C.S. Lewis Really Should Have Seen it Coming: More On the Dangers of Reading

by Brenton Dickieson

Last year I wrote a post called, “Be Careful What You Read… C.S. Lewis’ Literary Encounter with George MacDonald.” It got a big readership, partly (I think) because it turns our expectations upside down. According to research by sociologist David Kinnaman in books like You Lost Me, Christian youth are leaving the North American church in part because they feel the church is protecting them from big ideas in the world “out there.” According to Millennials, churches seem afraid that if they encourage education in science or philosophy, students will fall away from faith.

I’ve seen this–especially the protective instinct of parents and churches. I’ve also watched students step outside their faith story in the context of university science and philosophy classes. As a father and mentor to young Christians, I get that instinct to protect. I know how heartbreaking it is to watch people you love faltering in their faith. I know why churches try to protect their young people.

I just happen to think that is a deadly approach.

It is deadly because it doesn’t work. Creating intellectual ghettos will only delay a person’s encounter with the world. It will always lead to arrested development.

Moreover, bright, faithful kids are left with the message from leaders that “Christianity doesn’t measure up, but believe it anyway because it’s true.”

Far from protecting young Christians from the world, we are actually giving in to a worldly idea. Some of my best students are atheists and agnostics, and most have a skeptical starting point. The most common response I get from our best young minds is something like this, “Brenton is bright. He has read philosophy and will ask any question. I just don’t understand how he can still be a believer.” The most common first response I get to theism is not a solid intellectual answer–that comes later–but the instinctive believe that it is all so ridiculous it can’t be true.

In this way, protective church believers and young atheists agree that Christianity isn’t credible. They just respond differently to that fact.

So many are surprised when C.S. Lewis turns everything upside down and sends out a warning to skeptics and atheists:

“A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading” (Surprised by Joy, 182).

C.S. Lewis’ first teaching experience at Oxford was not in the English discipline where he would spend most of his teaching life, but in philosophy. Far from being a fundamentalist atheist, he followed the great philosopher Socrates in believing that one must follow the evidence where it leads. He read broadly, believing that he was secure in his intellectual atheism.

Eventually he found out that he was wrong…

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