Many remember the day in November 1963 when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in America. Few noticed that it was also the day when C. S. Lewis died. Lewis’ death had come after a long illness and just before his 65th birthday.
I had turned 15 years old then and was at boarding school. During the course of 1964 I read three books by C. S. Lewis. They were the only ‘Christian’ books available in our dormitory library – a motley, rather battered collection of miscellaneous volumes.
But these titles attracted me – Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain, and Miracles – even though I knew little about the author. I had no evangelical background, but the Lord was at work in my heart.
I believe the books prepared me for conversion to Christ shortly afterwards. Many others who came to faith in the 1950s and 1960s could testify to something similar.
C. S. Lewis was no Evangelical. ‘I am a very ordinary layman of the Church of England’, he wrote, ‘not especially “high”, nor especially “low”, nor especially anything else’.
Nearly 40 years after his death, C. S. Lewis remains an enigmatic figure to Evangelical Christians. The purpose of this article is to assess briefly the legacy he left us.
Clive Staples Lewis (‘Jack’) was born on 29 November 1898 in Belfast to Anglican parents. His brother, Warren, was three years older. Their much-loved mother died of cancer when Jack was nearly 10.
This bereavement proved a double tragedy for the two boys, since their father had an awkward, restless personality. He never managed to establish a satisfactory relationship with his sons, although he did love them.
They were sent to a school in Watford, referred to by Jack in his spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy, as ‘Belsen’. The headmaster was inefficient and cruel, and was later certified insane.
From there Jack was sent to Campbell College, Belfast, and a few months later to a prep school close to Malvern, where the air was deemed suitable for his weak chest.
Here Jack abandoned his childhood Christian beliefs. Here too he encountered Virgil, Wagner and Nordic myths. In 1913 he moved up to Malvern College.
Quietly, between hated bouts of sport, he explored the Nordic and Icelandic saga, Eddic literature and Greek mythology. He was reading far beyond his years.
In 1914 Jack, miserable over the ‘young blood’ ethos of public school, moved to a ‘crammer’ in Surrey and commenced private study under W. T. Kirkpatrick.
The ‘Great Knock’, as Jack nicknamed him, was a demanding but brilliant teacher. Under his rigorous tutelage, Jack was a genius in the making, although still a lonely boy.
C. S. Lewis went up to University College, Oxford, and completed his degree at the close of the First World War. In 1924 he became a philosophy tutor at University College. In 1925 he was elected Fellow of Magdalen College.
He continued there as a tutor in English Language and Literature for 29 years, until he took up the Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge.
The turning point for Lewis, however, came when he was 31 years old. This change is documented in his book Surprised by Joy. Lewis moved from being an atheist, through being a romantic, to being a theist.
These steps followed wide reading and discussions with close friends, including J. R. R. Tolkien (Oxford don and author of Lord of the Rings) and a theosophist called Owen Barfield.
Lewis wrote, ‘In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed’. Two years later, after a long talk one September evening with Tolkien and Hugo Dyson, he embraced Christianity.
Soon Lewis was a star attraction at Oxford University. Hundreds of students came to his compelling lectures. In 1935, he was asked to write a volume in the Oxford History of English Literature series.
In 1936 he received a literature prize for The Allegory of Love (a study in medieval tradition) and in 1941 he wrote A Preface to Paradise Lost.
But Lewis was also turning his hand to Christian apologia. In 1941 The Guardian newspaper published a series by him, called Screwtape Letters, in 31 weekly instalments. Live BBC radio talks on Christianity followed. C. S. Lewis was fully in the public eye.
Books of all kinds, poetry, academic and fictional works, flowed from his pen, at the rate of over one a year. Most of these aimed at presenting an effective Christian apologetic.
They included Reflections on the Psalms,The Great Divorce and The Narnia Chronicles. The latter were seven fairy tales written for children, exploring Christian themes allegorically.
