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 on the one hand and from the liberalism of the mainline denominations on the other. Some called it “neo-evangelicalism.”

Lewis’s intelligent, articulate defenses of the Christian faith made him an ideal spokesperson. His concentration on the main doctrines of the church coincided with evangelicals’ concern to avoid ecclesiastical separatism. His commentary on the issues of the day—capital punishment, space exploration—suited evangelicals who wanted a platform that incorporated social concerns. His writing demonstrated a gift for expressing the truths of orthodox Christianity in a way that was credible to academics and laypeople alike.

Lewis himself, however, was not an evangelical. He was not even familiar with the word. British pastor and writer David Soper first enlightened Lewis about the American term during an interview Soper had with the author for Zion’s Herald in 1948.

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Soper explained that the term “had been adopted quite tentatively among many American leaders to distinguish a transforming faith in Christ as God and Savior from Unitarianism on one hand and from Fundamentalism on the other.” Lewis replied that a better term would be “Classical Christianity.”

Nevertheless, American evangelicals quickly latched on to Lewis during this time. What did they have in common? Although Lewis was not without his critics, the answer is, plenty.

Lewis and evangelicals both emphasized the importance and authority of the Bible. Lewis did not believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, but he wrote and lived as if he did.

Lewis also warmed evangelicals’ hearts with his evangelistic writing style. Many evangelism-minded Christians saw his books as the perfect tools to penetrate the hearts and minds of students at secular universities. Although Lewis surely did not foresee this trend, he himself acknowledged in the November 26, 1958, issue of the Christian Century that most of what he wrote was “evangelistic.” He did not balk at being called a “literary evangelist.”

In Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters, Lewis demonstrated his keen understanding of the skeptic’s mindset. Note his argument against atheism in Mere Christianity:

[As an atheist,] my argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line.… Atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning.

Lewis not only understood the skeptic’s viewpoint, but he also saw the necessity of speaking about religious subjects without theological jargon.

As professor of medieval and renaissance studies, Lewis knew the power of poetic language, and he wielded his pen to take full advantage of the literary arrows in a poet’s quiver. Few writers rival Lewis in his ability to “turn on the lights” with one apt analogy, to draw eternal truths out of the most commonplace occurrence. Consider, for instance, how Lewis tackles the notion of eternity in Reflections on the Psalms:

We are so little reconciled to time that we are even astonished at it. “How he’s grown!” we exclaim, “How time flies!” as though the universal form of our experience were again and again a novelty. It is as strange as if a fish were repeatedly surprised at the wetness of water. And that would be strange indeed; unless of course the fish were destined to become, one day, a land animal.

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However innovative Lewis’s language may have been, in matters of doctrine he seldom strayed from orthodoxy. Lewis did not object to having an open mind on questions that were not of ultimate importance. “But,” he warned, “an open mind about ultimate foundations either of Theoretical or Practical Reason is idiocy. If a man’s mind is open on these things, let his mouth at least be shut.” At a time when few in the theological establishment seemed to stand against the tide of secularism and religious liberalism, Lewis promoted a supernaturalist view that evangelicals welcomed.

Lewis had his critics. Some questioned his view of the Bible’s inspiration, his belief in purgatory, and his lack of a systematic theology. In response to these charges, historian John Wilson notes that such criticisms “from both liberal and evangelical camps often ignored the fact that he had no formal theological education and never claimed to be a systematic theologian.”

As pastor and author Donald Williams argued in the pages of CHRISTIANITY TODAY in 1979, evangelical Americans found it easy to accept Lewis for two reasons: they were generally more tolerant of doctrinal imperfections in Europeans, and they were more lenient toward a man “who started as an atheist and has come almost all the way to full orthodoxy than they are to people who are in the process of backing away from it.”

Whatever the criticism, during the late 1950s until Lewis’s death in 1963, Lewis appeared regularly in the pages of CHRISTIANITY TODAY. The editors repeatedly sought his contributions for their annual theological symposium issue. Carl F. H. Henry commented that Lewis provided the magazine with “spice and a good name.”

The celebrity theologian

Although evangelical theologians applauded Lewis’s apologetic writings during this time, perhaps the don’s greatest accolades came from laypeople. During World War II, interest in religion grew, and people welcomed his witty, literary, and unstuffy approach to theology.

Time stated that Lewis wrote “for a generation of religion-hungry readers brought up on a diet of ‘scientific’ jargon and Freudian clíches.” His language was refreshing, and “he treated people as rational creatures able to follow a sensible argument.”

