Four books by C.S. Lewis you must read

Four Lewis Titles

Four Lewis Titles

C.S. Lewis never imagined the lasting influence he would have. “After I’ve been dead five years,” he told his friend Owen Barfield, “no one will read anything I’ve written.” Proving the old prof wrong, last month we marked the forty-ninth year of his passing, and Lewis is read today perhaps more than ever.

Still, this is a reasonable thought for an author. Books are not immortal. They rarely live beyond the generation of their author and earliest readers, and usually they die much sooner than that.

The blood and breath of books are the thoughts and words of readers, the people who animate the pages once an author has let them go. Almost inevitably readers stop thinking and talking about them. When that happens, they fall out of mind and die. Only a handful of special books bridge the generations and find readers to breathe life between their leaves one decade after another, books like—despite his humble self-assessment—Lewis’.

Most any serious Christian reader is familiar with several of Lewis’ titles: Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, Surprised by Joy. The Chronicles of Narnia delight adult and child alike, while others have wrestled to ground more complicated offerings, like The Abolition of Man.

I present here four Lewis books of lesser popularity. The first and second are essay collections published posthumously. The third is an analysis of mediaeval thought and literature. The fourth is a novel. They may not sit as high on someone’s list as, say, The Four Loves or The Horse and his Boy, but they are nonetheless well worth the read.

1. Christian Reflections. Many essays in this collection involve how a Christian should think and interact with currents in the wider world. One reason it’s so useful and enjoyable is that it presents brief treatments of ideas that Lewis elaborated upon elsewhere. Essays like “On Ethics,” “The Poison of Subjectivism,” “The Psalms,” and “Petitionary Prayer” are like seeds that soon flowered into full books. Here the reader has a chance to view them in miniature.

Passages are characteristically insightful, sometimes humorous. In his discussion on “Christianity and Literature,” for instance, Lewis notes, “Boiling an egg is the same process whether you are a Christian or a Pagan.”

2. Present Concerns. This is a later collection than Christian Reflections, and its essays feel more off the cuff. Most were written for magazines and newspapers. And while that could significantly date more than a few, there are gems here unfaded by the news cycle. There is an article on chivalry, for instance, that casts some illuminating color on present conversations about men and prolonged adolescence.

And then there’s this from the essay, “Equality”:

I am a democrat because I believe in the Fall of Man. . . . I do not deserve a share in governing a hen-roost, much less a nation. Nor do most people — all the people who believe advertisements, and think in catchwords, and spread rumors. . . . The real reason for democracy is . . . [m]ankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows.

Would that people took such sentiments more seriously.

3. The Discarded Image. This is perhaps a trickier title than the previous two, but it really rewards a close read. Billed as “An Introduction to to Medieval and Renaissance Literature,” it functions as a very accessible introduction to medieval thought and how it intersects with the modern mind.

Given our slavish adherence to naturalistic materialism, Lewis’ analysis provides fresh insight into how models of seeing the world develop and get dropped. I think it’s particularly useful in explaining how contemporaries tend to believe similarly even when they think they are on different pages. There is an unavoidable intellectual interplay — how much of that is affecting us today without our being aware of it?

4. Till We Have Faces. I believe that this is the least popular of Lewis’ novels, but I’ve been gripped by his retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche since first reading it two decades ago. I’ve read it several time since and cannot quite exhaust it.

It’s foolish to reduce such a book to a few lines, but here’s risking it. Ultimately, the book turns on the question of possessive love: Can such a love be what it purports to be, or is it really something merely selfish, something ugly, perhaps even something demonic?

It reminds me in this way of Cormac McCarthy’s most emotionally powerful novel, The Road, in which possessive love ultimately disfigures and alienates. In a culture as entitled and self-actualized as ours, such an insight might prove helpful.

There are of course several other lesser-known Lewis titles that warrant renewed attention. Studies in Words is a joy. And, while I’ve only dipped in and out of A Preface to Paradise Lost, what I’ve read is fascinating. But if you’ve not yet picked up any of these four, I’ve already got your weekend planned.

Check this out: How to get your name in Frank Viola’s new book, When the Pages Are Blank: How to Bring the Bible Back to Life.

About Joel J. Miller

I'm the author of Lifted by Angels, a look at angels through the eyes of the early church. Click here for more about me or subscribe to my RSS here.

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  • http://www.reflectionsfromthealley.org Dave Arnold

    Christian Reflections is great. Although my top choice is the collection of Lewis’ sermons, The Weight of Glory. I need to check out Present Concerns. I’m not familiar with that collection.
    Thanks for these suggestions.

