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C. S. Lewis for Christmas

As a child, I borrowed the Narnia books from the library repeatedly. I read them outside on the swings and surreptitiously on the stairs after bedtime. No one steered me to them; I was too young to discern their Christian themes. I just loved them. They followed me into adulthood. I wrote a paper on The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in university, taught the novel to my Grade 5 class and read the whole series to my children. The tales never tarnished. Alistair McGrath sums up their lustre: “These evocative stories affirm that it is possible for the weak and foolish to have a noble calling in a dark world; that our deepest intuitions point us to the true meaning of things; that there is indeed something beautiful and wonderful at the heart of the universe; and that this may be found, embraced and adored.”

After the rebellious debacle that was my adolescence, one scene in The Silver Chair propelled my Barthian “leap of faith” back into church. It’s where dear old Puddleglum, that dour Calvinist caricature, declares, “Then all I can say is that . . . the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. . . I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.” Puddleglum’s avowal became my own, the earnest pith of an existential choice for Christianity.

Understandably, given my past, Lewis’s journey from nonbeliever to Christian always intrigued me. Of all the erudite Inklings, it was Lewis, the former atheist, who emerged as a spokesperson for the reasonableness of Christianity. Three recently published books focus on his aptitude for apologetics. Any one of them would make a treasured Christmas gift for the Lewis fan in your family!

For the hardcore devotee
C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity: A Biography (2016) by George M. Marsden

Marsden’s work, stuffed with historical detail, traces the sustained impact of Mere Christianity, illuminating why this written version of Lewis’s wartime radio talks is still revered. Notables such as Francis Collins, N.T. Wright and Timothy Keller all cite the book as a critical influence. Keller, author of The Reason for God, jokes, “My book is Mere Christianity for Dummies.”

Marsden credits Lewis’s ecumenical approach as the key to Mere Christianity’s popularity: “Lewis looks for timeless truths as opposed to the culturally bound.” In fact, Lewis was so “anxious to include nothing that all Christians do not agree on” that he vetted his radio talks with a Presbyterian, an Anglican, a Roman Catholic and a Methodist to ensure their orthodoxy.

Mark Noll, editor of Christianity Today, says, “The phrase, ‘mere Christianity,’ has become a widely-used code to designate a meaningful body of belief that unites moderate to conservative Christians from all denominations.”

A second factor in the book’s longevity is its companionable tone. Lewis took pains to relate to his readers as a fellow-explorer, “who knew some of the difficulties the faith presented to unbelievers and how it looked from the outside.” Summarizing the winsome appeal of Mere Christianity, Marsden rightly concludes that it is rooted in the “luminosity of the Gospel message itself.”

Lewis lite
If I Had Lunch with C.S. Lewis (2014) by Alistair McGrath

Kudos to acclaimed Lewis expert Alistair McGrath for this lively introduction. McGrath “converses” with Lewis about such topics as friendship, suffering and the Christian life. He distills the difference between Lewis’s apologetics and his Narnia Chronicles this way: “Mere Christianity allows us to understand Christian ideas; the Narnia stories allow us to step inside and experience the Christian story and judge it by its ability to makes sense of things and chime in with our deepest intuitions about truth, beauty and goodness.”

Like Marsden, McGrath praises Lewis as a writer who could translate historic Christianity into the “cultural vernacular,” a skill that involves three steps: learning the language of your audience, finding that out by way of experience and listening before speaking, and translating what you need to say into that language. It also means, underscores McGrath, that you must understand your own ideas very well.

Lewis once observed that the most challenging aspect of interpreting Christianity for a modern audience was that his “hearers” had no innate conception of “sin.” In seeking to clarify such unfamiliar concepts, Lewis consistently incorporated imaginative non-academic illustrations. McGrath highlights the uniqueness of this approach: “Lewis helps us to appreciate that apologetics need not take the form of deductive argument. Instead, apologetics can be an invitation to step into the Christian way of seeing things, and explore how things look when seen from its standpoint.”

Lewis for the Millennial
Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms (2014) by Holly Ordway

The title of Ordway’s memoir is from a Lewis quote: “Fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement; he is a rebel who must lay down his arms.” Ordway depicts her rebel self – English professor, competitive fencer, diehard atheist – in funny, personable sketches. In an interview, she verifies the staunchness of her conviction: “I thought that there was no ultimate meaning in life, and that people who believed in any form of God were seriously deluded” (Word on Fire blog).

Ordway particularly loathes the notion of “blind faith, contrary to reason.” But her coach’s surprisingly proficient summary of the cosmological arguments for the existence of God persuades her to put her skepticism to the test. She launches a rigorous philosophical examination into whether the Christian faith can be defended on rational grounds. Among the most influential books? Lewis’s Mere Christianity.

Eventually Ordway realizes that she had been primed for conversion by her literary background. Her favourite writers – Tolkien, Lewis, Hopkins, Herbert, Donne – were all Christian. Enamoured with their aesthetic achievement, she’d always downplayed their religious vigour, but she finally reaches a spiritual point of no return: “In Narnia, I found that the Incarnation was not a bizarre idea, out of place in the world. It infused the very atmosphere; I breathed it in and was strengthened by it. That God would join his creatures by becoming part of creation himself seemed, here in Narnia, as fitting as the fact that winter’s end brought crocuses peeking brightly, through half-melted snow. . . . In Narnia . . . but here, in real life? It might not be true that God was involved with his world; it might not be likely that Jesus was God incarnate . . . but it was no longer unimaginable.”

These three books testify to Lewis’s apologetic legacy – a still-relevant template for how Christian doctrine can be tailored, with lucidity and persuasiveness, to the needs of the listener. In Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, Kathleen Norris echoes the Lewis prototype: “My book might be seen as a search for lower consciousness, an attempt to remove the patina of abstraction or glassy-eyed piety from religious words, by telling stories about them, by grounding them in the world we live in as mortal and often comically fallible human beings.”

I, too, long to share my faith effectively. As Lewis himself said in Weight of Glory, “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object to your senses.” Holy objects deserve respectful treatment. Prideful proselytizing is not the way. There are better options – inviting others to express their viewpoint first, recommending a book, lending a neighbourly hand. Sometimes it’s simply persevering in patient Christian love, trusting the irresistible call of Grace. Paul said, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel.” (I Cor. 9: 22, 23). May the Spirit empower me to do the same.  

  • Cathy Smith, former features editor and columnist for Christian Courier, is a retired Christian schoolteacher who lives in Wyoming, Ont.

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