Tuesday, February 5, 2013

In Praise of C.S. Lewis


 Lately I have read a book on C.S. Lewis, The Cambridge Companion to C.S. Lewis, edited by Robert MacSwain and Michael Ward and published (as the title indicates) by Cambridge University Press.  It consists of a variety of essays by a variety of authors, and they deal with such varied topics as Lewis the Scholar (examining him as literary critic, literary theorist, intellectual historian), Lewis the Thinker (examining his views on Scripture, theology, gender, power, violence) and Lewis the Writer (examining his various famous literary works, such as the Ransom Trilogy, the Chronicles of Narnia and his poetry).  This list of chapters, culled from the index, is not exhaustive; the book is very thorough and, as one would expect from the University of Cambridge Press, very scholarly.  Nonetheless, some of the reviews of Lewis’ thought reminded me of something Lewis himself wrote regarding a review of Sir Walter Scott’s work—namely that reading the review was “like reading a review by a jackal on a book written by a lion”. 
       In particular I took exception to the comments offered on Lewis’ views on gender and on violence.  The examination of Lewis’ views on gender, written by Ann Loades, made me wonder if her main topic was not Lewis but feminism, since she began with a lengthy recital of the church’s progress towards and a defense of the ordination of women, and it was not until about two pages in that she got around to really looking at Lewis.   It appears that her aim was not so much explaining Lewis’ thought as refuting it, and that her irritation with his views got the better of her.  Her long section on “Lewis on the Ordination of Women” reads like the opposing voice in a debate.  The footnotes to her essay provide a wealth of access to feminist writings, including She Who Is: the Mystery of God in Feminist Discourse.  A riveting read perhaps, but one with little relevance to her assigned topic of C.S. Lewis.
       It was similar with the chapter on Lewis’ views on violence.  The bias of the editors may perhaps be reflected in their choice of reviewer—namely Stanley Hauerwas, a noted pacifistic writer from the Anabaptist tradition.  (One blog describes him as “contemporary theology’s most well-known and provocative voice for pacifism”.)  A section of his review entitled, “Why Lewis Was Not a Pacifist” is followed by another entitled, “Why Lewis Should Have Been a Pacifist”.  Once again, we see not an examination of Lewis’ thought so much as its attempted refutation.  It’s bit thick actually, given that the volume purchased was The Cambridge Companion to C.S. Lewis, and not Cambridge Argues with C.S. Lewis.  I bought the book because I wanted to read about Lewis’ theology, not that of Hauerwas.   It would be as if one bought a book bearing the title The Essential Stanley Hauerwas, and opened it to find that it was filled with arguments as to why Hauerwas should have been an Orthodox admirer of Byzantium. 
       It is, I suppose, one of the drawbacks of mortality that one can no longer write an answer to one’s critics after one is dead.  Too bad, because Ms. Loades and Mr. Hauerwas desperately need answering, and Lewis could have done it with grace, elegance and deadly effectiveness.  But what goes around, comes around.  If the works of Loades and Hauerwas are still read by countless readers half a century after their repose, no doubt someone will write a refutation of their thought, perhaps under the dubious title, The Oxford Companion to Ann Loades and Stanley Hauerwas.  If so, I am sorry that I will not be around to read it.
       My concern here is not to defend the lion from such critics, but to suggest why the works and example of C.S. Lewis still have relevance for us today.  It is true that much of what he wrote and spoke to live audiences is dated.  In his Broadcast Talks, given over the BBC in war-time, and later published as part of Mere Christianity, he addressed the common man of his time.  The common man of wartime England was very different from the common man of the 21st century England (or North America), and doubtless if Lewis repeated the exercise today, he would make different assumptions about how much the common man knew about Christianity and alter his approach accordingly.  That is the problem with being up to date—it also results in being very quickly dated, and no one knew this better than C.S. Lewis.  But much—I would say most—of his work remains valuable and of enduring validity.
       In particular, I would like to focus on three characteristics of Lewis' apologetics in which he continues to offer us an instructive example and in which he has set the bar very high.
       First, in his apologetics, Lewis concentrated on what all the various Christian traditions had in common—what he called (borrowing the phrase from Baxter) “mere Christianity”, the massive core tradition shared by Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Evangelical Protestants and Orthodox.  (We Orthodox were not quite invisible to Lewis at Oxford; he knew and appreciated Orthodoxy through his friendship with Nicholas Zernov.)   It is always tempting to major in minors, and to argue in-house topics before the watching world.  Such arguing may be useful in advancing inter-Christian unity and dialogue, but it makes for lousy apologetics.  The world does not need to be treated to our arguments with the West about the Filioque.  If a worldling comes to believe that Jesus is the Son of God who sends His Spirit upon His people, then we may take him for coffee and talk about the procession of the Spirit from the Father alone.  But not until.  Like Lewis, we should stick to the basic Gospel in our kerygma to those not yet converted.
       Second, Lewis was not shy about telling the common man that he must repent and believe the Gospel and become a part of the Church.  He observed that in past days, everyone assumed that all citizens were Christians, whether they were in fact or not.  Now that hostility to Christianity had become more widespread (in Lewis’ time, and how much more in ours), the fog had lifted from the two opposing camps and real fighting (i.e. argument) could begin.  As he wrote in his essay on Christian Apologetics, “A century ago our task was to edify those who had been brought up in the Faith:  our present task is chiefly to convert and instruct infidels.”  Lewis reminds us that our “present task” is chiefly evangelism.
       Thirdly, Lewis excelled at using reason in his proclamation of the Gospel.  He did not disparage the use of emotional appeal, but he refused to discount the value of reason as well.  Especially today, when the mass of people are trained to react to slogans, and have trouble following any sustained argument longer than can be contained in a news-hour sound bite, the appeal to reason is all the more important. 
       C.S. Lewis is long gone.  His books remain, to be valued by appreciative believers or targeted and pilloried by the unappreciative in turn.  Lewis himself would be the first to insist that he was not the issue.  The issue is not the apologist who now lies in a grave in Oxford, but the Saviour who lives and reigns at the right hand of God.  I would cheerfully praise C.S. Lewis.  And imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery.  Let us praise him by following in the apologetic path he has blazed, not necessarily slavishly following his every conclusion, but boldly proclaiming the Lord whom he loved.

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