The Culture Beat

March 9, 2011

The Continuing, and sometimes alarmng, C. S. Lewis Phenomenon

Filed under: Faith Issues,General Pop Culture,The Church,Uncategorized — Alex @ 2:43 am


American Christians, particularly conservative evangelicals, love C. S. Lewis. Last Friday, the New York Times published an article by Mark Oppenheimer recounting the ever growing impact of British writer and scholar C. S. Lewis, including a recent edition of the Bible with annotations of quotes by Lewis addressing topics and themes of biblical passages, and plans for a new institution of higher learning, C. S. Lewis College. Oh my.

I hold Lewis in the highest regard, having read many of his books over the years. As a young Christian, his writings kept me from becoming too immersed in an emotion-based, subjective form of Christianity. His uniquely lucid writing made the greatest idea and doctrines of the Christian faith accessible to my untrained mind. It grounded me in logical thinking and made my imagination soar in ways no other writing did. Lewis’ immersion in the great thinking of medieval Christianity and his ability to explain “mere Christianity,” the faith common to the church universal created a bridge for me and millions of others to the great treasures of Christian thought.

Because of the impoverished nature of 20th century evangelicalism regarding the life of the mind, Lewis’ books were doorways of discovery to our faith’s heritage and because of his singular gifts, and prolific work, it’s understandable that there would be such a continuing fascination with this giant of the faith. Lewis is that rare figure who transcends denominational categories–reading Lewis’ books engenders the sense that one has not only gained knowledge or insight about the book’s subject, but that one has also gotten to know its author in a way that inspires gratitude, and a sense of acquaintance, that few authors achieve.

Still I feel awkward reading of a Lewis annotated Bible, or a college founded on his work–surely Lewis himself would recoil from such hero worship. At what point does one’s appreciation for a great man slip into something like idolatry?

But the reason I felt most compelled to write this post was a passage in the article that clearly marked it as a New York Times piece:

In “Mere Christianity,” Lewis writes of Jesus: “I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell.”

This famous passage does not, on a second read, make much sense. After all, could not a great moral teacher have messianic delusions? But on a first read, it is quite persuasive, and classic Lewis. It is clear, confident and a bit humorous, and it offers a stark choice as it firmly suggests the right answer.

Mr. Oppenheimer, in ostensibly reporting on the Lewis phenomenon, cannot resist this slide into patronizing commentary. It implies that anyone who found this, one of the most quoted of all Lewis’ writings, to be a convincing argument for the deity of Christ, obviously never read the passage again or they would have easily perceived how bogus it was, poor benighted minds, unlike Mr. Oppenheimer’s. No, most people who’ve thought it through this most offensive of the claims of Jesus, would find it hard to to accept that a great moral teacher who repeatedly claimed to be the Son of God, and whose followers, often accepted death rather than disbelieve this crucial point, was simply having delusions of grandeur.

What the article doesn’t include of that famous passage says it better than I could:

You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. – Mere Christianity, pages 40-41.

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