Georgie Henley is pictured with a lion named Aslan in the 2010 movie The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, based on C.S. Lewis’ book. CNS photo/Fox

C.S. Lewis inspires a new generation

By  Jonathan Luxmoore, Catholic News Service
  • January 12, 2013

OXFORD, ENGLAND - In a wooded suburb of this fabled university city, a battered typewriter sits on a desk beside a bay window that overlooks a tangled landscape of oaks and beeches. Nearby, ancient bookshelves guard a leather armchair surrounded by wall maps and pictures depicting a fantasy world.

When Clive Staples Lewis bought The Kilns, a former brick factory, in 1930, he used its remote calm to produce a stream of Christian stories, the best known of which, The Chronicles of Narnia, has since sold 100 million copies in more than 45 languages.

But Lewis also gained renown for his Christian apologetics. His Mere Christianity, published in 1952, was rated “best religious book of the 20th century” by the U.S. magazine Christianity Today.

Until now, Lewis has been largely ignored at Oxford University, where he taught for three decades, until his death in 1963. He has gained greater recognition in the United States, where the Episcopal Church celebrates a “Holy C.S. Lewis Day” each November.

With interest growing, however, and three books of the Narnia series now blockbuster films, things are changing.

“Lewis wasn’t a professional theologian, but his sense of the world Christianity portrays was just as profound as the best modern theologians’,” said Judith Wolfe, an expert on the author and a theology faculty member of Oxford’s St. John’s College.

“He realized Christian literature wasn’t presenting good characters who were also interesting; the evil characters were always more compelling. By portraying Christ as the lion Aslan in the Narnia stories, he hoped to reveal the real-life attractiveness of the holy.”

A native of what is now Northern Ireland, Lewis won an Oxford scholarship in 1916, graduating after fighting in the First World War. He became a fellow of Oxford’s Magdalen College in 1925. The city is full of landmarks connected to Lewis. There’s the Eagle and Child pub where his literary group, The Inklings, met; the walkways where he nurtured his fascination for Nordic, Celtic and Greek legends; and the Anglican Holy Trinity Church where he lies buried.

As a new generation is introduced to the world of Narnia, Anglican Father Michael Ward, a university chaplain, thinks Lewis’ Christian vision is gaining a new relevance. Lewis’ work has appeared on reading lists in both English literature and systematic theology at Oxford. The C.S. Lewis Society hosts weekly seminars at the university’s Pusey House.

“Like his close friend, J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewis expressed his Christian faith through narrative and imagination which seems to be chiming in with contemporary needs,” explained Ward, co-editor of The Cambridge Companion to C.S. Lewis.

“People are picking up intuitively again on the timeless religious element in his books, even if they’re not directly aware of their fundamentally Christian message.”
Lewis was raised in the Anglican Church of Ireland, but abandoned his faith in school, recalling in Surprised by Joy: The Shape of my Early Life how he had received Communion “in total disbelief, acting a part, eating and drinking my own condemnation.”

When Lewis returned to the Anglican faith at Oxford in 1931 — thanks to the devoutly Catholic Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings trilogy — he described himself as “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”

Although Lewis disappointed Tolkien by declining to become a Catholic, he was sympathetic to the Catholic doctrines of confession and prayers to the saints. His return to faith released new powers of imagination and launched him on a fresh career as an interpreter who popularized Christianity. Mere Christianity, based on wartime broadcasts for the BBC, tackled popular objections to Christianity, stripping it to its essentials with simple arguments and observations.

Diarmaid MacCulloch, professor of church history at Oxford, said Lewis’ nondenominational approach to Christianity explains his popularity in the United States and is giving him renewed appeal today.

“Lewis has become a standard-bearer for conservative Christians when religion seems to be undergoing a great realignment between the forces of tradition and change,” MacCulloch told Catholic News Service. “This tension runs across the theological categories and can now unite a conservative Catholic with a conservative Protestant, something which wouldn’t have happened half a century ago.”

Other experts concur that Lewis succeeded in capturing the Christian imagination where the theological abstractions of churches often seemed too high brow.

Walter Hooper, an American Catholic who was living with Lewis at the time of his death, remembers the author as affable and hard-drinking, but also as a man who sincerely attempted, against difficult odds, to live a Christian life. He agreed that interest in Lewis also is growing among Catholics.

During a 1988 Cambridge University lecture, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger praised Lewis’ rejection of “destructive relativism.”

Hooper recalled how Blessed John Paul II also revealed a knowledge of Lewis’ works when the two met during a 1988 general audience in Rome and the late pope lauded his 1960 work, The Four Loves, as well as Lewis’ devotion to a practical apostolate.

“Lewis owed it to his fans to avoid complexities and set Christianity’s core beliefs in place,” said Hooper.

“But he was adamant those core beliefs, the deposit of faith, must always remain, no matter how things change. If you get rid of Christianity’s sense and meaning, you’ll have nothing to come back to.”

 

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