Key to Lewis’s popularity among laypeople was his highly successful BBC talks. According to historian Paul Welsby, Lewis’s resonant voice entertained British citizens in their homes at a time when the BBC saw “making Britain a more Christian country” as an important task. American radio stations also broadcast his talks. By 1947, Lewis had delivered 29 radio broadcasts with an average audience of 600,000 listeners each.

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Could Lewis have become the popular figure he was if not for the BBC broadcasts? In its September 8, 1947, cover story on Lewis, Time said his “plain spoken” broadcasts made him “almost as synonymous with religion as the Archbishop of Canterbury.”

That Lewis did this without clerical credentials makes him all the more intriguing. Lewis seemed to break through the barrier separating theologians and laypeople precisely because of his amateur status.

Despite his winsome approach to theology, part of Lewis’s popularity in the 1940s and beyond may be due to providential timing. If Lewis had come on the American scene in the 1930s, many would have been too occupied with social and economic concerns to pay much attention. His appearance during the war years provided comfort to many Americans who, like the British, were returning to religion in the midst of suffering and widespread death.

Timing alone does not explain the “C. S. Lewis phenomenon” that occurred after his death in 1963. Interest in his writings skyrocketed. Lewis scholarship burgeoned from two doctoral dissertations in the 1940s to thousands of dissertations, master’s theses, and articles in the four decades that followed. In 1965, Clyde Kilby, professor emeritus of Wheaton College in Illinois, established the Marion E. Wade Collection, a primary research center for Lewis scholarship. In the 1970s, C. S. Lewis Societies sprung up from coast to coast.

The Oxford Pilgrim’S Progress

Born into a Protestant family in Belfast in 1898, Clive Staples Lewis was a precocious child who wrote his first novel by the age of 12. After attending English boarding schools, Lewis studied at Oxford University and in 1925 became a fellow of English language and literature at Oxford’s Magdalen College.

At Oxford, Lewis began to form friendships with many Christians. He also began to notice that his favorite authors—George MacDonald, G. K. Chesterton, John Milton—wrote from a decidedly Christian point of view. In 1929, Lewis converted to theism and two years later embraced the Christian faith. His first religious book, The Pilgrim’s Regress: An Allegorical Apology for Christianity, Reason and Romanticism, was published in 1933, two years after his conversion. In 1942, ten years after he started writing on religious subjects, Lewis became a celebrity with the publication of The Screwtape Letters.

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Lewis left Oxford in 1955 to serve as professor of medieval and renaissance studies at Magdalene College, Cambridge University. He died on November 22, 1963, at his Oxford home.

Although his death was overshadowed by the assassination of John F. Kennedy on the same day, Lewis ha taken a place in the last 30 years as one of the most influential Christian thinkers in the twentieth century.

A sanctified imagination

Why do Lewis’s works continue to exert profound influence on American evangelicals? A primary reason is the role they have played in the conversion and growth of many evangelicals. Highly visible converts, like Charles Colson, have cited Lewis’s influence.

Lewis’s ability to communicate through diverse genres also contributes to his lasting popularity. Children know him through The Chronicles of Narnia, a children’s fantasy series. Other readers know him through his space trilogy. His most celebrated apologetic writings include Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, The Problem of Pain, The Weight of Glory, Miracles, and the autobiographical Surprised by Joy, to name a few. In academic circles, Lewis is remembered for award-winning texts on literary criticism—The Allegory of Love and English Literature in the Sixteenth Century.

For many evangelicals, Lewis’s most important contribution to Christian thought is his demonstration of how God delights in and blesses a sanctified imagination. Lewis demonstrated divinely inspired creativity at its best. His imaginative writings undoubtedly paved the way for the emergence of fantasy as a popular genre in Christian literature. The resurgence of George MacDonald’s writings may be due in part to Lewis’s accolades for the Scottish writer. Lewis exemplified how the arts and imagination could entertain and draw believers and skeptics to a deeper encounter with Christ.

American evangelicals owe a great debt to C. S. Lewis. He became a shepherding, convincing voice in their early days and lent credibility to orthodoxy in an intellectually hostile climate. Through his writings, Lewis made Christianity seem reasonable and exciting. In “A Panegyric for Dorothy L. Sayers,” Lewis claimed that Sayers was such a gifted apologist because “she never sank the artist and the entertainer in the evangelist.” In many ways, Lewis could have been describing himself in this eulogy: “She aspired to be, and was, at once a popular entertainer and a conscientious craftsman: like (in her degree) Chaucer, Cervantes, Shakespeare, or Moliere. I have an idea that, with a very few exceptions, it is only such writers who matter much in the long run.”

Loren Wilkinson is the writer/editor of Earthkeeping in the ’90s (Eerdmans) and the coauthor, with his wife, Mary Ruth Wilkinson, of Caring for Creation in Your Own Backyard (Servant). He teaches at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

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