Saturday, January 21, 2006

C.S. Lewis: When He Speaks, We Still Listen

Clive Staples Lewis would have celebrated his 107th birthday last November 29th. Thinking about the enthusiam over the release of his fantasy "Chronicles of Narnia" as a film just last month, I realized his life and work present a puzzle. How is it that this professor, who died over 40 years ago, did not come to faith until age 32, and spent virtually his entire adult life in the 200-mile stretch between Oxford and Cambridge, still moves so many different types of people?

The responses vary on many specifics, but they all point to Lewis’ way of making the Christian faith reasonable and comprehensible. As the actor, Rene Russo, described her own religious search: “I picked up a book, ‘Mere Christianity’ by C. S. Lewis, and it really helped. That started me sort of on a path that included God in my life. And that’s the way I was able to finally sew in a little self-confidence.” Perhaps Francis Collins, Director of the Humane Genome Initiative put it best—and it’s important to remember that he oversees a multi-year, multi-billion dollar project that maps human genes, which frightens many believers. As 27-year old medical intern, Collins encountered the writings of Lewis and found they spoke a language of faith that appealed to his scientific mind. He can now conclude, “My own faith is not based on childhood exposure or emotional experience, but rather on the kind of logical argument for the reasonableness of Christianity which Lewis presents so well.” (Among other names that could be added: Charles Colson—notorious for his work in Watergate, now head of Prison Fellowship, and Tom Monaghan, founder of Domino’s Pizza.)

Lewis, though dead, remains the most popular contemporary theologian. Enjoying one of my favorite pastimes, I have never passed by a bookstore’s religion section without seeing his many titles. In 1994, one of the largest religious magazines, Christianity Today, polled its readers: “What theologian or biblical scholar has most shaped your Christian life?” The number one answer was Lewis. It’s no surprise that his books still sell two million copies each year.

Why so many types of people? Why is Lewis still popular? He was certainly brilliant. He was after all an eminent scholar of medieval and renaissance literature. Lewis in fact believed in a reasoned and reasonable faith, and his writings provoke thoughtful response: “God is no fonder of intellectual slackers than of any other slackers. If you are thinking of becoming a Christian, I warn you, you are embarking on something which is going to take the whole of you, brains and all.”

Good so far. But so many other religious thinkers and theologians are also intelligent. What makes Lewis different? First of all, he spoke in a language that laypersons could understand. As Lewis himself once advised Anglican priests and youth leaders, “You must translate every bit of your theology into the vernacular…. A passage from some theological work for translation into the vernacular ought to be a compulsory paper in every ordination examination.” And “translate” he did. Not interested in jettisoning the cargo of orthodox belief, he was convinced that the Christian faith could be believed if it could be expressed in appropriate logic, metaphor, and story.

Which brings me to the second point: Lewis never rounded off the hard edges of Christianity. The clarity of his prose only made the hardness more apparent. He preferred a conservative, “straight-up,” but ecumenically minded, “mere Christianity” to a more modern, but diluted “Christianity- and-water.” And his message was compelling simply because the messenger believed it to be Truth. “If Christianity was something we were making up, of course we could make it easier. But it is not. We cannot compete, in simplicity, with people who are inventing religions. How could we? We are dealing with Fact. Of course anyone can be simple if he has no facts to bother about.”

There are a variety of lessons to be learned for any of us who write about religious themes and want to be heard, but two are most important. The earliest Christian writers—following Jesus himself—took great pains to be comprehensible, using street language and rough-hewn stories. In their drive to speak clearly, they never left the scandalous demands of Jesus’ message. Too many theologians speak in impenetrable language, hardly caring whether any public can understand them. Lewis’ legacy—even after 100 years—is that he believed the strange hardness of Gospel remains its greatest strength and that he cared to be understood. Both still make good sense.

No comments: