Author of ‘Chronicles of Narnia’ expressed faith through his stories and imagination
In a wooded suburb of the fabled university city of Oxford, England, a battered typewriter sits on a desk beside a bay window that overlooks a tangled landscape of oaks and beeches.
Nearby, ancient bookshelves guard a leather armchair surrounded by wall maps and pictures depicting a fantasy world.
When Clive Staples Lewis bought The Kilns, a former brick factory, in 1930, he used its remote calm to produce a stream of Christian stories, the best known of which, “The Chronicles of Narnia,” has since sold 100 million copies in more than 45 languages.
But Lewis also gained renown for his Christian apologetics. His “Mere Christianity,” published in 1952, was rated “best religious book of the 20th century” by the U.S. magazine Christianity Today.
Until now, Lewis has been largely ignored at Oxford University, where he taught for three decades, until his death in 1963.
He has gained greater recognition in the U.S., where the Episcopal Church celebrates a “Holy C.S. Lewis Day” each November.
With interest growing, however, and three books of the Narnia series now blockbuster films, things are changing.
Leaving his mark
“Lewis wasn’t a professional theologian, but his sense of the world Christianity portrays was just as profound as the best modern theologians’,” said Judith Wolfe, an expert on the author and a theology faculty member of Oxford’s St. John’s College.
“He realized Christian literature wasn’t presenting good characters who were also interesting; the evil characters were always more compelling,” she said. “By portraying Christ as the lion Aslan in the Narnia stories, he hoped to reveal the real-life attractiveness of the holy.”
A native of what is now Northern Ireland, Lewis won an Oxford scholarship in 1916, graduating after fighting in the trenches of World War I.
He became a fellow of Oxford’s Magdalen College in 1925.
The city is full of landmarks connected to Lewis. There’s the Eagle and Child pub where his literary group, The Inklings, met; the walkways where he nurtured his fascination for Nordic, Celtic and Greek legends; and the Anglican Holy Trinity Church where he lies buried.
As a new generation is introduced to the world of Narnia, Anglican Father Michael Ward, a university chaplain, said he thinks Lewis’ Christian vision is gaining a new relevance.
Lewis’ work has appeared on reading lists in both English literature and systematic theology at Oxford. The C.S. Lewis Society hosts weekly seminars at the university’s Pusey House.
“Like his close friend, J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewis expressed his Christian faith through narrative and imagination which seems to be chiming in with contemporary needs,” explained Father Ward, co-editor of the groundbreaking “The Cambridge Companion to C.S. Lewis.”
“People are picking up intuitively again on the timeless religious element in his books, even if they’re not directly aware of their fundamentally Christian message,” the priest said.
Lewis was raised in the Anglican Church of Ireland, but abandoned his faith in school, recalling in “Surprised by Joy: The Shape of my Early Life” how he had received Communion “in total disbelief, acting a part, eating and drinking my own condemnation.”
When Lewis returned to the Anglican faith at Oxford in 1931 — thanks to the devoutly Catholic Tolkien, author of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy — he described himself as “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”
Although Lewis disappointed Tolkien by declining to become a Catholic, he was sympathetic to the Catholic doctrines regarding confession and prayers to the saints.
His return to faith released new powers of imagination and launched him on a fresh career as an interpreter who popularized Christianity.
Lewis’ “Mere Christianity,” based on wartime broadcasts for the BBC, tackled popular objections to Christianity, stripping it to its essentials with simple arguments and observations.
Diarmaid MacCulloch, professor of church history at Oxford, said Lewis’ nondenominational approach to Christianity explains his popularity in the U.S. and is giving him renewed appeal today.
“Lewis has become a standard-bearer for conservative Christians when religion seems to be undergoing a great realignment between the forces of tradition and change,” MacCulloch told Catholic News Service. “This tension runs across the theological categories and can now unite a conservative Catholic with a conservative Protestant, something which wouldn’t have happened half a century ago.”
Other experts concur that Lewis succeeded in capturing the Christian imagination where the theological abstractions of churches often seemed too high brow.
In “The Screwtape Letters,” a series of imagined exchanges between an older and younger devil, Lewis satirized human weakness and self-deception, showing how Christian communities could be corrupted with “uneasy intensity and defensive self-righteousness.”
In “The Great Divorce,” he exposed the vulnerability of human self-awareness, while in “Reflections on the Psalms” he explained why the Old Testament’s contents, however “terrible and contemptible,” were needed to show humanity’s true colors.
Walter Hooper, an American Catholic who served briefly as Lewis’ private secretary, remembers the author as affable and hard-drinking, but also as a man who sincerely attempted, against difficult odds, to live a Christian life.
Now 81 and a trustee of Lewis’ estate, Hooper has edited Lewis’ letters and diaries, some of which were rescued from a bonfire two months after the writer’s death.
He agreed that interest in Lewis also is growing among Catholics.
During a 1988 Cambridge University lecture, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger praised Lewis’ rejection of “destructive relativism.”
Hooper recalled how Blessed John Paul II also revealed a knowledge of Lewis’ works when Hooper and the pope met during a 1988 general audience in Rome and the late pope lauded Lewis’ 1960 work, “The Four Loves,” as well as Lewis’ devotion to a practical apostolate.
“Lewis owed it to his fans to avoid complexities and set Christianity’s core beliefs in place,” Hooper told CNS.
“But he was adamant those core beliefs, the deposit of faith, must always remain, no matter how things change. If you get rid of Christianity’s sense and meaning, you’ll have nothing to come back to,” he said.
Spreading the Gospel
Lewis has been criticized by atheists in Britain and the U.S., while many professional theologians still maintain a haughty disdain for him.
But Hooper predicted Lewis’ contribution to popularizing Christianity will gain ever greater acknowledgment, especially when the Christian faith appears in danger of being ignored.
“Lewis believed he had a responsibility to spread the Gospel through his writings and showed how Christianity could be presented in almost any form, from science fiction to children’s fables,” Hooper said.
“Because the academics wouldn’t touch him, it’s taken a long time for his creativity to be taken seriously. But Lewis couldn’t deal with anything without illuminating it; and I think many people are now appreciating the inspirational power which runs through his work,” he said.