Last week I wrote that “Tolkien Studies Projects Sweep the Mythopoeic Scholarship Award Shortlist in Inklings Studies“–a double-edged sword post that congratulated the authors of editors of five great books while noting that, once again, C.S. Lewis studies projects have been locked out of this prestigious award for Inklings Studies. Indeed, the last study focussed primarily on Lewis to be nominated was Alistair E. McGrath’s C.S. Lewis–A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet, published all the way back in 2013.
My told-you-so tone is not because I do not think that Lewis’ work necessarily merits lighter or weaker scholarship–a point that I am carefully working through in a 3-part series on Tolkien Studies vs. Lewis Studies (see parts the first, the second, the third). And I happen to think that the stewardship of Lewis materials has been of global-class value to readers, and some of the greatest Lewis studies books are exceptional as scholarly books. Considering Lewis studies books on their own, besides Meilaendar, Lewis studies by Doris T. Myers, Walter Hooper, Kathryn Lindskoog, Joe R. Christoper and Joan K. Ostling, Lionel Adey, Don King, Peter J. Schakel and Charles A. Huttar, David C. Downing, Diana Pavlac Glyer, Michael Ward, Sanford Schwarts, Robert Boenig, John Bremer, and Monika Hilder–as well as the major biographers–deserved their nominations or wins.
So I thought that I would share quick reviews of “Good C.S. Lewis Studies Books That Did Not Win the Mythopoeic Award.” This is my own list and is no doubt narrow. I don’t know the rhetorical studies or precise philosophical volumes very well, for example–and if there is every a C.S. Lewis cookbook or walking tour of Narnia, you won’t hear from me. I have left out theses and most collections (which I usually read as individual essays), and did not include projects that I worked on. I have also cheated a little bit on these margins. But here are some good Lewis studies worth reading from the last few years, in four parts:
- Part 1: C.S. Lewis on Theology, Philosophy, and Spiritual Life
- Part 2: C.S. Lewis Biographies
- Insert: Marsha Daigle-Williamson’s Reflecting the Eternal and Dante in the Work of C.S. Lewis, with Thoughts about Intertextuality
- Part 3: Literary Studies on C.S. Lewis
- Part 4: C.S. Lewis Reception Studies
I’ll also include a note about 2021 books and a short series bout what I think are the best Lewis studies books you probably have read, the best ones you may not have heard of, and the best guides that I have encountered.
Chris Armstrong’s Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians (2016)—much like his Patron Saints for Postmoderns (2009)—is written to give a resource to root contemporary seekers into the rich soils of the past. As the subtitle suggests, Armstrong uses C.S. Lewis as a primary link to medieval faith and practice. The particular strength of Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians is how Armstrong connects with a particular social moment, especially for readers, where we are drawn back to certain ideas and modes of being from middle ages—a period foreign to most of us. Working as a professional historian and Christian leader, and using C.S. Lewis as a guide, this book is filled with meaningful ways to deepen life in church, family, and neighbourhood today. You can see my full review here.
Devin Brown has been producing books about Lewis and his writing for some years. His 2013 biography, A Life Observed: A Spiritual Biography of C.S. Lewis (2013), provided precisely the element I was looking for as I began my PhD that year. Brown focuses on “Lewis’s spiritual journey and his search for the object of the mysterious longing he called Joy (always capitalized), a quest which he claimed was the central story of his life” (xi). What Brown adds to the many Lewis biographies of the period is the precise focus on questions of spiritual life, Christian development, discipleship, and the numinous. This book landed on one of my Top 5 lists and pairs well with Will Vaus’ The Hidden Story of Narnia: A Book-by-Book Guide to C.S. Lewis’ Spiritual Themes (2010), Lyle W. Dorsett’s Seeking the Secret Place: The Spiritual Formation of C.S. Lewis (2004), and David C. Downing accessible and brilliant Into the Region of Awe: Mysticism in C.S. Lewis (2005).
Quite apart from my article in this volume where I first argue that Lewis has a fairly sophisticated understanding of Christology that centres his writing on the spiritual life, I think this little book as a whole has value. First, it includes a number of short, smart pieces that a particularly directed to the ways that Lewis’ “theological imagination” is formative for Christian growth and spiritual vitality. The Narnian pieces by Michael Tutton and David J. Hawkesworth work well as theological introductions to the volume, while the articles by Allen B. Robertson and Gary Thorne represent two visions for Lewis’ imaginative transformations. David Mark Purdy’s genre study on Screwtape is a critical challenge to the field and helps us think about the way we read these demonic letters as spiritual enlightenment. Though we wrote independently, my “’Die Before You Die’: St. Paul’s Cruciformity in C.S. Lewis’s Narrative Spirituality” pairs well with Chris Armstrong’s piece on Lewis and the Theologia Germanica. There are reflections on Lewis as a preacher (by Laurence DeWolfe) and the eschatological Lewis (Sarah Layman). Finally, Wayne Smith’s “The Space Between: Observations From the Threshold” is a literary gem with theological creativity. Kudos to Rob Fennel for pulling the volume together and hosting the 2013 conference that gave birth to the idea.
