Over ten years ago, when I studied the works of C. S. Lewis at Cambridge University as a college junior, I expected to see a red velvet rope around Lewis’s desk chair and a full-size statue of him in Cambridge’s Magdalene College quad. The only piece of Lewis memorabilia I could find, however, was a small portrait of him hanging in the college library—no pomp, no circumstance. Few Cambridge students had ever heard of anyone doing Lewis scholarship.
I was shocked.
Lewis has been nothing less than a Christian superstar in the States. He first won the hearts and minds of American Christians with the publication of his classic The Screwtape Letters in 1943. His following grew exponentially as he engaged believers and skeptics alike with his wide-ranging, imaginative writings. By 1980, worldwide sales of his works numbered between one and two million every year.
I expressed my dismay about Lewis’s hometown neglect to Barbara Reynolds, my Cambridge tutor, who encouraged me to write an essay on the question, “Why is Lewis so highly esteemed among Christians in America?”
Not much of that original essay is worth preserving, but on the thirtieth anniversary of Lewis’s death, I find myself ruminating on the question again. Why did American evangelicals come to embrace this pipe-smoking, beer-drinking Anglican? And what keeps the love affair alive?
The classic Christian
Lewis’s rise to fame as the “most popular theologian in the English-speaking world,” as a writer in Theology Today called him, took place at the time when American evangelicalism was entering a new phase. Led by Billy Graham, Carl F. H. Henry, Harold Lindsell, and others after World War II, the movement sought to distance itself from the anti-intellectual aspects of fundamentalism ...1
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