A Birthday Tribute

I think of writers as companions, their books as landscapes that we traverse together. With some I care not even to embark; among others I would walk only a little way. And then there are those whose company is so joyful, edifying, and challenging that the journey is not long enough to satisfy me or exhaust the pleasure I derive from being in their presence.

There are in fact not many such writers for me. Outside of the writers of the Bible, I can count on one hand the writers to which I have returned more than once or twice. So many books are self-consuming--once they are read and digested, there is little value in retracing one's steps in recovering what there was of merit in them. But as I look back on my adult life, my seeking of wisdom, my hope of uncovering a literary companion with unique insights into the world I inhabit and the faith I hold, there is one name that stands out — C. S. "Jack" Lewis.

There is, of course, something odd about having a relationship with someone only through their books. Authors live and yet don't; you hear a voice, sense their presence, but they are not in the room. Such is the power of the word, especially the written word.

I was eleven years old when C. S. Lewis died (11-22-63). I certainly had not heard of Narnia or Perelandra until I was a young Christian at the age of nineteen. But I have made up for lost time.

For some readers, Lewis is a great unknown, and you've seen a poster or you've been dragged into readership by a friend to hear what the commotion is about. For others, he is a recent discovery and you are just beginning your inquiry into what he may have to share with you. For still others, you may be well acquainted with one aspect of Lewis's work and have come to gain some perceptions of his life and work.

Owen Barfield, longtime friend of Lewis, once wrote, in the preface to a volume of essays about Lewis that I had the privilege of editing, that "Somehow what Lewis thought about everything was secretly present in what he said about anything." Lewis's life was, in other words, thoroughly integrated, a man whose presuppositions about life, faith, and reality, were given to God and manifested themselves in all that he attempted.

What Lewis cared about most was what he called "mere Christianity," that is, that faith that has been the center of the gospel and the creeds of the church since the apostles announced it. It was the gospel freed of denominational idiosyncrasies, the debris of history, and focuse on the essential truth of the identity and mission of Jesus of Nazareth.

If I were to describe Lewis in a phrase, it would be this: Lewis is a man who lived his life before Pilate. That is to say, I believe Lewis carried out his daily tasks as teacher, citizen, believer as one who knew he was before a skeptical inquistor, one too often who hides from the truth and masks his fear of knowing the truth behind indifference and the pretense of being on the search (John 18:37). Who was Lewis--and why should we pay any attention to him?

C. S. Lewis, distinguished Oxbridge don and literary critic, esteemed writer of science-fiction and fantasy literature, and popular Christian apologist, wrote more than thirty books in his lifetime. Since his death in 1963, more than twenty anthologies and compendia of his scattered essays and talks have been published. Almost as many books about Lewis's works have appeared, and amazingly all of Lewis's own works — criticism, fiction, and apologetics — are still in print and in no danger of disappearing f rom bookshelves across America and the English speaking world.

The generous, self-effacing, populist Lewis who gave so tirelessly of his time and money to the needy and to the spiritually wayward is sometimes shadowed by his remarkable popularity. By all accounts, Lewis was an indefatigueable correspondent, and a ma n devoted to a fault to his students and even casual friends. (What other books might Lewis have written had he not been committed to personally responding to the literally hundreds of letters from transatlantic truth-seekers, aspiring writers, and sheer adulators he received month by month over the twenty years before his death in 1963?) Whatever else Lewis was, he was a man of faith willing to pay the price for his public confession that Jesus Christ was God in the flesh.

Deplored and despised by colleagues jealous of his scholarly prowess and shamed by his open association with popular literature and "mere" Christianity, Lewis was denied a professorship at Oxford at the peak of his literary scholarship. As Christopher Derrick, a former pupil and longtime friend of Lewis, has judiciously observed, Lewis was a man willing to "challenge the entrenched priesthood of the intelligentsia." In short, one finds in Lewis an uncommonly courageous and articulate skeptic of the moder n era, one forthrightly opposed to the "chronological snobbery" of our times that assumes truth is a function of the calendar and that the latest word is the truest one.

Those who try to read through the entire Lewis corpus confess that they receive an education in history, philology, sociology, philosophy, and theology so extensive and exhilarating that others seem thin and frivolous in comparison. While Lewis caricatur ed himself as a dinosaur, the last of the Old Western Men, many today see him as a forerunner of what may still be the triumph of men and women of Biblical faith in an age that derides the pursuit of truth and righteousness.

What Lewis has taught me:

  1. How not to be intimidated by the age in which I live.
  2. How to anticipate and find patience in answering questions about my faith without losing hope.
  3. How to integrate a Christian worldview with my vocation, my family life, and my inner self.
  4. How to long for God and seek true joy.

These indeed constitute a worthy legacy.