Drawing from various parts of Lewis’ fiction and nonfiction, biblical theologian Edith Humphrey’s Further Up and Further In creates a unique conversation in Orthodox spirituality. With a sense of her personal story, Humphrey invites Lewis into conversation with classical and contemporary Orthodox thinkers and close readings of Lewis texts. This book appeared quite late in the process of my current book on C.S. Lewis and the spiritual life, but it has been a joy to draw Humphrey’s work together with my own. She is an author creating a spiritual theology that is similar to my own approach–looking at the way that Lewis’ fiction invites us to imagine the spiritual life–and Humphrey approaches it in a light, personal, and topical way. Unfortunately, this book has not been read very widely. It may be perceived as too niche—a topical study made for Orthodox readers as Rigney’s (below) is designed for American fundamentalist readers–but I would invite you to pick up Further Up and Further In if you have the opportunity.
I am fascinated by a “synchronic” approach to a history of ideas. We often go through time tracking an idea, as Jacobs did in his 2008 book, Original Sin. What would it be like, however, to steady the lens of history to a particular point in time, and to just a few neighbourhoods, and see how rich and magnetic thinkers struggled with such a dynamic moment? The result of that experiment is The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis. As the war tilts toward allied victory, it was clear to a number of Christian public intellectuals that English, French, and American culture faced a moral and cultural challenge in a post-Christian, post-war era–a challenge that far exceeded austerity measures and the rebuilding of infrastructure. In this technocratic age, issues of what it means to be human surfaced in poignant ways. In what ways would Christians lead, speak, and serve in this age of machines after a techno-ideological war?
To struggle with the question, Alan Jacobs turns to a number of Christian intellectuals, mostly disconnected from one another, and the popular work they did in 1943. Jacobs looks at the lectures, talks, broadcasts, poems, essays, journals, and reviews of Jacques and Raïssa Maritain, T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis, W.H. Auden, and Simone Weil, as well as figures like Charles Williams, Mortimer Adler, Reinhold Niebuhr, Hannah Arendt, Jacques Ellul, and the WWII-era Oldham-Mannheim “Moot,” a religious, male serial conversation about Christian faith and public order in Britain. The conversation that results from these Christian intellectuals is a movement to restore a Christian understanding of the world in contemporary culture. For C.S. Lewis studies, Jacobs’ treatment is an effective contextual and comparative rereading of The Screwtape Letters and The Abolition of Man, resulting in a strong book that sets Lewis within his intellectual culture. A companion volume would be Samuel Joeckel’s The C.S. Lewis Phenomenon and the other volumes in the “reception” part of this series.
Theologian Sharon Jebb’s under-appreciated dissertation is a careful and highly readable study of Beckett’s Three Novels and Lewis’ Till We Have Faces. Jebb’s deeply theological study is in conversation with ancient theologians (like Augustine and Teresa of Avila) and contemporary ones (like Charles Taylor and Rowan Williams), offering a cultural theology of the self. Beckett and Lewis are an unusual pairing but a fruitful one. In particular, her analysis of God-knowledge and self-knowledge in Lewis is a significant discovery–even if the study itself is fairly narrow. While this is the oldest volume in our list, I want to mention it because it is too often missed by students and scholars of Lewis and should be on every Till We have Faces bibliography.
While this article shows that there are some books on Lewis and spirituality–and quite a number of devotional style materials–intelligent, integrated conversation about C.S. Lewis and the spiritual life is still limited. Rigney’s is the closest book so far to a full treatment of Lewis’ spiritual theology–though he does not use the words “spirituality” or “spiritual theology” anywhere in the book. I have some anxiety about Rigney’s connection to Bethlehem College & Seminary, which does not accept women in their seminary program–and, indeed, Rigney is speaking specifically to fundamentalist and conservative American readers, so the audience is somewhat narrow. While the book is limited by the questions that Rigney brings, nowhere in Lewis on the Christian Life do I see Rigney bending Lewis to his perspective. Unless you know that Rigney is offering a double critique–on the one hand, inviting fundamentalist and conservative Christian readers to be shaped by Lewis, and critiquing Lewis on perceived weaknesses on the other hand–the chapter on “Theology” is a bit strange as it sits in the text. But it is a book that grows throughout the reading, so that the later chapters on “Pride and Humility,” “Christian Hedonics,” and “Healthy Introspection” are among the best. It is a very American book (Lewis was not American, but many creative readers are), and it is very evangelical (Lewis was not evangelical, but many faithful readers are), but it brings a strong reading to a great many topics that a diverse set of readers have questions about. While not comprehensive, it is a warm and personal book as Rigney treats various topics one-by-one in a structured, catechetical way. Ultimately, we must admit, it is really a Christian doctrine book with a focus on personal response rather than a treatment of spiritual theology as a discipline itself–but it is the best of its kind so far.
