I’m not sure if I’m right about this, but I think I am. If you thumb through “Holy Women, Holy Men,” which is, at the risk of oversimplifying, the Episcopal Church’s version of the veneration of saints (some we share with Rome and others who are uniquely ours), you’ll find that the only person in that book who was regularly stopped for his autograph is C.S. Lewis. I’m not suggesting he was the only person in that book who found fame in their lifetime. It is said that people would make pilgrimages to see Dame Julian of Norwich. However, C.S. Lewis is unique in the fact that he did book signings, was very recognizable, received fan mail and in general, achieved a sort of limited “celebrity status.” Several of the Chronicles of Narnia books have been made into major motion pictures by Disney, complete with Chronicles of Narnia action figures.
One of the interesting things we often forget about C.S. Lewis is that he was both an academic and a pop culture hero. It’s interesting that none of his academic work dealt with Christianity. Lewis’ academic expertise was in Medieval and Renaissance Literature and many of his books still hold academic relevance. His Poetry and Prose in the Sixteenth Century as a volume of The Oxford History of English Literature is still used by doctoral candidates. And his work, A Preface to Paradise Lost is still relevant to anyone studying Milton.
For as scholarly and sophisticated as his academic writing is, he makes Christianity very accessible in his pop culture writing. Accessible, yet not simplistic. There’s a lot going on in his apologetics and I usually pick up something new each time I reread a book.
I think it’s this dichotomy that draws me to C.S. Lewis and his works. I’m fascinated that he’s read by liberals and conservatives. He’s read by low church Pentecostals as well as high church Anglicans and by people of all educational levels. Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., former director of the Human Genome Project and now director of the National Institutes of Health and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, attributes his conversion from atheism to Christianity to reading C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. A United Methodist Minister loaned the book to him. Mere Christianity changed this brilliant man’s life, yet is accessible to a 13-year-old.
C.S. Lewis didn’t read the newspaper and he didn’t travel. He only crossed the English Channel once during the last 45 years of his life. He didn’t drive. He walked everywhere except for when he had to take the train to commute from Oxford to Cambridge.
It wasn’t that he just didn’t drive. He was almost offended by the notion of getting someplace too fast. He thought a modern-day person could travel a hundred miles and not get the satisfaction that his/her grandparent got by traveling 10 miles.
To dramatize this point, C.S. Lewis attended Holy Trinity in Headington Quarry, Oxford. He always walked to church. He usually attended the 8:00 (no music) service because of his lifelong disdain of organ music (his words, not mine). One Sunday in 1940, he wasn’t feeling well so he slept in and attended the 11 a.m. service. He didn’t like the current rector nor his preaching and as already mentioned, didn’t like the music. His mind started to wander during the service and he started to put together an outline for a new book. He continued to contemplate this outline on the walk home. By the time he arrived home, he had almost the complete outline for The Screwtape Letters formed in his mind.
Can you imagine if C.S Lewis hadn’t allowed himself to engage in popular culture? If he had stuck to Medieval literature and had never attempted to write for the rest of us? Can you imagine a world without The Chronicles of Narnia, The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, or Mere Christianity? If I ever make it to the Eagle and Child, the pub in Oxford where he and the rest of the Inklings hung out, then I will certainly raise a glass to C.S. Lewis and his courage to write for the rest of us.
David Dreisbach serves as Director of Communications for the Diocese of Southern Ohio. Connect with him at firstname.lastname@example.org.