C. S. Lewis and the Language of Apologetics
by Pavel Hosek
My country, the Czech Republic, is among the most atheistic countries in the world. Most Czechs are not interested in any religion. Those that are prefer all possible alternatives to Christianity. Very few nonbelievers in my country read Christian literature. There is one exception. His name is C. S. Lewis. Czech nonbelievers enjoy his books greatly and he is by far the top-selling religious author in the secular market in the Czech Republic. Many people wonder why. C. S. Lewis is certainly one of the greatest Christian writers of all time. Judging from the number of copies sold, he is the most successful author in church history. Yet the content of most of his books is certainly not bestseller material these days, as he offers his readers old doctrines of Christian orthodoxy. Generally speaking, this is not very popular stuff in contemporary Western culture.
Why is Lewis (unlike many other apologists) able to attract millions of nonbelievers? Why is it that even the atheistic Czechs enjoy his books? If the content of Lewis’ message is the same (and it is), what is so special about Lewis that he became the bestselling Christian writer and an apostle of the postmodern era? Why is it that he can speak to a stubborn Czech atheist?
A quick look at the titles of Lewis’ works gives us a hint: The Chronicles of Narnia, The Cosmic Trilogy, The Pilgrim’s Regress, The Screwtape Letters. These titles do not really sound like traditional apologetics. Lewis’ style of thinking and literary technique have little to do with abstract speculations like “Metaphysical Evidence for God” or “A Treatise on Moral Absolutes”. He used literary means and genres, rarely found in the field of Christian apologetics: poetic language, symbolism, myth, science fiction, novels, fictionary correspondence. Probably the most characteristic feature of Lewis’ literary style is his usage of metaphor, symbol and mythopoetic language. In his particular use of language, Lewis was able to employ his expertise in literary theory and history of literature, the field of scholarship which was his secular occupation.
I believe that Lewis’ specific understanding of poetic language is what distinguishes him from most apologists, and likely also one of the most important arguments for his effectiveness in communicating the Gospel to contemporary secular people. This is precisely the case in the Czech Republic. When I was working as an editor in the Christian publishing house Navrat domu, which published most of Lewis’ books in the Czech language, the sales figures communicated a clear message: Lewis won the heart of the average Czech secular reader. In most cases, the reader would start with the The Screwtape Letters, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Great Divorce or The Cosmic Trilogy. Only later, if at all, would the reader turn to Lewis’ essays or to his more explicit apologetics.
This begs an important question: How did C. S. Lewis understand the poetic language that he employed in his most popular writings?
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