C.S. Lewis (Jack, as he was also known) has been appropriated by many Protestants as their answer to Catholic academia. To often we look smugly at our Catholic brethren saying, “See, we have a thinker too.” But ultimately, many Christians shrug him off as “just the guy who wrote Screwtape Letters and Chronicles of Narnia… He had some odd ideas.” This theory is postulated by those least familiar with Lewis’ corpus of work; culturally speaking, it cannot help but unconsciously influence many who don’t give more than a cursory reading to the “Best of” Lewis’s writings.
Some Christians have even tried to discourage me with comments such as: “I hear Lewis became a Catholic late in life” (and other Catholophobic fears), “Didn’t he lose his faith after his wife died?” “He held ‘Beer and Beowulf’ evenings with grad students, so don’t trust him,” and perhaps most spiritually damning of all, “Didn’t he smoke?”
A man like Lewis—his whole life devoted to the great issues of faith—is now a man with no country to call home. His doctrines cannot be reconciled with Roman Catholicism. At the same time, his critique of the Church, standing for doctrinal fidelity against the theological laxity of “Christianity and water”—mixed with an almost post-modern dialogue with other cultures—frightens many Protestants. Rejected by so many, a number of his works languish in theological misunderstanding or purposeful ill will; the rest are ignored. Thus we miss out on the Lewis who struggled to obtain true truth, engaging it and reflecting it in his works.
To reduce Lewis to a cozy Oxford don who wrote cute children’s books about a Lion, occasionally amusing himself by writing letters as a devil, would be to grossly underestimate the breadth and impact of his work. The previously mentioned “objections,” if you could charitably call them that, rob the man of his apologetic, philosophical and theological power, establishing the shallow hull of fiction left behind as “Lewis the Man, Lewis Properly Understood, Lewis without all those Dangerous Ideas.” To do so is, to quote the man himself, to “castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”
Upon examining the less familiar of his works, you will see the diverse Lewis who wrote a modernist apologetic of faith, while weaving presciently post-modern threads through essays such as The Problem of Pain and The Abolition of Man. As our society trends ever more post-modern, these forgotten works become increasingly apropos. In the former, Lewis deftly and comfortingly explained his answer to the age-old question “How can a good God allow evil to be?” In the latter, confident enough in his beliefs to seek truth in all its sources, Lewis dialogued with other faiths, discussing the Tao and natural law in many forms, “Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Christian, and Oriental alike.” Besides addressing the importance of universal values, this tome is interesting for students of comparative religion as well as believers—emerging or otherwise—who wish to converse with other moral narratives, building off shared mores.
Frustration, doubt and even anger against God are issues facing both Christians and the world. Lewis profoundly struggled with questions of doubt and death in A Grief Observed. He grappled not with doubt of God’s existence, but a Psalmist sense of bewilderment, frustration at God’s forbearance in a wretched world. The most terrifying idea is not that God does not exist, but that He does and is not by any human conception, good. Lewis faced these questions personally, resolving them without resorting to the Sunday school platitudes so common in “Christianity-and-water’s” approach to grief.
The story of his conversion, Surprised by Joy, in which we see the confirmed atheist Lewis come to terms with the God he wishes was not there, sheds light on how his experiences colored his faith. “In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all of England.”
I hope you will—as I have—be challenged by the C.S. Lewis who reserved his most biting criticism, not for the sinners, harlots or drunkards, but for “cold, self-righteous prigs who go regularly to church.” Perhaps this is truly the reason many denigrate the man. If we can write off his theological points on technicalities, we can ignore his probity into what is seriously wrong with ourselves and the Church, and how God demands we set it right.
I do not presume to vindicate Lewis to the skeptics. (To do so would assume many things to which I do not have the right.) It would imply I fully understood Lewis and consider myself capable of a proper defense. It would presume that those who wish to marginalize him are truly concerned with truth. And most of all it would suggest that Lewis needs vindication. He does not. I only ask my reader, for your own sake, read Lewis. Start with A Grief Observed. If you’ve ever lost a loved one, you will find comfort that a stalwart of the faith struggled with serious periods of doubt. Move on to The Abolition of Man. For deeper, headier fare, The Problem of Pain is one of his best philosophical works. Then re-read Mere Christianity in light of these other works. After that, if you seek truth, I hope you will read more and see the overarching themes which drive Lewis’ work. If I can humbly speak for him, I think that’s all he himself would ask.