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C. S. Lewis, 50 Years On

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If we looked for the most influential figures in American Christianity today, some of them wouldn't surprise us at all. We'd find the Apostle Paul and John Calvin near the top of some people's lists -- or, at least, some people's understandings of the Apostle Paul and John Calvin.

We'd find Martin Luther King affecting what many Americans believe it means to be a person of faith.

And on the lists of a surprising number of people -- especially a surprising number of evangelical Christians -- we'd find an Oxford professor of English literature, one Clive Staples Lewis, who came smoking, drinking, enmeshed in complicated relationships, and asking hard questions.

It is, literally, the year of C. S. Lewis. Fifty years since his death, on Nov. 22, 1963 -- yes, he died the same day as Kennedy and Aldous Huxley -- he is more influential than ever. As Publishers Weekly notes, "While Huxley is now largely forgotten and Kennedy remains a symbol of lost promise, Lewis lives on through his novels, stories, essays, and autobiographical works." His books are selling more than 6 million copies a year, new special editions of "The Screwtape Letters" and "A Grief Observed" are due out this year, and this November, he will join Shakespeare, T. S. Eliot and Chaucer as writers buried or commemorated in Westminster Abbey's Poets Corner.

Happily for us, 2013 is also the year that Lewis is the topic of great new books by the British theologians Alister McGrath and Rowan Williams. McGrath, known for his gifts in making theology accessible through works like his textbook "Christian Theology," has penned "C.S. Lewis: A Life," a thoroughly readable biography that opens up the man behind the myth. Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury and a renowned theologian and poet, offers what may be his most accessible work of theology, "The Lion's World," a reading of the Narnia works first presented in 2011 as Holy Week lectures in Canterbury.

The McGrath biography takes advantage of access to all of Lewis' letters, a resource not available to previous biographers, and he is thus unafraid to take on pieces of the Lewis legend others have considered to be Lewis fact. He shifts the accepted date of Lewis' conversion to Christianity, for example (if one, indeed, converts in a moment as opposed to as a process), offers new insight into Lewis' relationships with women and with friends, and persuasively argues that the First World War (in which Lewis fought and was wounded badly enough to be sent back to England) must be considered a formative event in the writer's life.

McGrath notes Napoleon's quip that the best way to understand who people are is to see what was happening in the world when they were 20. In Lewis' world at 20, that was the war, his injury and his memories of what he had seen and done. As McGrath puts it, "If Napoleon was right, Lewis's world of thought and experience would have been irreparably and irreversibly shaped by war, trauma, and loss" (49). Yet Lewis wrote more about his bad experience in prep schools than about the battlefield, and he described the war as "unimportant." McGrath's premise, that the war prompted Lewis' quest for understanding, a quest that ultimately led him to Christianity, feels totally plausible, and helps us better understand the man and the Christian apologist he became. It also, frankly, grants me more sympathy for a man who sometimes seems too cold and reasoned (at least before we encounter him, broken-hearted, in "A Grief Observed").

Christianity Today wrote in 1998 that Lewis had come to be "the Aquinas, the Augustine, and the Aesop of contemporary evangelicalism," and McGrath's life helps explain Lewis' appeal to contemporary Christians: Lewis offers the vision of orthodox faith welded to a love of literature, of thought, of beauty, the prospect of a faith engaging heart and mind alike. Fifty years after his death, Lewis is more popular -- and perhaps more influential -- than ever. But how might that popularity and influence shape us today?

This is the great gift of Rowan Williams' new book. Williams offers insight into the spiritual themes of Lewis' most popular works, the Narnia books. "The Lion's World" argues that these books succeed or fail as stories, first, but that they offer a coherent and moving vision of what it is to encounter God and ourselves, "a real experience of surrender in the face of absolute incarnate love" (7). Reading the Narnia books is, then, a dramatic and imaginative voyage into a world that is not ours -- so that we may understand ourselves, our world, and our faith better upon our return.

The expert guidance of Rowan Williams helps me appreciate the Narnia books more than ever -- and helps me understand my faith better in the process. By references to major and minor characters and storylines, as well as the central figure of Aslan the Lion, Lewis' clear and recognizable Christ-figure, Williams teaches us what he believes Lewis to be teaching: that "the truth of God becomes a revolution against what we have made of ourselves," that we are our own occupying forces, and only something outside of us, willing to reflect the truth of our condition back to us and stand alongside us as we wrestle with that truth, can save us from ourselves (139-40).

Williams' conclusion, placed alongside the McGrath life, helps the great contribution of Lewis to fall into place:

"In a word, what Lewis portrays with such power and freshness in Narnia is simply grace: the unplanned and uncontrolled incursion into our self-preoccupied lives of God's joy....Surprised by Joy is more than the title of [Lewis'] autobiography. It is a summary of what Lewis most wanted to convey, recognizing as he did that once you had begun to understand this, all sorts of details of Christian doctrine would fall into place." (142)

If you've never understood Lewis -- or if you want to understand him better -- these two books will open your eyes to the reasons for reading him. In this anniversary year of Lewis' death, they are an enduring gift to all of us who seek to be surprised by joy.