This sounds very odd indeed: defend one of the greatest Christian thinkers, authors, scholars and apologists of the past century? Why in the world would I seek to defend someone who has blessed millions, helped millions, and strengthened the faith of millions? Indeed, how many people have become Christians because of this incredible individual?
Regrettably a defence is still needed, because there are some folks out there who have run a smear campaign against this brilliant man, accusing him of everything from heresy to satanism. Many of these people are woefully ignorant in my view, and should simply be ignored.
Sadly just in the past few days I have once again had rather clueless folks attacking Lewis on various social media pages. And it has bothered me no end. So that is why this article is being written. Of course it will not likely convince those who think Lewis is the Antichrist, but others may find it helpful.
Lewis and his influence
There may be some Christians who still know nothing about Lewis. If so, I won’t repeat what I have written elsewhere, but a brief introduction to his life and work can be found here: billmuehlenberg.com/2012/01/19/notable-christians-c-s-lewis/
There can be no doubt as to the enormous good Lewis has done for Christianity. I, along with millions of others, became a Christian in part because of the writing ministry of C. S. Lewis. Countless believers owe their initial conversion to this great man, or their growth as mature, solid, thinking believers.
Hundreds of books and thousands of articles have been penned about this man and his influence. Just today I came upon a new article discussing another new book about him. Alan Snyder’s book, America Discovers C. S. Lewis: His Profound Impact, will soon be out.
In an article on this he notes how many were influenced, even converted, by Lewis. Let me mention just a few:
A young American who studied at Oxford, Sheldon Vanauken, attributed his conversion to Lewis, first through letters, then as a personal friend. His wife, Davy, also became a Christian by reading Lewis. After Vanauken returned to America to take up a professorship, Davy died a few years later. Lewis’s letters to him through that trying time solidified his faith. Vanauken’s experience later appeared in a book that is treasured by many believers, A Severe Mercy. I’ve always come away from reading this autobiography deeply moved.
There is a second generation that knew not Lewis, but that owes him a great intellectual and spiritual debt. That generation is also examined in chapter five, along with representatives from American evangelicals who have depended a great deal on Lewis for their respective ministries.
Charles Colson, caught in the Watergate net as a high-ranking member of the Nixon administration, read Mere Christianity and committed his life to the Lord, resulting in the worldwide ministry of Prison Fellowship. I recall reading Colson’s autobiography, Born Again, shortly after it first appeared in the late 1970s. It was an encouragement to my faith at a crucial time in my life. Lewis’s role in Colson’s journey to faith is recounted in this chapter.
Despite all this there are always some armchair critics who want to demonise Lewis and paint him as someone to be avoided like the plague. Their criticisms generally break down into two areas: his theology and his fiction.
A common set of criticisms heard by these unhelpful critics is that the theology of Lewis is greatly lacking in many areas. Many are even happy to accuse him of heresy. What are we to make of these charges? First, no one has fool-proof, perfect theology. I sure don’t, these critics don’t, and Lewis did not.
Many of our greatest Christian leaders, thinkers, apologists and theologians may have areas that you or I do not agree with. But simply having a different theological stance on various issues does not make a person a heretic. I for one am quite tired of these critics carelessly throwing the H word around. But I have explained that elsewhere: billmuehlenberg.com/2014/04/09/on-heresy-hunters/
Of course the major area of academic expertise for Lewis was Mediaeval and Renaissance Literature which he taught for many years at Oxford and Cambridge. He would be the first to admit he was no biblical scholar or first-class theologian. He was a lay theologian, but he was far better read in 2000 years of theology than most of his critics put together.
He was a populariser of complex and nuanced theological truths and doctrines. And no, he did not always get it right. There are some areas which I disagree with him. But that does not make him a heretic or someone to be shunned at all costs.
As I say, most thinkers and theologians have some areas we may not be happy with. Let me mention just one other recent example: the late John Stott. This British evangelical has also helped millions of believers over the years.
On most issues he was strongly orthodox, but in his later years he did start toying with the idea of annihilationism. This is certainly not a view I and most evangelicals can hold to. So is Stott therefore a rank heretic who must be burned at the stake? Of course not.
The many books and articles of Stott will stand the test of time and continue to help millions of believers now and in the future. See here for more on Stott: billmuehlenberg.com/2011/07/28/notable-christians-john-stott/
It is the same with Lewis. I do not agree with all the positions he held, but to therefore flatly reject him as a heretic is just plain stupid. A recent article I happened upon today nicely deals with all this. Another great Christian apologist, Norman Geisler, who has penned over 80 books, has an article on his affinity for Thomism (the theology of Thomas Aquinas), and how many evangelicals, although not embracing Roman Catholicism, owe a great theological debt to Aquinas.
Geisler points out obvious areas he does not agree with Aquinas about, but refuses to throw the baby out with the bathwater. There is still great theological good to be found in his copious writings. He then goes on to say similar things about Lewis:
My attraction to Thomism is somewhat like my attraction to C.S. Lewis. There are many things I like about Lewis’s views, e.g., his apologetics, his belief in absolute truth and morals, his classical theism, his defense of New Testament miracles, his affirmation of the Virgin Birth, the Incarnation of Christ, his belief in the resurrection of Christ, eternal punishment (Hell). However, there are also some of Lewis’s beliefs which I do not accept, e.g. his denial of some Old Testament miracles, his belief that the OT contains myths and errors, and his belief in evolution, and in Purgatory. But none of these hinder my acceptance of the many positive values I find in Lewis. But in spite of my acceptance of all these positive features in Lewis, I have never been tempted to become an Anglican (as he was).
