I’m currently in the middle of a seminary course that draws exclusively on Lewis for theological discourse. Some of my facts may be a little off, so feel free to correct me and offer your own take. Cheers!
Lewis was, in my opinion, the last Dante. With a deep concern for humanity, the state of the commonwealth, a sharp eye for the little foxes that spoil our inner lives, a way of writing that draws in more than just the academic, and a solid commitment to the way the poetic stands at the center of the cosmos, this is obviously true. Lewis has more in common (at least with his writing) with Dante than any modern writer of our time.
He pushed, as Flannery O’Connor once said, so hard against his age that he discovered a freedom in his own personality that often, while not achieved by 99% of today’s Christian professional writers, snuck around the dragons we have commisioned to stand at the gate of our hearts. Lewis may be of another age, but he still sounds authentic – one who has taken in the nutrients of that world and tried to plant the seeds in this one.
There’s a real problem with the way less traditional Christians have been using Lewis lately on social media. The individual decides who their punching bag is – which is usually the label of “the evangelicals” – there is an assumption of a coherent belief structure that “evangelicals” are assumed to have, and then the less well known, most bizarre beliefs of St. Lewis are revealed in order to shock “the evangelicals.” And all of this, to a dazzling amount of shares and likes.
I did this trick recently. My uncle asked me why I was seeking ordination with a denomination that, in his mind, practiced witchcraft in some corners of America. I know this view well, actually. Because we have incense in our sanctuary and chant things together, the sheer alien quality of our faith is not comfortably able to fit within the typical TED Talk vibe of the modern Bible Church. I won him over to my side with two sentences.
“Have you ever heard of C.S. Lewis?” He looked at me with big eyes. “Of course I have!” Well, at that point he could tell I was up to something. “Uncle ——-, he was an Anglican.” Stunned, both his mind and heart were open to what I had to say about Anglicanism and he seemed to not only understand why we did some of the activities, but also the “why” to some of our efforts – liturgical or otherwise. But that is not necessarily what I’m frustrated with. I wanted to win my “opponent” over to my perspective, but often this tactic is used not for understanding, just for acceptance.
The frustrated individual may target a belief by evangelicals, for instance, in a hellfire experience that lasts forever (the actual beliefs of evangelicals vary considerably on this topic, but what good is nuance when you seek to burn a few straw men, am I right??) and tell the person who holds that belief that Lewis actually did not share that view. Or, they may say to the person who holds to the sacrament of marriage that Lewis had such a low view that he freely divided up marriage(s) of the civil and Christian sort, and then make the logical leap that Lewis most likely would’ve supported same-sex marriage.
An evangelical might have no sympathy for environmental concerns, and this frustrated person might simply remark of how Lewis was against vivification and the destruction of the environment by capitalist industry. And finally, a person may be against drinking to excess, and the provocateur brings up the fact that Lewis was not only a heavy drinker, he also smoked a pipe all day long, and skinny dipped if there was no one around.
The individual stuns the evangelical, which is the goal. When you are stunned, you can’t respond. (And a big sin in our culture is silence for the benefit of what is about to come out of your mouth.)
A few things get lost in the process:
1. Just because Lewis believed something does not mean it is true or right or even good to believe.
2. This is perhaps to use Lewis in a way that he would’ve despised, as he frequently enjoyed saying he was not a professional theologian and preferred to leave it to the school of divinity.
3. Boiling Lewis down to a set of polemical points is often a move that takes him out of context, thus misunderstanding him, forgetting that most of what Lewis attempted to accomplish was by discursive thinking and the renewal of the imagination.
I actually agree with Doug Wilson’s assessment of where Lewis positioned himself in proper Reformed Theology: as an a-systematic devotee of our common Protestant aggressions. My own adherence to a kind of Reformed understanding of grace reflects this as well.
The most hated character, outside of the White Witch – in the Narnia books – is Eustace Scrubb. He’s unpleasant, harsh, and horrible company, given his arrogance and, simultaneously, his ignorance. But when Eustace accidentally gets in trouble and becomes a dragon with no way of turning back into a human, he is forced back to the dragon pond where he meets the lion. He thinks he must remove his scales to turn back into a boy and proceeds to show tremendous effort; but to no avail. It is there in that place that Lewis reveals the wrestling of the human soul: caught at the crossroads of what we think goodness requires and truly unable to do anything about it. It takes the Lion reaching past the skin and into the dragon heart to turn the beast back into a boy.
You see, all of this “you believe xyz and Lewis believed xyz” is to miss the point of Lewis’s satire: the honest recognition that I, in all of my effort and reflection, am also part of the problem. What we are severely lacking is the central quality that Lewis sought to communicate: humility. For him, as I understand it, the human heart is frail, easily broken, and often desires to scapegoat others before it sees itself. The mirror is turned outward instead of inward, and everyone loses.
When conservatives make Lewis the watermark for their beliefs and do so while casting a shadow over his more radical/critical views of scripture and the church, both of which he held a fairly low view of – compared to the Anglo-Catholics he was surrounded by – they also make the mistake that those on the more progressive side make, and both sides are both guilty of what Lewis called the “Personal Heresy.” (What good does your “high” view of the Bible do if it’s completely disconnected from any sort of coherent tradition?)
This is not to say that Lewis didn’t enjoy himself or perhaps say things that were controversial. Who of us doesn’t acknowledge that he had atypical views of many things and not simultaneously love him for it? I know I do. But maybe we could just go deeper than the talking points and recognize that we are more than our belief statements and feeds. We are imaginative and prone to wander, in need of a conversion of the imagination.
Before Lewis became a Christian, he came to belief that the only source to inconsolable longing was some sort of divinity. And even later, when he wrote The_Abolition_of_Man, he sets up the conditions by which a person may never experience wonder again. He essentially says that the modern man attempts to “see through” everything presented to him. The only problem, as Lewis notes, is that this cynicism ends up seeing through so much that the vision never catches onto anything, and when it does, it catches on the banal and basic things such as corrupted sexual desire, food, and other carnal expression with no apparent basis in virtue or a “deeper reality.” the point of looking through a window is to see the forest.
We see this in our own day. Choosing to believe the evidence is inevitably seen as believing men over women, white over black, and an alleged victim over an alleged oppressor. “There is no evidence,” they say, “only power.” The distortion of the “facade of our objectivity” betrays, as is said, crude reality of the justice system. And yes, while there are pieces of this cynical subjectivity that may be true, it is still a mark on this generation that separates us from our Western ancestors.
Or take Lewis’s belief that human beings do not have a soul. The opposite is the truth: we are souls who have a body. But increasingly more and more people are claiming to not even have a body. Their body is not their own, and as the pronoun war starts to wage, people feel so uncomfortable in their own skin that irreversible surgery is preferred over the acceptance of the material shell one inhabits. (I am almost certain that Lewis never conceived of such a dramatic shift in culture when he penned an essay on the subject!) Truly, today is not simply a war of ideas. It is a battle over anthropology. Man has forgotten not only who he is, but what he is, and thus turns his divine gaze to his neighbor, and then, terrifyingly, to himself.
The fights between those who seek to put Lewis in the corner often feel like two siblings wrestling in the front yard of a castle, unable to see that the horses and hounds are ready for a hunt they will never enjoy, though they desire it – because of the myopic understanding of their own longing, and the ignorance of a famous writer they claim to have read. But do read Lewis. Even his lesser works benefit the casual skimmer. Just read them honestly, and with a mirror to yourself, not reflected at others who don’t share your agenda.
Further up and further in!