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Narnia Born Again | The Nation

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Narnia Born Again

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For 300 years, Christopher Wren's Sheldonian Theater has been the center of ceremonial life at Oxford. Between academic terms, the university occasionally rents the Sheldonian to visiting groups. Last summer the C.S. Lewis Foundation of Redlands, California, secured use of the Sheldonian for its C.S. Lewis Summer Institute, a celebration of the centenary of Lewis's birth.

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Michael Joseph Gross
Michael Joseph Gross, a onetime seminarian and former speechwriter for Massachusetts Governor William Weld, is a...

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He's not dead yet, but the spirit of Ronald Reagan is omnipresent these days, and nowhere is it more damnably profane than in politicians' relentless invocations of the Almighty.

On the conference's last night at Oxford, 750 people, most of them Americans and most of them evangelical Christians, effectively transformed Wren's theater into a revival tent. The Rev. Ben Patterson of Holland, Michigan, opened a worship service by leading the crowd in a hymn written in Lewis's memory. He then asked, "How has God spoken to you this week?" and beckoned worshipers to approach microphones placed throughout the Sheldonian. "Brothers and sisters," he called out, "come and give witness."

Dozens of believers--schoolteachers, ministers, college students and doctors--stepped forward to describe Lewis's influence on their faith, the encouragement they received by spending a week with fellow Lewis enthusiasts and how this experience of fellowship might soften the alienation they feel in an unbelieving world:

Lewis speaks to us in Mere Christianity and gives us common ground, so we can speak the same language.

I feel tremendous affirmation for standing alone and resisting the drift away from Christianity.

The thing I've seen here, which one rarely sees among evangelicals where I am, and which one sees in Lewis, is the Kingship, the magnificence of God. I've seen it in Oxford.

Among American evangelicals, C.S. Lewis is venerated as the great Christian intellectual of the twentieth century. Lewis wrote not only Christian apologetics (such as Mere Christianity) but also literary criticism, memoirs, letters, poetry, science fiction and the Narnia Chronicles for children. (He was also the subject of the 1993 film Shadowlands.) Evangelicals have adopted Lewis as their ultimate answer man, an easy-to-read St. Thomas Aquinas for today's world. At Oxford, a farmer's wife from rural Washington State explained, "C.S. Lewis wrote so many things that no matter what I want to know about, he's expressed himself on the topic in black and white. It's all right there in his books."

C.S. Lewis's books are rooted in straightforward common sense that is based on everyday experience, and his biblical interpretations, which tend toward the literal, are spun in service of an unabashed missionary zeal. Mere Christianity, Lewis's most popular apologetic work, begins with an argument for the objective values of Natural Law ("human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way") and then builds to the conclusion that Jesus Christ fulfilled this law so God would grant forgiveness to sinful people who can never live up to it.

Perhaps the most famous statement in all of Lewis's writing, and the one evangelicals often invoke as unimpeachable proof of Christ's divinity, is the following: "A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic--on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg--or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God."

However flashy and forceful Lewis's logic may be, the power of his writing ultimately depends less on rigorous thought than on enthusiasm. His own conversion, as described in his memoir Surprised by Joy, took place in a moment of mystical awareness while riding a motorcycle on his way to a zoo. This is the real source of Lewis's appeal to evangelicals: The intelligence of his faith, as recorded in his prolific writing, provides a deep well of erudite Christian arguments that are always ultimately grounded in the fervor that is the substance of their faith.

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