Even though it has been 50 years since his death, the faithful at Headington Parish Church in Oxford, England, are constantly reminded of the loyal, but rather quiet, parishioner who always occupied the same short pew hidden by a sanctuary pillar.
Going to church was never easy for C.S. Lewis, even before he became one of the world’s most famous Christian writers, noted the Rev. Angela Tilby, in a recent service in memory of the Oxford don’s death on Nov. 22, 1963 — the same day as the death of British author, Aldous Huxley, and, of course, President John F. Kennedy.
Lewis considered church organ music far too grand and thought the words of most popular hymns were “a literary disgrace,” said Tilby. Illogical sermons irritated him no end and he was highly critical of liberal trends in theology and biblical scholarship. As a former atheist, Lewis believed that far too many people in the modern world were slipping into an “easy,” “fashionable” agnosticism.
In particular, Lewis was “aware of the way belief in an afterlife had come to be ridiculed by critics of Christianity as ‘pie in the sky when you die’ — an imaginary compensation for those who had a raw deal in this life,” she said, in a service broadcast on BBC Radio. “Lewis’ response was to argue that hope for a better world could never deliver unless it was grounded in something more than the here and now.”
Lewis lived to see his popular fiction — especially “The Screwtape Letters” and “The Chronicles of Narnia” — become bestsellers in England, America and around the world. Meanwhile, most of his Oxford University colleagues rolled their eyes at what they considered the merely popular Christian apologetics of his BBC commentaries and books such as “Miracles,” “The Problem of Pain” and “Mere Christianity.”
The bottom line: Lewis was considered a dinosaur from an earlier age and far too popular to be taken seriously. Half a century later, that verdict remains popular among many academics and liberal religious leaders.
Yet half a century after his death, to the day, a small stone marker in honor of Lewis was added in the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey, in the south transept near a variety of memorials for Geoffrey Chaucer, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, John Milton, John Keats and many others.
Meanwhile, the entire Lewis canon is as popular as ever, with so many books in print, with so many publishers, that researchers struggle to total the numbers. More than 100 million copies of the seven Narnia books have sold worldwide, in 40 languages. HarperOne’s C.S. Lewis Signature Classics series — the non-Narnia Lewis works — was created in 2001 and sales are nearing 10 million volumes. An estimated 18 million copies of “Mere Christianity” have sold in the United States alone since its publication in 1952.
Memorial stones are fitting, but it’s significant that Lewis is best known for his books, said the Rev. Alister Edgar McGrath of King’s College in London, who will soon return to Oxford to teach science and religion. He is the author of the recent “C. S. Lewis — A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet.”
“In the 1930s, Lewis declared that a writer is not a spectacle, who says, ‘Look at me!’ Rather, a writer is more like a set of spectacles, who says, ‘Look through me.’ … The Christian faith, Lewis discovered, gave him a lens that brought things into focus,” said McGrath, in the text for his sermon during the Headington Parish service.
This focus — in his writing, in the classroom and in life — included an unashamed belief in the reality of heaven and eternal life. Yet Lewis argued that focusing on heaven was the best way for believers to be truly serious about the actions and decisions that make up everyday life.
The ultimate goal for Lewis, said McGrath, was to “raise our horizon and elevate our expectations, and then to behave on earth in the light of this greater reality. … The true believer is not someone who disengages with this world in order to focus on heaven, but the one who tries to make this world more like heaven.
“Lewis is surely right when he declared that the ‘Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.’”