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.
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.
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?
The farmer’s wife from Washington who looks to Lewis for answers to all her questions also has recurring dreams in which she takes long walks with him and tells him about her problems. But every time, she confesses, she wakes up and thinks, “Would he even want to talk to me? I’m not that smart. But I did graduate magna cum laude. I did do that.”
In the summer of 1963, a young man from Kentucky sold his most prized possession–a used Mercedes-Benz–in order to buy a plane ticket to England so that he could meet C.S. Lewis. Arriving in Oxford, Walter Hooper found Lewis’s house and walked slowly up the long driveway, across nine acres of woodlands and orchards. When Hooper pressed his finger to the doorbell, he was plunged immediately into abject panic. “I remember this well–I’m not making this up–I saw myself as I really was. I thought, ‘I am just a country bumpkin.’ And I wished the ground would open up beneath me.”
Lewis welcomed Hooper into his home, and they began a conversation that would reshape the course of Hooper’s life. Hooper’s description of this meeting has the rapturous feel of Dante’s first encounter with Virgil: “He struck me as a godlike man…. He was six feet tall. And I’ve always loved tall men because they’re so magnanimous.” Hooper recalls that when Lewis shook his hand at the end of the evening, “Oh, my heart sank. I wished I had not come, because I had never met somebody I loved so much, and I wondered if I would ever see him again.”
Hooper saw much of Lewis before he returned to the United States several weeks later. But the friendship was not to last long: Lewis died that November, on the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
Hooper returned to Oxford after Lewis’s death to help Lewis’s heirs manage the estate, and he eventually took a central role in shaping Lewis’s legacy. Hooper says he saved scores of manuscripts from destruction in a bonfire. He also says he “raided the dustbins” to save watches, pipes and other effects, and he tracked down the nurse who took care of Lewis in his last days, from whom he acquired a lock of Lewis’s hair. Today Hooper describes himself, proudly, as a “relic keeper.”
Hooper has even fashioned himself into something of a relic. He has acquired a pronounced British accent, and his handwriting, remarkably, has come to resemble Lewis’s. Since Lewis’s death, Hooper has made Oxford his home. He serves as literary adviser to Lewis’s estate and has edited many volumes of Lewis’s posthumous works. He also serves as a consultant to the C.S. Lewis Foundation on the project of restoring Lewis’s Oxford home, The Kilns.
The C.S. Lewis Foundation was founded in 1972, to encourage Christian faith-based scholarship in the secular academy. To this end, in 1988 the foundation assumed management of The Kilns, which it is converting into a “C.S. Lewis Study Centre” for Christian scholars.
Stan Mattson, the president and founder of the C.S. Lewis Foundation, sees the study center as one step toward his goal of founding a much larger institution. His biggest dream is to create a “C.S. Lewis College”–a Great Books school for Christians–on or adjacent to the campus of a major secular university. Mattson, who holds a Ph.D. in American intellectual history, believes such an institution is necessary because “Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man describes the closest thing to the position of the Christian academic today.” Yet until he can persuade donors to endow the college, Mattson is concentrating on The Kilns as well as the summer conferences that convene every three years at Oxford and Cambridge. Last year, for the first time, the conference ran at Oxford for one week and moved to Cambridge for a second.
The Oxford leg of the conference included afternoon tours of The Kilns. Mattson, standing in a blooming rose garden, told visitors that the place used to be a dump. “There were weeds up to here and vines growing into the windows. Hedgerows were over the dormers.” Since 1993 he has recruited American volunteers to spend their summers at Oxford cleaning the house–removing layers of concrete and linoleum that covered the kitchen’s quarry tile floor, reconstructing the wicker gate and birch arbors in the garden, sewing World War II-style blackout curtains for the living room and even applying a chemical to the ceilings to reproduce the nicotine stains left by Lewis’s tobacco habit.
The purpose of the conference as a whole was, in an equally painstaking way, to reconstruct Lewis’s vision of the world as a model for contemporary Christian scholarship. The conference’s $3,000-a-head price tag included academic and inspirational lectures that explored every nook and cranny of Lewis’s legacy. Speakers at Oxford and Cambridge included the fantasy author Madeleine L’Engle, Richard John Neuhaus (editor of First Things) and Charles Colson (Richard Nixon’s special counsel during Watergate, who became a born-again Christian after reading Mere Christianity).
Hooper, too, was squarely in the spotlight. He gave the keynote address at a ceremony celebrating a new Royal Mail stamp depicting characters from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Hooper also stood with Mattson in the receiving line at the conference’s formal banquet, which was held at Blenheim Palace, the ancestral home of the Marlboroughs and the birthplace of Winston Churchill.
Following a four-course meal, the banqueters solemnly sang “God Save the Queen” and raised their glasses in a Gaelic toast to Her Majesty before settling back for a series of after-dinner speeches. Mattson, Hooper and others spoke at length of Christian persecution in the secular world, especially the academy, and elevated Lewis as a model for academics today. Lewis’s stepson, Douglas Gresham, called Lewis “a visible and muscular Christian in the academic world,” who “knew that Christianity is not for wimps.” He noted ruefully that Lewis left the university when he was snubbed for a professorship. “He was victimized in many ways for his Christianity,” Gresham observed, “and this is a tradition that has not died.”
