C. S. Lewis: An Overview

written by Melody Green, adjunct professor

November 22, 2013 will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the death of C. S. Lewis, one of the most influential Christians of the twentieth century. The occasion will be marked by conferences around the globe, as well as the unveiling of a memorial to him in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey, where the most influential British writers are memorialized. And most importantly for our purposes here, Urbana Theological Seminary is offering a class on C. S. Lewis this summer.

C. S. Lewis has been described as one of the most influential Christians of the past century. Part of this is because of the wide variety of genres in which he worked: he wrote popular theology, fantasy, science fiction, essays, poetry, literary theory, memoir, allegory. Part of this is also because of his advocacy of what he called “mere Christianity,” or a non-partisan, non-sectarian view of the Christian faith. Some of his popularity is due to his ability to put difficult concepts into pithy, easily-remembered statements (take, for example, the quote from The Problem of Pain popularized by the movie Shadowlands: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world”), while some of his popularity is due to the fact that he was not afraid to address those difficult concepts in the first place.

A close reading of Lewis’s texts reveals that no matter what genre he was working in, a few themes frequently reoccur throughout his work. The relationship between faith and reason is one of his most important themes, and can be seen not only in books like Mere Christianity, where one would expect the apologist to be at work, but also in his children’s fiction. One of Lewis’s most frequently quoted statements is his argument that Jesus cannot be viewed as “just a good man,” but must be either “liar, lunatic or lord.” The same argument shows up in the children’s fantasy The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe when three children approach an elderly professor with a concern that their sister is talking about something that they don’t understand, and the professor responds by carefully explaining that there are only three options: either their sister is mad, or she is lying, or she is telling the truth. There is no other way out. This parallel use of argument is not accidental: Lewis frequently tackled the same topics, themes and concepts through various genres, grabbing the attention of different audiences as he did so.

Other important, recurring themes include the concept he called “Joy,” the relationship between love and suffering, what it means to be a created being in a world of created beings, and the importance of moral behavior in the Christian life. All of these themes, however, fall under one larger theme that is pervasive throughout everything Lewis wrote after his conversion: a deep and strong love for Christ.

One example of a place we can see this love at work is in an essay he wrote to answer a question he was frequently asked: why did an Oxford professor who wrote both literary theory and popular theology spend time writing a series of fairytale-like children’s books? His answer was this:

“I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralysed much of my own religion in childhood. Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feelings. And reverence itself did harm. The whole subject was associated with lowered voices; almost as if it were something medical. But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday School associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons?”

In this class, we will read several of Lewis’s books in various genres, exploring how these themes are developed and how the different genres reveal different aspects of the same concepts. We will also discuss Lewis’s popularity, we will read some of his well-known (and some of his lesser-known) texts, and we will spend some time looking at Lewis’s presence in popular culture: this includes movies, music, and recent books in which he appears as a fictional character.

By the end of the semester students in this class will have gained an understanding of who C. S. Lewis was, what his most important ideas were, what different genres he worked in, and why he still matters today. We will look at aspects of Lewis’s life that are important to understanding his writing, and we will discuss some of the writers who influenced Lewis, including George MacDonald and G. K. Chesterton. But most importantly, this class will provide us with the opportunity to see Christ in a fresh light.