C. S. Lewis: His True Stature in Dispute
May 1999By J. A. Gray
J. A. Gray was formerly Deputy Editor of the NOR.
Am I the only one who is puzzled by the C.S. Lewis industry? There are piles of books about Lewis and his work, enough already to fill a small library, many of them with titles and subtitles proposing to explain his writing and explore his thought. This strikes me as a curious effort to make on behalf of a man who has already explained himself quite well and explored his own thought with remarkable thoroughness.
I've rarely read writing as simple and lucid as Lewis's, whether it is his professional work in literary criticism or what he called his amateur work in theology. His Christian apologetics is done (intentionally, it seems) pretty much in words of one syllable, and in all my reading of him I've never come across a sentence that left me wishing for a scholarly gloss. As for exploring: I generally feel when reading his religious essays that Lewis wants me to finish with his thought as quickly as I can and to go explore the thought of someone whom he has just encouraged me to admire -- Dante or Donne or Milton or Pascal or Hooker or MacDonald. Most often I feel that he would prefer me to close his book and explore instead the vast and inexhaustible field that is the thought of Jesus.
It's certainly fun, though, to linger with Lewis, and his best stuff can be chewed over again and again without losing its flavor. (For twenty years I've savored his description of himself as a newly converted Theist facing the prospect of becoming a Christian: "Though I liked clergymen as I liked bears, I had as little wish to be in the Church as in the zoo.") Lewis is a rare combination of passion, clarity, learning, and wit, and the wish to broadcast one's enthusiasm for him, or even the wish to emulate him, is understandable. Perhaps these endless writings that are proffered as supplements to his work do not spring from a presumption that Lewis needs our help to make himself clear. Probably they are intended as humble salutes to the man and his achievement. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but maybe explication and annotation come a close second and third.
Whatever its origin, the warm tide of admiration reached flood stage in 1998, the centenary of his birth. Advertisements for Lewis publications, Lewis periodicals, and Lewis conferences filled my mailbox and, I presume, the mailbox of every person on a Christian mailing list. The most striking of these flyers was the one announcing a celebration in Oxford or Cambridge (I forget which) that was to endure for several days and would feature speeches and songfests and banquets. That sounded strangely un-Lewisian to me. I'd read somewhere that Lewis dreaded banquets: He warded off invitations by pleading a glandular condition that became acute and unsightly during digestion. (He did not have the disease, he explained, only all the symptoms.)
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