This book is perhaps as closely related to my work as Joe Rigney’s and came out the week after I submitted my thesis on the same topic. I have written an extensive review and critique of Pursuing an Earthy Spirituality, which also works as a critique of certain ways of narrowing the way we read C.S. Lewis in certain contexts. I won’t repeat the arguments I made there. Like Rigney, Selby is offering a self-critique, working to supplant a “bleak fantasy” or “negative spirituality” of evangelicalism with a holistic, vibrant, joyful, sensual, incarnational spiritual life suggested to us by Lewis. The book description captures what Selby is doing fairly well: “By considering themes such as our human embodiment, our sense of awareness in our everyday experiences, and the role of our human agency–all while engaging with the writings of Lewis, who himself enjoyed food, drink, laughter, and good conversation–Selby demonstrates that an earthy spirituality can be a robust spirituality.” Ultimately, Selby is arguing that there are two features to a healthy spirituality that we see in Lewis: consciousness and choice. Like many of the writers on Lewis featured here, Selby is a teacher who has found Lewis to be an engaging classroom conversation, and it is a very accessible read.
While the field Lewis studies still awaits a comprehensive study of Lewis’ philosophical thought that accounts for his entire corpus, Peterson’s recent C.S. Lewis and the Christian Worldview is a remarkably brief primer that draws students and scholars to many of the critical philosophical perspectives of Lewis. Peterson is sometimes reductionistic in his definitions—including “worldview” in the title, leaving out symbolic and praxeological elements. Overall, however, Peterson provides an accessible introduction to Lewis’ thought. Whatever philosophical weaknesses it might have and whatever seemingly injudicious choices he might make, Peterson shows that it is possible to take the ideas, images, and statements scattered across the disparate writings of a popular thinker and systematize them into a coherent whole.
While Charlie Starr is a friend and writing partner (see our co-written piece on “The Archangel Fragment” in Sehnsucht), I have no concerns about objectivity on this score. Charlie has become a leading C.S. Lewis scholar, particularly on Lewis’ handwriting and, the focus of this book, Lewis’ conception of “myth.” Moreover, I have been critical of Charlie’s work in the past (see here), while still consistently praising his perceptive eye (see the footnotes to my paper here) and publishing his work (see here). Most would not know, but Charlie’s doctoral dissertation, “The Triple Enigma: Fact, Truth, and Myth as the Key to C.S. Lewis’s Epistemological Thinking,” is a study of remarkable philosophical depth and literary capacity–and perhaps the longest study on a single passage in Lewis’ works! The Faun’s Bookshelf is a lighter touch but no less philosophically deft, as it sketches for interested readers Lewis’ multi-level fascination with myth–from being a lover a mythology to his work as a literary critic, Christian public thinker, and the maker of one the 20th-century’s great myths, The Chronicles of Narnia. As we might expect, from Charlie, beyond a study of “meaning” in Lewis, we also have a number of intriguing close readings of things that we might normally pass over–including the book titles on Tumnus’ bookshelf. While this study may lack some of the heft that a Mythopoeic Award nomination might require, and though I would quibble at points, as a literary resource it is critical, accessible, and enjoyable to read.
Despite several popular books about C.S. Lewis’ Christian teaching and some good theological treatments, there is as yet no comprehensive and critical theological treatment. Donald Williams is closest with Deeper Magic, a brief systematic theology of Lewis’ thought. While not comprehensive, Deeper Magic comes out of a lifetime of writing about Lewis and is as strong as such a tight treatment could be. Williams’ traditional systematic theological treatment smartly adds “poimenics” for practical theological considerations, but, like so many Lewis scholars, his primary interest in this area is apologetics and evangelism. I would like to press Williams on the incarnational and cruciform theological centre of Lewis’ thought because I think he misses some implications for spiritual theology. However, with respect to Will Vaus who has done some good work to invite readers to a C.S. Lewis theology, Williams has provided the strongest and most accessible volume in the past decade. I also like that Williams is a poet and would love to see what a theological treatment completely given over to that poetic mode would look like.
I hope you can see the thematic links in this collection of studies. Despite some great work done and some good books for your pencil-behind-the-ear reading times, we are still missing the comprehensive volume in each of these major areas of philosophy, theology, and spirituality. I believe this coming decade will change that reality.