Narnia Born Again
Lewis's seventy books, most of which have never gone out of print, have sold at least 50 million copies. Counting the C.S. Lewis Summer Institute, at least seven major conferences convened to celebrate last year's centenary of his birth. Attending those conferences were thousands of members of C.S. Lewis institutes, centers and societies in Colorado, California, Washington, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Tennessee, New York and Oregon. Between conferences, an Internet listserv nourishes Lewisians with discussions on topics such as whether Lewis's ghost inhabits his former home. Many evangelical churches and universities routinely study his work; these classes are enriched by media events like the new series of radio plays based on Narnia, produced by James Dobson's organization Focus on the Family. In St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Monrovia, California, there is even an eight-foot stained-glass window of Lewis and the characters from Narnia.
Yet in canonizing Lewis, evangelicals have had to ignore significant doctrinal differences with their hero. Lewis believed in purgatory, for instance, and he rejected the inerrancy of Scripture. And then there were his personal habits. The evangelist Bob Jones Jr., after visiting Lewis at Oxford, was aghast. "That man smokes a pipe, and that man drinks liquor," he exclaimed, "but I do believe he is a Christian!"
To understand how Lewis became the patron saint of American evangelicals, you have to go back to Clarence Darrow. During the Scopes trial, Darrow dismissed fundamentalists as "bigots and ignoramuses." Such judgments have continued to reverberate in American popular culture, and evangelicals feel tainted and slighted by them. Their resentment has fueled the construction of a subculture of evangelical colleges, universities and media companies, all to protect evangelicals from the threat of persecution by the secular world and to provide a platform from which they can persuade their persecutors to repent.
Tony Campolo, a professor of sociology at Eastern College in Pennsylvania and a leading evangelical preacher, states bluntly, "We suffer from an intellectual inferiority complex. That's why all these Christian colleges were created." Lewis, an Oxford don and a Cambridge professor, was the first academic with unimpeachable secular credentials to articulate a faith that could be endorsed by evangelicals rooted in Scripture and driven toward conversion. "He was the first to say they weren't crazy, retarded people from another age," Campolo goes on. "There isn't anybody on the scene now who gives evangelicals that kind of credibility."
But not everybody is impressed. The only high-profile literary figure who's written a book-length study of Lewis is the British novelist and critic A.N. Wilson. To the horror of evangelicals, his C.S. Lewis: A Biography (1990) fixed on Lewis's sadomasochistic sexual fantasies and claimed that Lewis carried on an illicit affair with a married woman almost twice his age--his best friend's mother. Wilson also savaged Lewis's admirers. His book begins with a scathing picture of evangelicals at Wheaton College in Illinois, whose library houses the world's foremost collection of Lewis manuscripts and ephemera. Wilson later told the Independent of London, "At Wheaton College...they are hardline, fairly stupid fundamentalists, who made Lewis into a god. They see him as an intellectual who believed in all the supernatural parts of religion--who underpins all their prejudices."
By designating Lewis their apostle to the skeptics, evangelicals have trapped themselves in a painful paradox: Lewis is the man who's supposed to ease their inferiority complex, but the world's hostility to him just makes things worse.
Evangelicals take this rejection personally, reasoning that if people don't pay attention to Lewis, it must be their own fault. They ascribe to Lewis intellectual and spiritual powers beyond anything most mortals can attain. Fatalism creeps in. The question arises, Can any believer understand Lewis well enough to carry on his legacy and earn the world's respect?