What we know most is what he wrote down. He has sold literally hundreds of millions of books in dozens of different genres. He made modest but important contributions to literary criticism and the history of ideas–things I’ve only begun to read recently. He is most well known as the creator of Narnia. They are valuable in that they are simply great stories, but they also transformed the children’s book industry. C.S. Lewis was an early fantasy and science fiction writer, and tested boundaries with experimental literature like The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce. His last novel, Till We Have Faces, is almost forgotten, but could be a classic.
And then there are the Christian books. Again and again I hear from people that Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain, and Surprised by Joy have been transformational books, drawing readers into faith for the first time, or helping them as they struggle Godwards. For many, The Screwtape Letters has helped them redefine Christian practice, Reflections on the Psalms has helped them recover sacred Scripture, and Letters from Malcolm has helped them find prayer in their lives for the first time.
Not to mention that during WWII, Lewis was the second most recognized voice in Britain, as he shared poignant faith ideas on the BBC. There is no doubt that C.S. Lewis has left an astounding legacy. He is among the most important Christian writers of the 20th century.
None of this is surprising. A digital friend of mine, William O’Flaherty of the “All About Jack” broadcast, has begun collecting legacy articles celebrating the semicentennial of Lewis’ death. I don’t need to retell that story.
Part of my overall project with Lewis, though, is not the general consideration of his legacy, but to think about his theological legacy. The question I am trying to ask is this: “What is the heart of C.S. Lewis’ spiritual theology?”
This is different than the question, “What did Lewis believe?” Lots of people have written about that. It is also different than Lewis’ understanding of morality, his sense of right and wrong. That’s a great question, and I think time in Mere Christianity and The Abolition of Man will get you there.
My question is a little different. Our spirituality or spiritual theology is the understanding we have of Christian discipleship. So I am trying to discern what principles Lewis followed in living out his conversion in every day life. While Lewis is known for words on a page, it is all the hours that fill up the day that really makes a man.
This hunt has been an adventure! I think, after a couple years of searching and considering, I have found one of these principles–a beginning, I hope, of an understanding of what is at the heart of Lewis’ understanding of discipleship. It is actually hinted at in his “conversion letters“–the letters he wrote to his best friend, Arthur Greeves, explaining his strange conversion to Christianity. On Sep 22, 1931, Lewis refers surreptitiously to “The Macdonald conception of death–or, to speak more correctly, St. Paul’s…..” He says that, “death is at the root of the whole matter,” though some of “the whole matter” is obscured in an ongoing conversation, of which we only have a few snatches. It is one of the limits of letters: we only have half the conversation, and of what we have, some includes things like, “I don’t think I left any pyjamas at Bernagh….”
On Oct 1st, Lewis refers back to “Addison’s Walk,” the famous night of conversation he had before the letter I just quoted:
How deep I am just now beginning to see: for I have just passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ–in Christianity. I will try to explain this another time. My long night talk with Dyson and Tolkien had a good deal to do with it.
I have just finished The Epistle to the Romans, the first Pauline epistle I have ever seriously read through. It contains many difficult and some horrible things, but the essential idea of Death (the Macdonald idea) is there alright.
His Oct 18th letter goes into more detail, but he doesn’t return to the idea of death in these letters.
As I have been reading through Lewis chronologically, I have also been looking at Galatians 2:20:
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (NIV).
This idea of death in Christ, a mystical, intentional, lifelong, Spirit-driven and Christ-initiated self-surrender has been on my mind for some time. I have been reading more about it in Chinese pastor Watchman Nee (see, The Life That Wins) and American scholar Michael Gorman. Gorman calls it “cruciformity.” It is a play on words, in that the word “cruciform” just means “cross-shaped,” and that the cross forms us. Gorman argues that we have a cross-shaped God, a God who dies and then initiates a program of self-death in us.
As I’ve been reading around this idea, I saw these themes emerge in Lewis. His first conversion narrative, the strange allegory of The Pilgrim’s Regress, hints at this idea at its climax. It seems to me that the characters in Narnia, as they come around to see things from a truly Narnian perspective, go through a kind of conversion that is like this self-death. The conversions of Eustace Scrubbs and Edmund Pevensie are like this, which I found intriguing.
Sometimes ideas catch in us, like a barb on fabric. As I tugged at these threads, I saw more. Mere Christianity features this idea, a giving up of self entirely at the heart of Lewis’ public spiritual theology. Even more, I think it is the most important idea in The Problem of Pain and The Great Divorce. Finally, I read Till We Have Faces this summer and these words pounded through my brain again and again:
“Die before you die. There is no chance after” (Till We Have Faces, 291).
“Die before you die”–it is, I think, St. Paul’s idea of death.
So when an idea catches, and the threads seem to fit together, you’ve got to do something with it. So I put the ideas together in a paper and am presenting the paper on Sat, Nov 23, in Halifax, at the Atlantic School of Theology. There happens to be a day-long conference on Discipleship in C.S. Lewis–the exact topic I was hoping to find. If you are in Halifax this weekend, check it out. Meanwhile, though, you can see my abstract for the paper below, and my prezi is here. My hope is that if we can clarify the centre of C.S. Lewis’ lived theology, his spirituality, his theological legacy can be re-asserted. And I think it is a rich and shocking idea, St. Paul’s idea of death.
“‘Die Before You Die’: St. Paul’s Cruciformity in C.S. Lewis’ Narrative Spirituality”
Given the number of semicentenary conferences this year, it is clear what Lewis’ conversion meant historically. In what ways, though, did the pattern of his conversion to Christianity in 1931 imprint upon his understanding of spirituality? Described as a “most thoroughly converted man,” the principles behind Lewis’ conversion were thus Lewis’ operating principles for everyday Christian life. This paper argues that this conversion principle is at the centre of C.S. Lewis’ understanding of spiritual formation. In exploring the work of Pauline theologian Michael J. Gorman, we discover that what he calls “cruciformity” is at the core of Lewis’ apologetic books and Christian teaching. Moreover, this logic of cruciformity works itself through Lewis’ fiction, from the allegory that began his writing career, through popular books like The Great Divorce and Narnia, and into his last novel, Till We Have Faces.