Originally published on May 2015
In a sense I owe my conversion to C.S. Lewis. Reading his Mere Christianity at the age of 16 was what led me, the son of agnostic parents, to think seriously about belief in God for the first time in my life. The opening section of that book, on ‘Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe’ struck me then, and still does strike me, as immediately convincing. We acknowledge the existence of standards of right and wrong, and we acknowledge that we often do what is wrong. This points to the existence of a personal Creator who is also concerned with right and wrong, and to our need to find forgiveness from this Creator. From that time on I started to pray, and about a year later I became a Christian.
That wasn’t in fact my first contact with Lewis’ writings. Like many British children of my generation, I was given the Narnia books to read when I was about 10 or 11. I knew nothing at the time about the Christian theology and ethics that underlie the books. When I read about Aslan returning to life at the end of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and even when I read the ‘judgment’ scene at the end of The Last Battle, I had no notion of the Christian doctrines of the resurrection and the last judgment, of which those scenes are no more than a lightly-disguised presentation. But I wonder if these books didn’t also have a subtle influence on my thinking, perhaps preparing the ground for my conversion a few years later. Certainly I can only admire Lewis’ skill as a Christian story-teller. The Narnia books are among the few books from my childhood which I can still read with enjoyment (Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings and Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories being two others).
Since then, of course, I’ve gone on to read many of Lewis’ other books: The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce, presentations of Christian teaching on sin, judgment and grace in the form of adult fiction; his science-fiction trilogy, Out of the Distant Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength, whose broad theme is the conflict between scientific materialism and Christianity (though they are much more readable than that summary implies!); God in the Dock, a series of essays in Christian apologetics; his longer studies on The Problem of Pain, The Four Loves and Miracles; and perhaps most enjoyable of all, his autobiography, Surprised by Joy. They are books to which I have returned again and again and each time found something new. They have addressed me at different levels at different times in my Christian life. They continue to be a spiritual resource for me, as they are for many Christians.
Why is this? Lewis died in 1963, and his books are now in some ways dated. He was a lecturer in English literature, not a professional theologian or biblical scholar. What is the appeal?
What I like about Lewis’ writings is, first, their saneness and rationality (not the same as rationalism). He always writes lucidly and out of a conviction that the right exercise of human reason should lead men and women to God. I find this a refreshing perspective. Whatever one may say about the Christian scene world- wide today, it does not seem to me one which is in general characterised by the over-use of reason. Perhaps Lewis has something to teach us here. Not that he was a mere disembodied intellect. As you read his books, you sense his understanding of human nature, of the complexity and wonder of human beings made in God’s image and capable of reflecting that image with the full range of their humanity, in their emotions and wills as well as with their intellects. He was a man who by all accounts valued human love and friendship highly, and that comes across in his writings.
Second, Lewis was a talented communicator of the Christian faith. He writes so readably that it is hard to put a book of his down once you have started it. He has a particular gift for the apt analogy and for the telling comparison, as the continuing popularity of his writings testifies. We have much to learn from him as regards understanding the societies of which we are a part and communicating the gospel in a way that our contemporaries will understand.
Lastly, I find Lewis a very suggestive writer. He read widely in the literature of all the ages, and he brings a great breadth of understanding, above all a sense of history, to his theological writings. I am struck by his ability to make connections between different areas of human thought, by the way in which he sets contemporary issues in the light of the thinking of previous generations. I am equally struck by the creativity and richness of his thinking. Let one example stand for many. At the beginning of The Great Divorce the narrator, in a dream, makes a journey from a city representing some kind of after-life to a region representing heaven. As he does so, he and his companions become more and more insubstantial, until they are transparent. By contrast, when they reach heaven, they find it to be made of material so dense that they cannot even pluck a blade of grass or lift an apple from the ground. What a though-provoking idea! We are accustomed to speaking of the world with which we are familiar as ‘the real world’. But ‘our’ world only has a temporary reality. It is heaven which is the real world; not the bloodless, ethereal realm it is sometimes seen as in popular thinking, but full of solid joys and pleasures, tangible and permanent in a way which makes ‘our’ world seem to be made of shadows. But what a striking image: heaven as more solid and heavier than the world we know! There are many such passages in Lewis’ writings.
As may be apparent from the above, I only know Lewis through his books. Nonetheless, I owe him a lot. One should not make him out as more than he was. It is certainly not the case that, on any matter about which he has written, there is nothing more to be said. Nonetheless, I venture to say that his books are worth several times more than most that you will find on the shelves of Christian bookshops today. They stay with you in a way that other books do not. I commend them to you.
DR. PHILIP SATTERTHWAITE
Philip is Emeritus Principal, Registrar, Lecturer in Old Testament, Biblical Hebrew & Hermeneutics in BGST.