`Narnia' puts new focus on Lewis' faith

Enigmatic Christian author's works remain beloved by believers

December 12, 2005|By MATTHEW HAY BROWN | MATTHEW HAY BROWN,SUN REPORTER

A 55-year-old story about four British children, a fantasy world of talking creatures and the battle between an icy witch and a divine lion has made an Oxford don who died more than four decades ago the hottest Christian writer in America today.

An explosion of new releases - dozens of new works of biography, criticism and inspiration, timed to share in the anticipated success of the movie The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe - is focusing new attention on the life and work of the enigmatic C.S. Lewis.

"Lewis was, there's no doubt, a very odd fellow, in many ways," says Ralph C. Wood, a professor of Christian theology at Baylor University. "But his oddity in many ways also was the source of his excellence."

By all accounts brilliant - he earned first-class honors at Oxford in three different disciplines - Clive Staples "Jack" Lewis spent the better part of 20 years as an atheist. A renowned medievalist whose work on the late Middle Ages is considered authoritative, Lewis achieved his greatest fame as a writer of children's books. A skilled and enthusiastic debater who could intimidate students with his confrontational teaching style, he is remembered by friends as humble, devoted and generous.

He lived for three decades with the mother of a fallen army comrade and occasionally signed letters "philomastrix" - or "whip-lover."

Yet the Narnia books, children's fantasies replete with Christian images; adult fiction such as The Screwtape Letters, in which a senior devil tutors a protege in temptation; and works of apologetics such as Mere Christianity remain beloved among believers.

His stepson calls him the finest Christian he ever knew.

"He lived his Christianity day by day, minute by minute," says Douglas Gresham, who recounts their relationship in Jack's Life: The Life Story of C.S. Lewis. "He put into practice those things he believed, and he put into practice those things that he preached."

A muscular faith

What he preached, in the wartime series of BBC Radio talks that would become Mere Christianity, and in works such as The Problem of Pain, The Abolition of Man and The Four Loves, was a muscular faith that has achieved the rare feat of appealing not only to his fellow Protestants, but to Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians as well.

"Lewis always understood the difference between mere Christianity and my Christianity," says J. Stanley Mattson, president of the C.S. Lewis Foundation, which organizes seminars on the writer at Oxford and Cambridge universities. "That's an incredible saving grace in terms of being willing to really be a disciple and not regard his particular tradition as being somehow uniquely in tune with the totality of truth."

Now that work has a chance of reaching a still larger audience.

The Disney adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe dominated the box office in its first weekend. The always popular Narnia books have rocketed up the best-seller lists. Sales of Lewis' other works also are on the rise.

The cover story in the current issue of Christianity Today identifies Lewis as a "rock star for evangelicals" and opens with a lengthy comparison to Elvis Presley. But while evangelicals in particular have embraced Lewis since his death in 1963, other Christians have also embraced Lewis' message.

"He doesn't very often tip his hand about his own denomination," says the Rev. Clair McPherson, an Episcopal priest who has been leading a discussion series on Lewis at Trinity Church in New York. "You could conceivably read a lot of Lewis and not know what church he belonged to.

"In fact, he was a very middle-of-the-road, Church of England person, which means he was not really an evangelical as we would understand it, nor was he a high-church Catholic type. He was just a middle-class fellow who went to church very regularly and tithed and said his morning and evening prayers every day.

"He didn't want to teach that to others. What he wanted to teach was: What's the core of his belief? Why does he believe in God and specifically in the God of Christianity? Why does it make sense to him, and why does he think it should make sense for anybody who looks at it in a fair and unbiased way?"

Gresham agrees.

"He ignored all the traditions and differences and customs and behavior that Christians have added to the story of Christ," he says. "I think it is true to say that he did focus on the essentials, and that is what Christians should do. We should all give up on the isms, give up on celebrating our differences of opinions, and get back to Jesus Christ."

Lewis biographer David C. Downing traces Lewis' ecumenism to his childhood in Belfast during the first decade of the 20th century. Ireland was still united under Britain, and its most industrialized city simmered then, as now, with sectarian tension.

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