C. S. Lewis, 50 Years On
by Greg Garrett
If we looked for the most influential figures in American Christianity today, some of them wouldn’t surprise us at all. We’d find the Apostle Paul and John Calvin near the top of some people’s lists — or, at least, some people’s understandings of the Apostle Paul and John Calvin.
We’d find Martin Luther King affecting what many Americans believe it means to be a person of faith.
And on the lists of a surprising number of people — especially a surprising number of evangelical Christians — we’d find an Oxford professor of English literature, one Clive Staples Lewis, who came smoking, drinking, enmeshed in complicated relationships, and asking hard questions.
It is, literally, the year of C. S. Lewis. Fifty years since his death, on Nov. 22, 1963 — yes, he died the same day as Kennedy and Aldous Huxley — he is more influential than ever. As Publishers Weekly notes, “While Huxley is now largely forgotten and Kennedy remains a symbol of lost promise, Lewis lives on through his novels, stories, essays, and autobiographical works.” His books are selling more than 6 million copies a year, new special editions of “The Screwtape Letters” and “A Grief Observed” are due out this year, and this November, he will join Shakespeare, T. S. Eliot and Chaucer as writers buried or commemorated in Westminster Abbey’s Poets Corner.
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Happily for us, 2013 is also the year that Lewis is the topic of great new books by the British theologians Alister McGrath and Rowan Williams. McGrath, known for his gifts in making theology accessible through works like his textbook “Christian Theology,” has penned “C.S. Lewis: A Life,” a thoroughly readable biography that opens up the man behind the myth. Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury and a renowned theologian and poet, offers what may be his most accessible work of theology, “The Lion’s World,” a reading of the Narnia works first presented in 2011 as Holy Week lectures in Canterbury.
The McGrath biography takes advantage of access to all of Lewis’ letters, a resource not available to previous biographers, and he is thus unafraid to take on pieces of the Lewis legend others have considered to be Lewis fact. He shifts the accepted date of Lewis’ conversion to Christianity, for example (if one, indeed, converts in a moment as opposed to as a process), offers new insight into Lewis’ relationships with women and with friends, and persuasively argues that the First World War (in which Lewis fought and was wounded badly enough to be sent back to England) must be considered a formative event in the writer’s life…
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