Lewis Continues to Teach What's Important

C. S.

November 21, 1993|By MICHAEL NELSON

Thirty years after his death on Nov. 22, 1963 (a death that, like Aldous Huxley's on the same day, was overshadowed at the time by the Kennedy assassination), the popularity of the British writer C. S. Lewis refuses to wane.

Indeed, the opposite is more nearly true. Around 6 million copies of his books are sold each year in the United States and Great Britain alone -- six times the number sold during his lifetime. Several of them have been made into films. Recently, Mr. Lewis' marriage to Joy Davidman became the subject of a major London and Broadway play, "Shadowlands."

Mr. Lewis' interests as a writer were so diverse that his works can be found in nearly all corners of any good bookstore.

Look in literature for "Till We Have Faces," an artful rendering of the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche and perhaps the finest novel of the 20th century. The literary criticism shelf almost certainly will contain one or two collections of Mr. Lewis' essays, as well as the landmark "Preface to Paradise Lost." His space trilogy -- "Out of the Silent Planet," "Perelandra" and "That Hideous Strength" -- will be shelved in science fiction. In the section on books on death and dying, find "A Grief Observed," the painful yet ultimately hopeful book that Mr. Lewis wrote after his wife died. And, especially during the Christmas shopping season, expect to see many and varied editions of the seven-volume "Chronicles of Narnia" in the children's department.

Mr. Lewis is best known, of course, for his works of Christian apologetics -- books like "Mere Christianity," "The Screwtape Letters," "The Problem of Pain" and "Miracles" that seek to explain and defend the Christian faith. Indeed, it is as a Christian writer that Mr. Lewis' continuing popularity sometimes verges on hagiography.

Nothing rivals the account of the New Testament translator J. B. Phillips, who blandly reported in 1967 that a "rosily radiant" (albeit four years deceased) Lewis had visited him twice in his home and "spoken a few words which were particularly relevant to the difficult circumstances through which I was passing." But what of the widely marketed C. S. Lewis aprons, mugs, sweat shirts, tote bags and the calendar that promises "to bless whatever room it hangs in with a quiet sense of peace"?

Mr. Lewis himself, it is safe to say, would have been appalled by his admirers' devotional excesses. He made his living as a literary scholar and teacher, first at Oxford and then at Cambridge. Leisure hours were devoted to simple pleasures: hiking, reading, and "sitting up till the small hours talking nonsense, poetry, theology, metaphysics over beer, tea and pipes."

Mr. Lewis lived plainly: Two-thirds of his book royalties were earmarked for charities. He never traveled abroad (save to France as a soldier in World War I), even when fame brought invitations to lecture from around the world.

Mr. Lewis' path to Christianity was clearly his own. Long an atheist (his first book was a volume of anti-religious poems called "Spirits in Bondage"), he reluctantly came to accept the basic historical accuracy of the Gospel.

"I was by now too experienced in literary criticism to regard the Gospels as myths," he wrote. Yet he could not "grasp how the life of Someone Else (whoever he was) two thousand years ago could help us here and now."

What seems to have brought Mr. Lewis around was a long conversation with J. R. R. Tolkien (a fellow Oxford don and the author of the hobbit novels) and other friends, who convinced him that Christianity was true because, in addition to being historic, it was mythical. One of humankind's grandest and most frequently recurring myths -- that of the dying god who rises again to save the people -- had actually been fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ.

As a newcomer to Christianity, Mr. Lewis was not wedded to any particular denomination. But he felt very strongly that to grow, the Christian must find a home within some denomination. Faith by itself, he argued, is "like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in." In Mr. Lewis' case, he joined the nearby Anglican parish church.

However neutral Mr. Lewis may have been among denominations, he had strong preferences among theologies. His brand of Christianity was orthodox, not liberal, and supernaturalist, not modern, in contrast to the academic theological thought of the day, which he regarded as a tepid mixture of "Christianity and water."

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