Resurrection Chapel National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

C.S. Lewis: Another 50-Year Anniversary

On Friday, November 22, our nation paused to reflect on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  It was fitting and appropriate to do so.  For those of us who remember that day, and the days that followed, the memories help us understand a traumatic moment in our lives and the life of our country.

Lost in the tragedy, the clamor and the fear of that day in 1963 was another death that would have been headline news had the circumstances been different.  At approximately the same hour that Kennedy was shot in Dallas, Clive Staples Lewis died of a lingering illness at his home in Headington, a suburb of Oxford, England.  He was just six days shy of his 65th birthday.

Jack, as friends and family knew him, was born into a middle class family in Belfast, Northern Ireland.  Losing his mother to cancer when he was ten, his adolescence was spent in a succession of boarding schools.  He entered Oxford University midway through World War I, then volunteered for service as an infantry lieutenant in France, where was seriously wounded, and decorated for valor.  After the war he returned to Oxford, and upon graduation stayed on as a tutor and lecturer in English literature. 

An atheist as a young man, Lewis experienced a spiritual awakening in his late twenties and embraced Christianity around 1930 or ’31.  He rapidly gained an audience for lectures and essays defending the Christian Faith.  During World War II the B.B.C. asked Lewis to deliver a series of radio talks, explaining basic Christian belief.  It was said that during the war, most Britons instantly recognized his voice, along with that of Winston Churchill.  The wartime talks were later published as Mere Christianity, which is still in print today, as are most of his other books.

Though most of his life was spent in the rarefied atmosphere of Oxford and Cambridge, he made it his business to write for ordinary Christian lay readers, a choice that made him suspect in the halls of academe.  It is as a popularizer that he had his greatest influence on me.  In my undergraduate years, and in my time in theological seminary I had the gift of some extraordinary professors who taught me how to engage Christian theology, and I will always be grateful to them.  Reading Lewis, however, taught me how to take the insights of the best Christian minds and translate them into the language of the people I meet every day, and for that I am deeply thankful. 

In Lewis I met for the first time a writer who asked the hard questions in the way ordinary men and women ask them, presented the evidence that might invalidate Christianity, and then drove on to show why, in the end, the Christian answers made sense.  So too, his whole-hearted and joyful embrace of imagination awoke in me a long-dormant love of myth and storytelling as ways of seeing beyond the world of appearances to the underlying truths.

It is in this last area that I believe the legacy of C.S. Lewis can touch us most deeply at the start of Advent.  The season of Advent celebrates the nearly unimaginable: that the God of this and all universes cares for us humans.  Not just cares for us, but loves us.  Not just loves us, but loves us enough to come among us, to set straight the ways in which we have run off the rails.  In Christ God doesn’t just come among us, but actually enters the world as one of us, and as one of us offers up his life to lift the burdens of sin and brokenness that we cannot lift ourselves.  Rising from death, he sets in motion the re-creation of the world, longed for by prophets through the ages, and though there are struggles aplenty on the way, the ultimate outcome is in his hands.  As the psalmist sings (Ps. 139): “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me.  It is high.  I cannot attain it.”

Indeed it takes a great deal of imagining, and not a little thinking, to grasp these dimensions of Advent and Christmas.  I think that may be why we’re apt to pay little attention to Advent, and reduce Christmas itself to Currier and Ives sentimentality.  Sleighs, and stockings, happy children and roast turkeys we can comprehend; the Source of all that is entering our world to die, so that we might be raised higher than the angels, strains our imaginations, or so we think.  But that’s exactly where a middle-aged English professor takes a long pull on his pipe, looks over the top of his glasses, says, “Come now, is it really all that hard?” and by telling the story of an imaginary land, “where it is always winter and never Christmas” brings alive that which our minds struggle to comprehend.

I mark the 50th anniversary of C.S. Lewis’s death, first in hopes a drawing a few more readers into his circle, and then to urge us all to embrace the fullness of the Advent season.  May we release our imaginations, ask the hard questions, and persevere to the deeper answers that can set our minds and hearts free from the winter that is itself a physical metaphor of a fallen world’s grip on the human spirit.  May freed mind and loosed imaginations give our hearts room to embrace anew the coming of Christ, with all that can mean for the transformation of our lives and the world.

Joy to the world, the Lord is Come!

Howard MacMullen
© November 2013
Related to this post, I highly recommend
Rowan Williams’ recent book, The Lion’s World: A Journey into the Heart of Narnia

Lewis once referred to certain kinds of books as "mouthwash for the imagination." This is what he attempted to provide in the Narnia stories, argues Williams: an unfamiliar world in which we could rinse out what is stale in our thinking about Christianity--"which is almost everything," says Williams--and rediscover what it might mean to meet the holy.

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