Is C. S. Lewis Overrated? (w/ poll!)

Upon recommendation from my mother, I recently took a look at a new book published by Renovare:  25 Books Every Christian Should Read.  After reviewing a sample of the text and the Table of Contents, I enthusiastically added it to my class “Discipleship and Spiritual Formation.”  The Purpose-Driven Church has its place, but nothing beats the communio sanctorum for helping us grow spiritually and reflect upon the work of God in the world.  Here’s what they include:A pretty heady list.  Some I’ve read.  Some I’m just aware of.  Others?  I sheepishly admit there are a few about which I know nothing.  Nevertheless, I’m excited to walk through these classics with my students.

Theoblogy noted the book approvingly last week, but did offer a few critiques.  One of them was this:  “C. S. Lewis is overrated.”  I have to say I kind of agree.

C. S. Lewis died 48 years ago yesterday (22 November 1963).  Two famous men died with him that day (John F. Kennedy & Aldous Huxley).  While Kennedy’s story has lived on, both he and Huxley’s legacies have not seen the immense growth in popularity that Lewis’ has.  Evangelicals have adopted him, often carte blanche, as their patron saint.

I’ve engaged in the C. S. Lewis lovefest myself.  I’ve read a number of his works, from the well-known (The Chronicles of Narnia and The Screwtape Letters) to the obscure (Letters to an American Lady).  I even took a C. S. Lewis course in college.  Make no mistake: he has a lot to offer.  Yet as I’ve reflected over the past few years–especially on his apologetic work–my passion for the man has been tempered.  Mere Christianity, often seen at the exemplar of his work, is one of my least favorite.  Why?  Because it goes about the apologetic task in a way suited for the Modern era, the world of science and propositional truth.  Josh McDowell’s infamous Evidence That Demands a Verdict also fits in well with this paradigm.  Lewis died well before the 1960s took full force, and with them the growing Postmodern temperament that devalues overarching metanarratives in favor of various contextual truths. In short, he wrote to a different world.

I think about Mere Christianity now and admire its construction and argument, but don’ t think it has much to say to contemporary Western society.  Lewis’ contemporaries George Orwell and Winston Churchill (indeed, the kind of people for whom it was written) would have been able to engage the material by means of acceptance or rejection.  Today’s young person might simply read it and say, “OK.  So what?”  Therein lies the postmodern dilemma, and why I’m convinced apologetics in the style of Mere Christianity are passe.

I disagree, however, that Lewis is completely overrated.  The genres he worked in were diverse, with propositional apologetics only one part of his larger project.  Stories like Narnia or Perelandra speak of truth narratively, and something like A Grief Observed is the emotional portrait of a Christian man honestly grieving the loss of his wife.  This kind of writing is in many ways well-suited for a postmodern narrative apologetic even as they are pieces for spiritual reflection in and of themselves.

Times change and the spiritual needs of and modes of reflection for Christians change with them.  As much as I love history, I realize that something does not need to be old for it to be useful.  Indeed, sometimes the passage of time can make things less and less relevant.  This is, of course, the problem with too much Lewis-olatry.  While he is a powerful writer and reflective thinker, we live in different times than his.  Too much focus on him will ignore the pressing issues of our own day and time and the ways in which our world calls of for answers, even as Lewis’ did. 

Beyond this, it is never a wise idea to so heavily favor one thinker or writer that we exclude or devalue others.  Lewis didn’t do this, and neither should we.  Is Lewis the only theologian we should consider? No.  Is he the only recent spiritual writer to which Christians should turn?  Absolutely not.  Are there writers who are doing some amazing work in these areas right now?  Absolutely.  Get your head out of The Magician’s Nephew for a second and take a look at Anne Lamott if you want to be smacked over the head with some postmodern narrative faith.  It will be worth you time.

So, then.Is C. S. Lewis overrated?  I’ll let you decide via this poll:

P.S.  The day after Dr. Clive Staples Lewis died, a new doctor premiered on the BBC.  48 years ago today.  Doctor Who?  Exactly.

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6 comments on “Is C. S. Lewis Overrated? (w/ poll!)

  1. I agree entirely with your post. I started reading Mere Christianity but never finished it –– I just found it boring. On the other hand, I’ve read Perelandra twice, and Till We Have Faces three times, plus some of the Narnia books multiple times. And I don’t repeat-read novels often.

    Lewis’ brilliance is that his style of rationality is brimming with life and human experience of God. His autobiography claims that it was Joy, not Reason, that won him to Christ. For him, I think the Christian faith is first of all beautiful, which means that his theological writings come across like a brilliant literary critic analyzing a wonderful work that he loves dearly. I would compare his written word to the music of Rich Mullins, for the way that they both draw our hearts to the beauty of God without sacrificing the highest intellectual rigor.

