C. S. Lewis: A Mentor To Ponder

Author of the new book, After You Believe
My mother once asked me, in my teens, which historical figure I would like to have met. Unhesitatingly I said, ‘C. S. Lewis’. He didn’t count as ‘historical’, I was told; only recently dead, he was in any case younger than my grandparents. But to me he was already a powerful formative influence. Once you started reading Lewis it was hard to stop – whether it was the Narnia books, Screwtape, his literary essays, or his still important works on theology and ethics.

I have come back to his ethics more recently. Lewis, like me a classicist, had grasped more than I did Aristotle’s notion of ‘virtue’, of character formation, of the thousand small and difficult choices which make the thousand and first, when it really counts, a matter of ‘second nature’. There was an easy transfer from this to specifically Christian virtue, a line I have tried to pursue in my own new book, After You Believe.

Lewis would have been the first to declare his own imperfections. Certainly I don’t agree with everything he said (on the historical Jesus, for example). But his clarity of mind, his breadth of reading (and photographic memory), his deep, thought-out faith, and his lucid, luminous prose, make him a mentor for all who write about Christian faith for the ‘ordinary person’. When I’m on the spot in a discussion, I often go back to a passage of Lewis, even though I usually can’t recall which book it comes from. The memorable phrase, the pithy example . . .

One such passage has been a guiding principle for me all my adult life. Candidates for Christian ministry, Lewis said, should have to translate a passage of heavyweight theology into ordinary vernacular English. If you can’t do that, he said, either you don’t understand it or you don’t believe it. I have spent my life trying to rise to that challenge.

Early on in my writing career, my godfather, a thoughtful Archdeacon, said to me that we needed apologists to do for tomorrow’s world what Lewis did for yesterday’s. I used to agree with him without realising he was trying to tell me something about myself. Only gradually have I dared to imagine I might attempt that task. Lacking several of Lewis’s gifts, I limp along behind him, grateful for his courage, clarity and commitment, hoping to follow as best I can.

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