The ¬Å“authentic’ C.S. Lewis

CWCS Lewis.jpg
Thursday night I was asked to make a few remarks about C.S. Lewis as a “prototypical culturally engaging Christian” prior to attending the Taproot Theatre production of “Shadowlands, directed by Karen Lund. First, if you don’t know about Taproot, shame on you, you should. The show was delightfully engaging, particularly Jeff Berryman, whose exquisite rendering of C.S. Lewis gave Anthony Hopkins a run for his money. (As with any good Seattle live performance you meet interesting people and I made the acquaintance of Joe Crookes, a photographer and poet! )

Newfound friend Joe asked me to summarize the theme of my pre-show talk in a nutshell and here is how I answered. Lewis gave his memorable BBC series of talks about Christianity sixty years ago during WWII. He published those talks as the bestselling “Mere Christianity” fifty years ago (1952) and he died forty years ago on the same day JFK was assassinated. Yet last year (2003) his books sold over six million copies. WHY?

I would argue that in addition to being a “mere” Christian, Lewis’ greatest gift was as an authentic Christian who engaged culture authentically.

1) He understood his calling to be that of an ambassador for faith, “translating” Christian belief to culture.

We often think of Lewis as an intellectual apologist or member of the literary elite, as did Jerry Jenkins of “Left Behind” fame, who was quoted in Newsweek last week saying, “I know I’m never going to be revered as some classic writer. I don’t claim to be C. S. Lewis. The literary-type writers, I admire them. I wish I was smart enough to write a book that’s hard to read, you know?”

The genius of Lewis was not that he was hard to read, but that he articulated Christianity in ways everyday people could understand. Lewis said of his own work, “When I began, Christianity came before the great mass of my unbelieving fellow countrymen either in the highly emotional form offered by revivalists or in the unintelligible language of the highly cultured clergymen. Most men were reached by neither. My task was therefore simply that of a translator one turning Christian doctrine, or what he believed to be such, into the vernacular, into language that unscholarly people would attend to and could understand¢â‚¬¦One thing is sure. If the real theologians had tackled this laborious work of translation about a hundred years ago, when they began to lose touch with the people (for whom Christ died), there would have been no place for me.”

2) Lewis understood his role as an outsider and exile from culture.

Evangelicals often mistakenly believe cultural influence originates in the mainstream, and yet faith-rooted living and art derives from the margins. This we see in Jesus, Chaim Potok, Modigliani, and as Paul Elie reports, in that great quartet of Catholic writers Dorothy Day, Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor and Thomas Merton. “Walker Percy saw writing, for example, as a message in a bottle, you know, put in by one person to be urgently sent forth and read by another. That said, they situated themselves to some degree at the margins. And I think their Christian faith had to do with that. They didn’t expect to be at the center of things.”

True artists seldom occupy the mainstream. Filmmaker Robert Altmann told this story about artists. ¢â‚¬ËœI was going to Santa Fe one time, and somebody said, “It’s great down there, you know it’s a real artists’ colony.” I remember saying, “I didn’t know they colonized.” Of course, they don’t. That’s the one thing artists don’t do.” Like any good artist or Christian, Lewis retained his independence instead of swimming with the crowd. His views seem sometimes quaint precisely because they are out-of-step and at other times seem harsh, because they are uncomfortably true.

3) Lewis was an artist and encouraged the artist in others.

Lewis believed writing was a craft and agreed with Dylan Thomas who said the writer should “treat words as a craftsman does his wood or stone, to hew, carve, mold, coil, polish, and plane them into patterns, sequences, sculptures, figures of sound.” And so Lewis wrote simply, but he wrote well.

More than anything else, Lewis was captivated by and employed “imagination” in his work. Part of his resistance to Christianity was his love of imagination, which he saw at odds with Christian doctrine. “Nearly all that I loved I believed to be imaginary; nearly all that I believed to be real I thought grim and meaningless¢â‚¬¦I could almost have said with Santayana, ¢â‚¬Ëœall that is good is imaginary; all that is real is evil.'”

So we should not be surprised to learn that Lewis’ own conversion began not with reason or intellect, but with imagination. He picked up a copy of George MacDonald’s Phantastes, a faerie Romance and reports¢â‚¬¦ “That night my imagination was, in a certain sense, baptized; the rest of me, not unnaturally, took longer. I had not the faintest notion what I had let myself in for by buying Phantastes.”

In Lewis’ view, conversion often proceeds from imagination to reason and then to the will. As a result he placed a premium on the imagination once saying, “reason is the natural organ of truth and imagination is the organ of meaning.” He believed you could not fully grasp the meaning of a word or idea unless it was associated with an accurate and captivating image. This is why Lewis’ writing, whether fiction or prose, was laced with analogy and imagery.

Lewis also supported the imaginative work of other artists, most notably Tolkien who insisted he would not have completed the Lord of the Rings without the ongoing encouragement of his friend. Lewis was more modest regarding his influence on Tolkien, saying once, “No one ever influenced Tolkien you might as well try to influence a bandersnatch (A fierce monster invented by Lewis Carroll. It appears in Through the Looking Glass and The Hunting of the Snark). We listened to his work, but could affect it only by encouragement. He has only two reactions to criticism; either he begins the whole work over again from the beginning or else takes no notice at all.”

In conclusion, we are still reading Lewis sixty years later, because he was an authentic Christian who engaged culture authentically.

This coincidentally is the work of Taproot as well. Here we have a professional theatre company, interpreting faith to culture and culture to people of faith. Often it does its work as an outsider and alien, but it always aims to do it artistically and imaginatively, in a manner that takes its craft seriously and “brings faith to life.”

Yours for the pursuit of God in the company of friends, Dick Staub.

PS. And remember, “these are the best of times and the worst of times, but they are the only times we have.” (For Now).

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