The two common ways people encounter C.S. Lewis today are through the film Shadowlands and the children's fantasy books known as the Narnia series (the first of which is The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe − now also on film). Both routes into Lewis are highly enjoyable. The film is an idealised version of Lewis's relationship with the American poet and mother of two, Joy Davidman, whom he later married when she was dying of cancer in the kind of jumbled circumstances, which make for a terrific, heart- wrenching romance. (The play on which the film is based is less romanticised, but even more heart-wrenching.)
And the Narnia books are surely among the great fantasies of our century, also providing one of the most wonderful images in all literature for teaching children about substitutionary atonement—the slaughter of the great lion, Aslan, to redeem the disobedient and foolish Edmund in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. (It has to be said that many children also learn their Plato in the same series, thus confusing them about heaven and earth for decades to come, but that is the subject of another article…)
Which of his works endure, and which are getting that 'period piece' feel about them?
These two works represent only a fraction of what C.S. Lewis offered the world. During the war years, he wrote The Screwtape Letters, broadcast three series of radio talks, which were later published as Mere Christianity, wrote his theologically speculative science fiction trilogy, and published a number of significant books of popular philosophy/theology including The Problem of Pain, The Abolition of Man and The Great Divorce. His impact on mid-century Britain, and extending to America over time, was remarkable.
But how does Lewis travel into the 21st century? Which of his works endure, and which are getting that 'period piece' feel about them? Is he still worth reading?
Lewis's reputation among many evangelicals in America is stronger than ever. This is partly due to the enormous work of the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College in Illinois, where a major Lewis library and scholarly industry is maintained. In recent years, they have been responsible for dozens of new volumes on Lewis, examining his work widely and usually highlighting his virtues as an apologist, a popular theologian and a brilliant fantasy writer.
Outside of US evangelicalism, there has been greater criticism. Biographer A.N. Wilson published a major biography of Lewis that was rather critical and 'warts 'n' all'. Feminist critics got to work on him, attacking the boy's club nature of the output of the Oxford don. And many critics have examined Lewis's Luddite tendencies, seeing in them a rejection of contemporary life and a mind fit only to live in a bygone age. Lewis famously argued that 19th century literature ought not to be on his English courses because it was far too recent.
Lewis often anticipates the questions of today's science, bioethics, social theory and literary criticism
Ironically, the most enduring of Lewis's work may be the least read. Lewis's dozens of essays on culture and Christianity, on ethics and on aspects of church life are still among the pithiest expressions of a first-class Christian mind at work. Anyone interested in Lewis would find value in at least a few of the essays found in Christian Reflections, They Asked for a Paper, Fern-seed and Elephants and God in the Dock. Lewis often anticipates the questions of today's science, bioethics, social theory and literary criticism. In fact, his literary work is still highly valued by critics and he prefigured reader-oriented literary theory by around a decade.
In his essays, Lewis is best of all at pointing out the ways in which human hearts and minds deceive themselves—and this, of course, he does brilliantly in reverse in The Screwtape Letters. This ability to say to his readers ‘Look how silly you are being’ is coupled with what A. N. Wilson calls Lewis's ‘By Gum!’ approach to persuasion. He reveals the wonder of Christian doctrine and life, moving the reader to humble him- or herself before the Lord.
Many people say that they like the 'tightness' of Lewis's mind − his fierce logic, rhetorical power and British commonsense. But I respond to the messiness of his mind − his imaginative attempts to wrestle with metaphysics and the nature of the life to come, his genuine struggles with grief, his ability to argue himself into a corner and then out of it again, and his Irish stubbornness of heart. It is dangerous to try to make Lewis too evangelical, because the evidence just doesn't add up. But it is also dangerous to dismiss him as an outmoded high-churchman, because he keeps championing the mere evangel, the Word himself.
The biographical path into Lewis is a very valuable one, but the autobiographical one is better. It is a great experience to travel with Lewis in Surprised by Joy as he argues his way from atheism to theism (‘the most dejected and reluctant convert in the whole of England’), and finally to Christ, which he described as the experience of finally realising that one is awake. There is this constant tension in Lewis between apprehending and understanding the world, with all of our fine and subtle tools of reason and intuition, and simply waking up to find ourselves in the midst of it, in awe or shock or wonder at it all. Christianity ‘wakes us up to reality’, says Lewis, and his ability to act as a wake-up call, our crowing rooster, makes him well worth reading still.
He writes, ‘I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else.’
Dr Greg Clarke is a Director of the Centre for Public Christianity