My curiosity regarding the opinion of other Christian theologians on C.S. Lewis’ quality as a theologian was piqued when a theology professor of mine at Marquette University declared in no uncertain terms that Lewis was not a “real” theologian.  This was after I had announced, after being put on the spot at the beginning of my program there to answer who was my favorite theologian, that I really liked C.S. Lewis.  I had chosen Lewis because I really did like him, but probably also because I just wasn’t really familiar, at the time, with any other mainstream Christian theologian.  But it was made clear to me that Lewis was not highly considered by many theologians today.

I found this sentiment to be somewhat disheartening considering the high esteem Lewis is given in the LDS Church. One of the reasons I knew him when I didn’t know other theologians (besides having read some of his works) is because he is quoted from quite frequently and is greatly respected by many leaders of the LDS Church.  This is likely because we can agree with many statements that he made concerning the nature of Christianity that other Christians find, well, rather dodgy (to utilize a very useful British expression).  For example, some are rather surprised or even offended by such statements as these:

He said (in the Bible) that we were ‘gods’ and He is going to make good His words. If we let Him – for we can prevent Him, if we choose – He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, a dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long and in parts very painful; but that is what we are in for. Nothing less. He meant what He said. C. S. Lewis, Beyond Personality (London: The Centenary Press, 1945), 48

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship. C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory (Eerdmans, 1949), 14-15

While some would say that Lewis goes too far here with this theme, Mormons welcome these arguments with open arms!  Despite this lengthy introduction, however, my purpose with this post is not to expound on why Mormons like Lewis while some other Christians don’t.  My purpose is simply to share with you the recent opinion of one well-known Christian theologian, N.T. (Tom) Wright, the Anglican Bishop of Durham, England, who has recently returned to the Academy to take up a post at the University of St Andrews as Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity.  As posted on the website, Professor Wright gives a fair and even-handed review of Lewis’s works, expounding on his great strengths as a theologian as well as his weaknesses. I think this is a great piece for anyone interested in Lewis and his theology to read, including Latter-day Saints.  I am not saying with this that I agree with everything that Bishop Wright says here (for example, his repeated accusation that Lewis was too much of a Platonist), because I don’t.  But I do find him fair, professional, and insightful in his treatment.  If nothing else, this article will give you an idea of what a leading Christian theologian thinks of our esteemed C.S. Lewis. Enjoy!


Simply Lewis

Reflections on a Master Apologist After 60 Years

by N. T. Wright

I once found myself working closely, in a cathedral fundraising campaign, with a local millionaire. He was a self-made man. When I met him he was in his 60s, at the top of his game as a businessman, and was chairing our Board of Trustees. To me, coming from the academic world, he was a nightmare to work with.

He never thought in (what seemed to me) straight lines; he would leap from one conversation to another; he would suddenly break into a discussion and ask what seemed a totally unrelated question. But after a while I learned to say to myself: Well, it must work, or he wouldn’t be where he is. And that was right. We raised the money. We probably wouldn’t have done it if I’d been running the Trust my own way.

A Great Debt

I have something of the same feeling on re-reading C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. I owe Lewis a great debt. In my late teens and early twenties I read everything of his I could get my hands on, and read some of his paperbacks and essays several times over. There are sentences, and some whole passages, I know pretty much by heart.

Millions around the world have been introduced to, and nurtured within, the Christian faith through his work where their own preachers and teachers were not giving them what they needed. That was certainly true of me.

My Oxford tutors looked down their noses if you so much as mentioned him in a tutorial. This was, we may suppose, mere jealousy: He sold and they didn’t. It may also have been the frustration of the professional who, busy about his footnotes, sees the amateur effortlessly sailing past to the winning post.

And partly it may have been the sense that the Christianity offered by Lewis both was and wasn’t the “mere” thing he made it out to be. There is a definite spin to it. One of the puzzles, indeed, is the way in which Lewis has been lionized by Evangelicals when he clearly didn’t believe in several classic Evangelical shibboleths. He was wary of penal substitution, not bothered by infallibility or inerrancy, and decidedly dodgy on justification by faith (though who am I to talk, considering what some in America say about me?).

But above all, like my businessman friend, it worked; a lot of people have become Christians through reading Lewis and, though, like me, they may have gone on to think things through in ways he didn’t, they retain, like me, a massive and glorious indebtedness. All that now follows stands under that rubric.

