The Key to C.S. Lewis

by  JR.

C.S. Lewis was not only a Christian apologist and lay theologian. He was also an unusually imaginative and creative novelist. And in his day job at Oxford and then Cambridge he was an astonishingly perceptive and influential literary scholar.

At a time when the modernist literary establishment was obsessed with depressingly bleak realistic fiction, Lewis sent readers’ imaginations soaring in his Chronicles of Narnia. While the modernists were looking down their noses at popular genre fiction, Lewis was writing the provocative
science fiction of his Space Trilogy.

In his apologetic and theological writing, Lewis was surprising both non-believers and emotional pietists in applying lucid, logical thinking to argue that Christianity is actually true. In his fiction, though, Lewis opposed the dull rationalism of his age to provoke in his readers feelings of wonder, mystery, and longing. 

In his literary scholarship, Lewis taught modern readers, inhibited by the blinders of their own narrow little time, how to respond to allegory (The Allegory of Love), how to understand Milton (Preface to Paradise Lost), how to appreciate ancient cosmology (The Discarded Image), and how to read for pleasure (An Experiment in Criticism). 

In his breath-takingly comprehensive volume in The Oxford History of English Literature, with the daunting title English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (Excluding Drama), Lewis not only discusses apparently every work written in that century, he develops the notion that there are two styles of poetry: the golden and the drab. Golden verse employs beautiful language to evoke the transcendent. Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton are golden. Drab verse employs colloquial, unadorned language to evoke the cynical and down-to-earth. Donne and most poets currently in vogue are drab. In other writings, Lewis defends Shelley (the atheist) for his golden verse, while critiquing John Donne and T.S. Eliot (his fellow Anglican Christians) for their drabness.

The point here is that Lewis was a complex thinker with a wide-ranging sensibility. He was both logical and wildly imaginative, conservative and a non-conformist, a devout Christian whose faith was never stodgy or limiting, but stimulating and liberating. And I think I have found the key to understanding Lewis in all of his complexities and in all of his different kinds of writing. 

Not long after he became a Christian, Lewis wrote about his conversion in an odd book entitled Pilgrim’s Regress. An allegory, like John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, it depicts an everyman named John who reflects Lewis’ own spiritual journey. He leaves his childhood home, Puritania, rebelling against its rules and restrictions, just as Lewis left behind his protestant upbringing in Northern Ireland. Just as young Lewis did, John falls in with characters like Mr. Sensible and Mr. Humanist and faces the temptations of the spirit of the age (Freudianism, Marxism), as well as moral temptations (the Brown Girls, symbolizing lust, and the Clevers, symbolizing worldliness). All along, John has glimpses of a far-away island, which fills him with transcendent longing, just as Lewis describes in his memoir Surprised by Joy.

Eventually, through the mysterious leading of the “Man” (Christ), John comes to accept the Landlord (God) and is received by Mother Kirk (the church). But he still must travel a narrow path, avoiding both the the arid rocks on the North (symbolizing rationalism) and the fetid swamps on the South (symbolizing emotionalism). Eventually, he arrives at where he began, the faith of his childhood at Puritania, which he now recognizes was not about rules and restrictions at all, but grace and faith. He then, like Bunyan, crosses the waters into the everlasting life beyond.

Pilgrim’s Regress is an odd book for many people, but it has always been one of my favorites. Its deft portrayals of different philosophies and worldviews are insightful and illuminating. More than that, the book is an evocative fantasy — giants, dragons, and adventure — of the sort that Lewis later would develop so thoroughly in The Chronicles of Narnia. And everything that Lewis would write is summed up in the book’s subtitle: “An Allegorical Apology for Christianity, Reason, and Romanticism.” 

The phrase seems strange. The words do not seem to go together. Are not reason and romanticism opposites? The Enlightenment’s Age of Reason was countered, at least for a while, with Romanticism’s Age of Emotion. And did not both movements oppose Christianity? And yet, it is true that all three need to be defended, since they are all three under attack. Today, even more than in Lewis’ time, our culture rejects not only reason but objective truth altogether. Romantic idealism has been replaced with cynicism and nihilism. True, both rationalism and romanticism, by themselves, lead to falsehoods and dead ends. But there is a legitimate use of reason and of emotion. And Christianity is the only world view big enough to account for them both. 

Christianity offers not only a world view but a sensibility, a way to think and to feel. Lewis addresses both the head and the heart. He is an apologist for reason, romanticism, and — what holds them together — Christianity. 

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