So why bother with C. S. Lewis?
Every year I attempt to answer this question for a lecture hall filled with high school seniors who are more interested in reading text messages than reading books. I don't fault them for their lack of literary taste, as bloggers have taught us to expect three sentence paragraphs, and text messages contain sentences that are missing most of their vowels. In spite of these cultural trends, I still require my senior Bible students to spend an entire semester reading C. S. Lewis. Here's why.
First, he is the best-known English speaking apologist of the 20th century. You may wonder how I know this - by some well-researched and statistically valid social science tool? No. I believe this to be true because everyone I meet at church, seminary, Christian camps, or Christian schools who know what an apologist is, also know about C. S. Lewis. And the vast majority of them love him. I tell my students that when they cite Lewis, they cite a recognizable source. And a recognizable source can be a helpful source when making an argument.
Still, simply being well-known does not make one a dependable source. So I next point out that Lewis was well-educated. Our school is a great books school, meaning we expect students to read Homer, Virgil, Dante, Milton, Shakespeare, Swift, and others. Lewis knew this material - he read the classics in their original languages. He was an Oxford graduate who earned top grades in three different degrees, and he also taught at Oxford and later became a full professor at Cambridge. Not bad for a kid whose formal education began under the tutelage of an insane headmaster (see his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, for more detail).
Third, while a well-known apologist and well-educated Christian thinker, he was not a professional theologian. His formal education was not in theology, and he did not write for other theology academics. Therefore, while he asked smart questions and provided smart answers, he was not writing about the theological minutiae that only academics would consider. Rather, he elucidated "mere Christianity." He attempted to make foundational concepts clear through both philosophical argument and lively illustrations. In fact, part of what makes reading Lewis so enjoyable is that his illustrations often are his arguments.
Fourth, while scriptural references were not plentiful in his work, he did have a number of scriptural allusions. When we read Lewis a small alarm should go off in the back of our brain, saying "wait - that sounds familiar" and after a bit of time with a concordance (or the power of Google), we can find a number of scriptural passages that he internalized.
Which leads to my next point: Lewis combined a robust knowledge of classical literature and scripture with a well-developed imagination. The result: a Christian imagination. This was no small feat. During an era that grew in its worship of science and disdain for religion, Lewis supposed whole new realms of life (like Narnia) that illustrated deep truths. Not only could he illustrate great Christian truths, he made them desirable. Like his character Puddleglum in The Silver Chair, he proved that a made-up world could not only be a fair sight better than a so-called real one, but they could inspire us to make personal sacrifice. (Remember how Puddleglum stamped his feet in the Green Witch's fire?) His portrayal of sin in The Great Divorce redefined the concept for me: not only was sin falling short of God's glory, it was also falling short of being truly human (remember, we were made in God's image). When I realized sin made me sub-human, I got a lot more serious about confessing my sins and taking action to correct them.
I'm willing to argue that a Christian imagination may be one of his greatest legacies for modern students. Even during Paul's day, the message of the Gospel appeared foolish ("What? I'm supposed to love my enemies, and pray for those who persecute me? That's nuts!"), and my students will one day enter classrooms or meeting rooms where well trained minds combined with anti-Christian presuppositions will make faith appear laughable. If my students can't imagine something better than what their professors or co-workers offer, their faith is toast. At college, the arguments students encounter will be subtle and complex, and they need counter-arguments that are subtle and complex - like Lewis' carefully developed arguments in Mere Christianity. Co-workers will need arguments that not only make sense, but that are made memorable. Lewis' knack for imaginative illustration made his arguments memorable.
But one of my reasons for teaching Lewis is also highly personal: he encourages me. One example: during a difficult season of my life (one filled with both personal and academic challenges to my faith) I entered a used book store and found a daily reader filled with bits of C. S. Lewis articles. To my surprise, delight, and eventual relief, those daily Lewis readings lined up with many of the battles I faced. Reading Lewis helped me through a difficult season of life, convincing me that despite the intellectual and personal chaos surrounding me, Christianity not only made sense, but it was the best option available. For that, I feel a personal debt of gratitude.
Though Lewis is not particularly difficult reading, his style is unlike that which most high school students have read. Thus they find themselves wrestling with his arguments in Mere Christianity, and confused by the initial ethical inversion of Screwtape Letters. My response to them: like Jacob, sometimes we must wrestle before we can be blessed. Lewis is worth the struggle.
In his book An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis explained that reading widely offers us two major benefits: (1) the opportunity to experience places we've never experienced before, and (2) the opportunity to think thoughts we've never before considered. I encourage my students to read Lewis because he is an adventure into new dimensions (like Narnia), onto other planets (as in The Space Trilogy), and into whole new ways of interpreting life here on earth (like one of his famous illustrations from Mere Christianity - that a striptease act is equivalent to slowly removing the cover from a plate of food, and then suddenly turning out the lights).
Please, don't just go see the latest Narnia movie and miss the real adventure. Read Lewis.
Stanley J. Ward serves as the Biblical Worldview Director at The Brook Hill School (www.brookhill.org) and frequently speaks at conferences (www.stanleyjward.com). He is also a PhD candidate and napkin theologian (www.napkinvideo.com).
Publication date: November 21, 2010