The death of Clive Staples Lewis on November 22 removed from the world one of its most lucid, winsome, and powerful writers on Christianity. We have reason to thank God that such a man was raised up in our time to become, as Chad Walsh has put it, the apostle to the skeptics. “His books exposed the shallowness of our atheist prejudices; his vision illumined the Mystery which lay behind the appearances of daily life,” said one man who turned to Christ from Communism, alcoholism, and attempted suicide. “Without his works, I wonder if I and many others might not still be infants ‘crying in the night,’ ” said another intellectual who had turned from atheism and Communism to Christianity.
Sixty-four when he died, Lewis had been converted at the age of thirty after a long span of atheism. He thereafter produced more than a score of books, both expository and fictional, to set forth his conception of the meaning of Christianity. Millions of copies have been read and widely acclaimed by both theologians and laymen all over the Western world. Nearly all of his books are now available in paperback, a good sign of their wide acceptance.
His best-known book is The Screwtape Letters, a brilliant story in which an undersecretary to the High Command of Hell writes letters of instruction and warning to his nephew Wormwood, a junior tempter in charge of a young man in England at the time of World War II. Wormwood is in trouble from the beginning because he has failed to prevent his “patient” from becoming a Christian. Screwtape suggests many devices for reclaiming the patient’s soul. He must prepare for the time when the first emotional excitement of conversion begins to fade. He must turn the patient’s thoughts while in prayer, from God to his own moods and feelings. When the patient prays for charity, Wormwood must cause him to start trying to manufacture charitable feelings in himself. He must also stir up irritations between the patient and his mother. He must persuade, the young man to think of devils as comic creatures in red tights and tails. He must cause the patient to believe that his “dry” periods are signs that God is unreal. The young man must be introduced to smart, superficially intellectual and skeptical people who will teach him to despise “Puritanism” and love religious flippancy, and he must be persuaded to shoulder the future with all its cloud of indefinite fears rather than live in a simple, immediate dependence on God. He must be made spiritually resentful and proud. If possible, he must be brought to love theological newness for its own sake and to think of the “historical Jesus” rather than the Jesus of the Gospels. The patient’s prayer life must be rationalized so that if the thing he prays for does not come to pass, he will see it as proof that petitionary prayers simply do not work, or if it does come to pass, as nothing more than the operation of natural causes.
In this book both human and divine conduct are seen from the viewpoint of hell. One of the best things is the devil’s-eye conception of God, who is observed as having none of the high dignity and austerity of hell but rather as “irredeemably vulgar” and bourgeois-minded, a hedonist who invented pleasure and filled the world full of happy things like eating, sleeping, bathing, playing, and working. Hell hates God’s undignified stooping to communication and fellowship with a man on his knees. Hell’s Intelligence Department, though it has worked hard to do so, has never been able to discover one great fact about God—that is, his disinterested love for verminous man and his wish to make every man more individual, more himself in the right sense, rather than, as is the custom in hell, simply to absorb him. Whereas in hell there is nothing but competition and terrorism, the swallowing up of all whom by shrewdness and power one is able to overcome, God loves distinctiveness. Hell’s unity is dominated by a constant lust to devour; but God aims at the paradox of infinite differences among all creatures, a world of selves in which the good of any one self is not competitive but is rather the good of all other selves, like that of a loving family. God loves “otherness”; hell hates it. Hell hates God’s complex and dangerous world pervaded with choices, a world that God has inseminated with all sorts of realities that carry their hidden winsome reminders of himself, such as beauty, silence, reverence, and music. Concerning the last, hell hopes one day to make the universe one unending Noise.
Lewis’s book called Mere Christianity is a direct treatment of many of the ideas that have been deliberately turned upside down in The Screwtape Letters. He begins this book with two facts that he calls “the foundation of all clear thinking.” One is that people everywhere have the curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way; the other is that they do not in fact so behave. The notion of right and wrong, he says, is not local and cultural but is lodged deeply in the moral wisdom of mankind. There is a big difference between the Law of Nature and the Law of Human Nature. The former includes such laws as that of gravity and tells you, for instance, what a stone actually does if you drop it. But the Law of Human Nature tells you what people ought to do and fail in doing.
