The mistake showed up in news reports so often that it almost became normal, which is the worst possible thing that can happen with a mistake. Over and over, journalists kept pinning the “theologian” label on the Rev. Martin Marty of the School of Divinity at the University of Chicago.
The problem, of course, is that Marty is one of the world’s best known church historians. In the world of elite academia, which is certainly Marty’s territory, calling a church historian a theologian is something like calling a quarterback a wide receiver, or calling a surgeon a dentist, or calling a drummer a guitarist.
Why do this? And, once the mistake is made, why not correct the error? Marty once told me that, no matter how many times he tried to explain this error to journalists, it just kept happening. The mistake lived on and on.
This brings me to a very interesting story that ran in The New York Times marking the 50th anniversary of the death of C.S. Lewis, who died the same day as the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. (Speaking of which, is there a story on the Lewis anniversary in your local newspaper today? If so, please leave the URL for us in the comments pages.)
Lewis, of course, was a man of many academic and literary talents. The Times story sought to capture that right up top:
LONDON — C. S. Lewis was a noted polymath: philosopher, theologian, professor, novelist, children’s writer, literary critic, lecturer. But he was not much of a poet.
Still, 50 years to the day after his death, Clive Staples Lewis, known to his friends and family as Jack, will be among the more than 100 people commemorated in some fashion in Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner, alongside figures like Geoffrey Chaucer, Ben Jonson, Samuel Johnson, Shakespeare, the Brontë sisters, Gerard Manley Hopkins, John Keats, John Milton and Ted Hughes.
Lewis, who died at a week before his 65th birthday, on Nov. 22, 1963 — the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated — will receive the honor of a memorial stone in the floor in the Poets’ Corner, a portion of the abbey’s south transept that contains graves, memorial stones and a memorial window.
Sigh. Once again, that “theologian” label is so easy to abuse. Lewis wrote a wide variety of books, but he never produced a single work of systematic theology or anything resembling work in that disciple. There is a good reason for this: Lewis was a skilled literary critic and professor of literature. He was not a theologian and, to my knowledge, never claimed that label. His Oxford colleagues would have loved taking shots at him for that.
Now wait a minute, some GetReligion readers will respond. Isn’t it right to call him a “popular theologian,” in that he wrote books that for general readers — as opposed to academic readers — served as works of “popular” level theology?
That may be true, if one accepts that people have redefined the word “theologian” and are using it in a way that would be quite offensive to theologians. I am not aware of Lewis ever accepting that label, either.
It is also confusing to see that error in the Times lede, since the an accurate label is later used in the story when talking about some of this more popular books, such as “Mere Christianity” and “The Problem of Pain.”
See if you can spot the accurate label:
The anniversary of Lewis’s death and the commemoration at Westminster has prompted renewed interest in him. The memorial stone’s unveiling will cap a two-day conference, with lectures on his Christian apologetics and his literary work, choral evensong, a panel discussion and, on Friday, a service of Thanksgiving preached by the former archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and the signing of a newly commissioned anthem with the words of his poem, “Love’s as Warm as Tears.”
The accurate label for this side of Lewis and his work is “apologist.” Here is a basic definition:
apol·o·gist, noun …
: a person who defends or supports something (such as a religion, cause, or organization) that is being criticized or attacked by other people.
You can see the term used accurately at the top of this Religion News Service story:
As the nation marks the 50th anniversary of the death of President John F. Kennedy on Friday (Nov. 22), many Christians will also pause to recall the death of C.S. Lewis, who died the same day, just one week short of his 65th birthday.
The British author, described by many as perhaps the 20th century’s most influential Christian intellectual and apologist, is said to have greater influence in the United States than in his own country. Yet on Friday, a memorial stone for Lewis will be added to the storied Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, alongside Shakespeare, John Milton and the Bronte sisters.
Then, right after that, the story — once again — puts that “theologian” label into the list of his disciples.
Many Christians are first introduced to Lewis, a philosopher, theologian, professor and author, at an early age with “The Chronicles of Narnia,” a place where it is “always winter, but never Christmas.” For adults, his most influential work was “Mere Christianity,” where he argued that Jesus was either a lunatic, liar or Lord.
Toward the end of the report, a scholar — an academic leader — creates a similar list to describe Lewis and his accomplishments.
“The great appeal that Lewis has today is that he has an extraordinary range of a diversity of genre in communicating truth,” said James Houston, one of the founders of the respected Christian institution Regent College in Vancouver, who ran in Lewis’ circles while they were both at Oxford.
“He used fairy tales, mythology, poetry, science fiction, children’s stories, scholarly essays. He used the whole gamut to communicate the depths of truth.”
Indeed, Lewis did write scholarly essays linked to his chosen discipline — literature. But not theology, as a discipline.
Am I being too picky? Well, is it possible to be too picky when writing about a man who was, notoriously, as picky as Lewis when it came to matters of logic and language?
Why call Lewis a popular-level theologian, whatever that is? He was a Christian apologist, publishing works in almost every form of writing except formal theology. Logic! Bless me, what do they teach at those journalism schools?