A few years ago, when the English novelist A. N. Wilson announced his repudiation of Christianity, the story was reported in Christianity Today. On the face of it this seemed an odd “event” for CT to cover. Wilson’s novels had often, though not always, shown an interest in religious experience, and since the books were all set in England, the religion treated in them was of course Christianity; but the reader would have no reason to conclude from any of Wilson’s novels that he was in fact a Christian believer. He was, but his books bear no witness; far less do they preach. The most that can be said for them along those lines is that by taking spiritual experience seriously they might have the effect of encouraging others to do so. This is indeed something-but enough to justify a CT report on their author’s apostasy? (Wilson also published, in 1984, a rather fuzzy-minded book about Christian belief called How Can We Know?, but since it was not widely read in England, and sank utterly without a trace in the U.S., it is not likely that it had caught the attention of CT’s editors.)
No, the notice that CT gave to Wilson’s declaration of unbelief was produced by his association with a figure whose importance to the magazine’s readership is unquestioned: C. S. Lewis. The association was created by Wilson’s biography of Lewis, but it was not just in that capacity that Wilson was of interest to Christians in America. Rather, when it became known that Wilson was working on the Lewis biography, all his previous works came under scrutiny and were interpreted in light of a hopeful possibility: perhaps Wilson would be that figure for whom so many have been waiting for so long, The Next C. S. Lewis. His apostasy was newsworthy to CT not because Wilson is a noted novelist, nor even, strictly speaking, because he is a Lewis biographer, but rather because it marked the disappointment of those expectations regarding the all-too-long delayed succession.
It is currently fashionable among literary scholars to write histories of reputations. A noted case, some years back, was John Rodden’s book The Politics of Literary Reputation: The Making and Claiming of “St. George” Orwell, about which many reviewers rightly complained that Rodden had failed to consider whether the quality of Orwell’s mind and writing mightn’t have played at least a minor role in the growth of his reputation. I don’t want to repeat Rodden’s mistake; it would certainly be erroneous to neglect, when considering the popularity of C. S. Lewis, the man’s considerable virtues as a scholar, rhetorician, and storyteller. Nevertheless, it is worth considering the possibility that someone else with all those virtues might never have reached Lewis’ level of popularity and authority; which is to say that those literary critics who argue that there is a sociology of reputation that operates, at least to a degree, independently of a writer’s intrinsic qualities are on to something worth thinking about.
What, then, are the Lewisian paraphernalia that enabled him to become so popular and so influential-especially among American Christians?
The first point to note is, of course, that Lewis was British. This, for Americans, confers an immediate air of culture and sophistication-something of which American Christians, especially of the evangelical variety, have long felt themselves in some need of an infusion. (By way of contrast, among the cultured English, Lewis would be immediately suspect because he was not English, but rather an Ulsterman. To Americans, though, a Brit is a Brit.)
This air of sophistication is boosted immeasurably by Lewis’ status as an Oxford don. Though he taught at Cambridge for the last ten years of his life, he was always associated in the public mind with Oxford-which is good, since, for a variety of reasons far too complicated to go into here (among the more obvious being the Rhodes Scholarships), Oxford has always been more prominent in the American consciousness than Cambridge. Americans are always stunned to learn that no Oxford college can boast the roster of political, intellectual, and artistic titans associated with Trinity College, Cambridge. Moreover, both Oxford and Cambridge still, though not as thoroughly as in the past, dominate their culture in ways that no set of American universities has ever been able to reproduce. The intellectual force of the United States is far more widely distributed; and for that reason, association with any American university, even Harvard or Yale, cannot carry the same weight as Lewis’ Oxford connection.
But if Americans are known for their tendency to fawn over certified European cultural sophistication, they are also known for their dislike of pretension, and here too Lewis fits the bill-though in making this point I find myself speaking about a quality that Lewis as a writer actually possesses, as well as the perceptions that quality engenders. I mentioned Orwell earlier, and his case is in this respect remarkably similar to that of Lewis. Each is noted for the direct forcefulness of his style, for his ability to cut straight through his opponents’ thickets of obfuscation, for a let-us-clear-our-minds-of-cant bluntness. One thinks of some of the justly famous lines from Orwell’s most-quoted essay, “Politics and the English Language”: “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.” And perhaps the most notable example of such bluntness in Lewis comes in Mere Christianity, when he responds to the notion that Jesus was a “great moral teacher”:
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. 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.
The styles of the two men, though their beliefs about religion and perhaps politics too were nigh unto opposite, are very close indeed; they both grow out of a peculiarly English tradition of “plain common sense” that can seem to be a bright sunbeam shining into that night of the mind in which all cats are gray. This style itself, or rather the mastery with which Orwell and Lewis employ it, is almost sufficient in itself to explain why their admirers have sometimes dared to use the word “saint” to describe them.