Exactly. Lewis was not theologically perfect – no one is. So we must approach his writings like we do a fish dinner: we eat the meat but leave behind the bones. Anyone reading my writings must do the same. Thus to throw Lewis out altogether because of some of these theological shortcomings seems just senseless in my eyes.
Lewis is as famous for his fiction as his non-fiction. His children’s stories and fantasy works have sold millions of copies and blessed millions of people. Yet some who are clearly clueless as to how fiction works – especially science fiction and fantasy – will accuse Lewis of all sorts of ridiculous things, including the reckless charge that he was into, and promoting, witchcraft, the occult and satanism.
These charges reveal a complete lack of understanding not only of Lewis (and plenty of these critics have never actually read Lewis), but of how various genres of literature work. A whole book could be written on this to help out these confused Christians. But let me resort to just one article written by a good friend of mine.
A terrific Christian thinker and pastor from Perth, Australia is also a renowned poet and writer of fiction. With many published books of fantasy and poetry, he has won various awards for his literary output. He has often had to defend fiction in general and things like Christian fantasy in particular – not from attacks by non-believers but ill-informed believers.
Let me here draw upon Andrew Lansdown’s very helpful article, “Fantasy and its place in the Christian imagination”. He begins his vitally important piece this way:
Does fantasy have a place in the Christian imagination? Some Christians insist that, in the matter of literature at least, it does not. I became aware of this Christian hostility to fantasy writing some years ago when a woman told me that she was trying to get CS Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles banned from the Christian school to which she sent her children. I was taken aback by this because the Narnia Novels are among the most uplifting stories I have ever read. So I asked her to explain why she objected to them. Plainly disappointed by my ignorance, she replied, ‘Because they’re fantasy!’ This was the first time I encountered the view that fantasy writing is intrinsically bad, but it was not the last.
He goes on to define fantasy:
Fantasy stories, which CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien called ‘fairy tales’, are a distinct form of literature. Fantasy may be defined as a type of writing in which fantastic things exist and happen. By ‘fantastic’ I do not mean ‘ridiculous’ or ‘delusional’ but ‘extraordinary’ and ‘remarkable’. Fantasy stories go beyond everyday realities and may often transcend the ‘laws of nature’. They portray things that do not normally happen and worlds that do not actually exist. They depict fantastic creatures such as centaurs and fantastic events such as shape-changing.
He goes on to examine the charge of the occult connection. He discusses how fantasy writing falls into three categories so far as occult content is concerned, then says this:
The Bible contains many references to occult things. Think of anything to do with the occult – Satan, demons, witches, mediums, false prophets, false gods, idol worship, human sacrifice, sorcery, magic – and you will find it included somewhere in the pages of the Bible. This fact should alert us to an important truth: A portrayal of the occult does not automatically mean a promotion of the occult. The Bible itself demonstrates that a book may portray occult things without being an occult book. In the same way, occult characters and events may appear in the pages of a fantasy novel without it being an occult novel.
A key matter to consider when evaluating a fantasy story’s connection with the occult is the writer’s intention. Has the writer set out to glorify the occult or not? This can often be determined by considering how he has portrayed the ‘dark’ elements in his novel. For example, has he represented witches and witchcraft as good and desirable or as evil and abominable? If he has presented the witch as the villain and her witchcraft as villainy, it is improbable that he is trying to promote the occult. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, for example, Lewis presents the witch as evil and the lion (who is a Christ-figure) as good. Furthermore, he masterfully directs our hostility to the witch and our admiration to the lion. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the presence of a witch does not constitute a promotion of the occult because the writer (and consequently the reader as guided by the writer) is not sympathetic to the witch and her witchery. So then, the writer’s intention is crucial.
He concludes, in part:
Christians need not be troubled by fantasy writing per se. As a literary genre, it is not innately evil, nor is it intrinsically hostile to the things of the Christian faith. It can, of course, be used for bad purposes, but equally it can be used for good: just as a sprig of oleander can be used to beautify a table or poison a meal. Fantasy has no necessary association with the occult, the darkly supernatural; and even if a given fantasy includes occult beings and/or practices it may do so (like the Bible) without conveying approval of them. It need not be escapist, in the sense of avoiding reality or evading duty; but rather it can offer escape, even if only temporarily, from the mundane or the grievous, and in this way ease the mind and refresh the heart. It does not delude readers as to the nature of reality, but rather often intensifies reality, investing it with a special wonder; and it sometimes addresses one of the deep realities of our nature, namely our longing for the ‘other’. And all the while it expresses and encourages one of the spiritual attributes that separate humans from animals and make them like God: the ability to make and to make-believe. Fantasy writing is one expression of human creativity, and hence of God’s image.
In sum, there is a place for Christian fiction and there is a place for top-notch apologists like Lewis. I am so tired of the anti-Lewis brigade. Of course Lewis did not have everything right. No one does. But to claim that he is somehow heretical or satanic and must be given a wide berth is just ridiculous, and I for one want nothing to do with these useless critics.
I would not be where I am today if it were not for C. S. Lewis and his writings. Countless millions of others can say the same. I look forward to thoroughly enjoying his company throughout eternity.