Thursday, August 16, 2012

Why Do We Love C. S. Lewis?

(The following is derived from the preface of my forthcoming book entitled,
Dear Screwtape: Letters from Wormwood)

During the last stages of my doctoral studies, I immersed myself in Kierkegaard, Plato, Augustine, Kant, Tennyson, and Dante, as well as made inquisitive forays into quantum physics and Darwinian evolutionary theory. My teaching responsibilities demanded even more reading in English literature, including the likes of Shakespeare, Byron, Keats, Wilde, Hawthorne, Melville, et al. My pastoral responsibilities required daily biblical study as well, and I conducted most of my biblical studies in Hebrew and Greek. All that may sound somewhat self-serving, as if I am trying to impress the reader with my reading habits at the time, but I intend no such purpose. I share those autobiographical details to establish the literary and philosophical context in which I discovered, not just The Screwtape Letters, but the beloved Mr. Lewis himself. Working in a Christian educational institution characterized by an above average intellectual ethos, I frequently heard "C. S. Lewis" reverberate  through the halls and echo in the faculty lounge. Although forty years old, I had never read a jot or tittle of Lewis until one day I came across TSL in a used-book store. I think I purchased the work for a dollar and read it in a day or two. My conclusion was, “What’s all the fuss? What’s the big deal about C. S. Lewis?” My original impressions of Lewis and TSL were that he was theologically pedantic, literarily ambiguous, and only mildly interesting. Those first impressions, no doubt, derived from an unfair comparison of Mr. Lewis to the literary and philosophical geniuses I was studying at the time. More specifically, I thought that TSL grossly misinterpreted and misrepresented demonology (as it does) and so, young warrior that I was, I decided to set Mr. Lewis and all his devotees straight. I then wrote a chapter-by-chapter response to TSL only to learn later that the C. S. Lewis Estate would not grant permission for me publish.*

Since that time, my admiration for Mr. Lewis has increased manifold. I still consider him theologically unsatisfying, sometimes even unorthodox, but I thank God that a scholar of his stature spoke, and still speaks, with some authority and clarity both to believers and skeptics about Christian theism. I still ask myself, though, why does Lewis have such great appeal to Christian readers? In the worst case, familiarity with Lewis fosters a kind of intellectual pride among those who read him, as if one’s ability to cite Lewis equates with legitimate Christian scholarship. More probably, adoration of Lewis may stem from a psychological need to associate Christianity with a modern intellectual of some reputation and thereby somehow validate Christianity to a skeptical world; or perhaps Lewis appeals to many because he resonates with their own level of theological understanding. Personally, I appreciate Lewis because, ironically, he epitomizes his own “ignorant child making mudpies.” Certainly, Lewis is not ignorant, and pondering theism and ethics is more than making mudpies. Perhaps we should change the metaphor and say that Lewis is like an "ingenious child twirling a diamond in the sunlight." Lewis is, indeed, somewhat of a theological infant, perhaps an adolescent, and that is one reason why I think he charms us so. Who has not marveled at a child’s precocious imagination? Lewis’ theological incunabulum, coupled with his magnificent abilities to spin the theological diamond and turn an unusual phrase, helps us to see things as through the prismatic imagination of an ingenious child, wide-eyed in discovery and scintillating with playful fancy. Lewis was neither an astute theologian nor an orthodox believer, but he was more brilliant than we, and his perspicacity functions as a luminescent rung as we climb the celestial ladder, but not a rung upon which the ascending foot should rest too long without stepping upward.

*Since TSL is public domain and we live and move within the blogosphere, that obstacle is removed. So now, twenty years later, I am re-editing my response to TSL and, God willing, will publish soon. I am also considering releasing the book chapter by chapter on this blog and soliciting a reading group to simultaneously and sequentially read TSL and my book on a week-by-week, chapter-by-chapter basis.

1 comment:

Timotheus said...

I fear my perspicacity of C.S.Lewis is in an incunabulumic state at the present time. Hopefully that will improve with the reading of TSL. Good post....