Navigating Christianity and culture with C.S. Lewis

October 30, 2007

Recently, I sailed the Irish Sea with 80 Americans on a C.S. Lewis Study Cruise. That C.S. Lewis is still in vogue is a minor miracle.

Sixty years ago during World War II, this Church of England Oxford academic calmed and comforted a frazzled British populace with a rousing set of radio talks aimed at explaining Christianity to a so-called "Christian nation." His voice over the BBC became one of the most recognizable in Britain, second only to Winston Churchill.

Fifty years ago, that series of talks was published as "Mere Christianity."

Forty-four years ago, Lewis died on the same day John F. Kennedy was assassinated and Aldous Huxley bid this world farewell.

Just months before he died, a young American named Walter Hooper arrived to help Lewis organize his papers, an enterprise Lewis cheerfully endured as folly, for as he said, "five years from now, no one will remember C.S. Lewis."

Yet here we are in 2007 and Lewis is still selling a few million books a year. The 2005 release of "The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe" was a rousing box-office success. Francis Collins of the human genome project, Domino's Pizza founder Tom Monaghan, Prison Fellowship founder Chuck Colson and countless others name Lewis as most influential in their commitment to Christian faith.

Every year, literally thousands of people study Lewis through dozens of local, regional and national organizations devoted to advancing Lewis' legacy.

What gives?

How is it that a decidedly un-hip Lewis, who dressed sloppily, spent his entire career in the academy and was more comfortable with ancient myths than contemporary literature -- how is it that such a man is wielding such influence even today?

One can point to his prolific work as a gifted writer. Lewis' published more than 60 books in genres as diverse as children's fiction (The Chronicles of Narnia), science fiction (Perelandra), satire (The Screwtape Letters), autobiography (Surprised by Joy) and Christian apologetics (Miracles and The Problem of Pain).

One can say he benefited from and contributed to the collaborative inspiration of friends like J.R.R. Tolkien (The Lord of the Rings), whom he met weekly for years at a pub with a group of literary, thoughtful creatives dubbed "The Inklings."

But the real genius of Lewis, in my view, is that he was the prototypical culturally savvy Christian in the classic -- not contemporary -- sense.

Ever since the 1960s, when John Lennon declared that "the Beatles are more popular than Jesus," Christian leaders have been on a quest for relevance. In the contemporary view, the pertinence of Christian witness requires constant attentiveness and stylistic adaptations to new and changing trends.

In a sense they have succeeded. New York Times columnist Walter Kirn wrote a few years ago that "Christianity doesn't compete with pop culture. It is pop culture."

Yet there is a widespread sense that today's Christianity, though more tied-in to culture, is unbearably light. Where is the deep spiritual, intellectual and creative tradition that once marked Christian contributions to culture?

Enter C.S. Lewis, who was serious about faith, savvy about faith and culture, and skilled at relating each to the other.

Lewis understood that Christianity is rooted in a severe commitment in which one denies self and submits to Jesus as Lord. He understood that to be "savvy," or to "get it," about culture means at times to be differentiated and alien from culture. His call to savvy-ness made him a connoisseur of culture -- not merely a consumer of, or adaptor to, the latest trends.

Lewis also understood that he was called to be a creator of good work in culture, not just a critic. Lewis and Tolkien both believed their ultimate aim was to do whatever they did for the Glory of God. For them, such a calling meant meeting the highest standards of quality and excellence.

Their work is still germane today because it is born of deep faith and is at the same time deeply human. They understood that one bears witness to God's image by becoming an authentic human who reflects the rich spiritual, intellectual and creative qualities of God.

So I sail the Irish Sea with humans who, with Dante, understand that ultimately and spiritually, "our course is set for an uncharted sea." In such a situation, C.S. Lewis is a worthy and relevant guide.

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