When C.S. Lewis converted to Christianity in 1931, he admitted that he did so in large part because Christianity answered the pagan longings he had experienced in his love of mythology and of all things northern…

c.s. lewisNorthern Irishman C.S. Lewis holds such an important place in the hearts, minds, and souls of American Protestants that it’s almost absurd. Few in the Christian world at large—but especially those among and within Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism—question Lewis’ views with anything remotely approaching the descriptive critical, and while some American churches have immortalized him in stained glass, others teach his works as though a twentieth-century sequel to the Bible. One prominent American evangelical even claims a sort of visitation by Lewis after Lewis’ passing from this Mortal Coil in late November 1963. Others, such as Chuck Colson of Watergate infamy, claim Professor Lewis as well, and one of the most popular books among young Christians, A Severe Mercy, details a wealthy and selfish young man who finds Lewis and remakes his world toward the Christian.

One thing that Catholics and Protestants can agree upon regarding Lewis is that he is—with the possible exception of G.K. Chesterton—the greatest Christian apologist of the twentieth century. This much, at least, seems indisputable. Limited by his Catholicism, Pope John Paul II would come in as number three, overall.

Personally, I did not come across the writings of Lewis until I was in college, long after I had been reading the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Indeed, though I had been reading Tolkien since I’d turned age ten, way back in 1977, I had no idea that he and Lewis were so close until taking a course on “Philosophy, Science Fiction, and Fantasy” at the University of Notre Dame in the fall of 1988. There, in Professor Sayer’s class, we learned not only of the friendship of the two men but of their mutual desire to reform the world through the art of storytelling. It was a glorious class, the kind that changed my entire outlook on life, setting my own purpose and desires for a writing career. To say that the friendship of Tolkien and Lewis influenced my own understanding of life would be a gross understatement. That two such men—armed with imagination and Christian virtue—could encourage one another sent a million-volt jolt of grace into me, allowing me to see possibilities hitherto unknown, at least to me.

In my thirty years of reading Lewis, though, I have been both inspired and frustrated. More than once, I have complained—sometimes just internally (a grumble, mostly) and sometimes out loud—that Lewis’s greatest and most interesting insights are little more than warmed-over, rediscovered Catholic theology. More often than not, however, Lewis arrives at Catholic thought, gives his own ideas a particular name, and finds them acceptable to a Protestant audience. There is, obviously, a great good in this, but it can be frustrating for the cradle Catholic who wonders, charitably or not, “What’s the big deal? We’ve known this for centuries.” Additionally, one might also question Lewis’s rigorously logical—what Owen Barfield calls “atomic”—approach to almost every single theological question. In his attack, Lewis famously (or infamously, depending on one’s point of view) employs a dualism that borders on Manicheanism.

Take, for example, Lewis’ argument regarding what is natural in his wildly popular theological work, Miracles. But, what is “nature,” he asks, somewhat rhetorically. Obviously, nature is a pervasive and non-specific word, and it can be applied in many different ways. Even in the roots of Western civilization, the definition of nature can be frustratingly unclear. For the Greeks it meant “to grow,” while for the Romans it meant “to be born.” In Aristotle’s On Politics, the Greek genius offers the word in, at least, five completely different senses.

The Naturalists, as Lewis defines them and their movement, believe that Nature herself is a materialist system, closed and inalterable. As such, there can really be no free will, as man simply plays his role within the system. Any thought or choice outside of the system is, almost by definition, unnatural. Not surprisingly then, how we think about Nature and Supernature also reflects what we think about society. The Naturalist, thus, is a democrat, while the Supernaturalist is a Monarchist. The Naturalists, by their approach to the world, shut out all that is non-material, having no room within their system for chance or choice. “What Naturalism cannot accept is the idea of a God who stands outside Nature and made it.”

Again, Lewis tellingly asks in Miracles, what is nature and what is normal?

My favorite paragraph from these opening readings is the third-to-last from chapter two. “All this is, at present purely speculative,” Lewis writes in his muscular prose style. “It by no means follows from Supernaturalism that Miracles of any sort do in fact occur. God (the primary thing) may never, in fact, interfere with the natural system. He has created more natural systems than one, He may never cause them to impinge on one another.”

When a Christian reads this, he must think: “Some much-needed and much-desired humility! Amen.” Then, with disappointment, the same Christian reads the final sentence of that second chapter: “Our first choice, therefore, must be between Naturalism and Supernaturalism.” Ugh. Double ugh, scream I, as Lewis is veering very close to Manicheanism.

