Friday, November 22nd, marks the 50th anniversary of the deaths of
three famous and intriguing men: the author and agnostic Aldous Huxley;
the 35th President of the United States, John F. Kennedy; and the author
and apologist, C. S. Lewis. (For a fictional discussion among the
three, see Peter Kreeft's book, Between Heaven and Hell: A Dialog Somewhere Beyond Death with John F. Kennedy, C. S. Lewis & Aldous Huxley
While I think Huxley's Brave New World
is a brilliant book that has proven remarkably prophetic in many
ways, and while I wonder where Kennedy would fit in today's political
landscape if he were a young politician today (perhaps a moderate Republican?), Lewis
has had the biggest impact on my life and thought. The first book by
Lewis that I read, while in high school, was Surprised by Joy
and I soon read several others. After all these years, what I find most
remarkable about Lewis' writing is the wide breadth and the brisk
lucidity. My favorite books by Lewis are Abolition of Man,
collection, On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature
, and, yes,
Surprised by Joy
The following is an essay I wrote a number of
years ago, meant to be a short introduction to the his work and perhaps
of interest to those who are just discovering Lewis. Also see Michael Coren's recent CWR feature about "Jack"
, about whose life and writings Coren has written extensively.
The Thought and Work of C.S. Lewis
There’s no doubt about the ongoing popularity of C.S. Lewis’s many
books and stories. He is one of the best-selling authors of all-time;
his Narnian series alone has sold over 100 million copies since it was
first published between 1950 and 1956. His works of Christian
apologeticsincluding Mere Christianity, The Great Divorce, and The Screwtape Lettersare
read and admired by Christians ranging from Catholics to Baptists to
Methodists to Eastern Orthodox. And his lesser-known works of literary
criticism, such as The Discarded Image, a study of the medieval view of the world, and English Literature in the Sixteen Century Excluding Drama, are still greatly admired by specialists and students.
Like many prolific and accomplished authors, Lewis possessed formidable
skills, discipline, and focus. Those who knew him were often astounded
at his prodigious intellect; he could quote entire pages of medieval
poetry from memory and most of his books and essays were "first takes"
he rarely revised a first draft. As a young man he was a top student
who read widely and deeply, the recipient of a traditional classical
The Desire for Joy
However impressive his learning and skills, there is a much more
mysterious quality behind the distinctive features of Lewis’s writing
and thinking the reality of Joy. It is for good reason that Lewis’s
account of his formative years was titled Surprised By Joy since the elusive experience of "Joy" powerfully shaped his life and thought, as he indicated in many of his writings.
As a young boy of six Lewis experienced the sensation of "enormous
bliss" on a summer day, accompanied by the memory of a toy garden in his
nursery. "It was a sensation, of course, of desire," he wrote in Surprised By Joy,
"but desire for what?" That sudden sensation ceased but "in a certain
sense everything else that had ever happened to me was insignificant in
comparison." That elusive Joy was the subject of early poetry, of his
first work of prose, The Pilgrim’s Regress, and of his famous sermon, The Weight of Glory.
Closely related to his search for Joy was his love for myth and
mythology. As a young man, Lewis again experienced Joy when he immersed
himself in Norse mythology. Yet he also abandoned Christianity because
he became convinced it was just one myth among many and a product of
human invention. But a long conversation with J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo
Dyson in September 1931 opened his eyes to the uniqueness of the "true
myth" called Christianity. "Now the story of Christ," he wrote, "is
simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others,
but with this tremendous difference that it really happened."
It was this true myththe life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus
Christthat Lewis would devote much of his energy and ability toward
explaining and defending for the next thirty years of his life.
Retired professor of English literature Dr. Thomas Howard
has studied C.S. Lewis’s work for over fifty years (he corresponded
with Lewis in the 1950s and met him briefly in England) and has written
numerous articles and a book about the famous author. Asked about
the continued popularity of Lewis’s books, Dr. Howard states: "Lewis’s
popularity derived, I am sure, from the remorseless clarity of
everything he wrote, plus his glorious imagination, plus his splendid
mastery of the English language. Of course his gigantic intellect and
his rigorous training in argument . . . set his work altogether apart
from most other writers, especially popular writers …" Lewis’s ability
to powerfully convey the deeper truths of the Christian Faith with
clarity, liveliness, and conciseness is undoubtedly a significant part
of his wide appeal.
