C.S. Lewis was a deft writer, a gifted storyteller and blessed with a keen mind. But I’m annoyed with the public perception and exultation that has long outlasted him.
He was a fantastic literature critic, who gracefully guided generations of graduate students to a better understanding of Paradise Lost and a rich collection of other medieval works.
Then, of course, there’s his fiction. The Chronicles of Narnia left its indelible mark on the Christian imagination forever. Few books have so powerfully captured the Christian imagination as that series has, with its impressive storytelling, lovable characters and rich spiritual themes.
But Lewis could just as easily apply his talents to theological musings as much as children’s literature. Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain, Surprised by Joy and more have all worked their way into the hall of Christian favorites. These are all good books and admirable reading, if you’re so inclined. So are works by Augustine, Dante, G.K. Chesterton and Herman Melville. These men all wrote good, true things.
Lewis was an exceptional leader in Christian thought. But he was born in 1898. That’s the decade after the setting of Back to the Future III. Annie Oakley was still the most popular woman in America. In 1898, the ink was hardly dry on the patent for the radio and the Wright Brothers had never been to Kitty Hawk.
It is 2013. This November, Lewis will have been dead for 50 years. Culturally speaking, that’s a long time. It’s time for someone to rise up and fill his shoes.
I can hear dissenters now: Just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s bad!
Old books certainly have much to say to us today. Truth doesn’t change from generation to generation, and we are always in need of thoughtful, articulate treatises on those truths. But context, culture and the structure of argument certainly do change. And the systematic, end-of-the-Enlightenment world that Lewis knew has, like him, moved on.
When we try to insert Lewis’ cultural observations into our culture today, we become like Indiana Jones—still fighting the Nazis through the 1980s. The Modernist war between reason and theology is over. In England, Christianity got put up on the same shelf as Zeus and witch hunts. In America, the debate morphed into the culture wars. At this point, we’re pretty well over those, too, now working through our own unique relationship between our faith and our call to love the ever-flattening world around us.
Pastors, bloggers, Narnia fans and meme-generators all co-opt Lewis to be their ambassador to the cultural climate for which he never wrote. It’s like sending the Lone Ranger to fight space aliens. We live in a postmodern, post-secular age that doesn’t respond well to the intellectual arm-twisting and large-scale historical criticism that Lewis excelled at.
Our lives can, and should, be informed by Lewis’ writings. Future generations can, and should, read what he and others like him wrote. But to use him as the sole foundation for our cultural criticism is a shaky prospect. We can love and admire Abraham Lincoln, but we wouldn’t consider his foreign policy to be a blueprint for today. We can fawn over Citizen Kane, but nobody would consider its stylistic cinematography to be a blueprint for today’s films. In the same way, we can be informed and entertained by Lewis’ writings while still looking for a fresh, timely take on theological issues facing this day and age.
This generation needs Christians who are willing to have their eyes open for what God is doing around them every day, to honestly engage their stories with the story that God is writing in a way that is relational, experiential and empowering. Christians should not only look back to our heroes of old, but also look to the present, where God is alive and active. Lewis did this for the era he lived in, and it’s up to us now to follow and even become the same for this new era. We need to create a social set that is open and willing to engage people at any point in their journey. We need to embrace doubt and be the first to quick-draw love.
Would Lewis agree? Probably. Did he say it in a way that is relevant in 2013? Not always.
We need to find new voices for our status updates and sermon illustrations. Our generation needs to add to the mix our own sages who were born in the same century we were, who can engage the same issues we face in our communities and our political and social landscape. Who do we look to for a faithful perspective on the world today? Who guides us in thought and example to be more like Christ in the 21st century? Who is able to critically engage the cultural climate we now live in and show us how to live in it better?
Let’s uphold the truths taught to us by past generations and honestly and creatively work to honor their memory by creating positive change in our own.
Steven Harrell works as a communications manager for a nonprofit in Dallas, where he lives with his beautiful wife Allison, 20-month-old son, Eli, and newborn, Theodore. After being raised non-denominational in the heart of the Bible belt, then graduating from a super-conservative Catholic university, he's not really sure what he thinks anymore. He tweets a few times a day @steven_harrell.