Bruce L. Edwards serves as Associate Dean for Distance Learning and International Education, as well as Professor of English at Bowling Green State University. He spent 1999-2000 in on a Fulbright Fellowship teaching at Daystar University in Nairobi, Kenya. He has written extensively on Christian writer and apologist, C.S. Lewis.
We know what Mr. and Mrs. Beaver thought of Aslan, but what would they have thought of Mr. Lewis?
Some 55 years after the first publication of his artful children's fantasy, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, we may say, collectively expressing our amazement that C. S. Lewis's book sales are still roaring along, "he is not a tame author." With the release of the movie version of the first Narnian Chronicle a month away, we know they are about to skyrocket further. Is there bloggable news in that? Well, let's see. The November 7, 2005 issue of Newsweek is about to introduce the rest of America to Lewis. And what will they find? A headline that says, "The creator of Narnia was a scholar, a drinker—and a believer."
Hmmm, a drinker, huh? That's a good trio of items . . . Well, maybe not. Most, but not all, readers of this blog would know certain things, like that Lewis died on Nov. 22, 1963, the same day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. But not everyone would recognize that, 42 years later, not only does Narnia stay in print, but also so do newly formatted and continually re-configured compilations of his essays, poems, and unpublished short stories—even calendars. The sheer fact that an author who died almost a half-century ago still has virtually every single thing he ever published still in print as book, essay, or poem, tells you a lot about his legacy and his impact. (Name another?) Whether veteran Lewis reader or novice, please let me set some needed context here and situate the continuing-to-astound Lewis in the present climate.
Fellow fantasist J. R. R. Tolkien, instrumental in Lewis's conversion, once joked that his friend was the only man he knew who published more books after his death than when he was alive. (We can now say: Tolkien should talk.) That this C. S. Lewis—"Jack" to his friends and family—would come to be, forgive me, lionized first and foremost as a Christian apologist in a time of ostentatious secularism or New Age mysticism is one of literary—and Christian—history's greatest ironies. Allow me this succinct recap:
A bitter and confirmed atheist after his mother's death when he was 9, a World War I veteran who while in the trenches of France jotted a poem denouncing the "ancient hope" of a "just God that cares for earthly pain" as merely a "dream," Lewis was one of the least likely converts among the literati of his time. But in his superb spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy (1956), Lewis wrote of his road to conversion, which included books and providential friendships that led him out of unbelief to a principled agnosticism, and from there to a benign but fervent theism and, eventually, to Christianity. Books by George MacDonald and G. K. Chesterton, and friendships with Owen Barfield and J. R. R. Tolkien, were particularly important.Now, fast forward to the present. Lewis's still unsurpassed influence as a Christian apologist (even into the 21st Century) has become somewhat of a stumbling block for some contemporary Christian intellectuals, who question Lewis's current adequacy as a thinker for the post-post-postmodern church. Maybe he is an embarrassing anachronism? Questions like this are good, but in the end it, of course, depends on the answers.
Lewis met Barfield at Oxford in 1916 and called him "the best of my unofficial teachers." A keen dialectician himself, Barfield's chief contribution to Lewis's journey of faith was his demolishing of Lewis's "chronological snobbery," the "uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that count discredited." Liberated from the notion that the past was invariably wrong and the present always the barometer of truth, Lewis was able to embrace the possibility that the ancient Christian narrative could have validity, even urgency, in the 20th century.
The final blow against Lewis's comfortable agnosticism came in his ardent companionship with J.R.R. Tolkien, for it was he who led Lewis to the conclusion that Christianity contains in the incarnation of Christ "the true myth, myth become fact" and the one story in which Lewis could put his full confidence. In Barfield and Chesterton, Lewis touched the power of reason. In MacDonald and Tolkien, Lewis experienced the power of the imagination. In Christ, Lewis embraced the Author of both.
Lewis thus became a man who lived his life as if he were before Pilate. He carried out his daily tasks as teacher, writer, citizen, and believer as one who knew he was always before a skeptical inquisitor, one who too often hides from the truth and masks his fear of knowing the truth behind studied indifference and the pretense of being on the "search." By any means necessary, Lewis endeavored to reach such persons, whether by keen argumentation or compelling narrative, arresting metaphors or appealing characterization; souls were at stake; ideas had consequences. He could not keep silent.
