Musings reading

Why C.S. Lewis?

I’m an agnostic—not even a particularly hopeful agnostic, at least emotionally. Intellectually, I try to keep an open mind about the universe—to paraphrase Borges, the world is so strange anything could be real, even the Holy Trinity—and even, I would add, everything from eliminative materialism (which is, as far as I understand it, the conviction that consciousness is an illusion, and also something I can’t begin to wrap my head around; I’ve joked that only philosophical zombies could propound it) to David Icke’s fourth-dimensional reptilians to the idea that we can interact with other universes.

Part of it, I think, is purely coincidental. I happened upon his writing (everything but Narnia, which I met much younger) at an impressionable point in my life. I was thirteen, and I imprinted on his thought like a duckling. As far as I can recall, his apologetics were the first remotely philosophical writing I’d read more than a snippet of. And so a great deal of sentimental fondness, and even a feeling of ownership, attaches to everything about Lewis. I sometimes think that almost any “remotely philosophical” writing, whatever positions it took about whatever subject, could have taken on this role for me. But I don’t think this is true.

Another part of my love for Lewis is purely personal. I have always had, for all my strong materialist leanings, a bone-deep fascination with religion, magic, and the supernatural in any form I could find them, and both his fantasy and his Christianity answered that craving in me. (I am not at all sure he would be pleased to be loved for such reasons, and indeed suspect he would consider a significant portion of that frankly demonic. But I have the strong impression from Surprised by Joy that he at least is familiar with many of these emotions and might consider them “spilled religion,” as he said another thinker called Romanticism in (?) the introduction to The Pilgrim’s Regress. I hope there is something at least like his sweet desire in all that.)

But much of my love for him depends on things a wide range of people with a wide range of beliefs can appreciate.

His arguments move at just the right pace, neither too slow or simplistic to be interesting nor too fast and jargon-laden to exhaust the reader. All through high school I dissected them lovingly, and I read great swathes of them to my dubious and long-suffering mother, who gamely argued over them with me. My impression, at least, is that most of his popular writing remained sincere and full of the real complexity of his thought and vividness of his experience—a delight after reading the platitudinous religious teachings I’d encountered before then—although I recognize now that I probably underestimated him during that period because he was deliberately writing at a (somewhat—only somewhat!) simpler level, explaining things he would not have felt needed explaining to his peers. In that period, I would have guessed that he was terrifyingly like me in how he thought and something like my equal intellectually; as I became more familiar with him in college, I realized I was, by comparison, an idiot, and some of the passages that resonated with me most were most likely examples of his tendency to “explain the obvious”—obvious to a brilliant Oxford don, not so obvious to an arrogant, undereducated, intellectually isolated teenager.

Still, not only is his popular writing both accessible and, to my eye, sincere—he writes with enormous liveliness, with a wit and a gift for evocative metaphor, that make his writing stick in the head. He certainly sticks in my head—I wrote in a college application essay that I couldn’t remember where many of my ideas came from—him or myself—and I joked, when I got irritated with other people’s stupidities and wrote about them in a certain polemical way, that I was channeling him.

My favorite thing about his work, though, is his imagination, and, in particular, his religious imagination (though I’m not even sure there’s a distinction), and I think an open-minded reading of his work could teach many people not why they should be Christian (his arguments, enjoyable though they were to interact with, never convinced me) but why they might want to be. Until I read his books, I had no grasp on why someone would love God or what that even meant. But I loved Aslan, Maleldil, the heaven of The Great Divorce and the one posited in The Problem of Pain, not to mention the whole concept of sweet desire, Joy, sehnsucht. I learned that the Inklings’ warm yet terrifying understanding of Christianity was a deep part of much of the fantasy I’d devoured since I was seven (I’m fairly sure there’s a direct influence with Diane Duane and Madeline L’Engle, two favorites, hints even in explicitly non-Christian writers). So, in some sense, my imagination was arguably converted by him as his was by George MacDonald—for all that my mind may never follow suit.






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