CS Lewis and American Protestants
[This post is the first in a three part series on CS Lewis and the American Protestant church]. When I started graduate school, I planned to study CS Lewis. In fact, that’s what my 300 word “letter of intent” to Baylor University was all about. When I was in undergrad, I did a semester abroad in Oxford, where Lewis was a don, or professor. My secondary tutorial there was on CS Lewis and his works – I wrote four 1500 word essays on him that semester (that’s 6,000 words in an eight week trimester, people). My first ever conference presentation was an essay on Lewis’ Til We Have Faces (and Mosiac veil imagery) at the 12th annual meeting of the CS Lewis Inklings Society. While in graduate school, I studied under Dr. Ralph Wood, a renowned expert on CS Lewis and Flannery O’Connor, and was urged, by him, to get my paper on Lewis published. I own and have read – often multiple times – every single book he has ever written, and many of the letters (published in a volume edited by his long time secretary).
I say all that not to wave my experience and credentials in your face, but to tell you this: I know (more than the average person) what I’m talking about when it comes to Lewis.
I also have a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, which isn’t saying a whole lot, but it does give me a leg up when it comes to philosophical discussions, especially as ancient Greek philosophy intersects with Christian teaching.
So when I see posts like this which use CS Lewis’ “Shadowlands” metaphor as a God-breathed, inspired-by-Scripture thing, I get kind of mad. I get mad because it’s wrong. Just sheer wrongness. And wrongness on the Internet needs to be fixed, goldangit!
Why are they wrong to think that CS Lewis "shadowlands" are an accurate application of Christian theology? Well, that takes more than a few words to answer, but I’m going to try.
First, there are a few things Protestant Americans who hold up CS Lewis as a fantastic theologian and writer need to recognize.
CS Lewis was an atheist well into adulthood. He spent years of his life immersed in secular philosophical and literary study, and that didn’t instantly drop out of the picture that when he became a Christian. In fact, he brought all of that to the table when he began to piece together what being a Christian meant for him in the secularized world of an Oxford don.
When he converted, he converted to the Anglican church. This is the context in which he is writing – a high liturgy, heavily metaphorical denomination. He was also influenced in his conversion by a devoutly Catholic man, which also affected his views. This, too, shows up in his works.
Most importantly, however, Lewis was heavily influenced by Greek philosophy and Greek myth. We see this in his basic argument that Protestant Americans seem to love, that Christianity is the “one true myth.” He was heavily invested and interested in ancient Greek philosophies and stories, also seen in the work of the work Til We Have Faces, which is a Christianized retelling of the ancient Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche (it is also his longest running work, begun when he was around 20 years old and finished and published after Narnia was written and published, so it interestingly spans the time when he was an adamant atheist AND an adamant Christian).
I cannot emphasize this enough: he approaches Christianity from the mindset of it being the true philosophy, with a hugely philosophical and literary background, and does not have the Biblical training or knowledge of a pastor or a trained theologian. That means he gets some things wrong. And not just little things. BIG things.
As a result, calling him a theologian is a misnomer. Yeah yeah we’re all theologians yadda, but to refer to Lewis as though he is a trained and experienced theologian is a mistake. Lewis did not add anything new to the theological discussions going on – in fact he ignores many of the great theologians of his day. Instead, Lewis is a translator of the faith. He makes it possible for laypeople to join in the conversation. But, because he has this conversation in a vacuum of theologians and is instead primarily affected by philosophy, it is a flawed discussion.
Additionally, turning to him for apologetic material is a mistake. His arguments, while seemingly sound if you already start from the premise of belief, fall apart if you take a sharper eye to them. Again, this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the way Lewis’ works should be understood. He was writing to give laypeople in the church the tools to understand their faith, not necessarily to create a solid, indestructible apologetic. Sure, he participated in debates with atheists, but that does not make his works apologetic in their very nature.
Are we on the same page now? Good. Lewis has been a huge influence on my own life and writing (in the way I view my writing being used, even!), but it offends me to see him being used as an end-all-be-all for Protestants in American Christian culture, which he increasingly is. Tomorrow, we’ll dive into his idea of the Shadowlands and get some background on Plato.