C.S. Lewis has hugely influenced Christian thought.
Christianity Today voted Mere Christianity the best Christian book of the 20th Century , and The New York Times described Lewis as one of Christian history’s most influential members in terms of how many people his work has lead to faith.
At the same time, there are always new lessons to learn from Lewis’ life and work.
Here are three particularly relevant lessons the Christian community today can learn from Lewis:
- Friends Don’t Have to Agree on Everything
Various scholars have noted that Lewis and most members of his literary discussion group the Inklings were Christians.
However, Humphrey Carpenter, who wrote one of the first books on the Inklings, noted that Lewis’ closest Inkling friends had very different perspectives on religious topics.
J.R.R. Tolkien was a conservative Roman Catholic. Since he held the Catholic belief Christians should seek spiritual advice from professional theologians, Tolkien was never fully comfortable with Lewis’ apologetics works.
Charles Williams was Anglican but always fascinated by the occult and mysticism. Consequently, Williams wrote many novels with spiritual warfare elements and tended to describe God with mystical-sounding terms such as “The Omnipotence” or “The One Mover.”
Owen Barfield, one of Lewis’ university classmates who helped lead him from atheism to theism, followed a philosophy called Anthroposophy before converting to Christianity. Consequently, Barfield was Christian but maintained some Anthroposophist views (such as belief in reincarnation).
Lewis disagreed with his friends on these matters, sometimes very sharply.
However, as Carpenter explains it, Lewis believed that “friendship thrives not so much on agreeing about the answers as on agreeing what are the important questions.”
- Myths May Have Hints of God
Many Lewis biographies talk about how Lewis reached the point where he believed in God, but not quite in Christ. J.R.R. Tolkien helped Lewis overcome an obstacle to becoming a Christian.
Without telling the full story , Lewis and Tolkien talked at one point about mythology and Lewis commented that myths are simply lies told beautifully.
Tolkien disagreed, and argued that since humans are created by God, their myths always hint of God’s truth. Therefore, myths are garbled truths rather than lies.
Lewis agreed, and then explained he still didn’t believe Christianity because he couldn’t see how Jesus’ death was still important years later. What could one man’s dying thousands of years ago have to do with us today?
Tolkien replied that the answer went back to myths: many cultures have stories about a god who dies and rises again. Jesus’ life and death is just like the Dying God myth, except it actually happened. The great story writers had hinted at finally came true, and myth became fact.
This approach to mythology — which Lewis later described in books such as God in the Dock — gives Christians a new perspective for secular culture. It means secular culture isn’t depraved beyond hope.
Rather, secular culture and its many products are made by broken people who can still connect and understand God’s truth on some level.
- Good Writing’s Just as Important as Good Theology
Carpenter argues that while Lewis had many sides to his personality, two particular sides show up in his writings: the debater and the poet.
The debater side provided the philosophical arguments Lewis used in Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain, and his other nonfiction works. The debater side was skilled but (at least in Carpenter’s view) also limited at times. Mere Christianity for example, started as a series of radio talks, which required Lewis to make very brief arguments without covering everything exhaustively.
Fortunately, the poet side (Lewis’ imagination) also appears in his nonfiction and creates a well-crafted tone, interesting examples, and humor that balance the debater.
“Though the logic of Lewis’s Christian apologetics may be fallible,” Carpenter writes, “the imagination of the writing with its brilliantly-conceived analogies is itself enough to win a reader to his side. As Austin Farrer expressed it, ‘We think we are listening to an argument; in fact we are presented with a vision; and it is the vision that carries conviction.’”
This imaginative side balancing the rhetorical side also seems to be true in Lewis’ fiction. Lin Carter, one of the early champions of fantasy literature, commented in his book Imaginary Worlds about Aslan’s death in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
Carter wrote that the scene is “a blatantly symbolic Crucifixion-and-Resurrection scene,” but also that it is “beautifully and simply written, and deeply moving even to an unbeliever like myself.”
If Lewis’ work had any faults, his writing style was skilled enough people looked past those issues.
Excellent Christian writing happens when sound theology and strong writing work together.