IT WAS writing apologetics that made C. S. Lewis famous. Not
Narnia, not his scholarship, not the science fiction, not the
autobiography. Not even the allegorical fiction that, with The
Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce, became so
essential to his imaginative power as a Christian writer.
It was out-and-out advocacy that created his connection with a
mass audience, beginning with the commission from James Welch, of
the BBC, in 1941, for the radio talks that eventually formed
Mere Christianity. Amid sirens and rubble, Lewis's voice -
drawling, unexpected, one part Belfast to nine parts Oxford -
reached hundreds of thousands, and then millions of listeners, who
soon became readers, too. Apologetics turned him from an Oxford
literary figure to a global one.
But the apologetic books are now far more important to his
reputation in the United States than they are here, because Britain
has moved much further away than the US from the situation they
were devised for. As Lewis's friend Austin Farrer wrote in an
early, and brilliant, essay about him: "The day in which apologetic
flourishes is the day of orthodoxy in discredit; an age full of
people talked out of the faith in which they were reared."
This may describe the contemporary American scene, where the
theological vocabulary remains available and familiar even to those
who think themselves indifferent to it, or hostile; but it does not
match the Britain where faith is two or three generations
As Farrer went on to say, "There can be no question of offering
defences for positions which are simply unoccupied, or of
justifying ideas of which the sense has never dawned on the mind."
Where de- fence and justification do matter in Britain, Lewis's
apologetics retain a following. Otherwise, this part of him has
become dormant for us.
IF YOU look at Mere Christianity, Miracles, or
The Problem of Pain in Britain now, you find a mismatch
between their chosen tools and the present-day audience. In the
first place, although argument of some kind is intrinsic to
apologetics, their argument is intensely . . . well, argumentative:
knotty, up-front, in- your-face dialectics, explicitly
foregrounding the sequence of the ideas.
Lewis's favourite connectives are a teacherly "See it this way,"
or "Think of it this way," or even "Now look here," none of which
play well in a society that has taken the "expressive turn", and
consequently values the authenticity of emotion over the appearance
Then there is the problem of voice that "Now look here" already
suggests. Lewis's literal speaking voice from the era of the radio
talks is preserved in only one archived sample, but he is
metaphorically audible in every paragraph, and to a modern ear he
comes across as painfully posh. His R. P. eloquence seems to be
The irony is that these alienating qualities of his manner turn
out to represent Lewis's rather brilliant solution, for his
historical moment, to a problem that remains uncannily fresh. When
the BBC first approached him with a request for "a positive
restatement of Christian doctrine in lay language," he said he
thought that that would be to begin "a stage too far on".
"It seems to me that the New Testament, by preaching repentance
and forgiveness, always assumes an audience who already believe in
the law of nature, and know that they have disobeyed it." Unless
people saw that Christianity represented an escape from an
intelligible trap, forgiveness for an intelligible guilt, there
would be no reason for them to pay any attention to "doctrine".
APOLOGETICS had to begin earlier, with a recognisable account of
what was wrong. Hence the rueful insistence in Mere
Christianity that a fallible chap was speaking to other
fallible souls. Hence the acuity of its passing portraits of fear,
spite, self-deception, and other everyday sins.
And hence the decision - rather strange to encounter, now - to
introduce the Devil before either God or Christ, and to offer his
hearers the metaphor of a world under enemy occupation. As they
listened to their radios in streets of ruined houses, hearing the
nightly bombers overhead, knowing that the greater part of
humankind lay that moment in tyrannical darkness, it must have
seemed a plausible cosmic picture, too. You can quarrel with the
theology, and yet applaud the appeal that is being made to
He understood that that voice was crucial. As Theo Hobson wrote
recently in the TLS, "Effective defenders of Christianity
must sound like ordinary citizens. . . Is this so hard? Yes. For
they must also convey the awkward seriousness and strangeness of
faith, its otherness."
An uncanny doubleness of register was required: ordinariness,
with a possibility of transfiguration. Lewis's bluff broadcast
voice solved the ordinariness part of the problem; for, in 1941, it
was easy to tell that this was the a member of the Senior Common
Room speaking off-duty, gone down the pub with friends.
Meanwhile, the transfiguration was supplied by Lewis's
extraordinarily sensuous late-Romantic prose, which could be
slipped into his ordinary sentences without affectation, as the
natural expression of his sensibility.
He had genuinely been led into faith through the beauty of word
and story, and he understood it himself through intensely vivid
word-pictures that worked for him as apertures opening on to the
far country of which faith was the news. As Farrer said in his
eulogy for Lewis, his mind was at least as pictorial as it was
argumentative. Which was both a power and a danger.
APOLOGETICS, after all, is a literature of the imagination. Its
cousins are the memoir, the literary essay, even the travel book.
Like the memoir, it turns the private tissue of life communicative;
like an essay, it makes the line of an explanation concrete and
palpable; like travel writing, it delivers the sensations of a
journey - all to accomplish for a reader on the outside of belief
what an insider does not, strictly, need. (Although it is always a
pleasure for a believing reader to see our own half-understood
The apologist is trying, above all, to convey the body of a
truth. For a believer, of course, truth already has a body, in
several ways, "body" being one of Christianity's profound puns. Our
truth is a body, the body of the incarnated Lord, and it makes us a
body, the body of Christ which is the Church, every time we eat the
bread which is also the body of Christ.
But, more routinely, truth also has a body for us as believers,
in the sense that it is carnally present to us all the time, in
habit and experience. But if you are on the outside, this kind of
body is exactly what belief lacks. So, apologetics is in the
business of trying to create for the reader a kind of virtual body
of faith; one that he or she can borrow and try out, to see what it
might feel like to assent.
Lewis was superlatively good at this, leaving decades'-worth of
readers with the sense of having dwelled, on terms of almost
uncanny intimacy, within the sense-world of Lewis's own faith. But
he did it at some cost to himself.
To perform this truth, to stage successfully the appearance of
truth's true body, required the apologetic equivalent to the chip
of ice in the heart needed for other kinds of imaginative
literature. Like Charles Dickens weeping over the death of Jo, the
crossing sweeper, as he wrote Bleak House, and yet noting
in the daybook for that day's work: "Jo: kill him", it calls on you
to manipulate expertly what, at the same time, you genuinely
Lewis was much too spiritually self-aware not to grow uneasy.
"No doctrine of the faith", he told a group of priests in Wales in
1944, "seems to me so spectral, so unreal as the one that I have
just defended in a public debate. For a moment, you see, it has
seemed to rest on oneself; as a result . . . it seems no stronger
than that weak pillar. . ."
It has been a truism about Lewis since A. N. Wilson's biography
came out, that the turn towards Narnia in his later life was driven
by apologetics' having, in some way or other, gone wrong for him.
The humiliating public exposure of flaws in his book
Miracles by the formidable philospher Elizabeth Anscombe
But Alan Jacobs has recently argued in The Narnian: The life
and imagination of C. S. Lewis (2005) that he may have fled to
fiction be- cause apologetics had gone so right for him; because he
was feeling, with troubling intensity, the dangerous weight that
apologetics laid on his imagination.
In fiction, even allegorical fiction, the layer of story and the
layer of the truth it stands for are farther apart. In Narnia, he
could let imagination more straightforwardly be the power that
makes things up. In Narnia, a lion in a snowy wood could stand for
truth, without truth in turn depending on his successful
Francis Spufford is the author of Unapologetic: Why,
despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising