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The Great Teller of the Christian Tale

November 17, 2013


Two famous men died on November 22, 1963. The first did so in the most dramatic way possible, assassinated in the full glare of publicity on the streets of Dallas; the second in relative obscurity, in the upstairs bedroom of his simple home on the outskirts of Oxford, England. John F. Kennedy’s legacy has, of course, been enormous, but I wonder whether C.S. Lewis has actually, in the course of these past fifty years, had a greater impact on the culture than his counterpart. When he died at the age of 65, Lewis’s reputation was on the wane, but he has enjoyed an extraordinary posthumous vogue, as two successive generations have delighted in his literary criticism, his novels, and above all, his clever and incisive Christian apologetics. 

One reason why Lewis has proven so persuasive to so many is that he was compelled to undergo a transition—halting, painful, anguished—from non-belief to belief. Though he had been brought up in a Christian environment, he had lost his faith by the time he entered university. He was not someone to whom religious conviction came naturally or effortlessly; he had to work his way to it, in the face of often harsh opposition, both interior and exterior. This very personal struggle gives him credibility with the millions today who want to believe but who find ideological secularism and militant atheism enormously challenging. 

A second reason why Lewis was successful was that he came at Christian apologetics primarily from a literary rather than a philosophical point of view. I want to be careful not to overstate the case here: Lewis certainly understood philosophy and used it at times in his apologetics both effectively and creatively. Think, for instance, of the subtle analysis offered in his book Miracles. But Lewis was, first and foremost, a man of letters—a poet and storyteller. His area of academic specialization was the literature of the sixteenth century—he wrote with tremendous insight on Milton—and his first published writings were poems. 

This background allowed him to see something which is often overlooked in more academic and analytical presentations of the Christian faith, namely, that Christianity is, at bottom, a narrative, a story, an account of the dramatic things that God has done. Certainly doctrinal statements can be distilled from the Biblical revelation (in fact, that’s what most of formal theology does), but revelation is contained primarily in narrative form—and this matters profoundly. The Bible tells the story of how God’s good creation, sullied by sin, is restored through the return of God himself as king. This account contains many subplots and it is surrounded by a plethora of poetry, psalms, wisdom sayings, and other material that support it—but finally, the Bible is a rollicking adventure story, full of drama, reversals, adventure, and marked by a happy and triumphant ending. 

Throughout his career, and in a variety of works, Lewis exulted in telling and re-telling this story. Thus, in his most famous work of apologetics, Mere Christianity, he explained that the one God had to do battle with the dark spiritual power that had unjustly taken possession of his world—which is why the Christ child was obliged to arrive so surreptitiously, so clandestinely, sneaking, as it were, behind enemy lines. The very same tale is told in the Chronicles of Narnia. But in that imaginative setting, the devil becomes the White Witch, who has plunged Narnia into a hundred years of winter, and Christ becomes Aslan the lion who offers his own life in order to liberate the land. In The Screwtape Letters, Lewis illustrates how the general calamity plays itself out in the life of a very ordinary Christian and the low-level devil assigned to torment him. It is precisely Lewis’s confidence in the victory of Christ that enabled him to disempower the devil through mockery. J.R.R. Tolkien, who was a great friend to and Christian fellow-traveler with Lewis, presented his own version of the Biblical tale in The Lord of the Rings. In Tolkien’s invented world, the devil appeared as Sauron the Dark Lord and Christ under the guise of Frodo the priest, Gandalf the prophet, and Aragorn, the king who returned after a great battle to take possession of his rightful kingdom. Both Lewis and Tolkien wanted to “evangelize the imagination,” to plant the seeds of the Gospel and the rhythms of the Biblical narrative in the minds of their readers. The fact that both The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings have, in recent years, been made into wildly popular films can only be characterized, therefore, as a triumph of evangelization. 

C.S. Lewis intuited something that has become a commonplace among postmodern philosophers, namely, that the avatar of one worldview overcomes another, not so much through argument, but through telling a more compelling story, by “out-narrating” his opponent. He knew that the Christian evangelist, despite any personal flaws he might exhibit or institutional baggage he might carry, still possessed the greatest story ever told. Lewis told that story with particular verve, bravado, intelligence, imagination, and panache—and that is why it is well and good that we should celebrate him on the fiftieth anniversary of his passing.