And, yet, such Pagan lingerings should not really surprise the modern reader. When Lewis converted to Christianity in late 1931, he admitted that he did so in large part because Christianity answered the pagan longings he had experienced in his love of mythology and of all things northern. Christianity, he claimed, then and later, did not overturn the past; it baptized it. Christianity did not kill the magic, it sanctified it, making it holy and good. In ways Lewis could not understand but knew to be true, dryads remained, but they could no longer wield their power in the way they had before the coming of Christ. Further, Lewis wrote openly about the Pagan powers as real and tangible, such as when Venus, the goddess (or angelic power) of love, descends upon the wedding cottage of Jane and Mark Studduck in the finale of That Hideous Strength. And, if this is not enough proof, one need only read (or reread) what many regard to be his greatest work, Till We Have Faces, a novel so openly pagan at times as to shock.

Yet, within many Evangelical and Protestant Christian circles, Tolkien remains suspect as a pagan because of his stories of wizards, magic, necromancers, orcs, and elves.

To be sure, these are double standards. What Lewis and Tolkien each understand—and with piety and intelligence—is that the world God created still holds profound mysteries that are at once sacramental and perilous, open to the deepest longings and imaginings of the soul.

The next time you hear a bustle under the hedgerow, pause, wonder, and move on.

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3 replies to this post
  1. I believe only G-d can judge the heart. Lewis and Tolkien have brought many to the Lord because of their love of fantasy. It wasn’t anything more. Plus, as a PhD in Theology who has taught many semesters on Mere Christianity, I find it impossible to find anything but a pure Christian man behind that work.
    I do believe you are reading things into what’s not actually there because you are opposed on all levels to unicorns, fairies, and The Wizard of Oz on any level. Sometimes a good story about good vs evil is simply a story about good vs evil.
    Finally, my momma always told me never to judge a man to hell – that was G-d’s job. It is our job to keep our brothers and sister on the straight and narrow path. If we see them sinning, we should gently bring them back in line with the Bible’s character which is for us to love G-d with all of our heart minds soul and strength and to love mankind as much as we love ourselves. In doing so, we must always remove the plank from our eye before worrying about the specks in others. I do admonish other Christians, but I make sure my eyes are seeing clearly before doing so. In this, I find that, more often than not, it was my problem, my error, my pride… and I end up asking said sinner for forgiveness instead. In this case the “offender” is dead, so you have no way to bring him back to the straight and narrow path. And I do believe you are incorrect in your assessment, and like me, would be asking Lewis and Tolkien for forgiveness.
    Christianity is a hodge-podge of paganism, for not all things pagans did was evil. As they began to join our ranks, their goodness came with them, just as the Roman’s goodness came with them. (Their architecture, their calendar) Our days and months are all named for Roman gods! We don’t need to throw away what is good. The Roman calendar was far more accurate than the Jewish calendar, so we adopted it, as did the Jews except for Torah readings and calculating Jewish Holy Days. We can learn from all peoples and cultures. We picked up Christmas and Easter from the Romans as well. It was a Pagan holiday that celebrated light conquering darkness. Dec 25th became Jesus’ birthday. Seemed logical to the 1st century Christians to allow them to keep their holiday (even though it’s actually Dec 21) but Jesus is the Light and He is the One to conquer darkness… soooo sometimes a good story about good vs evil is simply a good story. This one pagan story has survived for 2,000 years as a Christian Holy Day when all reasonable Christians know that Jesus was born in August or September. Again, a good story survives.
    If Aslan’s story can bring children to church and ultimately to salvation!! Yay Lewis! You have gone out and been [his] witness in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea and Samaria, and to the utmost parts of the earth.” He did his job, accomplished his purpose set before him. The purpose woven into him in his mother’s womb.
    I do hope I wasn’t disagreeable, and you’ll think and pray about all I’ve said. The church is very old and has assumed many cultures. Those cultures were never required to throw away that which was good even if it was foreign to most. You must do much much more research on the history and movement of the church, where the missionaries went over the centuries…read their autobiographies.
    I’ll be praying that you do do some homework.
    May the Lord bless you and keep you,
    Pastor Robin DD

  2. In the search for what is True, what is Good and what is Beautiful, Tolkien and Lewis hit the mark consistently. Most of the great stories are about the struggle between good and evil, and these men take it on brilliantly. M. Birzer has pointed this out for many years on this web site. I think he always does his homework. For me it has been a reading journey going back in history. I would not have known Chesterton, Burke, Dante, Aquinas, or Augustine without reading Tolkien and Lewis.

  3. I strongly believe that C. S. Lewis is overrated. I find his prose bland, and his famous “bad, mad or God” argument simply nonsensical. For a great writing style and tight logic, rather read Cardinal Newman.

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