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Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963), usually known as C. S. Lewis ("Jack" to his friends), was an Irish-born British writer, scholar of English medieval and renaissance literature, and Christian apologist. He was a fellow of University of Oxford from 1925 to 1954, the first Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at University of Cambridge from 1954 until his death.
Lewis was a member of what is called the Anglo-Catholic branch of the Anglican church. His best-known work of apologetics Mere Christianity attempts to isolate the core of Christianity independent of particular denominations.
In this work Lewis hints that he does not believe in the standard Western Christian understanding of Jesus' death as a substitutionary sacrifice for sin, a notion also eschewed in his Christian allegorical fiction. Lewis seems to opt for the ancient notion that Jesus' death is a ransom paid to the devil rather than a sacrifice to God.[notes 1]
In his autobiography Surprised by Joy, Lewis states that obtaining life after death is a rather crass motive for becoming Christian that actually spoils what is good in Christianity.
Like many Anglo-Catholics, Lewis accepted theistic evolution, and like many Anglo-Catholics believed in Purgatory. Although Article XXII of the Anglican 39 articles rejects "the Romish doctrine concerning purgatory", Lewis construed this to mean Catholic beliefs about purgatory, rather than belief in purgatory per se.
Fiction and other written works
Lewis is better known for his fiction writing than his academic work. His best-known work consists of the "Chronicles of Narnia", a series of fantasies in which English schoolchildren are transported to a magical land, where they are involved in various heroic (and otherwise) roles. The Narnia books have a great deal of Christian allegory and assumptions, although many readers don't immediately perceive this. Particularly strongly Christian are The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; The Magician's Nephew; and The Last Battle.
Lewis was also a known Christian apologist. In Miracles and Mere Christianity, Lewis employs a streamlined simplified version of Kantian arguments that the simple fact that we have minds (Miracles) and morality (Mere Christianity) points to the existence of a God. In the latter, he employs his original trilemma argument that since Jesus claimed to be God, he must be Lord, liar, or lunatic. This argument ignores the possibility that this story about Jesus may be fabrication by another author, which one might expect a writer of fantasy to be aware of. Lewis is today highly popular with conservative Christians but professional theologians cite him less often.
Lewis has been criticized for racism because of his portrayal of Calormen, a country suspiciously similar to the Ottoman Empire, which is almost entirely evil. The people of Calormen, while not particularly like the real Ottomans, were very much like the European stereotypes of Muslims at the time.
In his book Mere Christianity, Lewis argued that witch hunts were not wrong, only mistaken since witches do not exist—if they did, he says, the crime of witchcraft, working for the Devil to destroy people, would be deserving of death, if any crime ever deserved death.
In addition to the Narnia books, his writings include:
- Mere Christianity, the aforementioned apologetic for what Lewis considered basic Christianity, independent of denominations.
- The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature: actually an excellent introduction to medieval ideas about the physical world.
- An Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition: a study of medieval romantic poetry.
- A Preface to Paradise Lost: A study of Milton's epic poem.
- Surprised by Joy - An autobiography.
- The Screwtape Letters, a series of letters between an apprentice demon, Wormwood (yes, that was a reference in Calvin & Hobbes), and his mentor.
- Till We Have Faces, a celebrated retelling of the Cupid and Psyche myth from Apuleius intertwined with many existential and even Universalist themes. Lewis called it the best of his novels.
- The Space Trilogy, somewhat obscure at the moment, but began a magnificent spat of letters with none other than Arthur C. Clarke. It was born from a dare with J.R.R. Tolkien; the two disliked what they perceived as the current dehumanizing trends in science fiction and dared each other to write a sci-fi book their own way, though Tolkien's book went unfinished.
- The Great Divorce, a dream-vision novel about a trip from hell to heaven.
Critics of apologetics
A thorough analysis of Lewis' Christian apologetics is found in John Beverslius' book C.S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion. In the foreword, Beverslius states that Lewis is either often treated as an almost-divine oracle or with complete contempt, and neither treatment is deserved. He regards Lewis as having a sensitive and intelligent mind that is simply wrong about Christianity, and as such his arguments should be respectfully dismantled.
A chapter analyzing Lewis' apologetic arguments appears in S.T. Joshi's book God's Defenders: What They Believe and Why they are Wrong.
Secular critics of Lewis' fiction
Author Philip Pullman is an outspoken critic of Lewis and the underlying values in his Narnian chronicles. Pullman has several times noted that his own fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials is written in part to serve as a humanist alternative to the Narnia series.
Salon.com editor Laura Miller wrote a book defending the literary value of the Narnia books for non-believing readers entitled The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Guide to Narnia. Portions of the book are autobiographical in which Miller discusses her childhood love of Narnia, her subsequent disenchantment when she discovered the Christian subtext of the books, and her later discovery of how to appreciate the books outside of the framework of Lewis' Christianity.
A more negative assessment of Lewis' fiction is in David Holbrook's psychoanalytic study of Lewis entitled The Skeleton in the Wardrobe in which he sees signs of Lewis' fear of women and sexuality reflected in the Narnia series. However, Holbrook speaks quite highly of Lewis' novels The Magician's Nephew (the 2nd to last of the Narnia series, though it's a prequel) and Till We Have Faces.
A.N. Wilson's biography of Lewis is the only full-length one not written by a Christian. Wilson actually lost his Christian faith while researching his bio of Lewis and the resulting book is heavily psychoanalytic. However, Wilson returned to Christianity 20 years later.
Lewis wars among conservative Christians over evolution
The BioLogos institute (a think tank promoting the compatibility of evolution and Christianity) frequently cites C.S. Lewis with approval in its literature. However, the Discovery Institute (which promotes intelligent design) also houses a Lewis Institute, and one Discovery Institute member, John West, has edited a book and given several lectures contesting the view that Lewis was comfortable with evolution, in spite of very clear statements to this effect in Mere Christianity. (In fact, Lewis was indeed comfortable with evolution when he wrote Mere Christianity in the early 1940s, but was later convinced to go full-creationist when a colleague used the old "evolution is random therefore it can't produce the human eye" fallacy on him.)
West's book further ropes Lewis into the battle against that conservative Christian chestnut "scientism", the belief that all truth can be obtained scientifically. Astrophysicist Sean Carroll has observed that religious opponents of modern science often use the term "scientism" over-flexibly to mean a wide range of things, depending on the polemical needs of the moment.
- This is certainly implicit in both The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and Perelandra