The great fruit of C.S. Lewis’s clarity is that he shows his readers that the great truths are knowable through the application of pure and simple common sense. He makes the truth seem so obvious and so inescapable that we feel that we must always have known it, at least subconsciously.
Some time ago, during an interview, I was asked to encapsulate, in a solitary word, the genius of C.S. Lewis. After a moment’s thought, I gave my answer. “Clarity,” I said. “The one word that encapsulates Lewis is ‘clarity.’”
Today, considering the reply I had given, I still think that this one word captures the genius of Lewis. He had an uncanny ability to explain the most abstract points of philosophy and theology with a succinct brilliance. He could make the most difficult of philosophical or theological questions utterly comprehensible to the average reader, regardless of his reader’s lack of formal training in philosophy or theology. It’s not that he makes us smarter than we are, though he does, it’s that he makes us see that we were smarter than we thought we were. There is no reason, for example, for anyone, after reading Lewis, to feel that metaphysics is beyond his grasp. The easy didacticism with which Lewis unlocks and unpacks the central doctrines of the Christian faith in a book such as Mere Christianity is a case in point.
Lewis teaches us with such a natural and unassuming skill that we almost don’t realize that we are being taught at all. He makes the truth seem so obvious and so inescapable that we feel that we must already have known what he shows us, and that we must always have known it, at least subconsciously. We feel that Lewis is simply reminding us of what we already knew, even though, when we think about it honestly, we know that we had been too blind in the past to see the obvious truth which is now staring us in the face. The great fruit of Lewis’s clarity is, in sum, that he shows his readers that the great truths are knowable through the application of pure and simple common sense. The truths of faith and reason make sense because they are eminently sensible!
And yet Lewis’s clarity is at its most brilliant in those works in which he is apparently not teaching or preaching at all. It is in his literary works, rather than in his books of Christian apologetics, that the brilliance and genius of his clarity shines forth most astonishingly. We think of the way that he plays Devil’s advocate in The Screwtape Letters, shining the torch of reason in the gloomy shadows of deceit in which demonic reasoning seeks to conceal itself from the light of day. We think of the clarity and charity with which he reveals the prideful roots of sin in The Great Divorce, or the way that he employs formal allegory to expose the follies of intellectual history in The Pilgrim’s Regress.
Following Lewis into space, we see how he takes the genre of science fiction to expose the nonsense of scientism. Exposing the racism and the chronological snobbery of the scientistic mind in Out of the Silent Planet, he proceeds to show us the demonic roots of pride in Ransom’s discourse with the Un-man in Perelandra. In That Hideous Strength, the final book of the trilogy of novels, Lewis interweaves gritty realism, Arthurian romance, and Gothic horror into a seamless fictional garment, exposing the sophistry of pride with the healing balm of rational love.
In the books for which he is probably most famous, The Chronicles of Narnia, he tells stories for children which resonate with priceless lessons for people of all ages. It is indeed a mark of his genius that he can offer profound theological insights into the poetic mind of God without ever compromising the storyteller’s art, weaving his wisdom into the very fabric of the narrative. This is the case to a most sublime degree in the final two chapters of The Last Battle in which we ascend into heaven, going “further up and further in,” not merely into the celestial realm but into the most profound depths of eschatological theology.
And what Lewis does for eschatology, he also does for psychology. In Till We Have Faces, the work of fiction which he believed to be his best, he takes us on a physical adventure that simultaneously takes us on a metaphysical adventure into the depths of the human psyche, showing us the way that the mind of the non-believer copes, or doesn’t cope, with the spiritual conversion of a loved one.
When all is said and done, and there’s much more that could and should be said before we would really be done, we can see and say that the world has been truly blessed by the wonderful witness and extraordinary wisdom of C.S. Lewis.
This essay was first published in the St. Austin Review.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “An Allegory of Time Unveiling Truth” (1733) by Jean François de Troy (1679-1752), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.