Yesterday Rodney Thomas shared a couple of blog posts critiquing C.S. Lewis (here and here). One challenged his view of warfare; the other the idea that if you are a thinking Christian you must read Lewis. I happen to agree with both of these criticisms. Anyone who has read this blog knows I hate war and I really, really do not think Christians should join the military. Likewise, I can’t stand the thought of some evangelicals who seem to think C.S. Lewis has the apologetical answer to every challenge against Christianity. No one is this awesome!
But I have great respect and admiration for C.S. Lewis and I have gained greatly from reading him. Why? Let me give five summary reasons:
(1) Simplicity: There is good reason for the sustaining readership of Mere Christianity.
I began reading C.S. Lewis because I could understand him. I know for some this equates to Lewis oversimplifying hard questions. Maybe. But we must remember Lewis’ primary audience was every day Christians.
When I was in college and I asked why God would allow pain and evil in the world, the first step was not Alvin Plantinga. Plantinga may have better answers, but we must answer questions at the level of a person’s understanding. I have seen Christians go to college only to scoff the simplicity of the answers their youth pastors gave to hard questions. What is often forgotten is that if they didn’t have simple answers there would have been no benefit.
Similarly, Lewis gives hope to those of us who are not trained in the history of philosophy. Those that are educated this way have the responsibility to move beyond Lewis. But the Christian who works in construction whose wife loses a child in the womb a year ago should not have to take a course in logic to read something that may provide hope.
(2) Historical Context: When Lewis wrote in defense of Christianity it was in a context where enlightenment intellectualism had won. The motto “God is dead” was beyond Nitzsche. It was a reality amongst the educated of this world.
It was a bold move to be an apologist in those days. I don’t spend a lot of time reading apologist, but I am thankful for some of them (e.g. Ravi Zacharias) and I think most have good motives (to show the truthfulness of the gospel in places where this is very difficult). I have read that Tolkien was not supportive of Lewis’ desire to write apologetics. Many would agree with Tolkien that he wasn’t the most qualified. I am glad he wrote.
Also, while his acceptance of Christian just war theory irks me it is easy for me to sit in 2011, in the United States, with retrospect. One thing I have learned form historical theology and philosophy classes with Marc Cortez is that we do not have to say someone was right because of their historical context, but we should seek to understand them in that context. If I were a Christian in WWII Britain with German fighter planes were dropping bombs on my country it would be hard to avoid seeking some justification for fighting Hitler.
Lewis was willing to be that voice in a dark time. Did he say and believe all the right things? No. But he is an inspiration in that he willingly put himself forward as someone who would do his best to let the gospel shine through him as tainted and unworthy as he knew himself to be (as we all are).
(3) Willingness to address certain questions: Anyone who has asked their pastor hard questions know not everyone is willing to address them. Lewis was willing. In his book A Grief Observed he went a step further by exposing himself in the very pain and suffering which he addresses from a more removed position in The Problem of Pain. Lewis came with his mind; he came with his heart.
Again, as I noted above, we don’t always need the best answer. Sometimes we just need a thoughtful answer.
(4) Imagination: I have not read the Chronicles of Narnia series. I want to do so someday. I have seen all the films.
One of the best things about Lewis, in my opinion, is imagination. He gives theological answers using the part of our mind that we often forget when doing Christian theology, yet the one part that is essential. If we cannot imagine, we cannot make sense of the Christian religion.
The Screwtape Letters impacted my thinking about the world we cannot see. Lewis reminds us that to ignore the demonic is to give way to the demonic. To obsess about the demonic is to give way to the demonic. We must find a healthy balance.
Without a theological imagination this is all childish gibberish. I am thankful for Lewis who was willing as an Oxford (and Cambridge) intellectual to let that part of his mind work for the benefit of us all. Again, we cannot do Christian theology without imagination.
(5) Democratization of Christian theology: Lewis was not a professional theologian. He was not a biblical scholar. He was a medievalist and a literary critic. He was a lay man in the Church of England. Yet more Christians read Lewis today that most of his theological contemporaries (I know this doesn’t prove much since more Christian read Joel Olsteen than they do good books).
What Lewis did was show Christian thinking is not limited to those of us with degrees. You can have a mind, be a Christian, and not have the title “doctor”. I think Lewis would have been a blogger. Yes, we have scholars in the biblioblogosphere, but for the most part it is we lay folk. Lewis would have liked blogging because it embodies the democratization of Christian theology. If anyone did this, Lewis did.
All this being said, no, you do not have to read Lewis to be a thinking Christian. No, Lewis does not answer every question. No, Lewis is not the greatest theologian of the twentieth century. But I personally have found Lewis to be a worthy dialogue partner and someone who anyone can access, great or small, theologian or lay person. You don’t have to read Lewis, but you won’t go wrong in doing so either.