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Novelist and scholar C.S. Lewis in 1950. Photo by John Chillingworth/Picture Post/Getty Images

Making claims on a ‘mere Christian’

Every segment of Christianity considers C.S. Lewis one of its own. But as a new biography by Alister McGrath shows, the man had no interest in church tribalism

By Paul Knowles

When I was about 15 years old, my Sunday school teacher in my fundamentalist Baptist church suggested I read C.S. Lewis. It would, he suggested, help me understand that faith and reason are not mutually exclusive. My teacher had no illusions that Lewis’s thinking matched fundamentalist theology. My teacher was an intelligent and courageous man.

Alister McGrath’s recent book C.S. Lewis — A Life touches an issue I find fascinating: the cross-denominational canonization of this unlikely beer-swilling saint, whose beloved Chronicles of Narnia are just a small — if clearly the most popular — part of a vast literary output that ranges from Christian theology to English literary criticism to science fiction.

Any new biographer like McGrath must inevitably cover a lot of territory long since pioneered by others. And the truth is, there is not all that much life to explore. What makes Lewis interesting is not what he did, but what he thought and wrote. McGrath, however, becomes positively ecstatic over his one apparent scoop — he contends that everyone, including Lewis, has been wrong about the dates of Lewis’s conversion. “His rediscovery of God is almost certainly not to be dated from the summer of 1929, as Lewis himself suggests in [his memoir] Surprised by Joy, but from the late spring or early summer of 1930.” McGrath is at great pains to prove his thesis — but in the end, I wonder if it matters all that much.

One theme that does matter is the attitude of the various branches of the Christian church toward Lewis. McGrath sees the author — correctly, I believe — as standing firmly in the centre of what Lewis himself termed “mere Christianity,” a faith unaligned with any particular denomination. “It is clear that Lewis’s conception of the Christian faith was rather individualistic, even solitary,” McGrath writes. “There was little here about the church, the community of faith, or Christianity in relation to society.”

This seems an accurate assessment. Lewis did not come to faith through any act of the church. Influenced by the arguments of intellectual Christian friends like J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewis ultimately surrendered, somewhat unhappily, to what he saw as God’s pursuit of him.

Lewis seems to have attended church because that is what a Christian did. He was not involved in the social interactions of his parish; when I visited Holy Trinity Church in Headington Quarry, Oxford, I found that his particular pew abuts a pillar, leaving room for only two worshippers: Lewis and his brother, Warnie.

McGrath’s character sketch seems apt: “Lewis also comes across as something of an eccentric, in the proper sense of that term — someone who departs from recognized, conventional, or established norms or patterns.”

Lewis was unique. He communicated the heart of the Christian matter in brilliant but accessible essays and theological reflections; in soaring children’s literature and visionary science fiction; in newly created myths and in heart-wrenching personal biographical works. It is no wonder that the various branches of fragmented Christianity want to claim him as their own.

In 2013, Joseph Pearce wrote in the Catholic World Report, “Many of the core beliefs he embraced as a ‘mere Christian’ placed him decidedly on the Catholic end of the theological spectrum. . . . It is perhaps, therefore, not so surprising that C.S. Lewis has ushered so many people into the Catholic Church.”

Meanwhile, also in 2013, in an essay in the New York Times, T.M. Luhrmann made a case for Lewis’s affinity with evangelicals: “To this day Lewis . . . remains deeply compelling for many evangelicals, more so than for Catholics and mainline Protestants.”

However, in 1995, Duncan Sprague in “The Unfundamental C. S. Lewis” applauded Lewis’s liberal approach to scripture: “It was of little debate within his closest circle of friends that there were errors within the literature of the Scriptures. . . . I am grateful for the liberal heritage that Lewis brought to his writings and Christian life.”

So there we have it: C.S. Lewis, hero of the Roman Catholics, the evangelicals and the mainline Protestant church. Were this a reflection of ecumenical admiration for a great Christian communicator, this might be cause for celebration — Christians agreeing on something! Instead, I fear, it represents efforts by all segments of Christianity to claim a prominent defender of the faith for their own — and only their own.

And the truth is, they are all wrong. C.S. Lewis doesn’t really fit in anywhere.

Except at the heart of the matter. “Lewis is perhaps the most credible and influential representative of the ‘mere Christianity’ that he himself championed,” writes McGrath. “Mere Christianity . . . clearly expresses Lewis’s own vision of a basic Christian orthodoxy, shorn of any denominational agendas or interest in ecclesiastical tribalism.”

There is some humour in the evangelical veneration of Lewis. As McGrath notes, “Lewis seemed a total outsider to American evangelicals in the late 1950s and early 1960s. . . . What evangelical would want to be associated with someone who smoked heavily, drank copious quantities of beer, and held views on the Bible, the Atonement and purgatory which were out of place in the evangelical community of that age?” But today, “Some have now even spoken of Lewis as the ‘patron saint’ of American evangelicalism.”

I did not realize it at the time, but my Sunday school teacher was engaging in a bold act of subversion by urging me to read Lewis. I have been grateful ever since. Lewis gave me tools with which to build a personal faith perspective, outside denominational strictures.

Since then, I have been surprised and bemused by the eagerness of Christians from across the ideological spectrum to embrace Lewis as one of their own. He is. Oh, he is. But not as they see it. He’s neither evangelical nor Catholic, liberal nor conservative. He is a mere Christian — and from him, we can still learn.

Better still, with him, we can be amazed by Aslan, transported with Ransom, lifted to the very borderlands of heaven and surprised by joy.

Paul Knowles is a writer and arts presenter in New Hamburg, Ont. His MA thesis was on C.S. Lewis.

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