    • Joel J. Miller

      I was hoping to highlight a few that folks may be less familiar with, but Weight of Glory is great. Present Concerns is a very short collection but fun to read. It’s fascinating to see how commentary can transcend the moment like that.

  • Paul

    Thanks for those recommendations, Joel. I’ve had the same experience with _Till We Have Faces_. It simply gets better and better—a true classic.

  • Jason Parolini

    Joel,
    I read The Discarded Image last year. It was a challenge to get through. Very rich, but much of it over my head as I am not steeped in Medieval literature and so many of the allusions flew right on by. It is after all the Medieval way of looking at the world that IS the discarded image. It certainly warrants another read. This one is more akin to reading, say, The Abolition of Man. Unlike Lewis’ other works (of fiction) which are more immediately arresting and endearing such as The Screwtape Letters or The Great Divorce (two of my favorites) this one takes some work to warm up to, but worth the labor.

    In Christ,

    Jason Parolini

    • Joel J. Miller

      It helps if your have a starting interest in medieval lit, for certain. My interest started primarily with the fact that it was Lewis. I found the book at a used bookstore in a town I was visiting. The delight of the find carried me for a while. But what really fascinated me was the theme of how the medieval Christian often thought like the medieval pagan. The important takeaway is that modern Christians often think like modern pagans. We tend to think like our contemporaries, even those we theoretically disagree with. Lewis also addresses this phenomenon in the preface he wrote to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. It’s one that we need to be on guard about.

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  • Jason Parolini

    Joel,

    Yes, you are absolutely correct….capitulation to the world is a constant temptation we must be on guard against.
    Reminds me of …….”Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” Romans 12:2

    Jason p

  • Deacon Jim Stagg

    Do not forget his trilogy which includes “That Hideous Strength”, if you like scary stories. A quote from Father James Schall, S.J., concerning this and another (“Lord of the World”…Robert Hugh Benson’s tale that is eerily similar to today’s news):

    “Indeed, I have often said that this novel (L of the W) and C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength are the most frightening books that I have ever read.”

    Great writing from a great writer!

    • Joel J. Miller

      I’ve always found it amusing that the acronym for the evil bureaucracy in That Hideous Strength is the N.I.C.E. Maybe confirming the point about how contemporaries think alike — how Orwellian.

  • http://www.kirraantrobus.blogspot.com/p/welcome.html Kirra

    I read the first book of Narnia in junior high and Till We Have Faces and The Screwtape Letters in high school. I tried to read the first book of the space trilogy my senior year of high school, but I just couldn’t get into it. In college, I read Mere Christianity, and I’ve read it at least once since. I loved it! Since reading that one, I reread Till We Have Faces, but I still don’t quite get it, though it is an interesting story. Maybe I need to read more about Cupid and Psyche in general to get it. I have read through all the Narnia books (SO GOOD!), and I attempted the space trilogy again. I guess I just needed a few years, because this time, I read all three in just a few days and loved them.

    I love C.S. Lewis, but this post reminds me of how much of his work I haven’t read. I want to try Till We Have Faces again and then read some of his works I haven’t read yet. I’ll probably start with Christian Reflections. That sounds like a great one.

  • http://www.awbpclaw.com Andrew Barbin

    Big fan of C.S. Lewis, I enjoyed all four books you listed but they would not be my top four. Grand miracle or variant God in the Dock, provide his best short answers to typical questions in evangelism and I would place at the top. Screwtape Letters and the Great Divorce would follow because they provide clear explanations of the nature of separation from God the real struggles inherent in conversion and walking with God. Four and five would be a tie between Lewis in a time of war which puts mere Christianity back in its context as War broadcasts which reading the book itself does not but equally valid would be Surprised by Joy. It is amazing how shallow the roots of people raised in the faith can be, and how much like a root simulator treatment real explanations of faith by converted atheist can be. I would also place Abolition of man higher in the ranking as being more important from a sociological perspective. I would put Weight of Glory on a par with Present Concerns and Til We Have Faces. I rank Christian Reflections rather low in his canon as it is almost pedestrian, and adds little to the subject that would not be better learned from others. As a convert, he was ill suited to those themes, and uniquely suited to address the doubts of the faithful and the barriers to evangelism. MacDonald and Chesterton among others are better on these topic. Four Loves is essential to anyone getting married and A Grief Observed is essential for anyone grieving. For those who learn best indirectly through story both Narnia and the Ransom Time Trilogy have as much useful theology as any of the above works and are better suited to the audience that abhors the more direct approach or self help books generally (which is no small percentage of the population. For those people I would note that Toilkien, “L’Engle and MacDonald are particularly good at explaining theology through story, and best is L’Engle who in her Genesis series tells dual stories expanding on the Old Testament narrative and mirroring it with a parallel modern narrative.


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