In addition, as a former atheist, Lewis
understood the thinking and objections of unbelievers and met them on
their ground, using their standards of empirical proof and rational
thinking in combating their challenges to Christianity. Although not a
theologian, he was trained in philosophy and was well acquainted with
the many philosophical schools and ideological fads of his time. Two
such "isms"subjectivism and scientismwere often addressed in his works
of fiction (Out of the Silent Planet, for example) and non-fiction (Miracles and The Abolition of Man).
Since Lewis defended "mere Christianity" against those "isms"
antagonistic to traditional Christian doctrines and mostly avoided
intra-Christian controversies, it is not altogether surprising that he
is widely read by Catholics, Protestants, and Eastern Orthodox.
Imagination and Analogy
Lewis’s fiction has sometimes been criticized for being too obviously
Christian (a complaint made by J.R.R. Tolkien). But Lewis always
insisted that his stories came not from the desire to make a point or
press an argument, but from pictures and images in his mind that he wove
together into a story. Yet it is also clear that many of his works of
fiction contain implicit denials of secularism and endorsements of
This ability to connect concrete images to abstract
thoughts is a notable strength of Lewis’s popular apologetics. There are
many example of this use of analogy in Mere Christianity,
considered by many to be one of the finest works of popular apologetics
ever written. He employs the analogy of reading music in distinguishing
between instincts ("merely the keys" of an instrument) and the universal
Moral Law ("tells us the tune to play"). And in arguing for the
transcendence of God he writes that "if there was a controlling power
outside the universe, it could not show itself to us as one of the facts
inside of the universeno more than the architect of a house could
actually be a wall or staircase or fireplace in that house."
As Chad Walsh observes in The Literary Legacy of C.S. Lewis
(Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979), this use of analogy "transforms an
abstract philosophic proposition into a mental picture." He adds that
these analogies "are little poems interspersed in the prose text,"
bringing to life ideas that might otherwise sound dry and dull.
Even those Catholics who express great admiration for Lewis point out
that one of the weaknesses of Lewis’s theological and apologetic
writings is a weak, or hazy, view of the Church. In an otherwise glowing
analysis of C.S. Lewis recently published in First Things magazine ("Mere Apologetics", June/July 2005), Avery Cardinal Dulles, author of A History of Apologetics,
wrote: "As Lewis’ greatest weakness, I would single out his lack of
appreciation for the Church and the sacraments. … His ‘mere
Christianity’ is a set of beliefs and a moral code, but scarcely a
society. In joining the [Anglican] Church he made a genuine and honest
profession of faithbut he did not experience it as entry into a true
community of faith. He found it possible to write extensively about
Christianity while saying almost nothing about the People of God, the
structure of authority, and the sacraments."
Howard is even more blunt, saying that Lewis "avoided, like the black pestilence, the whole topic of The Church":
hated ecclesiology. It divided Christians, he said (certainly
accurately). He wanted to be known as a "mere Christian," so he simply
fled all talk of The Church as such. He would not participate in
anything that remotely resembled a discussion of matters
ecclesiological. He was firm in his non- (or anti-?) Catholicism.
would Lewis have remained an Anglican if he were alive today? "People
ask me if he would by now have been received into the Ancient Church,"
Howard stated, "and I usually say yes. I don’t see how, as an orthodox
Christian apologist, he could have stayed in the Anglican Church during
these last decades of its hasty self-destruction." Joseph Pearce wrote
in C.S. Lewis and the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press, 2003):
can’t know for certain what Lewis would have done had he lived to see
the triumph of modernism in the Church of England and the defeat of
"mere Christianity". There is no doubt, however, that he would have felt
strangely out of place in today’s Anglican church. There is also no
doubt that today’s Anglican church sees him as a somewhat embarrassing
part of their unenlightened and reactionary past. The sobering truth is
that even if Lewis had not chosen to leave the Church of England, the
Church of England would have chosen to leave him. (p. 167)
irony, Pearce notes, is that although Lewis is today ignored by most
Anglicans, he is embraced by two groups with whom he had, at best, an
uneasy relationship: conservative Evangelicals and orthodox Catholics.
Lewis modestly insisted that his work was not original, nor did he care
to be original. Yet however orthodox his beliefs and traditional his
views, Lewis’s superb style, articulation, and creativity stand out as
does his ability to touch the human heart. He honestly speaks to
spiritual longing that all of us experience, but often cannot
articulate. Lewis encountered and pursued Joy and through his writings
millions of others have been led to embrace the true myth of the
(A shorter version of this article appeared in the December 4, 2005 issue of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)