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The American Evangelical Love Affair with C.S. Lewis: Why He's Important But Still Not Jesus

Posted: 03/16/11 11:30 PM ET

If you asked 20 evangelicals today who they thought was the best Christian thinker of the past century, 19 of them would reply, "C.S. Lewis." The esteemed professor of Magdalen College, who died the same day as JFK and Aldous Huxley, may be known best to those outside the evangelical fold as the author of the popular series of children's books, The Chronicles of Narnia. However, no one who possesses even scant familiarity with Christian themes and symbolism will leave Lewis's wardrobe surprised to discover the man was a devout Christian. It would be no great revelation to learn the creator of Aslan had commitments to the Lion of Judah.

It may come as a surprise, however, to discover the profundity of this British Anglican's impact on American Christianity -- specifically American evangelicalism. More so than his fiction, Lewis's large corpus of apologetic nonfiction is his most significant contribution to American evangelicalism. Works like The Problem of Pain, The Abolition of Man, The Weight of Glory and Mere Christianity comprise a veritable third Testament in many evangelical circles. The latter should be required reading for anyone who cares to understand evangelical thought. Anyone who has discussed theology with an evangelical already has stood inside the arc of this book.

With the possible exception of Jesus and the apostle Paul, no man's name appears more in popular evangelical nonfiction. No man's words are more quoted in popular evangelical apologetics. If you happen into the religion section of a bookstore, pull several titles from the shelves and check the indices for Lewis's name. (I would point you specifically to books that wrestle with postmodernity, "culture," and/or secularism. There will be no shortage of titles.) Very likely, you will find a bulky entry for Lewis. Indeed, you may find references so numerous as to warrant subentries in the index: Lewis, C.S. -- on beauty, 141; on truth, 37; on suffering, 25-26, 34, 217. These are three of the fifteen subentries for Lewis in Tim Keller's best-selling The Reason for God (2008).

The causes for Lewis's influence are numerous. He grew up in the church, became an atheist and returned to Christianity. The Oxford don has sacred and secular imprimatur, carrying the inheritance of both the prodigal son returned and the wise Greek redeemed. His writing is charming and concise, tinged with a cool, incisive English wit that plays well in an American evangelical milieu that delights in the courtly muses of the British Isles. Churchill, U2, The Lord of the Rings, The Screwtape Letters: stuff evangelical white people like.

Above all, Lewis means a lot to evangelicals because he argues against a number of "-isms" many evangelicals find troubling: atheism, secularism, humanism, materialism, naturalism, subjectivism and moral relativism. In all cases, of ultimate concern to Lewis is modern society's loss of an objective Center of value -- some Standard, some Authority that doesn't vary with personal tastes, cultural shifts or the blood-dimmed tide of history. Lewis believes that, minus such a Center, members of society have no Authority in common to which they can appeal in moral debates and decision-making. All conceptions of good and evil become weightless, mere matters of individual preference. Without a Center that can hold society together, things fall apart.

Ironically, this man who worries so much about the doom that comes with the loss of a societal Center consistently argues that individuals cannot operate without some notion of a Center. Lewis's most recurrent and central point is akin to Bob Dylan's "You Gotta Serve Somebody": When we interact with others, we all appeal to some foundational authority we believe is true outside of our mere wish for it to be true, and we usually expect others will defer to that authority. Lewisian argument is aimed at excavating these hidden foundations.

For example, Lewis would push the person who espouses the liberal adage, "Do whatever you want as long as you do not harm others," to recognize the binding moral injunction on which such a claim rests. The Lewisian would ask, "Why place restrictions on harming others? If I possess insurmountable power, why should I exercise restraint in dealing with the powerless?" Absolutely binding moral presuppositions -- e.g., "no one's freedom entitles them to harm others" -- undergird even our most open-ended moral claims. At the very least, we behave as if some moral directive is absolutely binding, for all times and occasions. Even if we declare, "nothing is absolutely binding," are we not in effect saying, "it is absolutely true that nothing is absolutely binding?"

Although it sometimes verges on sophistry, the Lewisian argument has some merit. One of its effects is the problematizing of the "science/reason vs. religion/faith" dichotomy. It turns out we are all creatures of faith, especially when it comes to morality. We all possess nonrational (or suprarational) commitments that are not explicable solely in terms of empirical data or laboratory experimentation. It also turns out that we have to be creatures of faith; it is irrational to believe we have other options. We simply are standing on some premises; we cannot do otherwise.

It is no wonder that Lewis is the Alpha and Omega of popular evangelical apologetics. But however much Lewis has to offer contemporary theological discussions, evangelicals have developed an unhealthy addiction to Lewis's arguments. As is the tendency with all powerful ideas, Lewis's arguments have become a rhetorical talisman, an epistemological panacea. Because they offer a number of compelling insights that strike at the root of important questions, they are taken to resolve all root matters. Therefore, however new the wineskins, readers of popular evangelical apologetics end up drinking some version of that sound old Oxford vintage.

The result of this Lewis-worship is a two-fold narrowing of evangelical intellectual life. First, as Lewisian thought becomes the discursive structure of critical inquiry, it ceases to be the object of critical inquiry. Lewis is never put in the dock for inspection, revision, abandonment or refinement. Lewis is the dock.

Second, an evangelical milieu that so prides itself on its "engagement" with secular thought and culture begins to count reading and rehearsing Lewisian argument as such engagement. "Engagement" thus becomes a second-hand affair -- synonymous with finding out what C.S. Lewis has said on a given topic. But the 21st century has some new topics; and while it is unwise to execute some great divorce with the past and its great thinkers, each generation must write its own books.

Historian Mark Noll wrote in the mid-1990s, "the scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind." I am unsure how true this remains among evangelical academics; my hunch is that there is work afoot in some evangelical circles, in part spurred by Noll's writing, that has corrected this non-intellectualism. If (or when) such work makes its way into evangelical mainstream literature, we may see some exciting things from an evangelical population that at its best seeks a robust synthesis between its inner and outer lives. We could use such a population as fellow citizens.

But if there is a scandal of the evangelical mind, it is that there is an evangelical mind -- and it belongs to C.S. Lewis. It is high time for evangelicals to step out of Lewis's wardrobe. They must acknowledge that no man has ever lived that can feed them ever. Or, if such a man has lived, his name is not C.S. Lewis. Evangelicals should know that better than anyone.