The tale of C.S. Lewis’ imaginative legacy
C.S. Lewis is to evangelicalism what Elvis is to rock music. It is doubtful that you will find a multitude of Lewis impersonators if you visit Las Vegas; it would certainly be comical if you did, but in the same way that Elvis is an unavoidable figure in the history of American pop culture, you cannot talk about Christianity in the 20th century without mentioning Clive Staples Lewis.
Lewis scholar Colin Duriez calls Lewis an enigmatic figure that evangelicals often recreate in their own image. But even granting this unfortunate tendency to tailor Lewis according to our own Sitz im Leben, what is it that makes him such a perennial candidate for our own projections? We are content to bury most Oxford dons of the past beneath a dusty blanket of apathetic forgetfulness. Why should Lewis be any different?
There were certainly better theologians than Lewis. He would agree with this. He never claimed to be a theologian, of this he reminds us in almost all of his theological writings, perhaps to the point of overemphasis. Yet most lists of the top theologians of all time include C.S. Lewis. Why this disparity between his claim as a mere layperson, and our desire to elevate him among theological heavyweights like Augustine and John Calvin?
Perhaps Lewis’ legacy is a result of his scholarship. But even though he was busy working on his magnum opus, The Oxford History of English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Time magazine, in its 1947 cover article on Lewis, said his colleagues frowned upon him because he spent so much time writing outside of his own discipline; an academic faux pas if there ever was one. And most people today have never even heard of his scholarly works like his OHEL project, or Medieval and Renaissance Literature or the Allegory of Love.
In her The New York Times article, “C.S. Lewis, Evangelical Rock Star,” journalist T.M. Luhrmann suggests that it is Lewis’ impact on the imagination that makes his influence timeless. In a progressively secular culture that places an ever-lowering premium on non-empirical values, Lewis offers us a way to envision the love of God via Aslan, the not-safe-yet-good lion of Narnia. In her article, Luhrmann recounts the story of Bob, a man deeply wounded by his church experience. “What Aslan gave Bob,” she writes, “was a sense that God was real and loved him.”
Bob is not alone. Lewis afforded this same vision to many. Not everyone, however, is as welcoming of Aslan’s request that by knowing him in Narnia for a little while they might come to know him better in their own world. Alas, Lewis’ creative blade cuts both ways.
That’s why Laura Miller, an award-winning writer and a self-proclaimed skeptic, says she found great offense when, as an adult, she re-read her favorite childhood series. In her work, The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia, she writes, “I was horrified to discover that the Chronicles of Narnia, the joy of my childhood and the cornerstone of my imaginative life, were really just the doctrines of Christianity in disguise.” She’s right and wrong. Lewis smuggles theology behind enemy lines, make no doubt, but he does more than that: he opens a window into our world as well.
In the Chronicles, Lewis offers a commentary of a parallel reality. He says something real, something tangible and palpable even, but he says it through the mouth of a talking fawn and through the roar of a beastly lion. And he did it in such a way as to bring the reader face-to-face with the actual world. And the more someone understands Lewis’ gospel incarnated in the land of Narnia, the more he or she either loves or spurns the savior figure, who in Voyage of the Dawn Treader turns from a lamb into a lion right before the children’s eyes.
Michael Ward, editor of The Cambridge Companion to C.S. Lewis, believes the connection to our world goes deeper than the Christ-like symbolism found in Aslan. Ward offers a framework for understanding the flow and emphases of the Narnia stories rooted in Lewis’ life-long love of medieval literature.
In his book Planet Narnia, Ward builds a compelling case that Lewis deployed an unspoken theme — the seven medieval planets — as the substructure of the Chronicles of Narnia. Ward suggests a coherent system for what is otherwise, to be completely honest, a randomly ordered collection of stories. But Ward does more than this, if he is right. If Lewis was using a medieval cosmology to frame the narrative, this further illustrates — powerfully so in my opinion — how Lewis sought to tether the truths embedded in the children’s stories back to our universe. He was dropping breadcrumbs along the Narnian path to help us find our way back home.
Colin Duriez likens Lewis to another creator of an imaginary world, John Bunyan. This comparison is fitting for several reasons. For starters, Lewis’ first literary account of his conversion is found in his book, The Pilgrim’s Regress. He wrote the allegorical account of his journey to faith in a little over a week’s time while visiting his best friend from childhood, Arthur Greeves.
As the title reflects, the theme is borrowed from Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, but the focus is not a burden to be relieved, but rather, a joy to be realized. That’s why it is a regress in contrast to Bunyan’s progress.
In the words from the opening of G.K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man, “There are two ways of getting home; and one of them is to stay there. The other is to walk round the whole world till we come back to the same place.” Lewis traveled round the intellectual world only to arrive back home on the shores of the Christian gospel.
Another reason the Bunyan connection is appropriate is because The Pilgrim’s Progress leads readers to imagine and feel the weight of truths that so often, when presented in clear didactic methods, turn grey and blend in as ambient background noise. Through the use of story, Bunyan struck an imaginative chord that still resonates with the human experience today. Lewis did the same.
There are a lot of theories as to why Lewis changed his methodology after the publication of Mere Christianity to a nearly exclusively fictional format. There was the G.E.M. Anscombe debate that allegedly shook Lewis’ apologetic approach. There certainly must have been fatigue from years of publicly defending the gospel. But I think the real culprit is that Lewis found his preferred avenue for making an indelible mark on the mind of his readers.
In a letter to Carl F.H. Henry, as to why he wouldn’t write articles for Christianity Today, Lewis said, “My thought and talent (such as they are) now flow in different, though I trust not less Christian, channels, and I do not think I am at all likely to write more directly theological pieces. The last work of that sort which I attempted had to be abandoned. If I am now good for anything it is for catching the reader unaware — thro’ fiction and symbol. I have done what I could in the way of frontal attacks, but I now feel quite sure those days are over.”
The theological work Lewis mentioned to Henry was a book on prayer. He described the challenge of completing this book in several of his letters with others and even in a conversation with D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones when they shared a boat ride from England to Ireland. “When will you write another book like Mere Christianity?” Jones asked. “When I discover the meaning of prayer,” Lewis responded.
Lewis did finally finish the book on prayer, six months before he died. But it wasn’t anything like he originally set out to do. The whole project came together, after years of difficulty, when he placed it in the context of an imaginary conversation with a fictional character named Malcome. It was published the year after he died as Letters to Malcome: Chiefly on Prayer. It was the last book C.S. Lewis wrote before his death 50 years ago.
The fact that it came together as fiction is an illustration of Lewis’ lasting legacy. As Chesterton once said, “We must invoke the most wild and soaring sort of imagination; the imagination that can see what is there.” Lewis could see what is there, and he continues to help others see it as well, even five decades after his death.
Lewis concluded his essay, “Is Theology Poetry?” with these words: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else.” Through the gospel, Lewis could see everything else. And his books invite us to do the same. But this is a task that requires a healthy dose of imagination.
And that’s why I believe Lewis continues to be such a wonderful and timeless guide.
Dan DeWitt serves as dean of Boyce College. He is the author of the forthcoming book Jesus or Nothing, and editor of A Guide to Evangelism. You can connect with DeWitt through his website or on twitter.