This is an Advent tradition around here.
(Reposted, slightly amended, from recent years)
On this day fifty-eight years ago, the great C.S. Lewis died.
In the early 1990s I lent a United Church minister friend a copy of Lewis’ Mere Christianity; when he gave it back to me, he said, “Do you have any idea how much this man has influenced you?”
Mere Christianity came along at just the right time for me; I was seventeen and had begun to feel the lack of a rigorous intellectual basis for my faith. In this book, Lewis gave me just that. I went on to read pretty well everything he had written, including the various editions of his letters which seem to me to contain some of the best common-sense spiritual direction I’ve ever read. I’ve parted company with Lewis on a few issues (pacifism, Conservative politics, the ordination of women), but for the most part I still consider him to be one of the most reliable guides available to a rigorous, holistic, common-sense Christianity.
Lewis was a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, and, later, of Magdalene College, Cambridge, and in his professional career he taught English literature. Brought up in Ireland in a conventionally religious home, he became an atheist in his teens. Later, in his late twenties and early thirties, he gradually came back to Christianity (he told the story himself in his book Surprised by Joy) and went on to become a popular writer and speaker on Christian faith. He claimed for himself Richard Baxter’s phrase ‘Mere Christianity’. Although he lived and died entirely content to be a member of the Church of England (‘neither especially high, nor especially low, nor especially anything else’, as he said in his introduction to Mere Christianity), he had no interest in interdenominational controversy, preferring to serve as an apologist for the things that most Christians have in common.
Nowadays evangelicals (especially in the United States) have claimed Lewis as a defender of a rigorous Christian orthodoxy (despite the fact that he did not believe in the inerrancy of the Bible and was an enthusiastic smoker and imbiber of alcoholic beverages). Likewise, Roman Catholics have sometimes pointed out that many fans of Lewis have gone on to convert to Roman Catholicism (something he himself never did, because he believed that Roman Catholicism itself had parted company on some issues with the faith of the primitive church), and have resorted to claiming that his Irish Protestant background somehow gave him a phobia about Catholicism that made it psychologically impossible for him to convert. Lewis himself, I believe, would not have approved of these attempts to press him into the service of advancing a particular Christian tradition or denomination. I believe we should take him at his word: he was an Anglican by conviction, but was most comfortable with the label ‘Christian’.
What about his books? Well, there are so many of them! In his professional discipline of literary criticism he wrote several influential books, including The Allegory of Love (on the medieval allegorical love poem), The Discarded Image (an introduction to the world view of medieval and renaissance writers), An Experiment in Criticism (in which he examines what exactly it means to take pleasure from reading a book), A Preface to Paradise Lost (in which he introduces us to one of his favourite works of literature, John Milton’s famous poem Paradise Lost), and English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama (this is only a selection of his works of literary criticism).
Turning to his more specifically ‘Christian’ works, in The Screwtape Letters Lewis gave us an imaginary series of letters from a senior to a junior demon on the art of temptation; along the way, as Lewis intended, we get some penetrating insights into practical, unpretentious, daily holiness. In Miracles and The Problem of Pain Lewis gives us an intellectual defence of Christian truth (the first book examines the question of whether miracles are possible, while the second deals with the issue of evil and the goodness of God). Reflections on the Psalms is a series of meditations on the issues raised by the psalms (including an excellent chapter on the ‘cursing’ psalms), while Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer gives us accurate guidance on what a life of prayer is really all about. In the ‘Narnia’ stories and the Space Trilogy, Lewis baptizes our imagination, using the genre of fairy story and science fiction to present Christian truth in a fresh and compelling way. And in Mere Christianity he presents his case for the truth of Christianity and a good explanation of its central ideas.
These are just a few of his books; there are many websites that give exhaustive lists.
This website by Lewis’ publishers is of course focused on trying to sell books – Lewis’ own books, collections of his writings published since his death, and many of the books that have been since written about him. Personally, I like Into the Wardrobe better; it isn’t trying to sell me anything, but includes a biography, a collection of papers, articles, and archives, and some excellent links.
Since his death Lewis has become almost a cult figure, especially in the U.S., and the number of books and articles about him continues to grow. He himself was uncomfortable with the trappings of fame, and I believe he would have been horrified with the growth of the C.S. Lewis industry today. It seems to me that the best way to observe the anniversary of his death is to go back to his books, read them again (or perhaps for the first time), ponder what he had to say, and pray that his work will lead us closer to Christ, as he would have wanted.
Rest in peace and rise in glory, Jack. And once again, thank you.
The older I get, the more aware I am of my weakness for dreaming up an imaginary, warm fuzzy god who exactly suits my needs, desires, prejudices and priorities. This is much more comfortable than seeking the real God whose ways are higher than mine.
‘When Jesus had come down from the mountain, great crowds followed him; and there was a leper who came to him and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” He stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately his leprosy was cleansed. Then Jesus said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.”’ (Matthew 8.1-4 NRSV)
“Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” This is a similar prayer to “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” The man with the skin disease (not leprosy as we understand it today, but serious nonetheless), doesn’t doubt Jesus’ ability to heal, but he’s not so sure about Jesus’ desire. Maybe Jesus is too busy today. Maybe he won’t want to be associated with a social outcast with a disfiguring skin disease. Maybe (and you just know this had happened many times in the man’s experience), it just wasn’t going to happen today.
I expect this man was very familiar with disappointment. Many of his hopes and dreams had not come about as he had hoped. Many of his prayers for God’s help had gone unanswered. Maybe he had often protected himself from further disappointment by quietly whispering that phrase so many of us use: “Don’t get your hopes up.”
Can you identify with this man? I must confess that I can. Many things I’ve wanted to happen just didn’t come about, at least not in the way I was hoping. Many of my prayers haven’t had the results I’d longed for. And I’ve used that phrase myself—maybe not in so many words, but I’ve certainly felt it—”Don’t get your hopes up.”
Jesus is not slow to rebuke his disciples for their lack of faith, but he doesn’t rebuke this man. He understands what the man has been through; he feels for his hurts and disappointments. People with skin diseases like this were social outcasts in the time of Jesus, and it may have been years since anyone had touched this man. But Jesus stretches out his hand and touches him. “I do choose; be made clean.” And immediately his skin disease is healed.
“Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.” “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” Don’t feel you have to pretend to God that you have more faith than you actually have. If lack of faith is the problem, make that part of your prayer as well (“Help my unbelief!”). But don’t fixate on it. Fixating on our lack of faith takes our eyes away from God and fixes them on our own feelings instead. A better plan is simply to turn to Jesus and ask for help. The answer may be quick, or it may be slow. It may be a healing, or it may be extra strength to go through the difficulty. But let’s not doubt his compassion. He wants to help. He has the time. He won’t turn us away.
Picture from ‘The Chosen’, used by permission of a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International Licence (for further information go here)