Or Why We Should View the Christian Faith on a Broad Canvas
Social media, with the easy opportunity of quick- fire twitter feeds and Facebook walls, can bring out the worst in people. I remember once seeing a Facebook post from an atheist which read simply ‘Poor old CS Lewis- not the sharpest tool in the box’. As something of a Lewisophile I managed to resist the strong temptation to reply, ‘Indeed – and which Oxford College is your triple-first from?’
Alas, one of New Atheism’s common lines is that, not to put too fine a point on the matter, people who believe in the existence of God aren’t all that bright. Combining poor manners with patent untruth is never a good combination, and to my mind does no favours to the case for atheism.
There is many a person of above average intelligence who is not persuaded that atheism is true, and CS Lewis was one of them. Whereas my Facebook atheist sneered that Lewis was ‘not the sharpest tool in the box’, by any measure you care to use he had a mind like a razor. He did indeed get a triple first class degree from Oxford, went on to be an Oxford don and a Cambridge professor, and was regarded as one of the leading English scholars of his generation.
Now, do not mishear me here. I am not saying that ‘CS Lewis was a very clever fellow, and he was a Christian, therefore Christianity is true’. What I am saying is, if the likes of Lewis were Christians then perhaps it is not only for the ‘not very bright’. Atheism and theism are both intellectually respectable positions and both sides of the debate have thoughtful people who are trying to make sense of the world via their respective worldviews. Throwing schoolyard level verbal abuse at each other doesn’t help anyone’s case.
However, if I was inclined to throw things across the schoolyard to my atheist classmates, one of the things I would throw is books by Lewis.
Because they contain the irrefutable logical arguments which prove the existence of the Divinity? No- though books such as Miracles and Mere Christianity do give much food for thought. Because they reveal a flawless moral character who led a life worthy of a saint? No – for a reading of any biography of Lewis will reveal him to have been a character who had his fair share of ambiguities and faults.
Rather I would be hurling books by Lewis across the yard because I think his works give a vivid feel for the breadth of the Christian view of the world as seen through the prism of a hugely creative mind. As he himself famously said ‘I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else.’
In wider culture Lewis is best known for the Narnian Chronicles, and if you enjoy a good story well told then Narnia is a wonderful place to start. They can be, and are, read simply as stories, but within them is what Lewis called a ‘supposal’ of what the Christian themes of fall, redemption and the end of the all things would look like in another world. Lewis plays out similar ideas in more depth in his science fiction trilogy. For sheer comedy The Screwtape Letters – letters from a senior to a junior devil about how to tempt humans efficiently combines both wit and psychological insight which, for this reader at least, is hard to match. Allied to The Screwtape Letters in spiritual theme, though with little of the humour, is The Great Divorce – the story of how ‘the damned have holidays’, and can take a bus to heaven, and, if they wish, stay. A.N. Wilson describes The Great Divorce as ‘Lewis at his very best; it is something approaching a masterpiece’, which is high praise from someone who is undoubtedly Lewis’s most critical biographer. My own view, for what it is worth, is that Wilson is right in this assessment.
And finally – a book which is all too often overlooked, or indeed misread: A Grief Observed was written by Lewis after the death of his wife, and initially published pseudonymously. As a piece of literature A Grief Observed is quite simply astonishing. A stream of consciousness on death, loss and bereavement which is as honest as it is harrowing.
Perhaps a skeptical reader; an agnostic or atheist is already fizzing at the thought that they should read books about devils or heaven and hell, or, hang it all, reflections on bereavement? My only suggestion is to, if you will forgive the phrase, suspend your disbelief, if not in your worldview, then in the view that Christianity leads to an impoverished view of the world. Lewis, by knocking at the door of our imaginative world in his fiction, and of our rational world with books such as Mere Christianity and Miracles showed that that is simply not the case.
 A.N. Wilson, C.S. Lewis – A Biography, p202 (Collins, 1990).