Reading through Alister McGrath’s excellent biography, C.S. Lewis: A Life, I was surprised to learn just how close Lewis was to being right about his popularity all but disappearing five years after his death.
While it wasn’t that quite that sudden, but throughout the 1960s Lewis was not the household name he is today. In fact, many in American evangelicalism were wary of him and the British seemed content to leave all of their religious heritage behind, Lewis included.
It took a shift away from fundamentalism among evangelicals in the 1970s and the cultural transition of the 1980s into the post-modernity of the 1990s to reveal the insights and wisdom of Lewis that had been all but lost to the previous decades.
Neo-evangelicals in America were leaving behind the isolationist mindset of fundamentalism and, as McGrath notes, John Stott and Billy Graham sought Lewis’ advice as Graham prepared for a mission to Cambridge in 1955. That same year Carl F.H. Henry asked Lewis to contribute to the Graham founded magazine Christianity Today.
As apologetics and worldview thinking began to become en vogue among evangelicals in the 1970s and 80s, many suddenly realized that Lewis had done this in Mere Christianity and other of his works. His rational defenses of the faith were crucial to the work of men like Chuck Colson.
Most Christians continue to reject the excesses of fundamentalism and as such Lewis continues to be held in high regard, particularly as the dire consequences of philosophical naturalism he predicted become more and more evident in our day. Not only is he the preacher, he’s the prophet as well.
The reason Lewis’ popularity and influence show no sign of slowing currently is that his work provides the perfect answer to a world seemingly torn between modernity, post-modernity and whatever lies next.
Rationality and imagination
There are few writers who could write serious scholarly work, accessible apologetic books along with endearing children’s fantasy and insightful adult fiction. There is only one I know who accomplished all of them exceptionally well. That’s Lewis.
Postmoderns want a story and the creator of Narnia has those to spare. He gives a world of supposings with talking beasts, heroic quests and real human characters that can both achieve greatness and succumb to pettiness. Through these stories, Lewis is able to “steal past the watchful dragons” with truth that would never be accepted any other way.
But even in a postmodern world, there are those who want rational answers to real questions. In his non-fiction work, Lewis addresses the acceptability of basic Christian doctrine, the supernatural, pain and suffering, and many other of the most basic questions people have about Christianity.
In Lewis, you find a rare combination of rationality and imagination, modern and post-modern. You see the answers and the questions, the sermon and the story. It is hard to see a situation into which Lewis, though he has been dead for 50 years, cannot speak.
Will it continue?
Again, he addresses virtually every major issue from various angles. It is hard to imagine how he would suddenly lose sway among evangelical Christians. But regardless, I know he will be around for at least one more generation.
My generation, the 20 and 30-somethings with children, are reading The Chronicles of Narnia as bedtime stories. Their formative years are being formed by Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy – and most of all Aslan.
They are learning truth from the stories today. Tomorrow they may turn to the apologetic works when they face the questions as a high school and college student.
The future leaders are being raised in the shadow of the magical wardrobe, which means in another 50 years, unless we have all moved beyond these shadowlands, you can expect there to be another celebration of the life and impact of C.S Lewis.