Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Another Look at C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet
C.S. Lewis died half a century ago, in the fall of 1963. To mark this anniversary, British theologian Alister McGrath has left us a new biography of his famous compatriot.* It is of course not the first Lewis biography. Several had appeared earlier, most of them written by people who had known Lewis personally. McGrath does not belong to that generation. But if this is a drawback, it is, as he points out, also an advantage. Not only can he draw on a much larger corpus of Lewis studies than the earlier biographers, he has also available to him the collected letters of Lewis – some 3500 pages of text – which were published only recently. Moreover, his position enables him to give an account of Lewis’s continuing influence today.

The description of that influence is among the elements that gives this new biography an added value and will be the topic of the present review. On a future occasion I hope to turn also to McGrath’s treatment of Lewis’s actual “message,” and therefore of his theological and philosophical views as expressed in his apologetic books, his fiction, and often in his scholarly work. The biography sheds light on these aspects of Lewis’s work as well. Indeed, McGrath is well-qualified for the work he has undertaken. A professor of theology, ministry, and education at King’s College in London and author of several works on apologetics, theology, and related subjects, he shares several of Lewis’s interests. There are, he tells his readers, additional ties that connect him with Lewis: both grew up in Ireland, both studied and taught at Oxford, both were atheists at a certain period in their lives, and upon their conversion both rejoined the Anglican Church in which they had been baptized.

Eccentric genius

McGrath writes that his intention is not to praise or condemn Lewis but to help us understand him. This implies a consideration of both his strong and his weak points. In connection with the latter we get additional information on such matters as Lewis’s relation with his father, with Mrs. Moore, and his often condescending attitude toward women. Although the author does not hesitate to be critical, he also attempts to achieve a balance by looking at things from different angles, and on the whole his treatment is generous. Lewis is shown to have been “eccentric” not first of all because of deficiencies in his character or personal relationships, but because of what he considered his calling as a Christian academic. Contrary to accepted usage, he expressed his Christian convictions in his scholarly work and, what was worse, did not hesitate to write popular works of Christian fiction and of apologetics. According to most of his Oxford colleagues, none of this ought to be done by a reputable academic, and certainly not by an Oxford don. Although a distinguished literary scholar and critic, Lewis was considered an “outsider,” and he was more than once passed over when an Oxford professorship in English literature became available. When he finally did receive a professorship it was given not by Oxford, but by Cambridge, which in 1954 established for him a chair in Medieval and Renaissance English literature. Lewis worked there until shortly before his death on November 22, 1963 – one week before his 65th birthday.

War-time popularity

Although he gives attention to the scholarly contributions, McGrath focuses especially on Lewis’s work as an apologist and a writer of fiction. Some of these works appeared already in the 1930s, namely The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933) and the first volume of the space trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet (1938). It was his work as a “war-time apologist,” however, that made Lewis widely known as a Christian writer. First among these books was The Problem of Pain (1940), soon followed by the even more popular Screwtape Letters (1942) and by The Abolition of Man (1943).

Lewis became also widely known through the BBC Broadcast Talks which he gave, at the request of the BBC, during the early years of the war. These talks were published between 1942 and 1944 in three separate booklets. A one-volume edited version appeared in 1952 under the title Mere Christianity, which, McGrath tells us, is now often cited as the most influential religious work of the twentieth century. It was not just war-torn England that appreciated Lewis’s Christian writings, they were also well received in North America. His popularity continued in the next decade, not least because of such works as the Narnia Chronicles (1950-1956) and Mere Christianity. Although it was diminishing, the religious interest that had been awakened during the war and had contributed to Lewis’s popularity continued during much of the 1950s.

Ebb and flow

That religious interest declined in the following decade, and Lewis’s popularity also began to dwindle in that period. Although it turned out to be only a temporary setback, it was real. Lewis himself seems to have anticipated the loss of his popularity: towards the end of his life he told his secretary that within a few years after his death his name would be forgotten. McGrath suggests various reasons for the decline. For one thing, and perhaps most importantly, the 1960s was the decade of rapid secularization, of the “death of God” movement, and of a widespread conviction that religion was disappearing from the face of the earth. Apologetic works seemed to be losing their relevance. Meanwhile the popularity of Tolkien’s epic fantasy The Lord of the Rings began to overshadow Lewis’s imaginative works. Tolkien’s epic seemed to speak to the problems of the 1960s and ’70s, such as the Cold War and the danger of a nuclear holocaust. All in all, Lewis appeared as a man of the past whose work might have some historical interest but was no longer considered relevant.