What was Lewis’ message? Mere Christianity confined itself to the ‘Christian core of belief’. Its aim was to convince modern man, assailed by secular and scientific materialism, both of the reasonableness and the ‘supernaturalness’ of Christianity.
C. S. Lewis stood in stark contrast to John Robinson, Bishop of Woolwich. Robinson was the author of Honest to God, a popular, contemporary book that set out to demythologise orthodox Christian belief and (more or less) substitute it with existentialism.
Lewis’ impact is well summarised by Peter Kreeft in an address entitled The Achievement of C. S. Lewis: A Millennial Assessment. Kreeft is a Roman Catholic and Professor of Philosophy at Boston College.
Kreeft recalls ‘the most memorable moment of the most memorable conference I ever attended. Dozens of high-octane Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant Evangelicals came together … Fr. Fessio got up and proposed that we issue a joint statement of theological agreement among all the historic, orthodox branches of Christendom saying that what united us was Scripture, the Apostles’ Creed, the first six ecumenical councils, and the collected works of C. S. Lewis. The proposal was universally cheered’.
It is apparent that Lewis’ writings are deemed no threat to modern ecumenism. However, it is doubtful that Lewis would have approved of ecumenism’s pragmatism.
He was willing to lose Tolkien’s close friendship rather than enter the Roman Catholic Church – an outcome for which Tolkien laboured tirelessly but fruitlessly.
Lewis’ Christian thought-world was permeated by mythological categories and vitiated by doctrinal heterodoxy. But there is, nevertheless, a certain legitimacy in Kreeft’s assessments.
Kreeft states that Lewis’ greatest literary achievement was to focus the Western world on what it needs above all else – the person of Jesus Christ. This he did chiefly in Mere Christianity and through the character of Aslan, the Narnian lion.
Secondly, Lewis stressed objective truth, an emphasis that is sorely needed in a day when relativism and post-modernism are rife. Thirdly, he highlighted the phenomenon of ‘joy’ – the word Lewis chose to express the deepest longing of the human heart, that is, a longing for God himself (Surprised by Joy).
Fourthly, he demonstrated that there is a real hell as well as a real heaven, another truth that has been deliberately submerged by today’s anodyne ‘Christianity’.
Lewis also explored the four meanings behind the one English word, love (The Four Loves). He presented a compelling theodicy for cosmic pain (The Problem of Pain), and demolished the presuppositions of pantheism and theological modernism. He was, in short, a convinced (and convincing) supernaturalist.
It is debatable whether C. S. Lewis was regenerate. Surprised by Joy has nothing to say about Jesus Christ, while A Grief Observed finds him seemingly without hope.
If this is the case, it reflects an inscrutable providence, since many have been helped into true faith by his writings.
What other conclusions can be drawn about Lewis’ legacy? First, he was a compelling logician who understood the thinking of ordinary people.
‘Ever since I became a Christian’, he wrote in 1952, ‘I have thought that the best, perhaps the only, service I could do for my unbelieving neighbours was to explain and defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times’.
To make ordinary people think about historic Christianity, to see and feel the strength and attraction of the case in its favour, was Lewis’ goal.
Secondly, he was a highly effective communicator. His strength lay in his simplicity of style. J. I. Packer writes:
‘Not wasting words, he plunged straight into things and boiled matters down to essentials, positioning himself as a common-sense, down-to-earth, no-nonsense observer, analyst, and conversation partner.
‘Lewis achieved an intimacy of instruction that is very unusual.’ This homely, radio-talk style was a feature of Lewis’ writings.
Thirdly, C. S. Lewis was a formidable thinker. He assimilated a wide sweep of human ideas, worked them over with a powerful, imaginative intellect, and then turned them into something unique.
In as far as his writings pointed people to the truth, they did so with great effect.
C. S. Lewis did not teach the true gospel. We must go to the Bible for that precious jewel. But, today, abilities like his are sorely needed as Evangelicals seek to communicate the truth to a generation that has nearly stopped listening.