Friday, March 28, 2008

Through the Wardrobe with C. S. Lewis

A lot of people got their first introduction to C. S. Lewis over Christmas a few years ago when their kids dragged them to see the movie The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. The film was based on the first of seven books penned by Lewis in a children's series called The Chronicles of Narnia. In the story four children travel through a magical wardrobe to emerge in the strange and mystical land of Narnia where animals speak and the world is locked in a perpetual Christmas-less winter while awaiting Spring that seems destined never to come. The second in the series, Prince Caspian, comes out May 16 when, no doubt, children will drag their parents back to the theatres for the second installment.

My own introduction to Lewis, however, goes back to my college days in the 70's when I studied English. A professor, knowing I was headed for seminary, suggested that I read Lewis as a model for the minister's primary task of helping people to make sense of faith in their day-to-day lives. I devoured his writings voraciously, and he became for me a life-long conversation partner with whom to discuss the “big issues.” Lewis’ writings have not only stood the test of time, but he himself has become for me, save Jesus of Nazareth, the single most important spiritual influence on my life.

And I’m not alone in this. This Oxford and Cambridge professor, though he died in 1963 (November 22nd to be exact, the same day JFK was assassinated), continues to be for many a significant voice well into the 21st century. His writings are more popular now than they were when he was alive. His non-fiction writings are for the most part all apologetic in character; that is, they are aimed at making Christianity credible to a thinking public. The most popular among them, Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, and The Four Loves, continue to draw countless readers into a conversation about life, faith, what it means to believe in God, and what it means to be a “mere Christian.”

Why is Lewis so popular among serious persons who want to think deeply about the “big issues” of life? Well, those who have found Lewis to be a reliable guide into these subjects will have to answer for themselves, but my own experience with Lewis points up three things that he just does better than anyone else.

First, he may have the finest mind I’ve ever encountered. His commitment to careful and correct thinking (logic) is relentless and unremitting. He will not abide sloppy thinking, and he will anticipate and expose it wherever he finds it. That is to say, if you’re not “into thinking,” don’t read Lewis. If, on the other hand, you want carefully argued reasons for believing what you believe, Lewis will gladly guide you.

Second, Lewis has an uncanny knack for knowing just the right example, model, or illustration to help you understand what appears at first sight to be a hopelessly complex idea. For example, in explaining how salvation is both God’s gift to us and our work to do, Lewis quips, “God is easy to please but hard to satisfy.” Then, he goes on to say that every parent joyously celebrates their baby’s first stumbling efforts in learning to walk. But that same parent will never be satisfied until their child can stride confidently across the room. In the same way, he says, God welcomes our most meager stumbling efforts to be the persons he created us to be, but will never be satisfied until we in fact become the persons he created us to be.

Finally, Lewis is a passionate writer. He believes what he’s saying, and it comes through. Agree with him, or disagree with him, but you will not read Lewis with indifference. He draws you in with careful reasoning and homey illustrations, and then, before you realize what’s happened, you're hooked. That passion is in the service of his belief that God has really broken in and broken through to our world and revealed himself to us. That not everyone is aware of it is more a function of our closed-off, two-dimensional thinking than the credibility of God’s self-revelation. But for those who have the courage to “part the wardrobe” with Lewis, a mystical and magical world awaits through which Lewis is all too happy to act as guide.


Anonymous said...

I agree with you wholeheartedly. I have read Lewis' work and I agree that the man is brilliant and the fact that his thoughts and ideas are timeless is right on. I have a question about Lewis' writings on the Law of Human Nature. His writing "Mere Christianity" came about during the 20th Century and it almost seems like after reading it, you would say to yourself "gee, why didn't I think of that." I was just wondering if his thoughts about this were inspired by another theologian or if he was the first to put pen to paper about this topic? Also, have you read Dinesh D'Souza's "Whats So Great About Christianity" ? I see parallels with their writings when it comes to using reason and logic that points directly towards God.


R. Wayne Stacy said...

"Mere Christianity," as Lewis stated often, was occasioned by the erosion of any real sense of "right" and "wrong" in the modern world (what he calls "The Law of Human Nature"). Lewis believed that human beings were "hard-wired" as it were with a sense of "right" and "wrong" (call it conscience or whatever you like). That "hard-wired morality" is the non-negotiable context in which the Gospel becomes "good news." (Think of the relationship between diagnosis and cure in medicine. "You have to have an operation" is not likely to be heard as "good news" unless it is preceded by the statement: "We've found cancer, but we think surgery will take care of it." Then, and only then, is the statement "You have to have an operation" likely to be heard as good news.)

The Gospel is the Story of what God has done in Jesus of Nazareth to set right what has gone wrong at the core of our being. But if, as many believe, there really is no real "right" and "wrong," just individual, personal opinions (points of view) about morality, then the Gospel is not good news at all; it's bad news. Therefore, Lewis believed that to help modern people understand the Gospel, he had to recover the validity and vitality of "The Law of Human Nature" and our sense that we have violated it, what the Bible calls "sin." Then, and only then, are we able to read the New Testament and hear it as "Good News."

Haven't read the D'Souza book, though I've read some of his earlier stuff. There are a lots of folk out there who have tried to replicate Lewis' work - Josh McDowell and Lee Strobel come to mind. I find them rather "warmed over, user-friendly" versions of Lewis. They try to say the same things Lewis said, just not as well. Why not just read Lewis?