H/t to my Baker editor Bob Hosack for passing along a Huffpost meditation on evangelical Americans’ obsession with C. S. Lewis. The article, by Princeton graduate student in religion Ryan Harper, is entitled “The American Evangelical Love Affair with C.S. Lewis: Why He’s Important But Still Not Jesus”:
The causes for Lewis’s influence are numerous. He grew up in the church, became an atheist and returned to Christianity. The Oxford don has sacred and secular imprimatur, carrying the inheritance of both the prodigal son returned and the wise Greek redeemed. His writing is charming and concise, tinged with a cool, incisive English wit that plays well in an American evangelical milieu that delights in the courtly muses of the British Isles. Churchill, U2, The Lord of the Rings, The Screwtape Letters: stuff evangelical white people like.
Above all, Lewis means a lot to evangelicals because he argues against a number of “-isms” many evangelicals find troubling: atheism, secularism, humanism, materialism, naturalism, subjectivism and moral relativism. In all cases, of ultimate concern to Lewis is modern society’s loss of an objective Center of value — some Standard, some Authority that doesn’t vary with personal tastes, cultural shifts or the blood-dimmed tide of history. Lewis believes that, minus such a Center, members of society have no Authority in common to which they can appeal in moral debates and decision-making. All conceptions of good and evil become weightless, mere matters of individual preference. Without a Center that can hold society together, things fall apart.
Harper does an admirable job summarizing Lewis’s primary arguments–especially in the realm of ethics. And he admires those arguments and finds them useful . . . to a degree. But then he turns the corner:
. . . however much Lewis has to offer contemporary theological discussions, evangelicals have developed an unhealthy addiction to Lewis’s arguments.
Unhealthy addiction? To “St. Lewis”? Surely not possible! Harper explains:
As is the tendency with all powerful ideas, Lewis’s arguments have become a rhetorical talisman, an epistemological panacea.
The problem, in a nutshell, is that today’s challenges to Christianity come in new wineskins, and the “old Oxford vintage” of Lewis’s counter-arguments no longer fit those new skins well. It is time for us to “step out of Lewis’s wardrobe,” to critique the man whose arguments have seemed to us infallible. To forge a new apologetic. Above all, we must not give our whole hearts, our whole mind, our whole strength to Lewis. We
must acknowledge that no man has ever lived that can feed [us] ever. Or, if such a man has lived, his name is not C.S. Lewis. Evangelicals should know that better than anyone.
What the new arguments of today look like, what our critique of Lewis should look like, and what our next step should look like–Harper doesn’t address any of these questions. I think he’s right, but the piece would have been much stronger with that essential component in place. Nonetheless, it is worth reading in full, here.
- Ryan Harper: The American Evangelical Love Affair with C.S. Lewis: Why He’s Important But Still Not Jesus (huffingtonpost.com)
- Was C.S. Lewis An Anglo-Catholic? (via The Ruling Elder) (mgpcpastor.wordpress.com)
- Beliefs: C. S. Lewis’s Legacy Lives on, and Not Just Through the Wardrobe (nytimes.com)
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I think those who object to hero-worship most strongly are those whose egos do not permit them to have heroes.
But even if we should praise Lewis less, the simple fact that people still use Lewis’ arguments shows that they are still “relevant” (may the devil take the word). If there were some radically new and universally-held considerations which made Lewis’ arguments obsolete, then naturally no one would use them. But on the contrary, I find that Lewis’ insight into contemporary issues is even more penetrating and spot on than many much more recent works. It is quite possible, after all, that a man writing a half a century ago could get to the heart of the human condition and those problems specific to our times much better than the up and coming would-be know-it-alls–just as it is possible that a (God-)man who died on a cross two thousand years ago could speak to the human condition for all of time. I think that Harper here has fallen into the very Chronological Snobbery which Lewis so deftly defined and defeated.
While I won’t presume to judge Harper, who I think may have an important point (evangelicals underestimate how UNLIKE them Lewis was), I do agree that Lewis’s arguments have legitimate staying power. However, I also agree that we need to get beyond them. Not everyone has questions that can be answered by Lewis. There are questions better answered, for example, by those faithful Christians who have taken the time and effort to school themselves in postmodern philosophy.