Too much C.S. Lewis? Not hardly

Too much C.S. Lewis? Not hardly January 14, 2013
C.S. Lewis. Arthur Strong, Wikimedia Commons.

A writer for Relevant magazine is peeved that people like C.S. Lewis. Seriously. “I’m annoyed,” he said, “with the public perception and exultation that has long outlasted him.”

While granting that Lewis deserves credit for his academic, literary, and theological work, the writer pointed out that the Oxford don “was born in 1898 . . . a decade after the setting of Back to the Future III. Annie Oakley was still the most popular woman in America. In 1898, the ink was hardly dry on the patent for the radio and the Wright Brothers had never been to Kitty Hawk.”

But now “[i]t is 2013.” And, well, that just changes everything, right?

The argument hangs on the assumption that Lewis is a product of his times and has trouble speaking to our postmodern world. But the fact that Lewis is a product of his time is exactly why we should still read him. As Lewis himself argued, every age has its own unique outlook. While dead authors are just as likely to go wrong as we are, he said, they’re not likely to go wrong in the same direction, which means their perspectives can serve as a check on, and a corrective to, our own.

Books by authors like Lewis (and of course those much older, too) ensure the kind of intellectual diversity that keeps us from getting trapped in our own heads, prisoners to presuppositions we cannot critique for lack of the distance inherent to someone born in the nineteenth, twelfth, or fourth century.

Relevant’s essayist gave a weak nod to this point before landing a stiff jab on the cheek of a straw man. “Our lives can, and should, be informed by Lewis’ writings,” he said. “Future generations can, and should, read what he and others like him wrote. But to use him as the sole foundation for our cultural criticism is a shaky prospect.”

Okay, but this is specious. I don’t know anyone that uses Lewis as the sole foundation for anything. People likely to read Lewis are also likely to read many other and many different authors. But the impression given in the piece is that someone using Lewis is stranded alone on an island named Jack.

“We need to find new voices for our status updates and sermon illustrations,” he continued. “Our generation needs to add to the mix our own sages who were born in the same century we were, who can engage the same issues we face in our communities and our political and social landscape.” As if Lewis fans weren’t also reading some assortment of Tim Keller, David Bentley Hart, N.T. Wright, Gabe Lyons, Donald Miller, John Piper, Frederica Mathewes-Green, Rodney Stark, Christian Smith, Anne Lamott, Scot McKnight. . . . You get the point.

Obviously we should engage in the present. But to stress an unnatural distance from authors who died not quite fifty years ago is intellectually foolish and even perilous.

We need to more than occasionally refer to writers like Lewis as we plow ahead with the problems and questions of our own day. We should refer to them constantly and with serious contemplation. Wilhelm Röpke, Jacques Ellul, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Sayers, Sergei Fudel, and earlier voices like Irenaeus, Augustine, and Basil the Great should be close companions in the work we do.

A vibrant intellectual life includes thoughts that span millennia. They’re not so foreign as some insist, and their differences might just keep us from going off the rails.

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  • I didn’t read the Relevant magazine article you reference here, but I appreciate your comments. I heartily endorse reading both modern and earlier writings. Thanks!

    • Ken Puck

      Relevant magazine is for millennials who hanker to deconstruct everything and can’t find a polestar. They will contribute little or nothing to the future, ao why bother with them or their thoughts?

      • Pamela Tyrrell

        I agree with you as to the bulk of the readers of Relevant. The name alone implies that all others are not “relevant”. That being said, those millennials need to have voices of reason and truth willing to speak into their lives just as much as the rest of us do. THAT is why we need to bother with them and their thoughts.

  • Thank you! This guy is walking along a pretty thin tight rope. Does he know when the Bible was written?

    • E B

      I was thinking the same thing! Seriously, people. Why wouldn’t we look to learn from the past – all of it – than to ignore them only repeat their mistakes?

  • CW@UW

    This seems pretty typical of the content that Relevant publishes. A bit of “Old people are wrong about almost everything” and then some extraordinarily vague guidelines for doing things better. “We need to create a social set that is open and willing to engage people at any point in their journey. We need to embrace doubt and be the first to quick-draw love.” Ok, fine. I don’t think that anyone disagrees with that. Now explain to me in some detail the differences between the style and content of Lewis’s apologetics and cultural criticism and the sort that would be effective today and I’ll be happy to listen. But that wouldn’t fit into Relevant’s thousand word limit.

