This guest blog by G. Connor Salter is a response to a series of pieces called “Why is Tolkien Scholarship Stronger than Lewis Scholarship?” (see parts 1, 2, and 3). There are some deep conversations within the comments section of the articles, but I also set the digital soap box out for others, and this is one of the responses. Connor holds a Bachelor of Science in Professional Writing from Taylor University, and works as a journalist in Colorado. As a freelance writer, he has published over 300 book reviews, primarily for The Evangelical Church Library Association. He presented an essay on C.S. Lewis and Terence Fisher at Taylor University’s 2018 Making Literature Conference, and released his first audio short story series, Tapes from the Crawlspace, in 2020.
As Brenton Dickieson noted recently on this blog, “Lewis is a deceptively accessible writer.” This means that not only do many people benefit from his work, but it’s easy to approach him at a simple level and not realize you’re dealing with a deeply intelligent scholar.
Speaking as an American who finished my undergrad at a small private evangelical college and now works in Christian publishing, I’ve found this creates interesting problems. On the one hand, I have friends and associates in the academy writing excellent things about Lewis and Tolkien. On the other hand, as a book reviewer, I’ve been alternatively amused and annoyed at how often Lewis gets cited (sometimes correctly, sometimes not) in popular Christian books.
In writing about why Tolkien scholarship is often stronger than Lewis scholarship, Brenton argues that “it was America that seized upon Lewis as a literary light, especially in education and the Christian community… As a result, many of the 25+ posthumously published Lewis volumes and the many reprints are popular and accessible books, largely pitched to Christian readers.”
This captures an important point: Lewis is often seen in American (particularly evangelical) circles as a great Christian thinker first and foremost. Evangelicals working in the academic sphere appreciate his scholarship, but this plays a small part in his American reputation. Lewis obviously matters a lot to American evangelicals, sometimes even being described as an “evangelical rock star” or the closest thing evangelicals have to a saint. Many times though, Lewis has been used more like a mascot.
The problem with mascots is their reputation fluctuates with whatever they’re attached to. The popular idea of “who a writer is” can impact what direction research takes, because popular culture and the academy feed off each other. For example, Inklings scholar Sørina Higgins observed in 2018 that the Lord of the Rings and the Narnia movies have indirectly resurged scholarly interest in fellow Inkling Charles Williams.
People can also make writers into mascots when it doesn’t make sense on paper. Much has been said about how in the 1960s every anti-Vietnam protestor, Green Peace recruit or environmentalist seemed to either be reading Lord of the Rings or Frank Herbert’s Dune. A variety of scholars, both ones who interviewed Lord of the Rings fans in the 1960s and ones summing up the period later, have argued the student counterculture movement saw the hobbits as the ultimate nature-loving hippies. Obviously, there’s something odd about anti-war students choosing an epic fantasy with many pro-chivalry themes as their manifesto. The student counter-culture movement picked a side of Tolkien’s work that resonated with them and ran with it. In a similar way, American evangelicals have often resonated with certain sides of Lewis (his apologetics, his overtly religious fairy tales) and run with that interpretation. The evangelical Christian education movement has particularly embraced this side of Lewis, sometimes naming schools after things from Narnia (see Cair Paravel Latin School).
Therefore, we need to consider how American evangelical culture may have influenced Lewis research. Here are two broad movements that have arguably influenced evangelical views on Lewis, but which haven’t impacted Tolkien research.
- Evangelicals and the academy
Since at least the 1960s, evangelicals have become known for undervaluing scholarly research. A variety of reasons have been given for this trend – logical positivism downplaying Christian philosophy, anti-intellectualism from theological conservatives – but ultimately the trend led to Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind in 1995. Noll, perhaps referencing a line by Lewis’ student Harry Blamires, summed the problem as “the scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” Christian Smith showed how poor thinking could create problems with his 2007 essay, “Evangelicals Behaving Badly with Statistics,” where he cited evangelical leaders misunderstanding statistics to make drastic claims. Rick Richardson memorably used Smith’s point in his book You Found Me to argue the number of non-religious people in America is not as bad as many make it out to be.
Whether the scandal continues is hard to say. Noll and others returned to the subject with The State of the Evangelical Mind, where the introduction noted that Books & Culture proudly proclaimed in 2015 that the scandal was gone… but a year later Books & Culture folded. On a more optimistic note, Craig L. Blomberg and Darlene M. Seal say in their article for the 2019 book Jesus, Skepticism and the Problem of History that currently evangelicals are deeply involved “almost everywhere” in historical research on Jesus.
Regardless, the point remains that American evangelicals have struggled to consistently produce deep thinkers. This has affected many disciplines, from seminary education to basic Biblical education. One particular consequence is that the evangelical publishing market has seen many more popular treatments of subjects than academic treatments (even granting that academic treatments are inherently niche). Thus, emphasis on Lewis as a lay apologist, a sort of proto-Lee Strobel or Josh McDowell, has been especially common. Emphasis on his scholarship has been rarer.
