark contrast to the anti-intellectualism of the local Christian scene. And to top it off, Jacobs explains, Lewis was an Oxford don, which to many Americans seemed the pinnacle of academia.
Lewis was the right man at the right time, Jacob says. He was a traditional scholar trained under the modernist philosophers of early 1900s Oxford. His mind was not befuddled by the relativism of later in the century, so felt free to use the rhetorical devices of logic or 'plain common sense'.
From this Jacob concludes that Lewis has only a limited legacy for contemporary Christian apologetics. Christians should be careful not to mimic the technique, arguments or style of his apologetics but rather simply follow his example by writing material which addresses the real concerns of people of our age.
Many children, irrespective of their religious upbringing, would be familiar with his children's books. His Narnia series are read, taught (and viewed) widely in the secular world.
I remember vividly the time my (NSW state) primary school class spent studying The Lion, The Witch and Wardrobe. In later years, I would come home from school keen to watch the animated version of this book. I also became a fan of the live-action version of the Voyage of the Dawn Treader on ABC TV when I was a university student. I doubt I was alone.
Lewis's name was etched into my childhood mind. So it was not surprising that when I was interested in Christianity, I read Mere Christianity, and as I matured as a Christian I read his other apologetic works. Throughout my entire Christian journey, C. S. Lewis, has been a constant companion. Perhaps like the famous Narnian image of the lamp post in the darkened, winter forest, Lewis has been a light to help me find my way to Christ.
But I have also have no doubt that for many people Lewis's Narnia books are only a tentative glimpse into a Christian world-view. Perhaps the way Lewis is seen by many non-Christians is typified by the experience of Otto Dandenell, a literature student from Uppsala University, Sweden.4
"During a visit to a church in the United States in 1990 I found some books by the author C. S. Lewis for sale," he writes. "I was mildly surprised, since - in my eyes - Lewis was an author of fantasy novels for children, something I did not expect the church to approve of.
"It was explained to me that Lewis's stories for children are actually biblical allegories, and this made me even more surprised and somewhat curious. Because I lacked the kind of biblical knowledge that comes with a Christian upbringing I had completely missed what was perhaps Lewis's foremost purpose with the fantastic books about the land of Narnia. In spite of that (or perhaps because of) I had loved the books."
But for some children, Narnia is a very direct stepping-stone to Christ. Clearly, Lewis had this in mind when writing the Narnia series. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader Aslan says that he is known in our world by another name. Hila, an 11 year-old, wrote to Lewis, asking Aslan's name in this world. Lewis wrote back:
"As to Aslan's other name, well I want you to guess. Has there been anyone is this world who: (1) arrived at the same time as Father Christmas; (2) said he was the son of a great emperor; (3) gave himself up for someone else's fault to be jeered and killed by wicked people; (4) came to life again; (5) is sometimes spoken of as a Lamb... Don't you really know His name in this world? Think it over and let me know your answer!"5
Like Hila, Otto, and myself, many people from around the world grew-up on Lewis. And while they may not have gone on to read his Christian works, C. S. Lewis's children's books, like those of his contemporary and friend, J R R Tolkein, have become part of the popular culture of children. They are enduring children's 'classics'. This can be said of few, if any, 20th century Christian books.
The standing of his children's books was reinforced recently with the release in Britain of a stamp series. To emphasise Lewis's standing alongside other famous children's writers, the series included Tolkein (The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings) and Lewis Carroll (Alice in Wonderland).
This year, to celebrate the centenary of his birth, there are over 70 events, many of which are secular, ranging from theatre productions to scholarly conferences, with most of the activity centred in Northern Ireland and America.
The official conference of the centenary was held in Belfast earlier this year. Among the speakers was literary expert, Dr Bruce Edwards, Professor of English at Bowling Green State University, Ohio.
Edwards is a 'fan' of Lewis's literary criticism and points out that any overview of his life should not overlook his scholarly achievements.
"Lewis, indeed, is a towering figure in the world of 20th century letters... Between 1931 and 1961, he published an astonishing number of scholarly works, countless articles and more than five major, seminal works of scholarly influence and provocation in literary studies. This began with the early book, which was arguably is magnum opus, The Allegory of Love (published in 1936 and winner of the Gollansz Memorial Prize for Literature) whose sweeping and meticulous account of the social, cultural, literary and linguistic milieu of Chaucer and Spenser's Europe remains, today, a work of impeccable grace and continuing explanatory power."6
Dr Edwards says The Allegory of Love re-invigorated debate about the role of courtly love and allegory in medieval literature. Lewis's later work, too, had a dramatic impact on academia. Edwards claims Lewis almost single-handedly rehabilitated the reputation of John Milton, author of Paradise Lost, in an era when the epic poem was undervalued.
Lewis also wrote English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, a volume of The Oxford History of English Literature. In it he advanced the idea that the Renaissance, as generally understood, never existed.
While early 16th century poetry was typical and boring by the end of the century, a remarkable flowering of the imagination had occurred typified by Shakespeare and (as Lewis carefully pointed out) Tyndale. Scholars had typically thanked the humanist philosophers of the Italian Renaissance for this cultural explosion. But Lewis begged to differ. The humanist scholars, he claimed, were pedantic, being overly concerned with 'classical' style and form. Lewis credited the Reformation with the cultural surge, claiming conventional notions about the Puritans were wrong. The Protestant doctrine of salvation by grace was not gloomy but joyous, he said. It was the Catholics, obsessed with virginity, who had a problem with sex while the Puritans celebrated sex within marriage.
Yet for Dr Edwards, it is the way Lewis thoroughly integrated his Christian faith into his scholarly work that leaves the largest legacy: "Lewis taught me... how to long for God and seek true joy. How to integrate a Christian worldview with my vocation, my family life, and my inner self."
Ultimately the true impact of C. S. Lewis's work is going to be felt in the personal sphere. In all his writings, Lewis tried to point to Christ. Indeed, he would have discouraged much of the 'hero-worship' that is currently associated with the anniversary of his birth. Lewis, himself, was acutely aware of the human weakness for building up false idols, and in A Grief Observed, expressed his struggle to overcome his idolisation of his dead wife, Joy, which was drawing him away from Christ.
So how you assess Lewis's career will turn on how you respond personally to the call in Mere Christianity, to recognise that 'today, this moment, is our chance to choose the right side.'7
And for me personally? The impact of Lewis on my life has been great. He has challenged me to grow in my faith so that I'm not afraid to engage spiritually and intellectually with a world hostile to God. But above all, as a Christian writer, he has taught me that the power of the imagination is the greatest tool we have to bridge the gap into the secular mind.
- Edwards, Dr Bruce, Professor of English, Bowling Green State University, Ohio, US.
- Sayer, George Jack: A Life of C. S. Lewis, 2nd ed. Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1997, p281
- Jacobs, Alan The Second Coming of C. S. Lewis, (cslewis.drzeus.net/papers/)
- Dandenell, Otto Speech, Reason, Faith and Knowledge in C. S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia, Uppsala University, Sweden, 1995. www.sas. upenn.edu/~odandene/uppsala/publications/lewis
- Dorsett, L and Lamp Mead, M ed. C. S. Lewis Letters to Children, New York, Macmillan, 1985
- Edwards, Dr Bruce C. S. Lewis: Public Christian and Scholar, speech prepared for the Francis White Colloquium on C. S. Lewis, Taylor University, November 12, 1998.
- Lewis, C S Mere Christianity, book 2, chap 5