What do you think the most important aspect of C.S. Lewis’s legacy is?
From a historical perspective, the most important legacy of Lewis is as an advocate of the Christian faith. There are other things to be said that were important: he was a great writer, a great literary critic, literary historian, a great writer of children's fantasy literature. But at the center of his being after he became a Christian was a desire to promote Christianity. He wanted to clear away the intellectual prejudices against it and to expose fallacies in the objections to it. He sought to clear away the intellectual rubble and prepare minds and the imagination to receive the Christian message.
What made Lewis’s approach unique, though, was the way he brought together the intellect and the imagination. He was brilliant at finding illustrations and metaphors that got to the heart of the matter, and those are ways of writing that engage both hearts and minds simultaneously. J.I. Packer once observed both lobes of Lewis’ brain were so thoroughly developed “that he was as strong in fantasy and fiction as he was in analysis and argument. That made him in his day, and makes him still, a powerful and haunting communicator in both departments.”
And it struck people as unique even in his own time, when theology was generally considered a musty, irrelevant subject. In 1944, the Times Literary Supplement said that observed: “Mr. Lewis has a quite unique power of making Theology attractive, exciting and (one might almost say) an uproariously fascinating quest.” Only three years later, Time would call him the one of the most influential spokesman for Christianity in the English-speaking world and said he had a “talent for putting old-fashioned truths into a modern idiom” and giving “a strictly unorthodox presentation of strict orthodoxy.”
Where are the C.S. Lewis’s of today? Do you think we should look for another?
That’s a question that I’ve been asked routinely for the past two decades. People want to know who is doing for our generation what Lewis did for his. But I never remember being asked where the Augustines, the Luthers, the Bunyans, the Dantes are. The deep hunger for more of what Lewis had to offer is very real.
I think expecting the same unique combination of intellect and imagination is probably asking too much. It’s easy to find people who can do one or the other, but bringing them together as Lewis did is extraordinary. God never leaves his people without a witness and there are plenty of individuals who are today working creatively and engagingly on one side of the equation or the other.
What do you think those who admire the legacy of Lewis should do next?
For more than a decade I have been saying that if a person were to simply read the books C.S. Lewis mentions in his autobiography, Surprised By Joy, they would receive a first rate education. Milton, Aristotle, Dante, George Bernard Shaw and G.K. Chesterton–they all make an appearance in one way or the other. The exercise of having to think through and to digest the thinking of others is the first step in our training to think through a thing for ourselves.
In the course of my nearly twenty-years as Director of the Wade Center, and now as a Professor at Biola’s Torrey Honors Institute, I have seen the enormous educational and spiritual value of a broad and deep reading of critical works of literature over a wide range of topics, periods, and cultures alongside an equally critical reading of biblical texts.
I also think we should be on constant guard against what C.S. Lewis famously called “chronological snobbery,” or the conviction that the thinking of the past no longer holds any real significance for the present. Deepening our knowledge of how people from previous generations thought helps us discern and avoid our own blind spots. And it helps in the face of the challenges of globalization, too. Encountering thinking from the diverse cultures and ages of the past places us in a position to think openly and rightly about contemporary situations that are different from our own context.
Dr. Christopher Mitchell is Associate Professor at Biola University’s Torrey Honors Institute. He was Director of the Marion E. Wade Center, which is devoted to supporting the legacy of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and others for nearly twenty years.