Nov 20, 2013
Two famous men died on November 22, 1963. The first did so in the most dramatic way possible, assassinated in the full glare of publicity on the streets of Dallas; the second in relative obscurity, in the upstairs bedroom of his simple home on the outskirts of Oxford, England. John F. Kennedy’s legacy has, of course, been enormous, but I wonder whether C.S. Lewis has actually, in the course of these past 50 years, had a greater impact on the culture than his counterpart. When he died at the age of 65, Lewis’s reputation was on the wane, but he has enjoyed an extraordinary posthumous vogue, as two successive generations have delighted in his literary criticism, his novels, and above all, his clever and incisive Christian apologetics.
One reason why Lewis has proven so persuasive to so many is that he was compelled to undergo a transition—halting, painful, anguished—from non-belief to belief. Though he had been brought up in a Christian environment, he had lost his faith by the time he entered university. He was not someone to whom religious conviction came naturally or effortlessly; he had to work his way to it, in the face of often harsh opposition, both interior and exterior. This very personal struggle gives him credibility with the millions today who want to believe but who find ideological secularism and militant atheism enormously challenging.
A second reason why Lewis was successful was that he came at Christian apologetics primarily from a literary rather than a philosophical point of view. I want to be careful not to overstate the case here: Lewis certainly understood philosophy and used it at times in his apologetics both effectively and creatively. Think, for instance, of the subtle analysis offered in his book Miracles. But Lewis was, first and foremost, a man of letters—a poet and storyteller. His area of academic specialization was the literature of the 16th century—he wrote with tremendous insight on Milton—and his first published writings were poems.
This background allowed him to see something which is often overlooked in more academic and analytical presentations of the Christian faith, namely, that Christianity is, at bottom, a narrative, a story, an account of the dramatic things that God has done. Certainly doctrinal statements can be distilled from the Biblical revelation (in fact, that’s what most of formal theology does), but revelation is contained primarily in narrative form—and this matters profoundly. The Bible tells the story of how God’s good creation, sullied by sin, is restored through the return of God himself as king. This account contains many subplots and it is surrounded by a plethora of poetry, psalms, wisdom sayings, and other material that support it—but finally, the Bible is a rollicking adventure story, full of drama, reversals, adventure, and marked by a happy and triumphant ending.