Before we begin, I’d like to thank my husband for his seemingly unending patience with me as I paced around our living room ranting about this. And then as I continued to rant about it in the car. And then in Joann’s. And probably after he reads the draft of this and we discuss it again. Thank you, Mundy. I love you.
A few days ago, Tony Jones posted a podcast of him being interviewed by Dwight Friesen at the Seattle School of Theology and Philosophy. They discussed many different things, but one topic stuck out to me. They barely spent any time on it at all and I almost doubt that either one remembers discussing this, but it hit me hard.
They discussed C. S. Lewis. And by discussed, I mean dismissed.
What Tony actually said was,
“[C. S. Lewis] is really horrid theology. C. S. Lewis is a theological hack. He might have been a great literary critic; he was a decent children’s novelist, but as a theologian…have you read Mere Christianity lately? If you think that is persuasive apologetics…He’s a man of his time.”
I’m not sure if anyone reading this blog knows this, but I am a big fan of Mr. Clive. Save his letters and one of his books, I have a copy of everything he wrote (that was published). I did a directed study on his theology of Heaven, Hell, and the Eschaton and how his narratives relate to his informative and practical theology. For a long time, I refused to read the Chronicles of Narnia because I was afraid they would, as children’s books, detract from the prestige of his other works. Then, I read them, and I found that they magnified it tenfold. I continue to devour his works regularly (once making the mistake of reading A Grief Observed in the wee hours of the morning on my husband’s birthday). The only book of his that I don’t like is, incidentally, Mere Christianity.
I am also a big fan of Tony Jones. We go to the same church, I read his blog regularly, and he has impacted my theology in many ways. I’m grateful that I’ve been able to learn from him. But he crossed a line here.*
I have a lot of problems with what he said about Lewis, the first being the attitude he had in saying it. He was actually talking about the book he’s writing on prayer, and (in this thought) how bad the theology of My Utmost for His Highest is. He commented on Lewis as an afterthought–completely unrelated to the topic at hand and thus completely unnecessary of mentioning. He could have held his disdain, kept it to himself, brought it out when necessary, but no. For some reason, it was *absolutely vital* that he also criticize Lewis.
Okay, so, yes, I’m magnifying this issue beyond its right. The first problem I have is not that he brought up Lewis (though I still don’t understand why it was necessary), but that he did it with such disrespect and condescension. He completely disregarded all of Lewis’ work–at best saying he was “a man of his time”–without any acknowledgement of how much Lewis actually did.
Because Lewis wasn’t just a “decent children’s writer”–he was one of the best of his time, and I would suggest, of all time. There’s a reason we’re still making Narnia movies, and still reading these books, today. Bad literature doesn’t last very long, and Narnia isn’t losing its following. If you have a problem with allegory (or supposition, as Lewis would put it), that’s fine. So did Tolkien. But that doesn’t mean his books aren’t good.
Second, Mere Christianity should not be the book we judge Lewis by. It is a starter guide, a field manual, if you will, for Christians. It is 20th century apologetic theology condensed to something the average (non-theologically-educated) person could understand. What he writes in that book is not good theology, it isn’t thorough, it isn’t complete, granted, but–here’s the important part–it wasn’t supposed to be. Judging all of Lewis based on Mere Christianity is like judging the entirety of a book based on its introduction, and making such a judgment of it as a highly educated theologian is like me criticizing the theology in VeggieTales movies. OF COURSE it’s lacking. Mere Christianity was not intended for people with seminary educations.
C. S. Lewis was a man who stood in the gap between highly educated theologians and average people. He wrote brilliant narratives (not just Narnia, take The Great Divorce, for example) that presented difficult information in a vessel every person could understand–story. Even his more instructive works have a certain narrative arc to them. He was a theological storyteller. I understand that this is not the way we do theology these days, but it is incredibly unwise and disrespectful not to acknowledge how brilliant his approach was. We could learn a thing or two from him.
Third, it is wrong to criticize his theology because it doesn’t line up with ours. He was, as we all are, a man of his time, and thus he is theologically located in a time when his thoughts were pertinent and relatively novel. This is, perhaps, the critique I have of progressive theology as a whole (even as a school I often agree with), that it is too quick to dismiss history for not being as progressive as we are today. Of course it isn’t. It’s history. That’s how progression works.
Fourth, it is wrong to write him off for being a man of his time and then call his theology horrid. He was writing to a certain audience that had a curiosity about certain things. Lewis lived through both World Wars, in Britain, no less. His primary audience was trying to make sense of some terrible, terrible injustices, as well as both grieving and trying to recover. When we’re faced with difficult things in our lives, we often (1) retreat to the things we know and can trust, like stories from our childhoods, and (2) start asking questions about these difficult things. Lewis wrote about death, and Heaven and Hell, and pain, unashamedly. He didn’t lie or give pat answers. He didn’t say that pain and suffering were the result of our own mistakes, or that God was just teaching us a lesson. Lewis (similar to an exilic prophet) wrote about a merciful, loving God who is intrinsically concerned with Creation. He was, indeed, a man of his time, responding to the world in an honest and gentle way. This is not grounds for criticism, but for praise.
I will grant that there are places where I disagree with Lewis or find his theology lacking. But it takes very little to see past these things and still respect and honor Lewis for all the things he did do. He was actually quite progressive–think of his depiction of Hell, for example. He was more than willing to move beyond the socio-theological constructs of his time.
C. S. Lewis is still worth reading. His theology is still worth understanding and applying. He should still be a part of our theological education. He was a brilliant man, a profound theologian, and an excellent writer. I am not asking you to agree with him, Mr. Jones, but I am asking that you think about just how great of an impact Lewis has had on Christian theology before you write him off. You might find that he has a lot more to say if you would only be willing to listen.
*I should note that he also dismissed process theology and open theism with even less grace, so my disdain here is not solely because of his dismissal of C. S. Lewis. Just mostly.