Granted, some of this is relatively new. Brenton observes how Disney’s Narnia films created “the Lewis industry,” a glut of popular Lewis literature. However, publishers like Bethany House and Barbour had been releasing generic Lewis biographies for years before that. Lewis’ status as an apologist, his deceptive accessibility, and an under-emphasis on really probing his work, have made him an easy choice for “Great Christian Thinkers in 30 Minutes” kind of books. Tolkien, as a Roman Catholic who didn’t write apologetics or lay theology, is much harder to fit into that kind of book.
- Evangelicals and fantasy
The American Christian Fiction market (which is primarily marketed to evangelicals) has traditionally consisted of the Amish Fiction/historical romance mainstays with a new interest in thrillers that started with Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness in 1986. Peretti’s didactic use of spiritual material more or less set the tone for what qualified as “Christian content.” There had to be a high emphasis on “realistic spiritual conversations,” lots of mini-sermons, and an appropriately tidy conclusion. Since literalism was so important, fantasy and anything involved magic was avoided.
When my freelancing career started in 2015, I got to interview Steve Laube, literary agent and owner of Enclave Publishing. Enclave had started in 2007 as Marcher Lord Press and was one of the early Christian publishers to specialize in speculative fiction. Laube made it clear that for a long time trying to sell speculative fiction to Christian publishers had been difficult. At one point he said “decades ago, fantasy equaled magic in many eyes. Narnia and Middle Earth were non grata because they had spells and witches in them.”
I later found an interview on Laube’s website where he described working as an acquisitions editor for Bethany House Publishers. He said the hardest book he ever had to convince the company to take was Arena by Karen Hancock (published in 2001). As Laube put it, “Fantasy was a no-no in the Christian market (and it still struggles to find a foothold). I decided to call it science fiction allegory and tried not use the “F” word…. fantasy.”
Since my undergrad was in publishing, I met many established Christian authors over the next few years. Most of what I heard proved Laube correct. There was an established base of writers working in fantasy and sci-fi, but most had made their careers in the last decade or so. Enclave wasn’t the only Christian publisher specializing in speculative fiction anymore (Rabbit Room followed in 2008, and the 2010s had seen new publishers like Mountain Brook Ink and Monster Ivy Publishing). However, the “Christian Spec Fic Market” was clearly still a small pool. Realm Makers, a writers’ conference focusing on Christian speculative fiction, started just two years before I entered my undergrad and describes itself as “the only writing conference for authors of faith who specialize in science fiction, fantasy, and other speculative genres.” Fantasy and science fiction had only recently gotten the seal of approval. Narnia may not have been non grata for everyone (as noted earlier, the Christian education crowd seem to have embraced it for some time), but for many American evangelicals it had been the safe fantasy series.
Even though things had changed and Tolkien was now acceptable, I noticed the Christian authors I met always seemed to mention him second. After college, it occurred to me that I’d found some great pre-2000s academic books on Tolkien as a Christian fantasist (Christian Mythmmakers by Rolland Hein, Colin Manlove’s work, etc.). However, the best popular books I could find (such as Devin Brown’s Christian World of the Hobbit) didn’t seem to have arrived until the early- to mid-2000s. This was not only the period right after Peter Jackson’s movies; it was also the period when the indie Christian Spec Fic market started.
In short, until the last 15 years or so, Lewis has been the designated fantasy author that many American evangelicals felt comfortable with. As things loosened up, Tolkien became “the other good/safe Christian fantasy author,” but still less known. This meant that while Americans had been writing popular Christian books on Lewis for decades, Tolkien didn’t get that treatment until later.
- Concluding Thoughts
It’s hard to say whether American evangelicals’ embrace of Lewis has ultimately been good or bad. We can reasonably say one negative effect is it’s been easy for evangelicals to co-opt Lewis without considering the full range of his work. Since Tolkien didn’t fit the American evangelical mold of a “good Christian writer,” it took longer for him to receive the same treatment. What Robert MacSwain calls “Jacksploitation” was around on some level even before Disney’s Narnia films. What we might call “JohnRonaldsploitation” is a newer phenomenon.
While this has shielded Tolkien scholarship in some helpful ways, popular interest has changed the game and will likely keep doing so. With a recent Tolkien biopic out and Amazon’s new Lord of the Rings TV show coming, popular interest in Tolkien may surpass the surge created by Peter Jackson’s films. Even if the Lord of the Rings TV show fails, other Inklings are becoming popular again – and in Charles Williams’ case, public domain, which opens the door wide for adaptations. Scholarship, entertainment and outright kitsch will exist alongside and feed off each other for the foreseeable future.