I hear of Jack everywhere...
I am writing today to extol the virtues of one of the most widely praised and universally misunderstood Christian writers. Those who know me well know I refer to C.S. Lewis.
Lewis has been seized upon by many in the protestant branch as the answer to Catholic academia. We can now look smugly at our Catholic brethren and say “see, we protestants have a thinker too.” But when it comes down to it, we tend to shrug him off as “just the guy who wrote Screwtape Letters and the Chronicles of Narnia. And he had some wacky ideas.” You will find this theory postulated by those who are the least familiar with Lewis’ corpus of work. Instead they rely on objections such as these: “I hear Lewis became a Catholic before he died,” “Didn’t he lose his faith after his wife died,” “He had ‘Beer and Beowulf’ evenings with his grad students.” “Wasn’t he good friends with that Catholic Tolkien, (to which I reply, Tolkien led him to faith),” “Lewis was Anglican, which is almost Catholic,” and perhaps the most spiritually damning of all, “Didn’t he smoke?”
This is perhaps the most tragic symptom of the protestant Reformation. We exchanged one “infallible” Pope for hundreds of fallible little popes, il papetto, each demanding we follow him. As Tocqueville reminded us, democracies have a tendency to produce few great men, few great issues. And so it is with the modern democratic church. For a man like Lewis, whose whole life was devoted to the great issues of Faith, he is now a man with no country to call home. His doctrines make Catholicism uncomfortable, while his criticism of the church and stand for doctrinal fidelity frightens protestants. Rejected by so many, a number of his works languish in theological misunderstanding or willful ill will. And thus we miss out on the Lewis who struggled to obtain True Truth and reflect it in his works.
To reduce Lewis to a cozy Oxford don who wrote cute children’s books about a Lion, and occasionally amused himself by writing letters as a devil, would be to grossly underestimate the breadth of his work. These “objections” to his work, if you could charitably call them that, rob the man of his apologetic, philosophical and theological power, and establish the shallow hull of fiction left behind as “Lewis the Man, Lewis Properly Understood, Lewis without all those Dangerous Ideas.” To do this is to, to quote the man himself, “castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.” Those who study him see the diverse Lewis, the Lewis who wrote a confession of what it is to be a Christian, regardless of doctrinal differences, as powerful as Mere Christianity. The Lewis who struggled with questions of doubt and death in A Grief Observed. The Lewis who so strongly and comfortably explained his answer to the age old question “How can a good God allow Evil to be?” The Lewis who sought Truth in all its sources, discussing The Tao and Natural Law. The Lewis who reserved his most biting criticism, not for the sinners, the harlots, the drunkards, but the “cold, self-righteous prigs who go regularly to church.” I believe this is truly the reason we like to denigrate the man. If we can write off his theological points on technicalities, we can ignore his probity into what is seriously wrong with the Church, and how God demands we set it right.
I do not presume to offer a vindication of Lewis to the skeptics. To do so would be to assume a great many things to which I do not have the right. It would imply that I fully understood Lewis in order to make a proper defense. It would assume that I believed that those who wish to marginalize him are truly concerned with Truth. And most of all it would assume that Lewis needs vindication. He does not. I only ask my reader, for your sake, read Lewis. Start with Mere Christianity. Then take a second look at Screwtape. Follow it with A Grief Observed. Then re-read Mere Christianity. Add in The Abolition of Man. Once you’ve done that, if you are truly seeking Truth, then I believe you will want to read more, and you will see the overarching themes which drive Lewis’ work, the first of which is his pursuit of God and Truth.