A Real Humility

Part of the reason for the appeal of Mere Christianity is of course that—like virtually everything Lewis wrote—it remains a splendid read. Lewis is feisty and lyrical, funny and moving, full of brilliant images, similes, and extended metaphors.

Even when they don’t work as well as they might (he regularly uses maths, or “sums” as he calls it, as an illustration, and I found myself wondering whether theology and maths are really the same sort of thing), they take our minds darting to and fro, leaping over hedges and ditches, constantly glimpsing the countryside from new angles and with the fresh air of intelligent argument in our lungs.

Reading someone like this, you want to believe him—a dangerous position, perhaps. He takes us, as it were, into his confidence, drawing us aside gently by the arm and whispering, “You and I aren’t concerned with things like that. . . .” We are flattered to be his companions on the way, to know (because he tells us) that this isn’t simply a “religious jaw” (remarkable how dated that language sounds, and yet how easily today’s reader skips over it) and that we who think like this are actually in the know while some—including some clergy, because Lewis isn’t above a quick jibe in that direction—are missing out.

And when he tells us that we shouldn’t be taken in by “soft soap,” or that we can “cut all that out,” we find it exciting, like the piano pupil whose teacher tells her it’s time to graduate from blues to Bach (or conceivably, as one hearer of this paper suggested, the other way around). Now, we feel, we’re growing up, we’re getting to the real thing.

There’s a good reason why we allow Lewis to lead us on. There is a real, not a pretend, humility about his “only-a-simple-layman” stance. For some of the time, as I shall suggest, he is a professional pretending to be an amateur; for much of the time, he’s a gifted amateur putting some of the professionals to shame; sometimes he’s an amateur straightforwardly getting things wrong (and note what he says about paying attention to Freud when he’s on his professional topic but not when he’s writing as an amateur!).

But he constantly says, “If this doesn’t help, go on to the next bit, which may,” and he seems really to mean it. In particular, when he’s talking about the struggles and strains of trying to live as a Christian, we know we are listening to someone who has been struggling and straining.

This isn’t theory; like The Screwtape Letters and similar works, this is a direct report from the Front Line. (While we’re on that subject, I don’t myself find the frequent references to the Second World War intrusive or off-putting. You would have to be quite an extreme pacifist to object to the regular military imagery, which, quite apart from its immediate appeal to his first audience, does have quite strong biblical resonance.)

Faith & Truth

There are two constant powerful refrains throughout Mere Christianity. First, faith matters more than feelings; faithfulness to the high and hard standards of Christian behavior matters more than doing what you feel like at the time. Lewis was swimming against a strong tide of popular romantic existentialism, a tide running even more strongly in our own day.

He was not, of course, opposed to feelings; but he knew, and it comes as a relief to our generation to be reminded, that if you go with the flow of feelings you will be inconsistent, unfaithful, lacking in all integrity. To realize that we don’t have to float out to sea on that strong tide, but that we can and must swim against it, is challenging but also liberating.

Second, you can understand falsehood from the standpoint of truth but not the other way around, just as someone who knows light can understand darkness but not vice versa: Thus you can understand sexual perversion once you know the norm; “good people know about both good and evil: bad people do not know about either”; “virtue brings light; indulgence brings fog.” (Incidentally, I don’t know whether it’s Lewis or his republishers, but I am puzzled that such a great writer should have been so indiscriminate and seemingly muddled with his use of the colon and semi-colon.)

So to the four different sections of the book. I rate the third (“Christian Behaviour”) as the finest; the first and last (“Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe” with its moral argument for God, and “Beyond Personality,” the closing pieces on the Trinity and on regeneration) as fascinating though in some ways problematic; and the second (“What Christians Believe”) as, worryingly, the most deeply flawed.

Even there, however, I remind myself that my millionaire friend knew some tricks I didn’t, and they worked. I also remember the apparent fact that from a scientific point of view there is no way a bumblebee should be able to fly, because its wings can’t support its body, but bees succeed not only in flying but in bringing home the honey. And if you conclude that Lewis is like the bee, and I am merely like the puzzled scientist who says it can’t be done that way, so be it.

To read more, please see the full article here.

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