|Lewis, pictured with concubine.|
I was recently re-reading the beginning of Lewis’s allegorical memoirs The Pilgrim’s Regress, and observing how oddly opaque so much of its content would be to most readers. Much of it was confounding to me, as well, and I had to rely on the occasional notations of online glosses. Professor Lewis was a well-read and well-rounded man, and not just in the Chestertonian sense. In his youth he wrote narrative poetry that was dense with allegory, and his fascination with medieval poetic tropes would find interesting expression in later fiction. He was learned in multiple languages, though perhaps not with as much enthusiasm as his friend John Tolkien. He wrote treatises on medieval and renaissance poetry that still stand up to academic standards. His apologetics work was, all things considered, more of a hobby or unfortunate necessity than a heartfelt vocation.
Of all his works of Protestant apologetics, Mere Christianity probably remains the most accessible and effective. Some of his other religious books like Miracles and The Problem of Pain are too philosophically abstract for modern readers, and his essays in God in the Dock and The Weight of Glory are not structured enough, even though these remain heavily quoted when people find a passage that catches their attention. Some of his religious books are outright ignored by Evangelicals, such as his Reflections on the Psalms, where he called the imprecatory psalms a “festering, gloating, undisguised” collection of wicked hatred. Try aligning that bit of anti-Hebraic rhetoric with Sola Scriptura!
It is a real pity that Catholic writers so often have to rely on Lewis to explain their observations on the Christian religion in a more literary manner. We see this frequently in the engagement of Catholic apologists with the larger culture. The orthodox apologists of old were not literary types, and reading their work today is often quite painful. Even the seminal apologetical work of St. Francis de Sales is bombastic in a way that is tied to the problems of the day, and it does not translate well into modern times. Lewis attempted, at his best, a rhetoric that would outlast his own time, although it must be admitted that many of his essays are too enmeshed with mid-20th century concerns to be universal. World War II, for instance, no longer exists in the popular mind as the imminent threat of London bombings and wartime efforts, but rather as a perpetual stream of aesthetically grimy big-budget films.
Lewis was not a Christian apologist, but a Protestant apologist with pseudo-Catholic and quasi-Patristic leanings. At times he sounds almost Catholic, but then shocks the reader into remembering his Anglican loyalties. His learned rhetoric fools many Catholics into considering him a mostly orthodox commentator. “He was so close to the true Faith,” they say, “surely he was saved in the end.” Impossible to say for sure, but the evidence is not far from damning.
If apologists want to sound as good as Lewis in the public square, they will need to imitate his education, not the surface of his rhetoric. They must read widely, study languages, understand classical logic, and immerse themselves in western history. They must stop watching so many television shows, reading so much Protestant literature, and being so tied to modern thought (religious or secular) by chronological snobbery. And you can thank Prof. Lewis for that last, colorful term. Stop writing poor imitations of The Screwtape Letters, and see how your own education leads you.
|"It all began with a picture..."|