A Complex Faith
Atheism, says Lewis, is too simple. Christianity is complicated and “odd,” yet with the density of reality itself, not something you would easily have guessed. Take the matter of free will. Why did God give men free will, if he knew they would misuse it? Because although free will makes evil possible, it is the only thing that makes joy and love and goodness possible. Without free will men are toys on a string. With free will they have vast possibilities for good as well as evil. If men choose evil, God’s law will withhold from them the happiness they thirst for. This, he says, is the key to all history.
Later on in Mere Christianity Lewis declares that Christ was the first “real man” and that he made it possible for us to be real if we only will. To gain this reality, the Christian must each day shove back his own wishes and hopes and let God’s “larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in.” It is not God’s purpose, says Lewis, to bring people barely within the gates of heaven; he intends their absolute perfection, and here and hereafter will direct toward that end. “When He said, ‘Be perfect,’ He meant it. He meant that we must go in for the full treatment.… It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.”
Miracles And Nature’s Law
Lewis has written books on miracles, on pain, on love, and on the dangers of an unlimited trust in science. In Miracles Lewis discusses, among many other things, his belief that most people today are afflicted with “chronological snobbery,” that is, the idea that people in an older time could accept miracles because of their ignorance of the laws of nature. Joseph, Lewis points out, was fully as wise as any modern gynecologist on the main point of Mary’s situation—that a virgin birth is contrary to nature. In finally accepting the situation as a miracle, Joseph was affirming not only the miracle but, equally, the law of nature itself as it applies to childbirth. Joseph is by no means an example of a naïve or primitive ignoramus; rather, he was a realist whose head was as hard as anybody’s as far as the regularity of nature is concerned. He saw the exception in Mary’s case only because he had a pristine conviction about the rule.
In The Problem of Pain Lewis begins with his once sufficient reasons for being an atheist—a vast and mostly lifeless cosmos with a nature “red in tooth and claw,” and the like. But one significant question, he adds, never arose in his mind: “If the universe is so bad, or even half so bad, how on earth did human beings ever come to attribute to it the activity of a wise and good Creator?” If we had never supposed God to be good, there would of course never have arisen any problem of pain. The problem is conditional. “If God were good, He would wish to make His creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty He would be able to do what He wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore God lacks either goodness, or power, or both.” Thus Lewis puts the case before beginning to answer it.
Among Lewis’s most popular books are the space trilogy Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength. The first involves a visit to the un-fallen world of Malacandra (Mars). In the second a demon-possessed man from earth does his best to bring about the fall of Perelandra (Venus). In the third a group of scientific-minded but evil men almost bring England to a Satanic reign. Also popular with both children and adults are Lewis’s seven Narnia stories, which recount the adventures of youngsters who escape into another and wonderful world and are protected by Aslan the great Lion (Christ). One critic has said that these books marked “the greatest addition to the imperishable deposit of children’s literature since the Jungle Books.”
Doctrinally, Lewis accepted the Nicene, Athanasian, and Apostles’ Creeds. He was never-failing in his opposition to theological “modernism.” Some of his most acerose satire is employed against it in both his fictional and his expository works. It is as ridiculous, he declared, to believe that the earth is flat as to believe in the watered-down popular theology of modern England. In The Screwtape Letters a major employment of hell itself is to encourage theologians to create a new historical Jesus in each generation. He repeatedly insists that, contrary to many modern theologians, it was less St. Paul than Christ who taught the terrors of hell and other “fierce” doctrines rather than sweetness and vapid love. Lewis hated the depiction of Christ in feminine modes. In the Narnian stories Aslan is always pictured as more than a tame lion. Lewis believed that God is not to be bargained with but to be obeyed. Christ is Deity himself, the Creator, coexistent with the Father, yet also his only-begotten Son, the Penalty of the Law, Prince of the universe, the “Eternal Fact, Father of all facthood,” the Everlasting and Supreme Reality, perfect God and perfect Man, the best of all moral teachers but not merely that.
