Today is the birthday of C.S. Lewis, the most quoted Christian author of the Twentieth Century. Many pass through a Lewis phase and grow out of it. I never graduated, and my awe of the man increases with each passing year.
I don’t discount Lewis’ failings. He never tired of reminding his readers that he was an untrained layman and no authority on doctrine. We heartily agree. Sometimes his mishandling of doctrine can only elicit groans. In “The World’s Last Night” (otherwise a wonderful essay) he concluded that the limitations of the Incarnation (explained by Jesus’ own declaration that “concerning the day and hour no one knows…not even the Son”) led him to a mistaken prediction of a “this generation” Return. That, of course, is awful.
But where Lewis is good, he is splendid. If the proof of an apologist’s worth is conversion, then Lewis is the probable leader in market share. Better than anyone, he shows with clarity and power not only that Christianity is true but that it is right and good that Christianity should be true.
The choice may surprise but I’m not sure that “A Preface to Paradise Lost” does not showcase Lewis’ peculiar genius as much as any other effort. Though a work of Literary Criticism, Lewis was able to smuggle in a considerable quantity of Christian Apologetics since Milton wrote on a biblical theme. Lewis wrote all his non-fiction in the first person. He turns that policy to advantage when he slips in a testimony which approaches the border of personal witness.
“…I should warn the reader that I myself am a Christian and that some of the things which the atheist reader must ‘try to feel as if he believed ‘… I do believe. But for the student of Milton my Christianity is an advantage. What would you not give to have a real, live Epicurean at your elbow while reading Lucretius?” (Chapter 9)
One of Lewis’ great assets is his ability to diagnose some misfortune on the modern scene we already sensed but never understood. We could not understand because, like Dr. Watson, we looked but we did not observe. Had we understood we may not have been able to express. Our powers of articulation would have failed us. The marriage of acute observation and memorable classification is a happy commonplace in the Lewis canon.
“The modern habit of doing ceremonial things unceremoniously is no proof of humility: rather it proves the offender’s inability to forget himself in the rite, and his readiness to spoil for everyone else the proper pleasure of ritual.” (Chapter 3) or, again, on the same subject, “(Ritual) renders pleasures less fugitive and griefs more endurable, (it) hands over to the power of wise custom the task of being festive or sober, gay or reverent, when we choose to be and not to the bidding of chance.” (Chapter 4)
What Lewis says about Milton we can say about himself:
“The whole art consists not in evoking the unexpected, but in evoking with a perfection and accuracy beyond expectation the very image that has haunted us all our lives.” (Chapter 8)
In all his books he displayed the capacity to illumine his subject by citing correspondences from disparate spheres. In Mere Christianity, he famously compares regeneration to toy soldiers coming to life.
The folly of Satan’s unwitting self-destruction by rebellion is thus related: “It is like the scent of a flower trying to destroy the flower.” (Chapter 13)
Lewis’ stock in trade was the startling spiritual insight —”…the only point of forbidding it (the fruit on the tree) was to instill obedience.” (Chapter 10)
He offered convincing historical summaries — “The older Puritans took away the maypoles and the mince pies: but they did not bring in the millennium, they only brought in the Restoration.” (Chapter 19)
He persuaded by analogies unexpected but exceedingly apt. His language, in the words of J.A.W. Bennett, his successor in the Cambridge chair, would “always elucidate, never decorate.”
He was born 120 years ago. His departure is now nearly 56 years past.
No one with a remote claim to be his equal has graced our horizon since.