C.S. Lewis: Working Both Ways

cs lewisOn the other side of the Atlantic from the mayhem in Dallas—several hours before, technically, but that’s beside the point—one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century passed away during an afternoon nap. November 22, 1963 was the final day for three very prominent figures: John F. Kennedy, who ushered in a new era of American politics; Aldous Huxley, the writer-philosopher herald of postmodern civilization; and C.S. Lewis, the literary critic, theologian, and apologist who defended the truth and relevance of Christianity to an increasingly skeptical world.

I was first introduced to Lewis’ works when I was almost eight, being amazed that there were more stories about Narnia than just The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe (thanks 1988 BBC). Over the summer of 2001, I devoured the Chronicles of Narnia series and, like any loyal book fan, suffered a week of mourning after I turned the final page in October. I then got on this odd but harmless binge of buying and reading C.S. Lewis biographies, which I still have in my collection. As I got older, I read more of Lewis’ classics, like Out of the Silent Planet, The Screwtape Letters, Till We Have Faces, and, of course, Mere Christianity. It was from these that I gained a greater appreciation for Lewis’ gifted teaching and impact on Christian thought in the world as we know it.

What made Lewis such an effective communicator was his unique ability to blend literary creativity with his theological insight. He was a staggeringly brilliant academic, yet he wrote as a layman. He could communicate profound truths through very simple illustrations. Whenever I discuss Lewis’ writings with some of my friends, we find that our favorite element of his style is his abundance of analogies. Lewis makes a point, clarifies it, provides an analogy, and weaves it into a sort of stylistic tapestry that catches the reader by surprise by the arrival of the final paragraph (see “The Weight of Glory”).

There’s more to that than just an approachable command of the English language. These stylistic approaches represent the dramatic impact that Lewis had upon the spread of Christianity in the modern world. Lewis presented Christian doctrines not as abstract theory without tangible application to reality, but as real and eternally relevant truths that held enormous implications for believer and unbeliever alike. At the same time, he also argued a respectable case for Christianity from an academic perspective, posing challenging questions that cut to the root of the atheistic presuppositions prevalent in his circles.

That, I believe, is what made C.S. Lewis truly remarkable. He worked, in effect, both ways at once. He presented to high-brow academia a Christianity that accounted for both faith and reason, and he showed to the common layman the relevance, consistency, and beauty of a Gospel often rendered highly abstract by theory and ritual. His prodigious reputation as a scholar provided him a significant platform for the defense of Christianity, and his personal experience and illustrative gifts allowed him to communicate timeless truth to ordinary people. One might easily say he was the first (or at least one of the first) modern apologists to present the applicability of Christianity to a postmodern society ravaged by catastrophic world war.

Christianity didn’t depend on C.S. Lewis, of course (and he is disturbingly overquoted in our pulpits), but Christianity as a movement owes much to his work. Ultimately, it is God who gives the growth. God used this Oxford intellectual to reach academics and laymen alike with the truth of His unchanging Gospel, and as a result, thousands of people have come to faith in Christ thanks to Lewis’ work and teaching. It is this legacy that we commemorate today.

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