He was one of the most significant lay thinkers in two millennia of Christianity. Check him out. You’ll see.
He went quietly. It was very British. While the world’s attention turned to Dallas and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, one Clive Staples Lewis breathed his last in Oxford just a week shy of his 65th birthday. Strangely enough, science-fictionist Aldous Huxley passed the same day. In one calendar square, three of the 20th century’s most influential figures were gone.
It was Nov. 22, 1963.
C.S. Lewis is known best for his series of seven short fiction books, the “Chronicles of Narnia,” which have sold more than 100 million copies in 40 languages. With three of the stories already made into major motion pictures, and the fourth in the making, Lewis is as popular today as he’s ever been.
But even before publishing “Narnia” in early 1950s, he had distinguished himself as a professor at Oxford and Cambridge, the world’s foremost expert in Medieval and Renaissance English literature, and as one of the great lay thinkers and writers in two millennia of the Christian church.
Lewis was born in Belfast in 1898. He became an atheist in his teens, and a strident one in his 20s, before slowly warming to theism in his early 30s, and finally being fully converted to Christianity at age 33. And he would prove to be for many, as he was for his friend Owen Barfield, the “most thoroughly converted man I have ever known.”
What catches the eye about Lewis among Christian thinkers is his utter commitment to both the life of the mind and the life of the heart. He both thinks and feels with the best. Lewis insisted that rigorous thought and deep affections were not at odds, but mutually supportive.
What eventually led Lewis to theism, and finally to Christianity, was “Longing” — an ache for Joy with a capital J. He had learned all too well that relentless rationality could not adequately explain the depth and complexity of human life, or the textures and hues of the world in which we find ourselves. From early on, an angst gnawed at him that one day he would express so memorably in his best-known single book, “Mere Christianity”:
“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”
Such is the heart of his spiritual genius. So few treat the world in all its detail and contour as he does, and yet tirelessly point us beyond this world, with all its concreteness and color and taste, with the ardor of C.S. Lewis.
For many his impact has been so personal. For me, it was a six-word sentence in Lewis — “we are far too easily pleased” — that popped the hood on a massive remodeling of soul.
“If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
I had long professed Christianity, but this tasted so different. It tasted! This affirmation of happiness and pleasure and desire and delight was, to me, so new in the context of the Christian faith. And Lewis was the chef.
My notions about God and the Christian life were exposed as mere duty-driven, and my soul was thrilling at the possibility that Christianity might not mean muting my desires but being encouraged (even commanded!) to turn them up.
As a layman, Lewis didn’t preach weekly, but occasionally had his chance at a pulpit. His most remembered sermon is one he preached under the title “The Weight of Glory.”
“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses,” he said, “to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.
“All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.
“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit …
“This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously.”
For a growing number of us, Lewis occupies a class to himself. Few, if any, have taught us so much about this world, and the next, save the Scriptures. If you’d like to take him seriously, and with the smile and warmth he requests, start with his “Mere Christianity,” “The Screwtape Letters,” “The Abolition of Man,” “The Chronicles of Narnia,” or just about anything you can find with his name as author. His writings are pervasively thoughtful, engaging, provoking and rewarding. He will not disappoint.
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