Today is CS Lewis’s 1201h birthday. No 20th century writer has had a greater impact on me more than he. Both his fiction and his non-fiction (even his poetry) continues to inspire, sharpen my thinking, and challenge me.
Given the celebration of his birthday, it is worth considering why CS Lewis remains relevant even today; a fact few would have expected. Lewis died on November 22, 1963, the same date as President John F. Kennedy and author Aldous Huxley. At the time, his death was noteworthy but forgotten. Yet since, his influence has triumphed over both Kennedy and Huxley.
His Conversion is a Powerful One for a Secular World
In his autobiography entitled Surprised by Hope, Lewis describes himself as a most reluctant convert. That he was. Lewis grew up a “Christian” by default but abandoned his English faith when a teenager. His atheism was secured by the first World War where he saw the evils of men first hand and was wounded himself. His academic studies only anchored this skepticism of religion even further.
Yet an unlikely friendship with men like J. R. R. Tolkien among other events led him first to theism and then finally to Christianity. Lewis’s conversion was a surprise to everyone, especially to Lewis himself. He did not merely adopt the faith of his parents or countrymen, but embraced it as a matter of fact. He realized that his atheism was inadequate and Christianity was not only true, but good.
Once converted, Lewis became a renown apologist. His first Christian book, The Problem of Pain, tackled theodicy and his subsequent volumes continue to defend the Christian faith. His most famous non-fiction work, first given as radio lectures during the second great war, now known as Mere Christianity, is nothing more than a defense of Christianity for skeptics like he was.
Lewis’s mastery of the skeptic’s mind and the reader’s logic – not to mention his writing ability – make him a one of a kind writer and apologist. He tackles difficult issues with ease and clarity unlike his contemporaries. Yet it is his story that continues to resonate even today. Lewis came to faith because of reason, not in spite of it. Given the skeptical and secular climate of today, the experience of converts will sound more like Lewis’s than previous generations.
He Combined the Reason of Apologetics With Imaginative Creativity in a Powerful Way
Following a poor debate performance regarding miracles, many have argued Lewis ceased defending the faith and escaped to fiction writing. I reject this thesis. First, Lewis was already a writer of fiction. He notably wrote a science fiction trilogy (the Ransom Trilogy) as well as other fictional works (like Screwtape Letters, The Pilgrim’s Regress, and others).
More significantly regards the context of the Narnia Chronicles. Through the imaginative world of Narnia, Lewis is just as engaging and apologetic. For example, one cannot read his essay “Men Without Chests” without seeing Eustace. He embodies what Lewis feared. “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb,” we are told, “and he almost deserved it.” Eustace was an avid reader, but he read all the wrong books. His head is full of knowledge, but he lacks wisdom, strength, and courage as seen in Reepicheep the Narnian mouse.
The same could be done throughout the Narnia Chronicles. Winter turning to spring by the presence of Aslan is fantastic. The death of the White Witch is redemptive. Eustace’s dragonizing is a gospel story. And on it goes. Lewis’s philosophy, theology, and apologetics is on display in Narnia if we’ll see it.
This is what makes these seven books so fantastic. It is not just the story, the world building, or the characters, but what it says about Lewis’s faith.
Story is a Powerful Means of Truth-Telling
Most authors are either gifted story tellers or truth tellers. Admittedly, narrative reveals worldview, but some are more gifted with narrative than non-fiction. Lewis stands out as one whose pen excelled at both. As explored above, the themes clearly laid out in his polemical writings are illustrated through characters and scenes throughout his fictional works. Thus it becomes impossible to speak of Lewis’s philosophy or theology without exploring both his fiction and his non-fiction.
This requires readers of all stripes – and the scholars that go with them – to take Lewis seriously. One cannot easily write him off as a children’s author who engages the child’s mind and nothing else. Narnia is more than a children’s story. The Ransom Trilogy is more than a science fiction series. The Screwtape Letters is more than an exploration on temptation. We cannot understand his fiction without understanding his faith.
Lewis reminds us of the power of story. In this way, Lewis stands in a long line of great Christian leaders. Jesus himself utilized story in a powerful way to make finer points. His parables are notable for their simplicity – “a sower went out to sow” – yet their depth and meaning. It is for this reason I suspect Lewis’s legacy will continue to grow in these confusing postmodern times. In an age of narrative, there is Lewis speak truth in narrative form.
Lewis was a Prophet
One reoccurring experience the more one reads Lewis, especially his essays, is how prophetic he was. His concern with scientism, the rising state, totalitarian secularism, and theological liberalism was well before his time. Though Lewis never wrote a prophetic dystopian like Aldous Huxley or George Orwell, he was equally prophetic.
I find myself frequently returning to Lewis, a mid-twentieth century author who predates postmodernity, to better understand my current context. Lewis writes not as one who anticipates what is coming, but almost as one who has lived through it.
One example might suffice here. One of my favorite essays of Lewis is his “Humanitarian Theory of Punishment” which you can watch/listen to below:
In this essay, Lewis connects modern psychology with justice. When we cease punishing criminals but rather re-educate them we turn toward a dangerous and, totalitarian direction. We are in that world. Let us use different language – language unknown to Lewis: hate crimes. To commit such a “crime” requires therapy and re-education. And unless you see things “our” way, good luck finding another job bigot! Lewis is clear, psychotherapy is not salvation, but totalitarianism.
Another example is his essay on Bulverism. I’ll let you read it for yourself. One cannot listen to political discourse today without coming across it.
Ultimately, Lewis forces us to look at ourselves. This is what a prophet does. We are trapped inside a dragon and we need Aslan to rescue us. Pray that we as a society let Aslan liberate us from such madness.