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Still a page-turner, 50 years on . . .

by
15 November 2013

The works of C. S. Lewis have had broad appeal, although he has had his critics, not least at Oxford, his first university. The 50th anniversary of his death is on 22 November. Jonathan Luxmoore argues that he is more popular then ever before - even in Oxford

MARION E.WADE CENTER

The writing life: C. S. Lewis in his study at The Kilns (slideshow)

The writing life: C. S. Lewis in his study at The Kilns (slideshow)

IN A rambling red-brick house on the western edge of Oxford, a melancholy desk sits at a bay window looking out over tangled woodland. Across the battered floor, an ancient ashtray stands against a worn armchair, while in the middle distance wall maps and pictures depict a fantasy landscape.

When Clive Staples Lewis bought The Kilns, a former brick factory, in 1930, he used its quiet remoteness to produce a stream of literary and spiritual masterpieces, which are still in print, widely read, and quoted with reverence today.

He achieved greatest fame with the Chronicles of Narnia, stories for children which contain deep Christian echoes. But he also gained renown for his Christian apologetics, the chief of which, Mere Christianity, was rated by the American magazine Christianity Today as "Best religious book" of the 20th century, above works by luminaries such as Karl Barth and Jürgen Moltmann.

Until recently, paradoxically, Lewis has been largely ignored at the university where he taught for three decades until his early death from bone cancer and renal failure in 1963. He gained greater recognition in the United States, where the Episcopal Church celebrates a "Holy C. S. Lewis" day each November.

Fifty years after his death, however, things may be changing. The Revd Michael Ward, chaplain of St Peter's College, Oxford, and co-editor of The Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis, says: "Like his close friend, J. R. R. Tolkien, Lewis expressed his Christian faith through narrative and imagination, which seems to be chiming in with the needs of our contemporary culture.

"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."

LEWIS won an Oxford scholarship from his native Northern Ireland in 1916. He graduated, after fighting and getting wounded in the First World War, eventually becoming a Fellow of Magdalen College.

Despite his prodigious output, and the huge popularity of his lectures, the academic establishment in Oxford was, for many years, dismissive of Lewis.

The university's theology faculty viewed him as a literary intruder, and remained divided over his significance. The English faculty, which Lewis did much to develop, acknowledged his studies on medieval and Renaissance literature, but considered him too preoccupied with Christianity. Ultimately, Lewis took up a professorship at Cambridge instead.

As a new generation is introduced to the world of Narnia, Judith Wolfe, the editor of Oxford's Journal of Inklings Studies, thinks that Lewis's Christian vision has gained a new relevance.

"Although Lewis wasn't a professional theologian, he struggled all his life with the question faced by Christians - what and where is God? - and his acute sense of the world Christianity portrays is just as profound as the best modern theologians'", Dr Wolfe argues.

"He also realised Christian literature was failing to present good and holy characters who were also interesting - the evil ones were always more compelling. By portraying Christ as the lion Aslan in the Narnia stories, he hoped to reveal the attractiveness of the good in real life."

 

BORN in Belfast in November 1898, and baptised in the Church of Ireland, Lewis abandoned his faith at school, recalling in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, how he had been confirmed and received communion "in total disbelief, acting a part, eating and drinking my own condemnation".

His letters and diaries suggest that his atheism was articulate, and serious. But Lewis attributed much of it to Christianity's "ugly architecture, ugly music, and bad poetry", insisting that he was largely motivated by "hatred of authority", and a "monstrous individualism".

But he could never rid himself of a yearning for what he called "joy": a sense of unsatisfied desire. When he returned to faith at Oxford in September 1931, after conversations with Tolkien, among others, he did so "kicking, struggling, resentful, darting my eyes in every direction for a chance to escape". Lewis said that he "knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England".

It was in the "true myth" of Christianity, he believed, that religion had "reached its maturity"; and this required "orgy and ritual" as well as "intellect and conscience".

Lewis disappointed Tolkien by declining to become a Roman Catholic, and remained a broad-church Anglican. But he was sympathetic to a concept of purgatory, and to the practices of confession and prayer to the saints, and retained an ecumenical focus.

Meanwhile, his return to faith released powers of imagination, and launched him on a new career as an interpreter and populariser of Christianity.

 

LEWIS's Mere Christianity, based on his acclaimed wartime broadcasts for the BBC, tackled popular objections to Christianity, stripping it down to its essentials with simple, striking arguments and observations.

In September 1947, two years before the first of his Narnia Chronicles appeared, Mere Christianity had put "Oxford's C. S. Lewis" on the cover of Time magazine.

By then, he had achieved further renown with The Abolition of Man, which cited Plato, Aristotle, and St Augustine in defence of natural law and objective values, as well as a science-fiction trilogy, and a discourse on miracles.

