Today marks the 50th anniversary of C. S. Lewis’s death, and the Christian inter-webs have been buzzing with lovingly written tributes to the man’s legacy. It would be difficult for me to add much that’s new to this chorus of praise, but I felt I must throw my own few pennies in the hat.
Like so many other Christians, my thinking has been profoundly shaped by Lewis from the first time I picked up The Chronicles of Narnia as a young child to the present day. It’s a testament to his impact that hardly anyone seems able to write anything about faith, life, death or the afterlife without reaching for some quote of his—myself included.
How could a loving God send people to Hell? What will heaven be like? How could a person lose a loved one forever and still be happy in heaven? How can salvation be a process? How can God be timeless? How might God deal in other worlds besides our own? No other Christian thinker that I am aware of has presented such brilliantly lucid, richly imaginative answers to these questions as Lewis offered.
Some have tried to elevate Lewis’s fictional work to the level of high literature, writing numerous books of “Lewis scholarship” and “Lewis criticism.” This doubtless would amuse him greatly, for Lewis himself never aspired to write “literature.” What he did write was the best of its kind for what it was—speculative theology in story form. He’s often been misunderstood as intending to present definitive answers to questions of salvation, afterlife and so forth. But to insist on interpreting Lewis’s stories as rigid theological texts is to miss their purpose altogether. Their purpose was to help the Christian layman get his head round things that, frankly, we will never understand fully until we shed this mortal coil. Lewis was never so arrogant as to presume that he alone possessed the vision of the anointed, unlike certain contemporary self-styled “thinkers” who have tried to appropriate his work for their own ends (*cough* Rob Bell *cough* *cough* *hack* *pun intended*). Rather, he wrote his stories with a humble pen, as an adult convert who was to some extent working out his own theology as he wrote.
Nevertheless, the ideas he offers are incredibly compelling, offering an alternative path both to today’s hard-core Reformed thinkers and the smug cant of emergentist universalism. Certainly anyone with a modicum of good sense and reading comprehension skills can see that Lewis is fifty times the theological thinker Bell will ever be, and is ultimately diametrically opposed to the bland, un-threatening “gospel” Bell presents. Nobody can read The Great Divorce without getting a starkly clear picture of the power of the human will to reject God until the end. At the same time, this thought experiment also knocks down the Calvinist doctrine of irresistible grace. Yet even today’s most popular Calvinist theologians, like John Piper and Tim Keller, are unapologetic in their admission of what they owe to Lewis. (Trivia tidbit: Lewis actually wrote four letters to Kathy Keller, Tim’s wife, when she was a young girl, and you can read them all in the excellent compilation Letters to Children.) There are many other examples in Lewis’s work where he repeatedly finds the golden mean between two theological extremes, with such scholarly vigor and insight that although you may not always agree with him, he is always worthwhile. One also can’t deny the remarkable timeliness of his observations on faith and culture in reading such works as Mere Christianity or The Screwtape Letters.
It would be hard to name a favorite work of his. One is tempted to split it all up into categories—letters, essays, short fiction, novels, etc. But at the end of the day, if forced to pick one overall favorite, I would most likely still have to settle on all seven of The Chronicles of Narnia. Each book in the series is like a small, finely polished gem that captures the essence of what made Lewis so great—his fluid grace with words, his warmth, his wit, his simplicity, his keenness of mind and breadth of imagination, all wrapped up in stories about and for children.
I cannot say it better than John Piper, so I will close with this beautiful tribute of his, written a few years ago but perfectly applicable today:
He demonstrated for me and convinced me that rigorous, precise, penetrating logic is not opposed to deep, soul-stirring feeling and vivid, lively—even playful—imagination. He was a “romantic rationalist.” He combined things that almost everybody today assumes are mutually exclusive: rationalism and poetry, cool logic and warm feeling, disciplined prose and free imagination. In shattering these old stereotypes, he freed me to think hard and to write poetry, to argue for the resurrection and compose hymns to Christ, to smash an argument and hug a friend, to demand a definition and use a metaphor.
Lewis gave me an intense sense of the “realness” of things. The preciousness of this is hard to communicate. To wake up in the morning and be aware of the firmness of the mattress, the warmth of the sun’s rays, the sound of the clock ticking, the sheer being of things… He helped me become alive to life. He helped me see what is there in the world—things that, if we didn’t have, we would pay a million dollars to have, but having them, ignore. He made me more alive to beauty. He put my soul on notice that there are daily wonders that will waken worship if I open my eyes. He shook my dozing soul and threw the cold water of reality in my face, so that life and God and heaven and hell broke into my world with glory and horror.