If my descriptions of this style seem ambivalent, that is because I am aware that the blunt commonsense manner tends to disarm the critical faculties, especially of those who already share the beliefs of the writer. The unbeliever, on the other hand, while he or she might admire Lewis’ rhetorical facility, might also pause to note that his argument holds only if we agree in advance that the Gospels provide an accurate account of what Jesus said. (It is also, perhaps, worth noting that Lewis’ rhetorical style probably cost him as many English admirers as it got him, especially among those who knew him personally and hence saw a yet more pronounced bluntness: even the poet W. H. Auden, who admired Lewis greatly, told a friend that he wished Lewis had been sent to a finishing school.)
Those who take pleasure in the direct unpretentiousness of Lewis’ style also tend to be pleased that Lewis was not a professional theologian. Indeed, Lewis frequently insisted on his status as a theological amateur. For instance, in a preface he wrote for The Screwtape Letters some years after the book’s original appearance, we find these modest words:
Some have paid me an undeserved compliment by supposing that my Letters were the ripe fruit of many years’ study in moral and ascetic theology. They forgot that there is an equally reliable, though less creditable, way of learning how temptation works. “My heart”-I need no other’s-“showeth me the wickedness of the ungodly.”
There is no reason to doubt that Lewis meant wholeheartedly what he said here, and yet it is also true that he was deeply learned in the history of Christian theology, as anyone who has read his works of literary history (which are filled with remarkable interdisciplinary erudition) can attest; and while he does not directly employ that erudition in Screwtape, there is no doubt that he drew upon it in formulating his understanding of diabolical activity. But even though Lewis had read more theology than many theologians, the fact that he was not by profession a theologian helped him doubly: not only did it fit nicely with his unpretentious style, it also enabled him to recognize, more readily than a professional absorbed in the concerns of his discipline, which disputes are too recondite to interest the reader with limited theological knowledge.
That Lewis was a storyteller and lover of stories as well as a philosopher and lover of argument was very important. I know of a married couple-there must be thousands of similar stories-who got to know one another because each claimed C. S. Lewis as a favorite writer; even though his Lewis was the author of Miracles and hers was the author of the Narnia books. Since Lewis wrote stories and arguments concurrently, almost from the beginning of his career (poetry, actually, was his first love and hope for literary fame), one could never plausibly accuse him of being either a too-rigid rationalist or a fuzzy-brained weaver of tales.
And finally, that Lewis was an Anglican, and therefore liable to be claimed with almost equal plausibility by people on both sides of that via media, helped to minimize denominational bickering-especially in America-and keep his audience broadly distributed through Christendom. (In this respect it is perhaps fortunate that his decision to use-as purportedly the most even-handed term to describe Christians who follow Rome-the word “Papist” comes in one of his more scholarly and less widely read books. Even the mature Lewis still had something of the Ulster Prot in his bones.)
If a pattern has emerged through this enumeration of contributing factors to C. S. Lewis’ influence, it is that he represents a remarkable number of both/ands: both learned and unpretentious, both logical and artistic, both Catholic and Protestant. It is the collection of qualities, and perceived qualities, that would be so enormously hard to replicate. And that is why so many potential successors have gone by the wayside. Both G. K. Chesterton-whose reputation in this country (like that of George Macdonald) derives in considerable part from Lewis’ praise of him-and Malcolm Muggeridge, as mere journalists, lacked the intellectual pedigree of the Oxford don. Moreover, Chesterton’s reputation among non-Catholics, though bolstered by his work in both fiction and argumentation, has been hurt by what became his enthusiastic embrace of Catholicism and subsequent critique of Protestantism; while Muggeridge’s heterodoxy on some significant doctrinal issues, plus his frequently and cheerfully confessed ignorance of theology, have limited his influence too. Dorothy Sayers also lacked the don’s stature, but one suspects that her gender is the more important reason for the relative neglect of her interesting apologetic works. A more recent candidate, in the minds of some, is the extraordinarily (some would say dismayingly) prolific Alister McGrath, who, after receiving his doctorate in biochemistry, abandoned science for theological studies and is now a lecturer in theology at Oxford. But however impressive his resume may be, McGrath’s instincts as a professional theologian don’t always serve him well in his popular works. He does not possess Lewis’ knack for knowing when to simplify and when to pursue an issue in depth; and, more important in my view, his prose style is at best pedestrian, completely lacking in the rhetorical flair that each of the other candidates I have mentioned possessed in considerable measure (as does, I might add, A. N. Wilson).
