Beyond Narnia; the imaginative appeal of faith

©Alister McGrath

C.S.Lewis s Christian apologetics have never been so popular. Prof. Alister McGrath 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 series of talks Lewis had given on the BBC during the Second World War, exploring the foundations of faith and their relevance during this time of danger and uncertainty. Lewis was already well-known for his witty Screwtape Letters (1942), and was on the road to international literary acclaim through his The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950) the first of the seven Chronicles of Narnia . These fantastical 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 imaginative vision of reality which contrasted with what he called the glib and shallow rationalism he knew in his 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 about the 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 , a defender of the faith who with fashionable urbanity justified an unfashionable orthodoxy against the heresies of his time . Yet the tone of the obituary was that of marking Lewis s passing, not anticipating his resurrection. Lewis would be remembered as an impressive scholar by those who looked 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 resurgence of such magnitude that his books now sell more copies than at any point during his lifetime. He now enjoys the dubious privilege of being pilloried with equal vigour by both the American religious right and 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 owes more to the ideas of Mere Christianity than to the magic world of Narnia. Lewis is more than a master story-teller. He possessed a rare ability to convey the imaginative and rational appeal of faith in 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 that has come to pass for public Christianity in recent decades, especially during presidential election campaigns. A fatigue with the superficial and a yearning for the real substance of faith has driven many 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 intellectual breadth. 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 s Narnian 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. To the surprise of some commentators, Mere Christianity is often identified in popular surveys as the most 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 s influence. It affirmed both the rational integrity and imaginative appeal of faith. We think we are listening to an argument; in fact, we are presented with a vision, and it is the vision that carries conviction . 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 to reconnect the Christian faith with their wider culture. It is one thing to argue that Christian faith makes sense. It is quite another to show that it is imaginatively compelling and existentially transformative. Yet there is another point at which Mere Christianity speaks deeply to contemporary Christianity, on both sides of the Atlantic. Mere Christianity was, and is, a manifesto for a form of Christianity that exults in essentials, regarding other matters as of secondary importance. Lewis s notion of Mere Christianity 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 as representing a form of Christianity that recognized the crucial role of the laity, allowing neither clergy nor ecclesiastical institutions any special privileges. Perhaps this is why so many Catholics, increasingly disenchanted with the failings of their bishops and dioceses in response to allegations of child abuse, are turning to Lewis as a role model. They find in him a prophetic voice that allows them to reaffirm their personal faith, without having also to affirm 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 see him as a trustworthy, intelligent, and accessible representative of a theologically and culturally attractive vision of the Christian faith. As churches and general readers prepare to mark the fiftieth anniversary of his death next year, it is clear that Lewis s writings still have immense spiritual and intellectual power.

Alister McGrath is Professor of Theology at King s College London, and President of the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics (www.theocca.org). His latest book Mere Apologetics is available in bookshops. 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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