The Literary Bloke
J. I. Packer
This article first appeared in the Spring 1998 Edition of 'Southern Cross Quarterly,' which is put out by Anglican Media Sydney (Australia)
Reprinted with permission of the author
Among today's Christians the name of the Anglican Clive Staples Lewis of Ulster (born in Belfast, 1898), of Oxford (fellow of Magdalen College 1925-54), and of Cambridge (professor of Mediaeval and Renaissance Literature 1954-63), is a household word.
Countless copies of his Mere Christianity and Screwtape Letters have resourced the past half-century's evangelism and nurture; countless copies of A Grief Observed have helped bereaved believers; and countless copies of the Narnia stories have enriched half a century's children. Conservative Christians everywhere - centrists and mainliners, as I would call them - see Lewis as one of God's best gifts to our era of anxiety, misbelief, and moral and spiritual drift. It is proper that we should make much of him in this centenary year of his birth.
pundit and pal
"He's a literary bloke, isn't he?" said a clergy friend to me years ago about one of his own peers. His phrase, which expressed fellow-feeling and admiring wonder conjoined, fits many people's attitude to Lewis: they hail him as a pundit while thinking of him as, in effect, a pal. Nor is this presumptuous. The 'pal' feeling flows directly from the frank and intimate way Lewis presents the thoughts and visions that give him pundit rank. As a friendly, accessible exponent of Christian truth and wisdom for the twentieth century (and, I guess, the twenty-first too) Lewis stands as 'literary bloke' number one; the most effective as well as the most widely read.
Learned, brilliant and lively, Lewis was always an artist with words, whether as a professional academic writing for colleagues in his own field; as an author of novels, fantasies and tales for children; or as a composer of didactic expositions, apologetic discussions, and journal and newspaper articles by the bushel, all seeking to commend and consolidate Christian faith.
He was fastidious and fair-minded (while sometimes satirical), probing and thoughtful, logical and magisterial, orthodox and arresting, and clear and compelling. He was clever at finding the best literary forms for what he had to say, and rich in analogies that are both arguments and illustrations in one. In short, he was never less than a first-class read. That is a main reason why, unlike many writers of the past and against his own expectations, his reputation and sales have soared sky-high during the thirty-five years since his death. There was even a recent symposium on him (one of many) be titled A Christian for All Christians. Such an accolade would not be given to Billy Graham or the Pope, but Lewis has received it.
icon and misfit
To evangelicals, particularly, Lewis has become a kind of icon. That is, despite his smoking and drinking; his belief in purgatory and, it seems, baptismal regeneration; his use of the confessional; his non-inerrantist view of biblical authority; and his unwillingness to affirm penal substitution and justification by faith only when speaking of salvation in Christ. He saw himself as a non-party traditional Anglican, but was more of an Anglo-Catholic than perhaps he realised.
What evangelicals love in Lewis is Aslan, the Christ-like lion of Narnia; and his strong defence of biblical supernaturalism, personal new birth, Christ's return to judgment, and the reality of Satan, hell and heaven. They love his squelching of secular modernity and the 'Christianity-and-water' religion of self-styled liberals; his stress on self-humbling repentance and submission to the living Christ as the heart of real Christianity; his open talk about his conversion from atheism, and his evident wish to help others make the same journey; plus the playfulness of his gravity, with its schoolboyish wit and humour. Tuning in with enthusiasm to all of this, evangelicals claim Lewis as 'one of us'; and who should want to stop them doing that?
intellectual and imaginative
Lewis saw himself as one who, having traded the faith of his childhood for a mess of sceptical pottage, recovered it as an Oxford don through a process of intellectual exploration, struggle and conviction that left him certain not only of God in Christ but also of Christianity's rational superiority to all other views of reality. He tells the story straightforwardly in Surprised by Joy and allegorises it, along with much else, in The Pilgrim's Regress. Having returned to faith by this route, and being a teacher into the bargain, he naturally became a passionate philosophical apologist. "Ever since I became a Christian," he wrote in 1952, "I have thought that the best, perhaps the only service I could do for my unbelieving neighbours was to explain and defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times." The Pilgrim's Regress, The Problem of Pain, Mere Christianity and Miracles are the books written directly to this agenda.
But there was always more to Lewis than this, and increasingly he concentrated on imaginative presentations of the Christian life, centred upon the spirituality quest for communion with God rather than the apologetic quest for rational demonstrations of him. The Narnia books, Perelandra, The Great Divorce, Reflections on the Psalms, The Four Loves, and Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer are the main items here.