In the late 1990s some were recommending vogue theorists like Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault as antidotes to the steady diet of "rationalism" served up by the likes of Lewis and admirers of Mere Christianity, presumably, because someone too fond of Lewis might fail to appreciate postmodernism's promise and would remain instead a prisoner of a debilitating "enlightenment foundationalism."
Other spokespersons credited postmodernism with helpfully dethroning the Enlightenment and its prideful literary stepchild, Romanticism, whose anthropocentrism produced heroes (and readers) who "assume the authority once granted to God in historic theism." These critics consigned Lewis to this "Romantic" prison, shackled to the same essentialist, enabling "individualism" that credentialed the Enlightenment to dominate theological reflection for four centuries.
Lewis, we learn, was not a reliable guide to readership or to literary criticism in the advent of postmodernism, because he himself succumbed to the disease from which Westerners needed to be quarantined: a too exalted view of the solitary, knowing self. (A charge the late behaviorist psychologist, B. F. Skinner, made of Lewis in particular, and Christians in general, in Beyond Freedom and Dignity.)
So it seemed by the turn of the century, a two-fold judgment had emerged that (1) Christians might have more to gain from listening to French deconstructionists than the venerable Oxbridge don, and this precisely because Lewis is too much a "Modernist" to help postmoderns cope with the Enlightenment's fall from grace; and (2) Lewis is too much a "Romantic" to escape the self-centeredness that postmodernism corrects by rejecting any claims of objective value or "grand narratives." How strange that Lewis could be both too rationalistic and too romantic, simultaneously.
Now, five years later, questions about Lewis's ongoing contribution to our apologetics may begin to be conveniently dismissed in a back-handed sort of way with the attention paid to Narnia; to wit, there may be folks are who are very glad that Narnia has arrived to divert us from Lewis's more intentional philosophical and polemical works: "Ah, good, we are into the softer, more palatable world of fiction and fantasy where Lewis 'belongs.'" (But there, we must not forget, Professor Kirke awaits with his famous trichotomy: liar, lunatic, or Lucy.)
Is this either-or (better fiction than polemics) a fair assessment of Lewis and his effectiveness as an apologist? One must say that Jack would have pled "Guilty" to the charge that he was both a Rationalist and a Romantic—as his autobiographical Pilgrim's Regress shows. But not so exclusively; he reminds us that Reason and Experience must each bow to Revelation, for only therein lies their redemption, and potential utility. This is the point at tension in Lewis's little known but profound short essay, "Meditation in a Toolshed." He would continue on from there to identify two default worldviews to which some 21st-century Christian scholars tend to be captive, neither of which tainted Lewis himself.
This hyperrealism, which Lewis called "scientism" or identified as a breed of "naturalism," is his target in The Abolition of Man, That Hideous Strength, and Miracles; all three of these works prophesy the demise of the Enlightenment and its subsequent dissolution into various relativisms and constructionisms that cheat humanity out of its humanness: that is, the image of God.
Lewis documented—and dealt with—postmodernist belief in works such as An Experiment in Criticism, where he called it "egoistic castle-building," and in A Preface to Paradise Lost, where he termed it "incessant autobiography." And most profoundly, in his last fictional work, Till We Have Faces, Lewis offered us the story of a female protagonist who must surrender her "self" in order to become whole—a story renouncing Romanticism even while examining its trappings.
If we ourselves reject, as did Lewis, our own age's "chronological snobbery," we might just find that the way forward is the way back. Lewis's welcome strategy was to be "in, but not of" the period in which he lived, aligning himself with a perspective outside that world—i.e., divine revelation.
This enabled him to discern the rules of the "game" while maintaining an equilibrium amid the endless undulations of time and culture, hence his maxim: "All that is not eternal is eternally out of date."
This is perhaps the best clue to the mystery of Lewis's continuing impact and influence. Owen Barfield, reflecting many years later on Lewis's career, once capsuled well Lewis's secret: "Somehow what Lewis thought about everything was secretly present in what he said about anything."
© Bruce L. Edwards . Used by permission. This is an update of an article that first appeared in a near-the-millennium issue of World magazine. Posted in Edwards' Weblog (blog), Further Up & Further In October 31, 2005.