Nov. 22 marks the 50th anniversary of the death of C.S. Lewis. For many readers of this renowned literary figure and Christian thinker, the occasion will be celebrated with gratitude for his enduring achievements.
For others, particularly younger readers, Lewis will be remembered, if at all, as the author of those charming children’s stories, “The Chronicles of Narnia.” Prospective readers may find that the cultural distance between them and a classically educated Ulsterman in Edwardian England simply looms too large for a just appreciation of his achievement. Why bother with a writer whose works are laced with allusions of ancient Greek and Roman literature, medieval philosophy and theology, and a host of modern poets and novelists unfamiliar to 21st-century Americans? Why bother with a writer whose cultural biases have become increasingly, and glaringly, evident over five decades?
Though I have no doubt Narnia will continue to enchant readers, it isn’t clear that Lewis’ thornier philosophical works (”Miracles,” “The Abolition of Man”), much less his highly specialized literary scholarship (”The Allegory of Love,” “The Discarded Image”), will win new or devoted readers in our increasingly impatient age. Still, I believe several aspects of Lewis’ achievement are likely to endure through the “changes and chances” of our human condition.
Obviously, we should read Lewis simply because he was a terrific writer. Though hardly a literary genius (like Dante or Dostoevsky), Lewis was a gifted essayist and storyteller. His writing, for all its intellectual vigor, engages the senses while informing the mind. His capacious imagination gives sinew and substance not only to fictional narrative, but to his scholarly work. Whether writing essays for a popular or specialist audience, Lewis was a consummate stylist. His prose is accessibly human in what might otherwise seem bloodless theological abstractions.
This brings me to a more important reason to rescue Lewis from the status of potentially dated figure. Not only did he use his literary talents with a singular virtuosity, he rehabilitated the imagination as a vehicle for embodying transcendent truth, setting him apart as a Christian thinker.