The vocabulary employed throughout this essay requires some examination: What does it mean here to talk about “candidates” and “the succession”? Candidates for what? Succession to what? The position held by Lewis is, I believe, that of Unofficial Spokesman for Orthodox Christianity; and I also believe that many Christians tend to assume that someone has always held, or should hold, that position, when in fact Lewis has been virtually unique in this respect. Chesterton before him-whom Lewis clearly considered his great predecessor-never had the broad authority that Lewis would come to assume; and once you go back beyond Chesterton, into a Victorian world that was at least nominally Christian through and through, the idea of such a spokesman for the faith quickly becomes anachronistic.
Thus the idea that we Christians should be looking for the next Lewis, and moreover should be deeply concerned if we do not find him (or her), may well be fundamentally misbegotten-very like the increasing concern among evangelicals about who will succeed Billy Graham. (He had no real predecessors either-what I said about Chesterton applies in equal measure to Billy Sunday, whose reputation and influence grew after his death.) For both Lewis and Graham there is no reason to suppose that there will be a successor in any meaningful sense of the term. Nor is there any reason to suppose that the Christian church will be worse off if no successor is found. The real danger, in fact, is that obsessive scanning of the intellectual skies for The Next C. S. Lewis will prevent thinking Christians from taking action themselves to meet the challenges of our time-as Lewis sought, with considerable success, to meet the challenges of his. I mean this in two senses.
First, there is the danger that people will wait for the titanic new figure to stride onto the stage instead of settling down themselves to the business of defending the faith. It is worth remembering that when Lewis started writing his apologetic works there was no way for him or anyone else to know how enormous his authority would eventually become. He considered himself just one Christian writer among many, not even primus inter pares. He was perfectly aware that his approach to the Christian faith-though he strove to make it as uncontroversial as possible-would not appeal to all readers; there is not the slightest inclination in Lewis’ life or work that he thought discomfort with his writings amounted to discomfort with Christianity. And yet for many of Lewis’ admirers this distinction is hard to make.
Second, there is the danger that Lewis will so dominate our picture of what a Christian apologist should be that we will be looking for someone to address the challenges of fifty years ago, not today-someone who has a response to Freud or Marx but not to Richard Rorty or Andrea Dworkin. Lewis wrote in a time when, among the educated British public if not among their professional philosophers, there was considerably more agreement than there is now about, for instance, what constitutes a valid and rational argument for a given case. (Though Screwtape-whom Lewis should have listened to a little more carefully on this point-notes in his very first letter that the historical period has passed in which “the humans still knew pretty well when a thing was proved and when it was not.”) His apologetic works presuppose, and rarely make any argument for, the criteria for rationality themselves. Today those criteria simply cannot be assumed, and yet many Christians still persist in assuming them. Not long ago in Christianity Today a guest columnist pointed to a troubling finding from a recent poll: only 28 percent of Americans claim to have a strong belief in absolute truth. Confronted with this disturbing news, the columnist’s recommendation was that preachers need to devote more homiletic time to “set[ting] forth the exclusive claims of Christ as rationally superior” to other alternatives.
Perhaps I am missing something, but it seems to me truly extraordinary to expect that people who do not believe in absolute truth will, all the same, believe in rational argument. In fact, it is almost certain that they will not believe in rational argument, and in response to the “exclusive claims” of Christ will take refuge in relativism or, more likely, a pragmatic perspectivism-that is, in its simplest form, the “That’s great if it works for you, but it doesn’t work for me” response. (In England it’s known as the “Right you are if you think you are” response.) One may be able to provide a powerful summation of evidence for the empty tomb, but that will not convince the unbeliever who is skeptical about the very notion of “evidence” and who can discourse learnedly about “plausibility structures” and “paradigm shifts”-nor will it move that other variety of unbeliever who is far more likely to believe that Jesus gave sight to the blind and rose from the dead than to believe that no one comes to the Father except through Him.
For these and other reasons it is an open question whether orthodox Christians’ continued fascination with Lewis is a good or a bad thing. There is much to be gained from reading him; I say this as one who has over the last fifteen years drawn considerable spiritual nourishment from his cornucopia of works, and who expects to draw more in the future. But more attention must be given to following his example rather than imitating his productions-that is, to making the case for Christianity to our world rather than to his. Lewis wrote most of his major apologetic works more than fifty years ago, and in this century fifty years is a long, long time. Moreover, we must acknowledge that the likelihood of finding another such figure-that is, a single Christian writer endowed with comparable gifts and an equally ideal positioning for cultural authority-is very slight, and perhaps not worthy of our hopes. To be sure, what is true for all of us is equally true for Christian apologists: many are called, few are chosen. But we need not reduce the few to a solitary one.
Alan Jacobs teaches in the English Department at Wheaton College in Illinois.