Ed: Many are familiar with C. S. Lewis’s Narnian Chronicles and his Christian apologetics. How can you say he was neglected?
Jerry: While Lewis is a well-known author, nevertheless, very few are familiar with his academic books. Yet, these are his best books. They were born out of his professional life and his study as a scholar of medieval and renaissance literature while at Oxford and later at Cambridge University. Mark Neal and I wanted to reintroduce these books to a wider public.
Ed: How important are these academic works?
Jerry: Lewis thought them very important. For example, one of the books we highlight, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, took Lewis over 15 years to write. He said that of all the other books he wrote during that time, they were, by comparison, only the ‘twiddly bits.’ That means that Lewis classified as ‘twiddly bits’ Mere Christianity, the Narnian series, his science fiction, and Screwtape Letters. What readers of Lewis tend to neglect, are in fact the very books Lewis thought were his best and most important.
Ed: Do you think some people look past his academic books because they feel too intimidated by the depth of the books?
Jerry: Perhaps. Nevertheless, Lewis was such a great writer that nobody should be intimidated by him. His prose is well reasoned and imaginatively depicted. The material is presented with such wit that even his most rigorous volumes leave the reader chuckling (and in some cases belly laughing).
To be intimidated by these books is short sighted. It is not that we lack the capacity to enjoy them; we often simply lack the discipline to stretch academically.
I think we have become slaves to social media and short sound bites. We want immediate information at our fingertips. Siri and Google have become the gurus of our day. This has contributed to academic laziness.
We lack intellectual rigor and we are often not interested in developing it. On the one hand, we feel awkward when approaching the books that were Lewis’ lifeblood. On the other hand, we forget that any new endeavor will leave us feeling awkward until a certain level of skill is developed.
In fact, if you are not awkward some place in your life, you are just not growing. The very act of reading these neglected books is itself a liberal arts education. Lewis opens more than wardrobe doors.
Furthermore, these books can increase the readers’ capacity to think, wrestle with big ideas, and grow intellectually.
Ed: Can you briefly describe some of the books included?
Jerry: One book discussed, The Discarded Image, was a lecture series on medieval literature that Lewis frequently gave at Oxford University. He introduces students to the medieval worldview preventing them from projecting their twenty-first century values onto the literature of an earlier age.
Lewis says that after the Bible, Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy was the most influential book on medieval literature, and until recently a person was not considered educated if they did not know that book.
In fact, Lewis gives Boethius’ answer to the problem of foreknowledge and free will that is so simple and accessible that we wonder why did this question ever perplexed us in the first place.
Another book already mentioned is English Literature in the Sixteenth Century. To write this book, Lewis read every book written in English or translated into English in the sixteenth century.
That was the century of the Reformation. Lewis was one of the few who has ever actually read exhaustively both sides of that controversy. Consequently, his judgments are more informed, and more carefully nuanced.
Furthermore, Lewis’ The Allegory of Love, the book that launched his brilliant academic career, is another one of the eight works highlighted in The Neglected C. S. Lewis.
Ed: But, that material seems “old hat.” What benefit can there be in reading the literature of the past?
Jerry: Every generation can spot the failures of the generations that came before them but lacks the perspective that future generations will have as they judge the failures of our own day.
We cannot travel into the future and look back, but we can read the literature of the past and although they made errors different from our own it is unlikely they made the same kinds of poor judgments we have made.
The past gives us touch points of comparison and the means to evaluate our own time and maybe even correct some of its excesses.
Furthermore, in an age of polarization we would be well to familiarize ourselves with The Personal Heresy. This was a literary debate between Lewis and E. M. W. Tillyard of Cambridge University. The controversy produces light not heat.
These two men knew how to argue properly. The debate contains no informal fallacies. It is a model of civil discourse so needed in our age of impatience, angry tempers, and soaring egos. This merely scratches the surface of the wisdom to be found in the books highlighted in The Neglected C. S. Lewis.
Ed: How does this material affect your work as a professor of evangelism at Wheaton College?
Jerry: Lewis once wrote, “Most of my books are evangelistic.” How could this be when he was writing literary criticism, children’s stories, adult novels, poetry, and so forth? In fact, Lewis said we do not need more books by Christians about Christianity. We need more books by Christians on other subjects with their Christianity latent.
He wanted to produce books where the Christian worldview was implied and every topic bears the sense and fragrance of Christianity. The gospel makes more sense when everything supports its truth; consequently, one gains a more robust and convincing grasp of the message.
Ed Stetzer is executive director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center, serves as a dean at Wheaton College, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group. The Exchange Team contributed to this article.