Many evangelicals will point to C.S. Lewis as formative in their Christian faith, but for Kathy Keller, the wife of prominent New York City pastor Tim Keller, it was pivotal.
When she was just 12, Tim Keller said, they began writing before Lewis's death, a correspondence that would later lead to her Christian faith. Kathy Keller spoke about what prompted her to write to Lewis at a young age and his writings shaped her eventual Christian faith. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Your husband told me it was pretty formative for you to receive letters from C.S. Lewis.
I ran into my first Narnia book in the bookmobile that drove into the parking lot of our local mall when I was in about my second grade. After that, I started to look for anything Lewis I could find, which was hard because it was slow to cross the Atlantic. I ended up reading a lot of his adult writings at an inappropriately young age and reread them many times later to understand as an adult.
What prompted you to write to him?
I had the notion that I was the only person in the United States who knew he existed. Every card catalog I checked, every bookstore I checked didn't have him. I wrote thinking I would console the man and tell him he had least a few admirers, not knowing he was huge. It wasn't until the '70s until he became well known over here. I remember seeing a book about him and feeling miffed, like,"What are you doing? He's mine! If anybody were to write a book, I would write it!" In fact, I told Douglas Greshem [Lewis's stepson] I would have given his mother a run for her money.
What impact did his writing have on you?
Lewis's writings were the only contact with Christianity I had. I went to a mainline church. My parents were that 1950s America where that's what you did, especially if you wanted to be upwardly mobile. It took me a long time to figure it out that Aslan [in Chronicles of Narnia] and Jesus were supposed to be the same, but I didn't really believe it. The Jesus I had heard about was dull and boring, and Aslan was vibrant and alive. As Lewis said, the best myth baptizes your imagination so that you actually have the capacity for wanting something that you can even know what it is and you can finally put a name to it. That's a function of what his writing performed for me. I went to college without having been, to use the jargon, discipled by anyone or even believing the Bible was true.
What college did you attend?
Allegheny College in Pennsylvania. I thought I would sign up for every religion course to learn about this Christian thing. That was naïve because religion classes were to convince you you've been brainwashed. Most of my religion classes were taught by defrocked ministers who would help you lose your faith as soon as possible. I would timidly after they'd give some argument against meaning or truth, say,"but … " thinking they would mow me down because all I knew was this Lewis stuff. It would never fail, as they would say"That's a good question. I never thought about that." I got my way through college. I did my thesis on him in my senior year. There was only one professor who had even heard of him on the English faculty. Sometimes when I would get lonely, I would get his books and pile them up around me. It made me feel like I had a friend in Lewis, even though we never met.
And he sent you letters!
He did send me letters. I gave copies to the center at Wheaton College. At one point, I saw a book called"C.S. Lewis's Letters to Children" and sure enough, mine were there. What was humiliating was seeing some of the letters other people had sent. They were so thoughtful and interesting and deep. I just wrote him of the small doings of my world,"I'm keeping house; my mother is sick."
He was so gracious. I told him a sad, long story about writing an article for a newspaper and the editor thought it was too long and chopped off the ending where all was revealed. I complained to him and he wrote back,"I had the same experience. There's nothing to be done. Editors do that to us writers." I thought,"Us writers, he said 'us writers,' C.S. Lewis and me!"
The last letter I got from him was 11 days before he died. I didn't know he had died until February because of course Kennedy took up all the headlines. I was saving up my money to go to England with my next-door neighbor. The idea is I would meet Lewis when I would go over there. Of course he had died.
How old were you?
I had turned 14. My friends took me to Oxford, and I met his brother who was still living there. It was unrenovated state with the dust and the nicotine stains. They've painted the ceiling nicotine yellow to reproduce the smoke from their pipes. He was formative because my whole intellectual life as a Christian was shaped of nothing but Lewis, not even the Bible. I attended Young Life, but that wasn't heavy on the theology.
Do you think evangelicals over-revere Lewis at all?
I live in New York where there's nothing about Christianity that's revered here. Back in the 50s, 60s and 70s, for the longest time, American Christianity was not producing any Bible-believing scholars. If you wanted to have an intellectual, thoughtful, Christian book to read, it had to be someone who was English, like J.I. Packer, John Stott or F.F. Bruce. I don't think any of them wrote as popularly, as well or as fluently as C.S. Lewis, so he is more accessible to the Christian community.
There was a time when evangelical was a good word. I'm peeved about being robbed of useful words, and evangelical was one of them. It used to designate a thoughtful, intellectual Christian position that had the robust beliefs of fundamentalism but not all the subcultural accretion, yet it cared for the intellectualism that you'd find in a mainline or unbelieving community. It was useful until it became associated with politics, right-wing political agendas.
Sarah Pulliam Bailey is a national correspondent for Religion News Service.
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