Theophilus on C. S. Lewis

Theophilus (The Times religion editor)

Clive Staples Lewis, 1898 to 1963, once described in Time magazine as "the young atheist poet who became one of the 20th century's most imaginative theologians," didn't become a Christian until he was past the age of 30. But after his untimely death on the same day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, his own parish rector described him as "the most thoroughly converted man I ever knew."

Probably no Christian of this century is more highly esteemed in his own Anglican communion, in the mainstream of evangelical Protestantism worldwide, and--as an outsider--among Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox. A teacher of medieval and Renaissance literature at Oxford University for most of his working life and a professor at Cambridge for the final decade, he considered himself strictly a layman in the fields of theology and evangelism.

But it's arguable that Lewis did more--and his fiction and apologetical writings continue to do more--to make the supernatural, miracle-based religion of the Bible credible to more people than anyone else since the time of John Wesley.

The 1993 film Shadowlands, a fictionalized account of Lewis' love relationship with Joy Davidman, continues to inspire curiosity about Lewis and interest in his work. Though I had read a little of Lewis as a campus minister at Stanford in the 1970's and considered him a valued friend of the kind of Christianity I was espousing, it wasn't until after seeing Shadowlands that I immersed myself in his writings last year, acquiring and devouring virtually everything by and about him that I could find.

My "Lewis plunge" ultimately changed my life more than any other single factor ever has. My "conversion" to Christianity as a child was a natural progression from the teaching I received from infancy at my Baptist mother's knee, so even that didn't cause so radical a change in my interests, practices, and devotion as did my conversion from evangelicalism to Orthodoxy in December, which was the natural culmination of the journey begun with Lewis almost a year before.

How could an Anglican lay theologian inspire one to become Orthodox? Though himself a relatively "low-church" Anglican, in several places advocating the kind of spontanety in worship more often associated with the evangelical wing than the elaborately vested and thoroughly scripted high liturgical tradition, I concluded that Lewis has more in common with Orthodoxy than with either today's Anglicans or evangelicals on three points.

1. Lewis had a strong sense of the catholicity of the church. Most Protestants and many Roman Catholic writers define catholicity in terms of the invisible church--("all who trust Christ for their salvation are in His one church regardless of their own congregation's or denomination's doctrines and practices").

The original meaning of catholicity, however, is that the church is identifiable in all places because what it teaches and practices is virtually the same--and certainly recognizable--and consistent with the teachings of the Apostles, from one congregation to another, even from one culture to another. Both evangelicals and theological liberals (those who believe notions like sin are outdated) have given up on this definition of catholicity.

2. Lewis' theology of redemption had more in common with Orthodoxy than either traditional or modern Anglicanism or evangelicalism. Traditional Anglicanism, rooted in Calvinism--taught that salvation is a once-for-all act experienced by the elect, rather than a lifelong process that begins with new birth and baptism in the lives of any who choose to work with God on His plan for their salvation.

Modern Anglican liberalism conforms the historic beliefs of Christianity to whatever is now considered politically or scientifically correct or "in vogue." Lewis maintained a high view of God's sovereignty, like Orthodoxy, and rejected the Calvinist understanding of predestination now generally held by evangelicalism.

3. Lewis' theology of sanctification is more Orthodox than the views of modern evanglicals or liberal Anglicans. Lewis emphasized that Christians should continually be taking more ground in the battle with sin and the passions of flesh and soul.

"Seeker-friendly" evangelicals regard victory over sin and the flesh as being as easy as a simple, "sorry, God, I blew it again," and generally eschew discussions of holiness and getting victories in "the unseen warfare." And liberals--Anglican or otherwise--consider sin an old-fashioned concept irrelevant to people who know about evolution and psychology.

My views of Lewis may seem highly speculative. But it is a fact that for more than a century, and all through Lewis' life, the Anglican and Orthodox churches were studying union. The Anglican Church began in the 16th Century by adapting the liturgy of the Celtic (orthodox) church that was introduced when Britain was a Roman province, long before the schism between the Roman West and the Orthodox East.

The Orthodox gave up the quest for union in the late 1960's when it became apparent that liberalism, not orthodox theology, would prevail in the Church of England.

Though Greek Orthodox and conservative Anglicans continue to co-operate in youth ministry and some other activities that began in England during their century of study, many of the more conservative Anglicans, including whole congregations led by their clergy, have recently announced their own "journey to Orthodoxy," declaring their intention to convert en masse.

The Greek bishops, perhaps fearing political fallout, generally oppose this, but the Antiochian Orthodox Patriarch has announced plans to receive any English churches that want to make that move as soon as the mass conversion rites can be arranged.

Lewis trivia

Lewis wasn't a jock, and in fact confessed that he found games, as sports were called in the United Kingdom he grew up in, of virtually no interest. Though this is technically not a doctrinal issue, in practice many men find themselves unwelcome in evangelical circles if they admit to be less than fanatically uninterested in baseball or football.

And another Lewis idiocyncrasy that I found harder to appreciate was that he didn't regularly read newspapers. But he loved and read thousands of books, many of them repeatedly. Given the choice, I think he made the right one.

Lewis' most popular book, it seems strangely to me, has been The Screwtape Letters, a collection of fanciful letters by a lieutenant of Satan to his nephew, a novice demon. Everything is said in reverse, which may account for the appeal: what God condemns, Screwtape calls virtue, and vice versa.

Lewis himself considered it his least favorite book, with which I agree. He had found it the most difficult to write, and I found it the most difficult to read. Unfortunately, probably because it was the most popular of his books, I started reading it years ago, got frustrated, and thereupon gave up on Lewis until last year.

His children's series, the Chronicles of Narnia, are excellent fantasy literature for all children. Though the Christian allegory is there, and easy for believers to recognize when looking for it, many readers have probably never noticed it.

My own favorite are his adult science fiction trilogy, followed by Mere Christianity, a classic.

Theophilus is the pen name of the Times religion editor, a former minister and journalist who prefers semianonymity to better facilitate discussion of controversial issues. Reader response is encouraged in care of the Times, or via electronic mail to Internet:

Copyright 1995 JRK

Editor's Note:

After reading the above, it came to my attention that the statement regarding Lewis' difficulty in writing The Screwtape Letters was in error. In his preface to the book, Lewis writes,

"I was often asked or advised to add to the original Letters, but for many years I felt not the least inclination to do it. Though I had never written anything more easily, I never wrote with less enjoyment. The ease came, no doubt, from the fact that the device of diabolical letters, once you have thought of it, exploits itself spontaneously..."

I pointed this out to the author and he agreed and gave permission for me to add this note explaining the discrepency.