Would We Accept C.S. Lewis Today?

While the general American media remembered both the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the news coverage of the event fifty years ago, the evangelical Christian world observed the fiftieth anniversary of the death of one of its own heroes: C.S. Lewis. Like Kennedy, Lewis passed away on November 22, 1963—as did Aldous Huxley, oddly enough. Lewis achieved a level of appreciation among different Christian denominations and a following in the general populace that hasn’t been matched since. His popularity in both spheres remains high. Mere Christianity ranks every year among best selling books on Christian theology and schoolchildren still read The Chronicles of Narnia series.

Every so often Christians look at the gap Lewis left and dream that someone might be able to fill it. Christopher Mitchell published an essay along those lines titled, “Still Looking for C.S. Lewis.” Mitchell recounts Lewis’s unique gifts, most notably his ability to clarify the Christian faith in evocative and simple terms without dumbing down the traditions. Lewis had the special ability to explain mystery without explaining away mystery. He was not afraid to ask hard questions of the Christian faith and those who did not agree with Lewis’s conclusions often found themselves enjoying his intellectual rigor. Mitchell also rightly points out that Lewis remained unapologetically committed to Christian orthodoxy and tried to describe “mere Christianity.” That is, in his writings Lewis tried to defend a faith all Christian traditions could accept and he set out to avoid the particular debates that separated denominations. Though he wasn’t entirely successful in that endeavor.

Where is the next C.S. Lewis? Some writers have tried to take that mantle. N.T. (Tom) Wright most immediately comes to mind. His writing style is breezy and engaging. He communicates deep concepts in understandable terms. His scholarship is respected by conservatives and liberals. Plus, he’s British, so he has that whole aura of refinement that comes with his accent. Still, Wright hasn’t reached Lewis’ level of acceptance. Part of this has to do with the fact that he doesn’t write across genres that Lewis did. Wright has written theological, historical, apologetic, and exegetical books for various audiences, ranging from the general population to academia. As creative and prolific as Wright has been, however, I can’t imagine he’s going to publish a science-fiction trilogy or a collection of narrative poems anytime soon.

Instead of asking where is the next C.S. Lewis, we should ask would the next C.S. Lewis gain a similar foothold if he or she existed? Even more to the point, would we accept C.S. Lewis today? Lewis lived just as the last vestiges of Christendom’s dominance in the West were fading. Christianity still held importance and acceptance in the general population of Britain at the time. In his apologetic, Lewis defended Christianity to an audience that had some basic knowledge of the faith. It’s now unlikely that the major media outlets are going to give space to anyone to explain Christian beliefs as the BBC and major newspapers gave Lewis. Further, with the larger plurality of religions and spirituality in the general public, it’s unlikely that such an unabashed Christian would capture the general population’s attention.

The landscape within Christianity has also changed so much that I doubt if Lewis were publishing his works for the first time today that he would have broad Christian acceptance. The different camps would wonder aloud if he was conservative or progressive enough to be accepted.

In recent years a debate regarding the meaning of the atonement has emerged among Western Protestants. Some Christians have emphasized older theories of the atonement. Wright is a good example of this as he has reinvigorated the Christus Victor model of the atonement among Protestants. Other Protestants have argued the penal substitution model is so necessary that the whole message of Christianity itself crumbles without it. Lewis never seemed to have much time for the penal substitution model. In Mere Christianity he writes,

Now before I became a Christian I was under the impression that the first thing Christians had to believe was one particular theory as to what the point of [Jesus’] dying was. According to that theory God wanted to punish men for having deserted and joined the Great Rebel, but Christ volunteered to be punished instead, and so God let us off. Now I admit that even this theory does not seem to me quite so immoral and so silly as it used to; but that is not the point I want to make. What I came to see later on was that neither this theory nor any theory is Christianity. The central Christian belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start. Theories as to how it did this are another matter. (57-58)