Man’s Special Demerit
Though Lewis denies the doctrine of total depravity (one wonders whether he understood its full theological implications) on the grounds that man has the idea of good and that if he were totally depraved he should not know it, this denial does not preclude Lewis from representing man everywhere as a horror to God and a miserable offender. Some people, he says, suppose that the Incarnation implies a special merit in humanity; actually it implies “just the reverse: a particular demerit and depravity” because “no creature that deserved Redemption would need to be redeemed.… Christ died for men precisely because men are not worth dying for.”
The most vivid picture of what it means to be saved—and Lewis does not hesitate to use this word—is the transformation of Eustace from a dragon back into a person in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Eustace tells how he remembered that a dragon might be able to cast its skin like a snake and began to work on himself. At first the scales alone came off; but as he went deeper, he found his whole skin starting to peel off and finally was able to step right out of it altogether. Eustace then started to wash himself, but when he put his foot into a nearby pool of water he saw that it was as hard and rough and scaly as it had been before. So he began again to scratch and finally peeled off another entire dragon skin. But once again he found under it another. At this point Aslan appeared and said, “You will have to let me undress you.” Though Eustace was deathly afraid of Aslan’s claws, he lay down before him. His fears were justified, for the very first tear made by Aslan was so deep he felt it had gone clear down to his heart. When the skin was at last off, Eustace discovered it was “ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly looking than the others had been.” Afterwards Aslan bathed him and dressed him in new clothes, the symbolism of which is clear enough.
Lewis assures his readers that he believes the Bible to carry the authority of God, and he insists that we must “go back to our Bibles,” even to the very words. The biblical account, says he, often turns out to be more accurate than our lengthy theological interpretations of it. It is all right to leave the words of the Bible for a moment to make some point clear, but you must always return. “Naturally God knows how to describe Himself much better than we know how to describe Him.” Lewis believed that some great catastrophe was ahead for man and that the Second Coming may be the next great event in history.
Some Principal Themes
Certain themes run all through Lewis’s books, whether expository or fictional. One is that every living being is destined for everlasting life and that every moment of life is a preparation for that condition. Like Albert Camus, Lewis believed death to be the most significant fact in the interpretation of life; yet, unlike Camus, he was convinced that man is primarily made for eternity. With Socrates, he held that true wisdom is the “practice of death.” Another theme in Lewis is that God is the creator, transformer, and ultimate possessor of common things; that God is the inventor of matter, of sex, of eating and drinking, and of pleasures. Lewis also teaches all through his books that the only way Christians can attain full happiness is to obey God implicitly. “It is only our daily bread that we are encouraged to ask for. The present is the only time in which any duty can be done or any grace received.”
But perhaps the most persistent theme in Lewis is that of man’s longing for Joy. He calls this longing “the inconsolable secret” that inhabits the soul of every man, a desire that no natural happiness can ever satisfy. It is lifelong pointer toward heaven, a nostalgia to cross empty spaces and be joined to the true reality from which we now feel cut off. The culmination of this longing in the rhapsodic joy of heaven is, for me at least, the strongest single element in Lewis. In one way or another it hovers over nearly every one of his books and suggests that Lewis’s apocalyptic vision is perhaps more real than that of anyone since St. John on Patmos.
Until a short time before his death Lewis was the distinguished occupant of the chair of medieval and Renaissance English at Cambridge University. He was one of the best literary critics of our time and an expert in philology. Notable among his scholarly writings is The Allegory of Love, which has been called “the best book of literary history written by an Englishman in this century.” At the same time he was a Christian of no uncertain stamp. He managed the difficult feat of successfully integrating his scholarship and his religion. If we add to these things the gifts of a lively imagination, a vigorous and witty mind, and a brilliance of language, we can discover why his books have sold widely and why his readers are steadily on the increase.
Clyde S. Kilby is chairman of the Department of English at Wheaton College, where he has served since 1935. He holds the A.B. from the University of Arkansas, the M.A. from the University of Minnesota, and the Ph.D. from New York University. His latest book, The Christian World of C. S. Lewis, will appear in March.
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