Know Your Theologians #2 – C.S. Lewis

  • And now a feature of freelance theology returns with a look at CS Lewis

    Bare Facts
    Born in Belfast in 1898, Lewis was educated at private school and Oxford University before lecturing at Oxford and Cambridge. He rediscovered Christianity in the 1930s after declaring himself an atheist. He wrote a number of ‘apologetic’ works in popular speech and was a popular radio broadcaster, as well as writing several novels. He married an American friend, Joy Gresham, initially as a means of enabling her and her sons to stay in the United Kingdom. Later, they lived together as man and wife and his account of her death from cancer became the cornerstone for his book A Grief Observed. C.S Lewis died on 22 November 1963, the same day that President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas.

    Why is he important?
    C.S. Lewis has become one of the most quoted Christian writers of the twentieth century, particularly in protestant, evangelical circles. His Chronicles of Narnia, which Lewis wrote as an allegory for the Christian story, have been perennial children’s fiction bestsellers. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the first of the Narnia books to be published, although actually the second in the series after Lewis’ prequel The Magician’s Nephew, has recently been made into a movie blockbuster by the Disney corporation. The obvious identification of Aslan the lion, who surrenders himself as a sacrifice in exchange for the traitor Edmund, with Jesus Christ has become a byword in the Christian subculture.

    So, he’s a bit of an evangelical hero, then?
    Yes, but that’s a bit odd really. Lewis held a number of beliefs that conflict with typical evangelical theology. In one of his novels, The Great Divorce, he implies that human beings have a second chance of getting into heaven after death. In the final Narnia book, The Last Battle, he explores the idea of ‘anonymous Christianity’ when a young Calormene is told by Aslan that: “if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for his oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and I is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash that his deed is accepted.” [The Last Battle, Fontana Lions, 1980, p.156]. The third book in his science fiction trilogy, That Hideous Strength, introduces characters such as a risen-again Merlin the wizard, and various ‘gods’ from Norse myths in a weird apocalyptic ending to the story.

    In The Screwtape Letters, Lewis, a committed Anglican, explicitly has a go at non-conformist religion. Writing as the ‘senior devil’ Screwtape, he says: “the parochial organisation should always be attacked, because, being a unity of place and not of likings, it brings people of different classes and psychology together in the kind of unity the Enemy [i.e. God] desires. The congregational principles, on the other hand, makes each church into a kind of club, and finally, if all goes well, into a coterie or faction.” [The Screwtape Letters, Macmillan revised edition 1982, Letter XVI, p.73]. Even Lewis famous ‘conversion’ quote, used in the Alpha course, where he ‘sinks to his knees as the most unwilling believer in England’ (the full quote is taken from Surprised by Joy), actually relates to a belief in a general ‘God’. His attachment to Christianity came much later. The ‘Joy’ he was ‘Surprised’ by was caused by exposure to Scandinavian myths, so much so that it has been said that Lewis loved the dying-and-rising Norse God Baldur, before he loved Christ.

    So why is he quoted by so many evangelicals?
    His writing is lucid, easily intelligible and often witty. Lewis himself might have been a fairly unapproachable medieval historian (he never lectured in theology at either Oxford or Cambridge), but many people find his writings accessible and full of interesting ideas, expressed concisely. Also, because of the popularity of his fiction, most people have heard of ‘C.S. Lewis – who wrote the Narnia books’.

    And he entered into a marriage of convenience?
    He was good friends with Joy Gresham before they got married. A bachelor for most of his life, he did admit to his friends and family that he was going to marry Joy so that she could stay in the country with her two boys. They did subsequently fall in love and consummate the marriage.

    What would you recommend reading?
    The Screwtape Letters contains a lot of thought-provoking material and is very easy to read. His science fiction is alright. Some of his earlier theological works, e.g. The Problem of Pain or Miracles are quite philosophical and dense. If you like the Narnia books and can get your hands on Past Watchful Dragons by Walter Hooper, Lewis’ secretary, that’s quite interesting as it’s an account of Lewis’ creative processes and contains some stuff that didn’t make it into the chronicles.

    What will his legacy be?
    Narnia, obviously. Disney want to make more films. Fellow fantasy-author and friend J.R.R. Tolkien said that Lewis was the only one of his friends ‘who had published more books after his death than before’ (quoted by Walter Hooper in the preface to Fernseed and Elephants, Fontana 1975, p.7). And he’ll probably be quoted in Alpha talks, evangelistic literature, sermons and magazine articles ad infinitum.

    Notable quote: There are too many to list. Alpha attendees will have heard the ‘conversion quote’. A popular one at the moment is the description of Aslan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe where Mr Beaver says “He’s not a tame Lion!

    Final Fact: ‘C.S.’ stands for Clive Staples.

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