I'm a serious aficionado of C. S. Lewis. As you may know, Lewis was an Oxford don, a novelist and writer of fantasy, and a Christian apologist. Popular during his lifetime, he has developed a significant worldwide following in the years since his death (an event which got very little press attention, since it occurred on November 22, 1963, the same day as another more noteworthy passing).
Lewis has many "pockets" of fans who know him from a specific aspect of his life and work. His Chronicles of Narnia children's books have always sold extremely well (though not quite as well as the Middle Earth books by Lewis's friend J. R. R. Tolkien), and have had a major influence on contemporary fantasy series like the Harry Potter, Lemony Snicket, and His Dark Materials books. Lewis's adult science fiction trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength) has a smaller but significant following that overlaps with admirers of the "spiritual thrillers" written by Lewis's other famous friend, Charles Williams.
Another pocket of Lewis fans is drawn from people who saw one of the productions of Shadowlands, the dramatization of his late-in-life, odd-couple love affair with Joy Davidman, a Jewish divorcee from New York City. (Anthony Hopkins played Lewis in a movie version.)
In addition, each of Lewis's many books about Christian faith has its own pocket of appreciative readers. Mere Christianity is a popular gift for young people who are wondering about their own faith. A Grief Observed, based on Lewis's diaries during the slow death of Joy Davidman from cancer, has touched many readers who are living through a similar anguish. Surprised by Joy, Lewis's spiritual autobiography, has encouraged many a religious awakening (when I met political commentator Mort Kondracke he cited this book as a personal favorite). And The Screwtape Letters, The Pilgrim's Regress, and The Great Divorce are religious satires that attract a philosophical audience.
Rather than fitting into any single Lewis "pocket," I've read and enjoyed all of the books mentioned above, along with Lewis's literary criticism, most of which is now considered passe among academics (although The Discarded Image, a brief summary of the medieval world-view, still makes a handy idea kit for the student who is tackling Dante, Chaucer, or Spenser for the first time).
As I say, I'm a serious Lewis aficionado. Above all, my understanding of Christian beliefs and attitudes owes a lot to Lewis. So I've been getting increasingly nervous in recent years as I became aware that Lewis had become popular among some American fundamentalists. Evangelicals like Charles Colson, the one-time Watergate conspirator who has gone on to a successful post-prison career in the ministry, give much of the credit for their personal faith to Lewis, and his books get prominent display alongside the Left Behind series in so-called Christian bookstores.
It's easy to see why evangelicals like Lewis. He's a graceful stylist, is obviously deeply sincere about his beliefs, and explains them in an appealingly clear, down-to-earth fashion. This is why a book like Lewis's Mere Christianity makes a good starting point for any religiously disengaged person--an agnostic, for example, or an intelligent, questioning teenager--who is curious about religion and why on earth anyone might choose to embrace it.
But Lewis's popularity among evangelicals frankly made me worry: Omigosh, what's wrong with Lewis that these people from the red states like him?
Now I'm feeling much better. Googling the Internet for writings that contained the words "C. S. Lewis" and "evangelical," I came across an article that analyzes Lewis's theology from a fundamentalist standpoint--and categorically rejects it.
The article is by theologian John W. Robbins, and it appeared in the December, 2003, issue of an evangelical journal called the The Trinity Review. Robbins quotes Lewis extensively, including a passage from Mere Christianity which effectively captures Lewis's characteristic tone and attitude. Here's how Lewis explains the central tenet of Christianity, the redemption of humanity by Jesus:
Humanity is already "saved" in principle. We individuals have to appropriate that salvation. But the really tough work--the bit we could not have done for ourselves--has been done for us. We have not got to try to climb up into spiritual life by our own efforts; it has already come down into the human race. If we will only lay ourselves open to the one Man in whom it is fully present, and who, in spite of being God, is also a real man, he will do it in us and for us. Remember what I said about "good infection." One of our own race has this new life: if we get close to Him we shall catch it from Him.
Of course, you can express this in all sorts of different ways. You can say that Christ died for our sins. You may say that the Father has forgiven us because Christ has done for us what we ought to have done. You may say that we are washed in the blood of the Lamb. You may say that Christ has defeated death. They are all true. If any of them do not appeal to you, leave it alone and get on with the formula that does. And, whatever you do, do not start quarrelling with other people because they use a different formula from yours.
These lines capture much of what I (and millions of other people) find appealing about Lewis. He makes no bones about his belief in a traditionalist form of Christianity, one that embraces a clearly supernatural role for Jesus (as opposed to honoring him merely as a great moral teacher or exemplar). Lewis emphasizes that Christ has done something miraculous and supremely important for humankind. But because Lewis respects the mystery behind this belief, he refuses to be rigid about how it is described and expressed. Frankly admitting that he doesn't understand exactly how Christ's redemption of humankind "works," Lewis will not quibble about the precise explanation that a particular person or sect might prefer.
(Lewis was quite consistent about his refusal to get caught up in sectarianism. He expressed sympathy and respect for many forms of belief and practice, and once commented that his ideal model of Christian worship was an Orthodox service he attended in which some people knelt, others prostrated themselves, others held their arms aloft ecstatically, others sang, and still others prayed in silence--and no one paid any attention to, much less criticized, any one else.)
Lewis's openness and humility are exactly what John W. Robbins cannot abide. In his article, after quoting the passage above, he remarks, "Now these paragraphs are an attack on Christianity, not a defense of it" (my italics). How so? Because, in Robbins's view, a theologian who doesn't unwaveringly embrace the doctrine of "justification by faith" as spelled out in evangelical teaching is not a true Christian.
Give Robbins credit--he doesn't hesitate to carry this judgment to its logical conclusion. The title of Robbins's article is "Did C. S. Lewis Go to Heaven?" And Robbins answers the question in the final sentence of the essay: "Not if he believed what he wrote in his books and letters."
Whew! That's pretty hard-hitting criticism--to send an author to hell, not as a figure of speech but literally.
I find it fairly mind-boggling to read an article like this--a well-written, carefully-reasoned piece of argumentation whose basic thesis is that what Christianity desperately needs is more "quarreling" among sects about the right "formula" for defining theological truths. (Hey, let's start the twenty-first century by bringing back the Inquisition--yeah, that's the ticket!)
On the other hand, I was relieved to discover that I hadn't been misreading Lewis all these years. The fact is that the writer I'd long admired is too tolerant and open-minded to satisfy the evangelical jihadist.
The good news is that millions of readers around the world read the works of C. S. Lewis, while John W. Robbins and The Trinity Review are read by just a handful. The bad news is that there are probably some evangelical pastors, guided by the likes of Robbins, who are telling their parishioners, "It's all right to read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Just don't swallow that heretical stuff about God wanting everybody to be saved."