Christian History Home > Issue 88 > Making Doctrine Dance
Making Doctrine Dance
Why Lewis defied convention and opposition in order to bring Christian truth into the public arena.
Dorothy L. Sayers once described G. K. Chesterton as a kind of "Christian liberator" who blew into the church "gusts of fresh air, in which the dead leaves of doctrine danced with all the energy and indecorum of Our Lady's Tumbler." Sayers's comment comes very near the mark in capturing the role C. S. Lewis has played since Chesterton's death in 1936. Like Chesterton before him, to the English-speaking church Lewis has been nothing less than a Christian liberator.
As early as 1942, C. S. Lewis was already a bestselling author. In 1947, he was heralded as "one of the most influential spokesmen for Christianity in the English-speaking world" by Time magazine, which featured his picture on the front cover. "With erudition, good humor and skill," the Time article proclaimed, "Lewis is writing about religion for a generation of religion-hungry readers brought up on a diet of 'scientific' jargon and Freudian clichés.
[He] is one of a growing band of heretics among modern intellectuals: an intellectual who believes in God
not a mild and vague belief, for he accepts 'all the articles of the Christian faith.'"
The article attributed much of Lewis's remarkable success to his "talent for putting old-fashioned truths into a modern idiom" and giving "a strictly unorthodox presentation of strict orthodoxy." Three years earlier, The Times Literary Supplement had already suggested something similar: "Mr. Lewis has a quite unique power of making Theology attractive, exciting and (one might almost say) an uproariously fascinating quest."
But Lewis, like Chesterton, made the dead leaves of doctrine dance in a way that went against British social and academic convention. It was generally accepted that one's religious orientation should remain a private matter. Lewis's determination to take his Christian faith public with the aim of converting others was simply unacceptable, and to many downright indecent. His work in theology and apologetics, which appealed to vast audiences outside the university, defied academic protocol and created a great amount of ill feeling. According to his former student Harry Blamires, Lewis was acutely sensitive to the fact and once told him, "You don't know how I'm hated."
Lewis was clearly uncomfortable with the publicity his success brought. As early as 1941, responding to a comment made by Dom Bede Griffiths concerning his growing public persona, he acknowledged the growing tension within himself: "As for retiring into 'private life,' while feeling very strongly the evil of publicity, I don't see how one can. God is my witness I don't look for engagements."
Despite this tension, Lewis chose to go against the social and academic conventions of the day because of his understanding of the gospel mandate, the eternal value of every human soul, and the spiritual state of British society.
"The work is urgent"
Lewis was acutely aware that the biblical mandate to evangelize had particular implications for his own life and career. He had received the best education the British university system could offer. He held an academic post at arguably the most prestigious English university of his day. He was highly skilled in the art of debate and possessed unusual literary gifts. As a Christian, he knew that he was under orders to bring these things into the service of Christ and his church.
Moreover, he did not believe he had the option of thinking that such work was the sole task of professional theologians or clergy. He was as equally yoked to the gospel as they and, therefore, was obliged to do what he could for the evangelization of Britain. "The work is urgent," he declared, "for men perish around us."
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