Back in my salad days when I was green in judgement, some 20 or more years ago, I remember telling a congregation, by way of application, not to bother to read anything by C. S. Lewis.
I did not say he was of the devil or not a Christian, as some would maintain, but I thought there were better things to read. I remember a young man challenging this statement, which I defended then but would now want to nuance quite a bit.
Like all generalisations, including this one, it was inaccurate. But what prompted such a swingeing generalisation?
I had read some C. S. Lewis myself and become concerned. Someone had given me The great divorce as a present, and its unbiblical idea that there was a way out of hell, and other aspects of the book, perturbed me.
I had probably decoded errors lurking in the pages of the Narnia tales too. I had never read Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ statement, quoted in Christianity today, at the time of Lewis’s death, saying that he ‘had a defective view of salvation and was an opponent of the substitutionary and penal view of the atonement’, but would have picked it up from others who had.
A whole catalogue of doctrinal errors have, unsurprisingly, been laid at Lewis’s door over the years.
He appears not to have accepted the infallibility of Scripture (in a letter, he wrote, ‘The total result is not the Word of God, in the sense that every passage, in itself, gives impeccable science or history’); total depravity (he suggests in The problem of pain that the doctrine may ‘turn Christianity into a form of devil worship’); or justification by faith (Roman Catholic biographer Joseph Pearce points out that Lewis believed the sacraments are vital in Christianity — ‘Immediately, therefore, Lewis is excluding the Protestant doctrine of sola fide from the “merely Christian”’).
On the atonement, he says in Mere Christianity, ‘The central Christian belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start. Theories as to how it did this are another matter’.
It appears that he believed in inclusionism (‘There are people in other religions who … belong to Christ without knowing it’; see Mere Christianity), in purgatory (‘I believe in purgatory. Mind you, the Reformers had good reason for throwing doubt on the Romish doctrine’; see Letters to Malcolm) and in praying for the dead (‘Of course I pray for the dead’; Letters to Malcolm again). Even if only some of the charges are fully justified, it should give us pause.
So, in this month, the 50th anniversary of Lewis’s death and a time when enthusiasm for Lewis among evangelicals has never been greater, what should we think of him? Should we read his books?
Well, first let’s remember that he wrote many books. Over 50 books are currently available with his name on the spine, some being posthumous compilations. There are also three compilations of his letters, which are of biographical interest and often serving to clarify his views at certain points.
The books can be divided, more or less, into three broad categories. First there are about 14 works of literary criticism and similar academic studies (e.g. The allegory of love, The discarded image). As time goes by, these scholarly works inevitably become more and more dated, but those who are studying in the field of literature or allied fields may well want to read those works. His Studies in words is a fascinating piece.
Then there are about 20 works of a more imaginative sort. These can be subdivided into the seven Narnia books, written for children; his four science fiction novels (the trilogy Out of the silent planet, Perelandra (a.k.a. Voyage to Venus), That hideous strength and the unfinished The dark tower; and his poetry (two of these books written while still an atheist).
The Narnia books have sold over 100 million copies and are available in 47 languages. Some of the stories have been made into successful films.
Early on, Lewis wrote rather coyly that: ‘Some people seem to think that I began by asking myself how I could say something about Christianity to children; then fixed on the fairy tale as an instrument, then collected information about child psychology and decided what age group I’d write for; then drew up a list of basic Christian truths and hammered out “allegories” to embody them. This is all pure moonshine. I couldn’t write in that way. It all began with images; a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a magnificent lion. At first there wasn’t anything Christian about them; that element pushed itself in of its own accord.’
However, in 1961 he was quite upfront in saying that: The magician’s nephew tells of the Creation and how evil entered Narnia; The Lion, etc, the crucifixion and resurrection; Prince Caspian, restoration of the true religion after corruption; The horse and his boy the calling and conversion of a heathen; The voyage of the dawn treader, the spiritual life (especially in Reepicheep); The silver chair, the continuing war with the powers of darkness; The last battle, the coming of the antichrist (the ape), the end of the world and the last judgement.
A great deal of enjoyment can be had from the Narnia books and the science fiction — even more overt in its Christianity. They are well written stories that appeal to a wide variety of people.
They also provide flashes of useful theological insight. For example, when the children ask if Aslan is safe, Mr Beaver says: ‘Safe? … Don’t you hear what Mrs Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.’
What we must not fall into, is drawing our theology from these stories. One other piece of fiction of a more theological bent is The Screwtape letters, and its less well known follow-up, Screwtape proposes a toast.
These books are written in a subtle way, apparently revealing how devils see things. Again, there are brilliant moments. Screwtape writes to his nephew and junior: ‘Indeed the safest road to hell is the gradual one — the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts’, and: ‘It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out.’
Rather forgotten is The pilgrim’s regress, which Lewis later regretted having written. Jim Packer wrote that when he was newly converted, in 1945, ‘the student who was discipling me lent me The pilgrim’s regress. This gave me both a full-colour map of the Western intellectual world, as it had been in 1932 and still pretty much was 13 years later, and also a very deep delight in knowing that I knew God beyond anything I had felt before. The vivid glow of Lewis’s scenic and dramatic imagination, as deployed in the story, had started to grab me. Regress, Lewis’s first literary effort as a Christian, is still for me the freshest and liveliest of all his books, and I re-read it more often than any of the others.’
That leaves some 17 more biblical, theological and philosophically related works. These include The problem of pain, The case for Christianity, Miracles, Mere Christianity, Letters to Malcolm, God in the dock and the autobiographical Surprised by joy.
Here one has to be particularly careful. Peter Barnes has noted that: ‘Lewis never regarded himself as a theologian; his strengths lay in his wonderful command of prose and in his clarity of thought.’
Sadly, too many people have turned to Lewis for their theology, to their detriment and often to that of others. In a recent book criticising certain aspects of Tim Keller’s teaching, the influence of C. S. Lewis’s bad theology has been noted.
What a warning that is to us all, that, while we would be foolish to deny Lewis’s wonderful skills as a thinker and writer, we would be equally unwise to suppose he is an unerring theologian. Like all men, his feet are of clay.