Most speakers also suggested that contemporary scholars should emulate Lewis’s “military heroism” on the battlefield of secular academia (he was wounded in World War I). “The watchword of courage is the legacy of C.S. Lewis,” Gresham declared. “The courage to be a Christian. The courage to stand out against Satan and his minions. The courage not just to be a Christian, but a visible Christian. We can learn this courage from C.S. Lewis.”
Walter Hooper and Stan Mattson looked relaxed and happy during the evening’s final presentation, an actor’s recitation of excerpts from Lewis’s essay “Screwtape Proposes a Toast.” The essay is an imaginary speech given by a demon in hell, describing how to use pride to lure people to damnation: “No man who says I’m as good as you believes it. He would not say it if he did…. The claim to equality, outside the strictly political field, is made only by those who feel themselves to be in some way inferior. What it expresses is precisely the itching, smarting, writhing awareness of an inferiority which the patient refuses to accept.”
For many people, the conference was mainly a chance to talk with kindred spirits about their common interests. (George Marsden, a professor of history at Notre Dame who has written widely on fundamentalism and evangelicalism, groused that “it’s like going on a cruise ship. It’s not a scholarly conference and it’s not a theological conference.” But he found his time at Oxford worthwhile because he got to see a lot of his friends.) There is striking uniformity in Lewis enthusiasts’ confessions about how their hero has changed their lives. They find a real presence in his books that engages and encourages their faith, and they speak of the author in terms usually reserved for personal acquaintance. Many call him their friend. Paul Michelson, who teaches a course on Lewis to undergraduates at Huntington College in Indiana, says, “Reading his books turns into a conversation–he writes in a way that invites dialogue–and I kinda feel like I know the guy.” An American undergraduate describes the experience of reading the last pages of Lewis’s novel Till We Have Faces: “It was like it wasn’t the characters anymore, it was C.S. Lewis talking to me, and he said, ‘This is what I need you to know.'” Don Yanik, restoration designer at The Kilns, says this quality of Lewis’s writings is what draws people to the house as well: “People like to go to their friends’ homes to learn more about how they live.”
Kathryn Lindskoog, an independent scholar, has dedicated much of the last twenty years to investigating the integrity of some of Lewis’s purported friends. In The C.S. Lewis Hoax and Light in the Shadowlands (both Multnomah), Lindskoog notoriously argued that Lewis’s posthumously published novel The Dark Tower (which was among the manuscripts Hooper says he saved from a bonfire) is a forgery and that Hooper has exaggerated the intimacy of his acquaintance with Lewis. Hooper has denied Lindskoog’s allegations and Mattson has threatened to sue for libel, although writers as diverse as Arthur C. Clarke, Ursula Le Guin and Richard Wilbur have encouraged Lindskoog’s investigations.
Whether Lindskoog is right or wrong about The Dark Tower may never be known. But regardless, her charge that Hooper has used his friendship with Lewis to his own advantage could be leveled at many Lewis enthusiasts. When evangelicals brandish Lewis as a weapon to win the world’s respect, they sometimes forget what’s most respectable about him: that the gift of friendship offered in Lewis’s books bestows dignity. Mattson’s C.S. Lewis Foundation certainly misses the point: Mythologizing Lewis as academia’s once and future king will only aggravate secular critics’ skepticism and hostility toward him and, what’s worse, further intimidate the countless people who read Lewis for love.
One of those is Holly Etchison, a 25-year-old Georgia native with fiery red hair that hangs to her waist, who had never been out of the country before she arrived in England for the C.S. Lewis Summer Institute. Etchison, who accepted Christ as her savior at age 3, says she has lived most of her life in “a bubble world of Christianity.” Last year, after she read an article in Christian Reader magazine (the evangelical equivalent of Reader’s Digest) about the restoration of The Kilns, she began a correspondence with the foundation. Etchison eventually won a scholarship to attend the conference, for a two-page letter describing “the font of inspiration and wellspring of peace I find in the pages of [Lewis’s] works.”
During the closing worship service at Oxford, Etchison sat at the very top of the Sheldonian Theater, close to the ceiling decorated with an allegorical painting of Truth breaking through the skies and casting out the demons of envy, rapine and “brutish, scoffing ignorance.” She listened to a recitation of Lewis’s 1941 sermon called “The Weight of Glory,” which concludes with reflections on the believer’s burden of moving in a world of people who have immortal souls.
There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal…. It is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit–immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously–no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.
It’s precisely the burden of taking people seriously that Holly Etchison says she’s learning to bear by reading Lewis’s books. “I used to be like, ‘When was your salvation experience?'” she says. “But I’m learning to be much more respectful of other people who believe differently…. That’s something C.S. Lewis is helping me with.”
Her witness suggests that Etchison has overcome the feelings of inferiority that seem to haunt many of Lewis’s followers. The world will never be swayed by evangelical spectacles of hero worship and furious efforts to prove Lewis right. But then it’s not really Clarence Darrow or the secular university that evangelicals have to fight. The enemy of Lewis’s followers is a well-founded secular conviction: As a movement, evangelicalism just doesn’t take the world seriously.