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Prof. Alister McGrath C.S.Lewis The Imaginative Appeal of Faith

Prof. Alister McGrath C.S.Lewis The Imaginative Appeal of Faith

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Published by OCCAMediaOxfordUK
C. S. Lewis's Christian Apologetics have never been so popular. Prof. Alister McGrath looks at the reason for his improbable comeback.
C. S. Lewis's Christian Apologetics have never been so popular. Prof. Alister McGrath looks at the reason for his improbable comeback.

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Published by: OCCAMediaOxfordUK on Feb 28, 2012
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Beyond Narnia; the imaginative appeal of faith
©Alister McGrath
C.S.Lewiss Christian apologetics have never been so popular. Prof. AlisterMcGrath looks at the reasons for his improbable comeback.
Sixty years ago, C. S. Lewis published a short book entitled
Mere Christianity 
. It was based on a seriesof talks Lewis had given on the BBC during the Second World War, exploring the foundations of faithand their relevance during this time of danger and uncertainty. Lewis was already well-known for hiswitty
Screwtape Letters
(1942), and was on the road to international literary acclaim through his
TheLion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
(1950)  the first of the seven Chronicles of Narnia. Thesefantastical tales of children in the land of Narnia established him as the J. K. Rowling of the 1950s.Lewis never tired of defending the place of fairy tales in western culture. He showed an imaginativevision of reality which contrasted with what he called the glib and shallow rationalism he knew inhis own youth.Yet most cultural analysts regarded
Mere Christianity 
as too wedded to the anxieties and concerns of Lewiss own age to be of any relevance to later generations. Even Lewis himself was gloomy aboutthe future prospects of his works. They would, he once remarked, be forgotten within five years of his death. Lewis, who died in 1963, was widely regarded as an irrelevance to the new social,intellectual and religious issues of the 1960s.In its obituary for Lewis,
Time
magazine declared him to be one of the churchs minor prophets, adefender of the faith who with fashionable urbanity justified an unfashionable orthodoxy againstthe heresies of his time. Yet the tone of the obituary was that of marking Lewiss passing, notanticipating his resurrection. Lewis would be remembered as an impressive scholar  by those wholooked backwards. There was to be no future. Even Lewiss friends regarded him as a spent force.Then Lewis bounced back. Nobody really knows why. From about 1990, Lewis enjoyed a resurgenceof such magnitude that his books now sell more copies than at any point during his lifetime. He nowenjoys the dubious privilege of being pilloried with equal vigour by both the American religious rightand secular left  a sure sign of the potent threat that Lewis is seen to pose to the complacencies of both.Part of the explanation for this comeback lies in the continuing popular appeal of the
Narnia
series,given a new lease of life through big budget movies. But Lewiss renewed appeal ultimately owesmore to the ideas of 
Mere Christianity 
than to the magic world of Narnia. Lewis is more than amaster story-teller. He possessed a rare ability to convey the imaginative and rational appeal of faithin a time of growing scepticism towards both religious ideas and institutions. In North America,Lewis is appealing to a new generation which has grown weary of the shallow grandstanding thathas come to pass for public Christianity in recent decades, especially during presidential electioncampaigns. A fatigue with the superficial and a yearning for the real substance of faith has drivenmany to pick up Lewis and read him again with new interest.In Britain, religious believers are finding Lewis both a source of spiritual depth and intellectualbreadth. The rise of the so-called New Atheism has made many within the British churches aware
 
of the importance of apologetics, with Lewis widely acknowledged as a master of the genre. LewissNarnian fantasies offered narrative adventure and religious allegory in about equal measure. Yet
Mere Christianity 
offered a compelling vision of Christianity that still resonates with many today. Tothe surprise of some commentators,
Mere Christianity 
is often identified in popular surveys as themost influential religious book of the twentieth century.Why is this? Lewiss Oxford colleague Austin Farrer had little doubt about the reason for the worksinfluence. It affirmed both the rational integrity and imaginative appeal of faith. We think we arelistening to an argument; in fact, we are presented with a vision, and it is the vision that carriesconviction. While offering a defence of the reasonableness of faith, Lewis emphasised the ability of faith to connect with the deepest human intuitions about life, and captivate the human imagination.It is an important point, which British churches need to take to heart as they reflect on how best toreconnect the Christian faith with their wider culture. It is one thing to argue that Christian faithmakes sense. It is quite another to show that it is imaginatively compelling and existentiallytransformative.Yet there is another point at which
Mere Christianity 
speaks deeply to contemporary Christianity, onboth sides of the Atlantic.
Mere Christianity 
was, and is, a manifesto for a form of Christianity thatexults in essentials, regarding other matters as of secondary importance. Lewiss notion of MereChristianity was more than a rejection of denominational supremacy. It was also a subtle critique of the abuses of power and privilege that so easily arise in more institutionalized forms of Christianity.Lewis is generally critical of the clergy in his writings. As a lay Christian, he came to see himself asrepresenting a form of Christianity that recognized the crucial role of the laity, allowing neitherclergy nor ecclesiastical institutions any special privileges.Perhaps this is why so many Catholics, increasingly disenchanted with the failings of their bishopsand dioceses in response to allegations of child abuse, are turning to Lewis as a role model. They findin him a prophetic voice that allows them to reaffirm their personal faith, without having also toaffirm the religious institutions which they believe to have tarnished this faith in recent years.Lewis has managed to unite Christians across the denominational spectrum who have come to seehim as a trustworthy, intelligent, and accessible representative of a theologically and culturallyattractive vision of the Christian faith. As churches and general readers prepare to mark the fiftiethanniversary of his death next year, it is clear that Lewiss writings still have immense spiritual andintellectual power.Alister McGrath is Professor of Theology at Kings College London, and President of the OxfordCentre for Christian Apologetics (www.theocca.org). His latest book
Mere Apologetics
is available inbookshops. A new biography of C. S. Lewis will be published by Hodder & Stoughton in March 2013.This article first appeared in
The Times
of London on Saturday January 7, 2012.

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