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.