    Lewis’ writings on spirituality tap into some of the fundamental human flaws that we all need thrown into our faces. This is why every Christian should read the Great Divorce, even if they totally disagree with its depiction of heaven and hell. Lewis does something similar in Till We Have Faces without even engaging the Christian faith in any direct way. And Perelandra forces us to stand by and helplessly watch the threat of our own fall in the garden –– seeing that as humans, we would scarcely have withstood eating the fruit even if we *had* understood what the repercussions would be.

    So while I would agree that Mere Christianity may be overrated (as I said, it never captured my imagination), the rest of his corpus is not. I don’t know literature well enough to name his place among the greats. But it is difficult to deny that he has multiple works in different genres that are entirely compelling for all the right reasons.

  2. Scott-

    Happy Thanksgiving, friend!

    I like what you have to say here. I actually started writing the post ready to throw Lewis completely “under the bus,” but then as I thought more about especially Perelandra (in many ways my fave), I couldn’t do so entirely. There are things he does in a number of works that are just amazing.

    I suppose the bigger question with this “25 Books” thing is this: why, of all that he wrote, did the editors pick “Mere Christianity?” An error, I think. I would go with….Perelandra (or the more popular choices of Screwtape Letters or The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe).

    I am just a little worried about an evangelical fixation on Lewis to the exclusion of many others (such as the 24 authors that shared the pages of the book with him). Both the long tradition of the Church (many of whom Lewis treasured) and more recent authors carry with them a kind of immediacy and depth of perspective that is at least complementary to Lewis.

    C. S. Lewis is somewhat of a “cottage industry” for so many. There are good reasons for this, and there are also consequences to this that ought to be considered.

    I read “Till We Have Faces in college, but I had a hard time with understanding what was going on. We’ll have to talk.

    -Josh

  3. Joan says:

    C.S. Lewis is definitely overrated. I’ve read both his fiction and his apologetics. I think Lewis is a better novelist than he is a critic, even if his Narnia series is both mawkish and patronising. The intrusive religious harping doesn’t help any.

    As an apologist, Lewis is weak. He wins arguments, it seems to me, not both producing solid counter-arguments to, say, the claims of atheism. Instead, Lewis plays clever word games, exploiting the ambiguities of the English language. In other words, the points he makes are mostly semantic (relying of the llapses of logic in English). His arguments against atheism, for example, aren’t logical arguments – they are merely cutesy-poo semantic riddles which announce atheists can’t argue because apparently, without God, rational thought is unreliable. This is a clever linguistic trick; however, it is also talking around the issue and failing to address the real arguments against faith.

    Lewis was a convert to Christianity in a time in history when it was fashionable for British intellectuals e.g. Dorothy L. Sayers to “rediscover” traditional Christianity. I don’t understand why modern Christians go gaga for Lewis and treat him as an intellectual giant. He wasn’t. Lewis does little to shore up Christianity. His strengths are rather those of a poet – heinfuses the tired old gospel slogans with new metaphors and fresh imagery, giving the illusion of original thought, but he doesn’t provide compelling evidence in favour of Chrisitanity.

    • I think evangelicals as a whole tend toward a view of the world where truth is equally accessible to most everyone, and where the Bible presents pretty comprehensive answers to life’s important questions. This fits with the idea that all Christians are supposed to understand their faith and be able to defend it.

      While this assumption drives many of the rest of us up the wall, it makes sense that a common-sense apologetic would be the most appealing to evangelicals, because they hold the conviction that you shouldn’t have to get a graduate degree to be able to defend your faith. Since many intellectual arguments for atheism take place at the level of serious philosophy, most people (myself included) simply aren’t going to have the time to read those arguments carefully, and then carefully read sophisticated philosophical responses to them. But Lewis’s books are short and clear, so he’s going to get a hearing from that crowd. Since reasonably intelligent people without philosophy degrees probably don’t often read the more sophisticated attacks on Christianity, they see no reason to doubt that Lewis has as good an argument as needs to be made.

      Unfortunately, I don’t see how the situation could ever be particularly different than it is; only a very small percentage of people (Christian or atheist or otherwise) are ever going to know anything beyond generalities and common-sense arguments for what they believe about pretty much anything. Lewis takes fairly complex ideas and does a better job than most anyone else of communicating them at a fairly simple level, which I think is why people love him so much.

  4. Joan says:

    Saying an atheistic can’t think because he/she doesn’t believe in God and without God there is no rational thought is like saying a woman can’t have sex because she doesn’t have a penis and without a penis she is incapable of feeling pleasure.

    In other words, C.S. Lewis only wins arguments on religion by hijacking all the terms and definitions and bullying everyone else into his narrow-minded views of who is allowed to be reasonable.

  5. robstroud says:

    You are correct in stating Lewis is not overrated. The ongoing value placed on so much of his work is sufficient testimony to this. If he had only written apologetics, it might be arguable, but much of his work has definitely passed the test of time. And, as far as his apologetics are concerned, they have demonstrably been successful in reaching many people. (No one’s efforts in that arena could ever effectively reach everyone).

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