The surprising thing is not that this dip occurred, but that it did not last, and that Lewis is even more widely read today than he was during his life time. McGrath suggests various reasons for this. Lewis had always been more influential in America than in England, and an important role in the resurgence was played by changes in the American evangelical world. Lewis’s earlier influence had been most pronounced among non-evangelical Christians in America. Most evangelicals, still under the influence of fundamentalism, had distrusted him for his lifestyle (especially his smoking and beer-drinking), for aspects of his theology, and for his openness to the world of art, literature, and culture in general. Mid-century, however, saw the rise in America of the “new evangelicalism” which questioned the isolationism and the cultural disengagement of the fundamentalist past and asked for more contact with and more concern for the modern world and modern society. Among the leaders were men like Harold Ockenga, who served several years a president of Fuller Theological Seminary, Carl F.H. Henry, the first editor of Christianity Today, apologist Francis Schaeffer, and evangelist Billy Graham. Fuller Seminary, established in 1947, and Christianity Today, which first appeared in 1956, played a central role in the movement. The new evangelicals, McGrath writes, sought out a number of British writers to help them show the intellectual respectability of Christianity. They first turned especially to John Stott, but by the mid-seventies C.S. Lewis had been rediscovered and was increasingly cited in Christianity Today.

A paradigm shift

There are other reasons. Among them, McGrath suggests, may well be the change in the general worldview during the second half of the century – the shift from modernism to postmodernism. For one thing, the rise of postmodernism was accompanied by a renewed interest in religion and spirituality. As during the war years, Lewis’s work again met this felt need. Even the rise of the new evangelicalism can perhaps be explained, at least in part, with reference to this shift.

Alister McGrath
There was also a new interest in non-intellectual aspects of the Christian faith. An important element in Lewis’s come-back, McGrath believes, was that he showed how literature, and especially imaginative literature, could serve the faith. Though his own conversion had, as he himself put it, been essentially “intellectual” and “philosophical,” and though he continued to stress the intellectual aspect, Lewis more and more realized that belief was also a matter of the heart and the emotions. This he made clear in imaginative works like the space trilogy and the Chronicles of Narnia. “Those who initially valued Lewis for his rational defence of the Christian faith,” McGrath writes, “now found themselves appreciating his appeal to the imagination and emotions. Lewis’s multilayered conception of Christianity enabled evangelicals to realise that they could enrich their faith without diluting it, and engage secular culture in ways other than through reasoned argument.”

Yet another element, McGrath believes, was what he calls “the erosion of denominationalism” in the second half of the century. This was evident not only among evangelicals, he writes, but since the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s also among Roman Catholics. Lewis spoke to this trend as well. Himself a loyal Anglican, he refused to pronounce on denominational issues and divisions. His most influential apologetic work was Mere Christianity, and as he wrote in the Preface to that book, he believed that the best service he could render to his unbelieving neighbours was not to introduce them to the divisions in Christianity but “to explain and defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.” This did not mean that he denied the importance of creeds or “denominations,” only that he was not going to tell the unbelievers he addressed which church they should join. That decision was important – Lewis stressed that for believers church membership was essential – but it was to be made later, after one had become a Christian. For the time being, then, Lewis’s stress was on “mere” Christianity. In a time of declining denominationalism this may well have added to his growing appeal. Evidence of that appeal, McGrath tells us, is that since the early 1990s Lewis’s books have been religious best-sellers.

These, then, are among the factors which, McGrath shows, have contributed to Lewis’s popularity and influence today. Of course, of overriding importance was and is the actual message he conveyed in his writings. As mentioned, some day I hope to return to McGrath’s biography to see what it tells us about that aspect of Lewis’s work.

*Alister McGrath, C.S. Lewis – A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet, Tyndale House Publishers, 2013.

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