    • Joel J. Miller

      The apologetical approach might indeed legitimately differ from how someone might approach things today, but that hardly validates the dismissive tone of the article.

  • “Insightful” articles like this are the reason why I don’t read “Relevant” magazine. I am sure Relevant is really upset to learn this…

    • Joel J. Miller

      Despite articles like this, generally speaking, I really like Relevant and think it’s worth reading. It’s part of my regular media diet.

  • Carmon Friedrich

    I have a Lewis quote for that: “Don’t be a chronological snob.”

    • Joel J. Miller

      He coined the term “chronological snobbery,” and it really fits in this case, doesn’t it?

    • King Leong

      Oh, do you see what’s happening here? Now if you refute the article with a quote by Lewis, the author can shrug his shoulders and say, “There. My point has been proven.”


      • Joel J. Miller

        I suppose he’s entitled to feeling self-satisfied, while others feel the breeze through the holes in his argument. No one disagrees that we need to restate, revise, and reengage. But to dismiss Lewis (and presumably countless others who fall under the umbrella of his assertions) as dated only reveals a lack of imagination and an inability to engage with genuine intellectual diversity.

  • King Leong

    On the surface the Relevant article championed hope. What it really is cynicism. If the author was tired of hearing about CS Lewis, he should just come out and say it. I’d be fine with that. Just don’t hide behind this nonsense of “looking for the hero of our age.” It’s calling for “progress for the sake of progress.”

    Worst of all, he’s implanting the notion that if you can’t find good arguments against something, you can always just call it “passe.”

  • Shaughn

    To suggest that C.S. Lewis is inadequate because we are now post-modern strikes me as more than a bit silly. C.S. Lewis wasn’t even a modernist; he was a thorough-going pre-modernist, steeped deeply in the Realism of Plato and Aristotle. His rejection of modernist assumptions about reality are one of his hallmarks, especially in any of his writings on miracles. Those writings hold up equally well, I think, against the post-modern.

  • Carol Frenier

    What constantly surprises and delights me is how “relevant” Lewis seems to me to be for our time. I can’t get enough of him. I do also read many of the other authors you mentioned, but I always come back to Lewis, reading and rereading him for the powerful intellectual arguments he makes combined with his a down-to-earth wisdom that is expressed so simply and elegantly.

  • kath

    If you have to call your magazine “Relevant” to convince yourself that you are . . .

    • Tim

      Reminds me of those who preface their literary throat-clearings with “Clearly, . . . ” . At that, my BS detector goes on red alert. Here, the guy is determining truth by using the calendar, hopelessly bound and trapped within his own paradigm.

      • Kullervo

        My Civil Procedure professor always used to say that whenever somoene starts a sentence with “clearly,” reach for your wallet.

  • The REAL point is that C.S. Lewis will be relevant to the literary and intellectual world long after this irrelevant critic and “Relevant” are extraneous … say about one week from now.

  • Yuval

    You failed to mention another very good argument for favoring older writers as opposed to newer ones.
    Public discourse is a constant surge and ebb of debate and argumentation. Ideas get tested by many and varied other minds as they come in contact with them. Time has a way of winnowing out ideas that don’t work. You have to think that at some point across the centuries a monk or a scholar of some kind had one chance to rush into a room in a burning home and grab a single manuscript, and that he grabbed St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas before something else that we no longer remember. In that moment, a judgement call was made. This is the ruthless effect of time on scholarship. C.S. Lewis has been tested in the fires of the cultural revolution of the mid 20th century. He was tested in the flames of the bohemian movement before that, and the postmodern movement afterward. C.S. Lewis still speaks to millions of people, both religious and even secular. Clearly, something of fundamental value to humanity -something which speaks to the Nature of Man is discernible in his work.
    For myself, just the fact that thousands and thousands of unknown hands have carefully preserved their works through the darkest hours of history, sacrificed much to maintain and to copy them during times of adversity, and that they have stood up to the criticisms of the ages and myriad intellectual trends argues for the worth of the oldest, not the youngest writing. Frankly, the cocksure brashness of the “internet scholar” leaves me with the feeling that with our newest generation of thinkers, perhaps they are indeed brilliant, but I will wait and see. They are not so brilliant that they out shine works we know to be great. They are surely less brilliant if they think that older means less, not more important and worthwhile. If C.S. Lewis is too old to be relevant than what could possibly be relevant about the writings of men who lived two thousand years ago and concern themselves with the petty details of escaped household slaves and charity collections?