The Revd Dr Diarmaid MacCulloch, Professor of the History of the Church in the University of Oxford, thinks that Lewis's non-denominational approach to Christianity helps to explain his particular popularity in the US. This demotic approach, Professor MacCulloch believes, gives him fresh appeal today.

"Lewis has attracted more conservative Christians at a time when religion is undergoing a great realignment between the forces of tradition and change," he says.

"This tension runs right across the theological categories, and can now unite a conservative Catholic with a conservative Protestant in a way which would not have happened half a century ago. Among such supporters of traditional religion, Lewis is seen as a standard-bearer."

Walter Hooper, an American who acted as Lewis's private secretary in his declining years, remembers him as affable, and hard-drinking, but also generous and discerning - a man who made a sincere attempt, against difficult odds, to live a Christian life.

 

NOW 81 years old, and a trustee of Lewis's estate, Mr Hooper has spent decades editing his letters, diaries, and poems, as well as writing about his former employer. A former Anglican priest who then joined the Roman Catholic Church, he thinks interest in Lewis is now also growing among Roman Catholics, led by papal example.

During a 1988 Cambridge University lecture, the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger praised Lewis's rejection of "destructive relativism" in The Abolition of Man, while in a 1994 talk in the US he quoted from The Screwtape Letters.

Mr Hooper recalls how the late Blessed John Paul II also revealed a knowledge of Lewis's works when he met him at the pontiff's request, particularly lauding The Four Loves.

"Lewis owed it to his fans to avoid complexities, and set Christianity's core beliefs in place," Mr Hooper says. "But he was adamant that those core beliefs, the deposit of faith, must always remain, no matter how things change."

Dr Wolfe believes that pressure is growing for fuller academic recognition of Lewis at his old university. His work has appeared on reading lists in both English literature and systematic theology, and this year, for the first time, the theology faculty provided lectures on Lewis for aspiring Oxford students.

 

THERE are signs that Lewis is also becoming better known in Europe. His works have been written about by phenomenologists in France, and an Inklings Gesellschaft is meeting in Germany, together with a symposium devoted to Lewis's correspondence with the RC Neo-Thomist philosopher Josef Pieper.

In Scandinavia, a C. S. Lewis Association was founded recently in Denmark, while five of Lewis's books, including Mere Christianity, are being now being reissued by Finland's largest Christian publisher.

Jason Lepojarvi, a theologian from Helsinki University, read Lewis's The Problem of Pain during his military service, and is now a leading devotee. He thinks that interest in Lewis will increase as his insights into faith and society gain in prophetic quality.

For many Protestants, uneasy and dissatisfied at their Churches' "social conformism", Lewis's Christian orthodoxy and ethical conservatism are proving attractive, Mr Lepojarvi says.

Meanwhile, many professional theologians still hold Lewis in disdain. He was not even indexed in Blackwell's 820-page The Modern Theologians, published in 2005.

Although the introduction in the Cambridge Companion describes Lewis as "almost certainly the most influential religious author of the Twentieth Century in English or any other language", one prominent contributor, Stanley Hauerwas, has dismissed him from the lectern as no more than "a fairly interesting Church of England thinker", who fell far below the stature of G. K. Chesterton.

Even Professor MacCulloch, while praising Lewis's storytelling imagination, has doubts about his originality and coherence, and thinks that much of his work has more in common with astrology and pagan mythology than Christianity.

Mr Hooper disagrees. He thinks that current attitudes call into question the role of theology in a sceptical, secularised world, where the Christian faith is in danger of being ignored, and all Christian thinkers should be making efforts, as Lewis put it in Mere Christianity, "to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs".

 

AGAINST this background, Lewis's contribution to popularising Christianity deserves greater acknowledgement, Mr Hooper believes. So does his achievement in rallying a group of Christian writers who, besides Tolkien, included the mystic Charles Williams, and the novelist Dorothy L. Sayers.

"Lewis believed he had a responsibility to spread the gospel through his writings," Mr Hooper says, "and showed how Christianity could be presented in almost any form - from science fiction to children's fables.

"Because the academics wouldn't touch him with a bargepole, it's taken a long time for his works to be acknowledged. 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".

Back at The Kilns, the rooms still exist where Lewis received Tolkien and other friends; where he played Scrabble with his wife, the American Joy Davidman, whom he married late in life, shortly before she succumbed to cancer at the age of 45; and where he died on 22 November 1963, the same day as President John F. Kennedy.

The once-derelict house, restored as a study centre by US volunteers between 1993 and 2002, is now owned by the California-based C. S. Lewis Foundation, and stands in a suburban landscape much changed from Lewis's own days. But visits are increasing as inter- est grows worldwide in this dynamic and insightful Christian visionary.

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