Friday, November 15, 2013

A Paean to St. Clive on the 50th Anniversary of His Death

22 November 1963 will be the 50th anniversary of the death of Clive Staples Lewis, aka (to me) "St. Clive." I believe some of what follows has already appeared on this blog, but I wanted to offer the following as my eulogy to St. Clive in light of his ongoing legacy. Here goes...

In written the book I've just finished on the crises of C. S. Lewis, I’ve found myself poring over others’ words about Lewis, several of his biographies and remembrances by friends, and especially every work of Lewis that I could get my hands on (including some unpublished pieces). All the time I’ve pondered the depth of this man and particularly the reason his words still resonate to the crises of millions and have not stopped speaking fresh insights to me. Lewis remains for me a constant source of interest and even mystery. I found that I want to truly grasp, to definitively summarize, what he expressed. I want to know more why I continue to be stunned by his insights, and where I disagree.
      There are three reasons for this: First of all, Lewis was the voice that woke me up to the possibility of God, of that Something More beyond this world. The amazing thing is that there are other voices that have led me to Christian faith, but it is Lewis’s that keeps leading me back, “deeper and further in” (to use a phrase from The Last Battle). So I suppose that, in some way, I’m repaying a debt I feel I owe to him. Secondly, I sense that I become a better person when I read Lewis, this beer-drinking, pipe-smoking, and certainly imperfect human being—not a classic saint, by any means. Perhaps that’s why he speaks to me, and, unless I’m mistaken, we are improved in the process. And somehow making me, and his readers generally, better people remains central to the moral formation that’s characteristic of Lewis’s writings. And yet in his words, there’s something numinous, a voice that calls me deeper. And still does. Maybe it’s what he read in George MacDonald, when he tasted something “holy” in his words.[1]
      Finally, it strikes me that Lewis is a great translator of Christian faith. And that inspires me. The earliest Christian writers—following Jesus himself—took great pains to be comprehensible, using street language and story. In their determination 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 changed that by stepping aside from the precise, though often distancing language of the academic. Instead he spoke in plain English. Lewis’ legacy is that he believed the strange hardness of Gospel remains its greatest strength and he dared to use language as clear as crystal and his creative imagination. Both still make good sense. That is why he still speaks to millions, and even just a few years ago, Time could still name him today’s “hottest theologian.”
      Even as I type these lines, artists are preparing the memorial on the fiftieth anniversary of his death in the famed Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey, an honor he will share with the likes of William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, T. S. Eliot, John Milton, William Wordsworth, among many others. I realize that many millions of others have found inspiration in his voice, and as I’ve written, resolution to their crises. For that reason, it is natural that Lewis has become a Christian cult figure. This represents another sort of “immortality.” And yet, as I read the man himself, I think he would found deplorable the development of “St. Clive” (which I jokingly call him) or the Writer of the Fifth Gospel (another quip by some admiring, though not idolizing, friends). Yes, he has been an important voice for me, and I suppose I’m writing this book trying to figure out St. Clive once and for all. I have never enjoyed writing a book so much. Now I'm a little sad that I have arrived at the end. To be honest, I don’t feel that I’ve totally grasped him, and yet I also sense that he’s entirely worth the continual effort. His good friend, J.R. R. Tolkien once commented about Lewis, “You’ll never get to the bottom of him.”[2] Maybe the best method is to simply accept that advice and enjoy the journey.

[1] Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich), 1955.
[2] George Sayer, Jack: A Life of C. S. Lewis (Crossway, 1994), xx.