Today marks the 56th 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, the 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 Joseph Pearce’s 2013 essay titled “C.S. Lewis and Catholic Converts”.)
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 apologetics—including Mere Christianity, The Great Divorce, and The Screwtape Letters—are 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 education.
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 myth–the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ–that 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 scientism–were 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 theism.
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 universe–no 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 faith–but 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”:
He 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.
But 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):
We 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)
The 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 Incarnate Word.
(A slightly different version of this article appeared in the December 4, 2005 issue of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)
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