The Relevance of C.S. Lewis
by Philip Vander Elst
It is difficult to exaggerate the importance and impact of C.S. Lewis. Although he died in 1963, most of his books are still in print and have sold around 200 million copies in more than thirty languages.
During the 1998 C.S. Lewis centenary celebrations, the American magazine, Christianity Today, described Lewis as the Aquinas, the Augustine and the Aesop of contemporary evangelism, whilst the British Post Office – the Royal Mail – issued a special commemorative stamp featuring The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (the first of Lewis’s Narnia books), as part of its new ‘Magical worlds’ series. According to Professor Adrian Hastings’s classic History of Christianity in England, C.S. Lewis composed almost single-handedly “the popular religious apologetic of modern Britain.”
The reasons for C.S. Lewis’s enduring popularity
What is the secret of Lewis’s enduring popularity and why is he relevant today?
The answer to the first question lies in his character, his intellect, and his creativity. Lewis was not only an Oxford academic and a popular theologian, but also a poet, a children’s writer, and a writer of science fiction. This means he was able to communicate at different levels and connect with different audiences. He also possessed a rigorously logical mind, a powerful imagination, and an extremely clear and lucid style of expression both in the written and spoken word. As a result, he was particularly effective in communicating theological truths and concepts through the use of ingenious pictures and analogies.
In addition to his intellectual gifts, Lewis’s personal experience of suffering and doubt enabled him to empathise with those who found it difficult to believe in God or accept the claims of Christianity. He lost his mother at the age of 10, was unhappy at school, and was wounded in the trenches during the First World War, losing one of his best friends in that terrible conflict. Not surprisingly, he became an atheist as a teenager and only came to God, with extreme reluctance, in 1929, as a young 31 year-old Oxford don.
Why is C.S. Lewis relevant today?
Lewis’s relevance today can be summarised in his own words from the preface to his best known theological work, Mere Christianity: “Ever since I became a Christian, I have thought that perhaps the best, perhaps the only service I could do for my unbelieving neighbours was to explain and defend the belief.” His success in doing so during the 1940s earned him the label, ‘the Apostle to the sceptics’, and with justification. He not only tackled such perennial issues as the problem of evil and the apparent conflict between modern science and the supernatural in The Problem of Pain and Miracles; he also managed to communicate and defend the entire Gospel to a popular audience of millions in his famous wartime radio broadcasts between 1941 and 1944. According to the BBC, around 50% of his listeners were unbelievers – an extraordinary tribute to Lewis’s powers of persuasion and communication. Furthermore, Mere Christianity, the published version of Lewis’s radio talks, which first came out in 1952, has sold over 11 million copies worldwide and is continually in print.
Has cultural change, especially the emergence of post-modernism, reduced the relevance and usefulness of C.S. Lewis’s work and example? Not in my opinion! His communication techniques remain an invaluable model for 21st century apologists and evangelists, and his critique of atheism, scientific materialism, and moral relativism remains highly relevant…
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