(Lewis then goes on to argue for the ransom theory, which was clearly his preferred understanding of the atonement and the one he used to describe Aslan’s death in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.) Some Christians within the contemporary debate have argued for a kaleidoscopic understanding of the atonement in which we need a number of theories to explain the grandness and mysteriousness of what Jesus’ death and resurrection did and means. To this end, they would seem to agree with Lewis that these theories, while important and helpful, are not Christianity. But for the view that says penal substitution is the primary explanation of what happened, Lewis’s view is lacking. It’s not enough for penal substitution to be seen as one appropriate theory—it must be held as the best view and even the only view describing what actually happened. The other theories are viewed more as metaphors, whereas penal substitution is understood to be a concrete historical exchange.

Or, take the example of Lewis’s view of who gets to be saved. He held an inclusive view of salvation, that is a view that says all who follow Jesus will be saved, but Jesus may also save some who were unable to hear the gospel message or who never confessed he is Lord. This position is most clearly seen in the character Emeth in The Last Battle, who fights against the forces of Aslan, but is welcomed into Heaven anyway. In The Great Divorce characters freely travel from Hell to Heaven and residents of Hell are even welcome to stay in Heaven, opening the door for a possible universal salvation. Though Lewis makes the point most of the residents of Hell choose to stay there. Granted, Lewis states in his opening disclaimer he doesn’t intend to present what the afterlife looks like, but it does not seem beyond reason to think the book contains some of his guesses and hopes. In recent years Rob Bell made some claims that salvation might be open to people even after they die and he was widely criticized for the view and even seen as leaving Christian orthodoxy.

I do not mean we have to accept Bell’s or Lewis’s positions or that we cannot critique and even reject their views. I bring up Bell because he was criticized for his views in ways we do not criticize Lewis, even though Lewis held some views about salvation that do not have wide acceptance within Christianity, especially in evangelicalism. I know plenty of people who wrestle with Emeth’s salvation, but I am not familiar with people saying Lewis was flirting with heresy. (I know I shouldn’t hold my breath. I’m sure a Google search would produce numerous websites that throw Lewis under the bus.)

We do not find gatekeepers in only one branch of Christianity. Plenty of people who currently appreciate Lewis’s writings would likely reject him if he were publishing for the first time because of his views on women, which some have called misogynistic. I also doubt Lewis would be allowed to avoid the controversial topics of the day no matter how hard he tried to say he sought to present a Christianity that had broad acceptance. I could easily imagine if Lewis were on a promotional tour today for The Screwtape Letters that he would be constantly asked about his views on same-sex marriage and people on both sides of the debate would use his answers as their litmus test of whether they would accept his ideas or not.

We accept Lewis largely for his great gifts to the Christian faith, not the least of which were his incredibly accurate and evocative illustrations he used throughout his writings. He loved imagination, which seems to be a virtue that is on the wane in much of Christianity, including evangelicalism. Lewis may not have had  a lot of original ideas about the Christian faith—I think he would say he decidedly wasn’t trying to formulate new ideas—but he could explain those established traditions in new and generative ways. The Church deeply needs people who develop their imaginations like Lewis did. (One of my favorite illustrations of his was his defense of theology and the need to balance it with personal encounters with God.)

I think we also accept Lewis because he was given to us. That is, the previous generations who passed the faith down to us handed us Lewis’s books and said, “Read this. You’ll learn something important and good.” We believed them and when we may have encountered something in Lewis’s writings that didn’t sit well with us, we knew people whom we trusted appreciated what he had to say and we were willing to put our concerns to the side, or at least not pay as much attention to them. We weren’t given Lewis’s books to look for what was wrong with them, but to look for what was right with them. That is a reason why, I think, conservatives, liberals, evangelicals, mainliners, charismatics, etc. today still read Lewis and still find much in his writings to appreciate. If Lewis were publishing for the first time today, I imagine books, articles, blog posts, and tweets would be flying back and forth, assessing his works, debating whether he contributes to Christian orthodoxy or harms it.