When I was only in my 20s and a little more sensitive about age than I am now, November 22 rolled around and I mentioned to my students that it was (then) the 25th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, an event that had marked a milestone for those who lived through it. “Miss, where were you when JFK was shot?” one of the students asked.
I was 23 at the time, born in 1965, so I fixed him with a steely glare and said, “I was not yet a gleam in my father’s eye.”
These days, though — or this day, particularly (I meant to publish this yesterday, but you know what I mean) — I’m more likely to remember November 22 for other reasons. Three famous people (and probably loads of less-famous ones) died on November 22, 1963. The deaths of the others were somewhat eclipsed by the assassination of the American president, but JFK’s deathday is shared with two great though very different writers: Aldous Huxley and Clive Staples Lewis.
It is, of course, Lewis that I feel drawn to talk about on the 45th anniversary of his death, to pay some kind of tribute to a writer who shaped my faith and my worldview possibly more than any other.
I’m hardly unique in this. Quite apart from the massive popularity of the Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis’s other works — especially, I’d guess, Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, and The Great Divorce — are among the ones that many, many Christians credit with informing and shaping their faith, maybe even with bringing them to belief in the first place.
Well, I can’t give old Jack that kind of credit: unlike him, I was a cradle believer, born and raised in church. I first encountered Lewis through the Narnia books when I was nine, and I loved them. I totally got the Christian allegory and the parallels between Aslan and Jesus, just as my children did when I read the book to them. I think if you’ve been steeped in that story from birth it’s not hard to recognize when it appears in allegory, and Jesus in lion’s clothing is still comforting and familiar, which is one of the reasons Narnia felt so right to me. There were fauns and dwarves and talking animals, but God was there, the same God I knew from church, so nothing could go too badly wrong, even in The Last Battle.
I was in my mid-teens when I was introduced to the rest of Lewis’s work, through Mere Christianity first and then Screwtape. Reading those books was a turning-point for me; at an age when many young churchgoers start losing their faith, mine was firmly cemented and I think that was due more to Lewis’s influence than anyone else’s, though there were obviously many contributing factors.
Someone on a Ship of Fools discussion wondered recently why Lewis’s writings are so beloved by conservative evangelicals when the man himself was a rather middle-of-the-road Anglican who believed and practiced quite a lot of things that most evangelicals don’t (and I would put a lot of Seventh-day Adventist Lewis fans, like myself, in this category). I think it’s because a lot of people share my experience: for me, C.S. Lewis was the first writer who showed me how to be an intelligent, thinking Christian.
I’m lucky in that I didn’t grow up in a church or a family that taught me that Christian faith and intelligence were incompatible. I know people who did grow up feeling that way, and that was not my experience. I knew it was important to have a strong faith, and also to be as smart as possible and think critically about the world around you. But — how do I explain this exactly? I got the feeling — much more implicitly than explicitly, and certainly not directly from my parents, but perhaps from the church culture — that while you could be both a devout Seventhday Adventist Christian AND an intelligent critical thinker, it was best to keep those parts of your brain in two separate boxes. Faith should be informed, certainly, by an intelligent reading of the Bible but not much else; it wasn’t a good idea to apply too many of your critical faculties to the things you learned in church. Save the intellect for school and the outside world; don’t read or think too deeply into things that might challenge your faith. Some books were perceived as dangerous; some questions shouldn’t be asked.
C.S. Lewis was, for me (and I suspect for many other smart, curious young evangelicals, hence his enduring popularity with that population) the one who blew a hole in all that, who said, “Look, of course you can be an intelligent Christian, and not only that, your Christian faith will stand up to intellectual scrutiny. You have nothing to be intellectually ashamed of in your faith: it will stand up to question and analysis. You don’t have to be afraid to think and question: the truth is sturdy enough to survive your doubts and questions and those of your atheist friends.”
This was a breath of fresh air to me. There are many things in my theology and in my private approach to faith that I owe to my readng of various Lewis books in my formative years, but the thing that endures, the thing at the foundation of it all, was this view of Christian faith as a sturdy and respectable thing that could endure hard qustions and doubts, rather than the fragile creature, in need of protection and delicate handling, that my childhood church had sometiems made me feel faith was.
Fortunately, this intellectual sturdiness allowed me, in the end, to question Lewis himself and allow him to be less than perfect. As a Seventh-day Adventist, I recognized as early as The Last Battle that he was wrong about the state of the dead, for example — but you couldn’t blame him for that, being an Anglican. Later I saw other holes in his reasoning, other points where I disagreed with him. For example, I believed for many years that his “Lord, liar or lunatic” formula was a good proof for the divinity of Christ: now I recognize that he left out a lot of options by boiling something so complex down to so simple a formula, and that very few well-read people today would be convinced by that argument. I can recognize and disagree with his views on the role of women and on many other issues, and still honour him for the tremendous influence he had on my thinking and on my faith.
When we speak of mentors it’s usual to speak of people we’ve known and worked with in real life, but in fact a lot of my mentors were dead before I ever met them and C.S. Lewis is first among them. I don’t know if I would still be a Christian today if I hadn’t read Mere Christianity at sixteen: I know I would not be the same Christian I am today.
In later years, I have had to deal with different doubts and questions, and turned to oter mentors for teaching and support. In the doubts of my late 30s and early 40s, another Anglican writer from Great Britain has filled much the same role in my intellectual life that C.S. Lewis did in my teens and twenties; that would be, of course, the current Biship of Durham, N.T. Wright. So it was with great interest that I read an article by Wright about Lewis, paying tribute to Lewis’s legacy while at the same time disagreeing with him on several points. Many of Wright’s criticisms of Lewis are ones I also share, but I agree with Wright’s assessment that Lewis, somehow, got it right. He made it work — at least, he made it work for me.
I’ve mentioned before my cripping shyness around people I admire, as for example on a recent occasion when I was in a room with the great Adventist scholar and writer George Knight and could not bring myself to tell him how much his writing has meant to me. I’m sure if I’m ever in a room with N.T. Wright, the same tongue-tiedness will overcome me and I will say onthing at all.
But fortunately, I will not run into C.S. Lewis in this life, and I’m sure that by the time I do meet him, not only my sins but my imperfections will have been taken away (as will his). I will no longer be afraid to say what’s in my heart because I will no longer care about looking like a fool.
All that will be behind me, and I will wait a few hundred years tilll all the other people who want to talk to him have said their thank-yous. Then I will seek him out in some quiet corner of heaven (he would probably prefer it was a pub, but the existence of pubs in heaven is something we’ll have to leave to God) and say “Thank you. Thank you for teaching me to be a thinking Christian; thank you for Narnia; thank you for dragging the sorry ass of my teenage faith out of the ditch of doubt. Thank you, even, for not being perfect and not being right about everything, so that I was never tempted to confuse the servant with his Master, and make a god of another human being who had simply walked the road before me and was able to give me a few pointers along the way. Thank you so much, Dr. Lewis.”
Even in heaven, I doubt I’ll be able to call him Jack.