The two lobes of our brain, left for the logical and linear and right for the romantic and imaginative, were both thoroughly developed in Lewis, so that he was as strong in fantasy and fiction as he was in analysis and argument. There is always a didactic dimension to his spiritual-life writing, just as there is always a visionary dimension to his apologetics. The combination made him in his day, and makes him still, a powerful and haunting communicator in both departments.
theory and practice
Nor was Lewis' intellectual belief mere theory, or his imaginative belief mere imagination. As those who knew him best always declared, he lived his beliefs most faithfully. Here Shadowlands in both its British versions (the television feature and the West End play), as also in its Hollywood dress, did Lewis a disservice. They present him as a teacher about pain who did not know what pain was, or what life was about generally, till the revelatory happiness of his three-year marriage ended in his wife's death from cancer, whereupon his professed faith, temporarily at any rate, fell to pieces. When the movie announces itself at the outset as "based on a true story", it must regretfully be convicted of bearing a good deal of false witness against its leading character.
The facts are that, first, from the time his dearly loved mother died when he was nine, Lewis knew much pain of many kinds, more I guess than most of us; and, second, though grief at losing his beloved Joy laid him low emotionally for many months, his faith stayed steady. A Grief Observed, written out of his bereavement experience, is actually a witness to that, and any who invoke sentences from it as evidence to the contrary show that, like the German gospel critics Lewis pillories, they just do not know how to read a book. As a practising Christian, prayerful, patient, and persistent in well-doing, Lewis was beyond question the genuine article.
His beliefs, as was said, were in no way original. He aimed only to state standard Christianity, the Christianity of the Bible and the Creeds and the historic mainline church, in its most universal form. Yet his presentations of it, read and re-read, always seem fresh and enlivening. Why is this? It is partly because of Lewis's personal writing style, already discussed, and partly because of three strands of thought that he regularly works into his reflections on "the old, old story of Jesus and his love." I label them (1) joy and conversion, (2) the Tao and formation, and (3) myth and persuasion.
joy and conversion
Lewis defined joy in a narrow, deep sense as a recurring stab of longing that nothing in this world will satisfy. It is a desire for God and heaven that God himself has built into the human race, though many of us in our fallenness fail to focus it and grasp its message. Lewis called it 'joy' because in the longing, itself, there is greater delight than in any of this world's pleasures. It calls us to seek God and keep seeking till God himself through making us inwardly real, honest, humble, consciously chastened and radically penitent, leads us to find him in Christ. Lewis sought to show how discipleship to Jesus Christ leads to the fullness of joy as defined. Hence his pervasive orientation to God and heaven, and his recurring raptures of rhetoric whereby, calculating his effect as writers do, he seeks to make us feel the reality and desire the enjoyment of both. His strategies for evoking, reinforcing and exegeting joy give his treatments of the event and life of conversion a unique and charming flavour.
the tao and formation
The Tao (Tao means 'way') is Lewis's name for the natural law that all persons, nations, and religions know, more or less, through what theologians call general revelation (see Romans 1-2). Lewis believed, first, that where its precepts (loyalty, honesty, courage, respect for authority and so on) are ignored, blind and tyrannical self-preservation will take over with calamitous results. (He thinks of Nietzsche and the Nazis.) Second, he believed that inculcating appropriate responses to the values of the Tao is basic to character formation, whether in children, in Christians, or in anyone else.
One purpose of all Lewis's fiction, Narnia included, is to illustrate and model what he calls 'stock responses' to the classic trinity of values, truth, goodness and beauty, all of which reflect God. His didactic writings about new life in Christ show the same nurturing concern, within the same moral framework. This also gives his work a unique and charming flavour.
myth and persuasion
Myth, for Lewis, meant a story, or a figure within a story, that 'grabs' us, as we say, with a sense of significance, and thus draws us to identify in some way with what they show us. Lewis loved the god-stories of Norse and Greek mythology, and the thought that did most to bring him back to Christianity was that, in Christ, a myth found worldwide, the myth of a dying and rising deity through whose ordeal good comes to others, has become space-time fact. Then he found that what he now knew as the fact of Christ, set forth in the Scriptures, was evoking in his imagination new myths of evangelical shape - stories picturing divine mercy in worlds other than ours, past, present, and future. The space trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength), the seven Narnias, and Till We Have Faces, were the result.
Lewis saw these myths, and many pre-Christian pagan myths with them, as 'good dreams' that can have real significance in the evangelistic process. They can project visions of wholeness restored through divine action. They can make honest hearts wish that something of this sort might be true in our world, and so prepare them to discover that something of this sort is true, as a matter of fact. This crafting of myth as evangelistic persuasion is a third unique excellence in Lewis's work.
"If you want to learn how to do Christianity, read C S Lewis, and he'll tell you." So said Douglas Gresham, Lewis's stepson, and he is right. All Lewis's writing has a practical thrust, and those who get most from it are those who commit themselves to serve Lewis's God and so to travel with him to the celestial city.
Lewis never claimed to be infallible, nor is he, but he is a wise and life-enhancing guide on that journey. If you have no C S Lewis on your bookshelf, take it from me: you are missing a lot.