    • Joel J. Miller

      Great point: “Time has a way of winnowing out ideas that don’t work.”

  • Dave Howell

    Sorry, Mr. Columnist for Relevant, but you are not relevant. Lewis, Chambers, Wesley, and many others from past centuries remain relevant because they stuck tightly to the most relevant Book and principles of all time. “Now” and “modern” are the most fleeting and irrelevant times of all. By all means write, preach, and defend the Gospel in terms of now, but know clearly that Lewis and the other stalwarts of the faith will be relevant long after tattoos, pierced body parts, and pants on the ground have become oddities of the past.

  • Too many Christians act as if there was one path to God. Similarly, Many think like May flies only of the present ignoring the insight of the past. I spent some time pondering the problem of evangelism. Though scales did not fall from my eyes, I have come to see that there are many roads to Damascus. We do not find God. God will find us on whatever road we tread, even if that road is a path of prejudice and persecution of God’s followers in God’s name. God finds the atheist, the murderer, the prostitute, the tax collector and yes, even the lawyer.

    It is not necessary for God to speak to us from a burning bush, by angel or through an ark. Anyone who has opened themselves to God, can tell of an occasion when they felt an urge or call upon their heart to go somewhere or say something, and found themselves an instrument of God’s will in a manner they had not anticipated.

    Ironically, it was Lewis who observed that God may use writers long since dead for the same purpose: “In reading Chesterton, as in reading MacDonald, I did not know what I was letting myself in for. A young man who wishes to remain an atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere –‘Bibles laid open, millions of surprises,’ as Herbert says, ‘fine nets and stratagems.’ God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.”

    The writer ignored the fact that the harvest is plentiful and the workers are too few. Add those who are willing to work and produce good fruit. But casting out veterans in the field who continue to speak light into darkness is madness and should be openly opposed.

    The hand cannot say unto the eye, I have no need of thee…..

    Thank you for doing so. To your general remarks I simply add Amen.

  • I find the cult of Lewis sometimes excessive too, but for the opposite reason: people get so fixated on the big 20th century apologists (or just as often the big contemporary apologists and spiritual writers) that they completely miss out on the riches of the Christian theological tradition and end up satisfied with a few texts cited and lauded everywhere, which are not (in the grand scheme) terribly profound or interesting.

    • Joel J. Miller

      I can agree with that. I think it’s unfortunate that Lewis is primarily remembered by some as an apologist. There’s so much more to his work. I think there’s much to enjoy there. I also think we should get into the deep tradition of the church, which offers many rewards to those who investigate (and apply the findings).

  • John Bourget

    The authors of the most important book the world has ever know (the Bible) are from times long, long ago compared to Lewis. Would the author of this article also claim that these authors cannot speak to our “post-modern” world. Sorry but I would argue (and I’m sure many other Christians as well) that they are just as relevant today as they were then. That said I know full well that C.S. Lewis is not a writer of the Gospels or anything like that, however he still has a relevance in today’s world. Perhaps some of the references made would not apply or may not be understood by today’s youth. However there is still so much that does apply and make sense today. Reading a book like Screwtape opened my eyes to my own behaviour and to the subtle ways that the enemy attacks us all. I can’t say I know of any authors today who could write a book like that, with the wit and insight that is presented in that book. That said one should remember that many authors are not truly appreciated in there own time. Also, books (or authors) like movies and music are subjective. Not everyone appreciates the same music, movies or books. To sum up, while things may be different in our times, much is still the same and a good author from the past will easily hold up in the present such as C.S. Lewis and many other authors do.

  • Recondaddy

    My performance-obsessed, seeker-sensitive associate pastor recommended this rag (“Relevant”) to me when I was railing against performance-obsessed, seeker-sensitive churches. Now, it all makes sense.

  • Lewis exhorted readers to not read another new book until they had read an old one and if they had not time for both, to read the old. (Today, that would include his books.) “Keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds.”

  • Jeremiah Dusenberry

    If the purpose of being relevant is to perceive what people are talking about and engage at that level, could a case be made that if a lot of people are, in fact, still talking about Lewis, and reading him profusely, that he is then. . .relevant? And is it also possible that failing to recognize the present relevance of dead authors is to fail to be truly relevant?

  • wordbased

    You mentioned that there is an assumption made by the essayist that “Lewis…. has trouble speaking to our postmodern world”. I would suggest that Lewis has no trouble in that regard. I believe the issue is not with the speaking but with the hearing.