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Religion: Beyond the Wardrobe

5 minute read
David Van Biema

In October 1945, C.S. Lewis wrote a slightly grumpy reply to someone asking him to do a book on Christianity, in plain language, specifically for workers. Since giving a series of wartime BBC lectures on the faith’s basics, Lewis had become a kind of Christian Answer Man, and frankly, he had other ambitions and projects. “I am nearly 47,” he complained. “Where are my successors?”

“It’s interesting,” says Alan Jacobs, author of The Narnian (HarperSanFrancisco), a new Lewis biography, “that 60 years later, nobody has really turned up.” Lewis, whose day job was Oxford medievalist, did eventually get around to other work, including seven children’s books about a place called Narnia. Ninety-five million Narnia books have been sold since then, and as Disney begins test screenings for its December release of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, based on the series’ first volume, the septet is back near the top of the children’s best-seller lists.

Yet Lewis’ popularity extends beyond the Borders children’s section. This year HarperSanFrancisco, which publishes some of the best known of his dozens of adult titles, including Mere Christianity (a collection of those radio talks) and The Screwtape Letters (a set of funny-creepy faux missives from a senior devil to his nephew), sold 843,000 copies, twice as many as in 2001. Multiple books about Lewis debut annually; this year’s crop features Jacobs’ biography and Jack’s Life (Broadman & Holman) by Lewis’ stepson Douglas Gresham. In 1947, a TIME cover story hailed Lewis as “one of the most influential spokesmen for Christianity in the English-speaking world.” Now, 58 years later (and 42 after his death, in 1963), he could arguably be called the hottest theologian of 2005.

One reason, as even a cursory rereading of Mere Christianity attests, is that despite a certain datedness of style and reference, Lewis’ brief for Christian belief is superbly organized and easy to follow. He was not a great aphorist, but he had a genius for the deceptively homey metaphor (the book abounds with pennies, trains, mousetraps, pianos) and the extended polemical line that detonates in climaxes such as his rejection of the idea of Jesus as primarily a moral tutor: “You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon, or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher.” That passage, with its anvil-chorus cadence and utter disdain for any diminution of Christ’s divinity in favor of his more mortal aspects, may not be Lewis’ most subtle, but it is emblematic of his lucidity and certitude.

His words have altered lives, some quite prominent: Charles Colson was exposed to Lewis when he had the conversion that eventually transformed him from a jailed Nixon henchman to a mover in Evangelical politics and ideas; Domino’s Pizza billionaire Thomas Monaghan has credited one chapter of Mere Christianity with his decision to sell his major assets and work to “populate heaven” via conservative Roman Catholic giving; the Lewis-abetted faith of National Human Genome Research Institute leader Francis Collins has proved that you can believe in both evolution and God. Other admirers have included Pope John Paul II, Greek Orthodox Bishop-theologian Kallistos Ware and megapastor Rick Warren.

Colson and Warren represent what may be Lewis’ most fascinating aspect: his posthumous migration from liberal to conservative icon. He was an Anglican whose natural first constituency was the old Protestant denominations. But by the 1960s the mainline’s interest had shifted from core orthodoxies to social action. Screwtape, by contrast, advised that to damn a man, “get [him] at first to value social justice … and then work him on to the stage at which he values Christianity because it may produce social justice.”

Many mainline élites dropped Lewis, and his adult works might have gathered dust–were it not that Evangelicalism had just emerged dewy and hungry from the rigid chrysalis of Fundamentalism, eager for anyone, even a high-church Anglican, to popularize basic Christian tenets. Today it is Evangelicals who hold most of the Lewis conferences and write most of the Lewis books. They often present Mere Christianity to prospective converts or joyfully pass copies to those who are born again, along with a Gospel of John. Says Christian author Nancy Guthrie, whose new devotional The One Year Book of Hope (Tyndale) opens with a Lewis quote: “I used it because the sentiment was apt, but also because he’s almost an inarguable voice” in her community.

To exchange the enthusiasm of one era’s religious trendsetters for that of the next: that’s a trapeze trick that would be the envy of many a living author. Lewis’ fans hope the new Lion film will not only amuse kids but also attract more adults to his oeuvre, further extending a remarkable trajectory.

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