Last November brought the 50th anniversary of the death of C. S. Lewis (as well as his 115th birthday) who passed on the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Numerous books have been released about Lewis this year, and half a dozen or more conferences have been held to celebrate and study his work. Christians across the world have spent 2013 celebrating his legacy. Why is it happening, should we be worried, and should we join in?
There’s Something About Lewis
Few 20th century writers on Christianity and Christian theology are still read today. And none are read as much as C. S. Lewis. He is, hands down, the most influential Christian writer of the last century and the influence doesn’t seem to be ebbing. Lewis himself believed that no one would be reading any of his books within a decade after his death. On the contrary, most of his books are still in print (or come back into print), even some of the more obscure ones, and his books continue to sell in the millions. We are fascinated with Lewis and his writings and continue to be. Why?
The Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis’s most popular works, are certainly a strong reason. Many of his other books, however, are so incredibly insightful that we continue to be drawn to them and teach from them. Some have argued that Mere Christianity contains the best arguments for and summaries of Christian thought written in the last century. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters shows the depth of Lewis’s insight into spiritual matters and the human heart—he “got” how temptation works. In short, Lewis wrote of the deepest things, involving a wide range of subjects, from a Christian point of view, explaining them in ways we could understand. He had a knack for saying brilliant things and doing so better than anyone else could. Consider, for example, one brief statement Lewis made in his Letters to Malcolm about our struggle toward spiritual maturity: “For most of us the prayer in Gethsemane is the only model. Removing mountains can wait.”
Lewis’s life, the subject of numerous biographies and several movies, is another reason for our fascination with him, from his experiences in war to his conversion to Christianity, to his relationship with J.R.R. Tolkien, to his late-in-life romance with his wife Joy. We are drawn to him because of who he was, what he said, and the delightful way in which he said it.
A friend of his once said to Lewis, “You know, you are probably the most important Christian writer in the world today.” Lewis replied, “One cannot be too careful not to think about such things.” Lewis was a humble man and probably would have been displeased with the hubbub being made about him today. The bottom-line question is simple: “Why focus on C. S. Lewis when we should be focusing on Christ?” Here are my answers:
- Why can’t we do both? The whole point of focusing on Lewis is to help us focus on Christ. It’s not an either/or option.
- Proverbs 1:5-6 tells us we should seek wise counsel in order to understand an interpretation—it’s Solomon basically saying that we should study God’s word together in order to understand it. I think this means studying in the present with a congregation of fellow Christians, but also in the past—studying the great thinkers throughout Christian history who wrote down their ideas so we could learn from them. People like Lewis are not substitutes for scripture, but fellow Christians who can help us study it.
- In I Corinthians 11:1, Paul says, “Follow my example as I follow the example of Christ.” Christians need other Christians—the examples of their lives, their testimonies about what God has done for and through them—for motivation and encouragement. I disagree with the idea of offering prayers to Saints. But I also disagree with ignoring the lives of great spiritual heroes for fear of turning them into gods. Hebrews 11 offers a “roll call of the faithful.” I think we should keep looking at, learning from, and being inspired by faithful Christians throughout Christian history.
- C. S. Lewis is still having an impact. It was last February: a student of mine shocked me by telling me that my introducing him to Lewis’s books had brought him back to the faith which he had almost abandoned. It saved his soul. Fifty years after his death, C. S. Lewis continues to leave an eternal legacy.