C. Michael Patton of Credo House Ministries makes a thought-provoking case for why so many Christians appreciate C.S. Lewis – despite his decidedly questionable theology – but nevertheless castigate Rob Bell for superficially similar failings.
Patton makes a good argument: that Lewis set out to defend orthodoxy and the person and work of Jesus Christ, whereas Bell seems to delight in challenging them. And, no doubt, this provides a substantive part of the answer to Patton’s question. Much of what Lewis writes is helpful, and the broad appeal of his apologetic work undeniable. But I am not sure that Patton has quite explained the entirety of Lewis’ attraction.
Now, I am far from an expert on Lewis. I read the Narnia series as a child, along with The Screwtape Letters, and then some of his other works in my early twenties. Much more recently, I read and enjoyed his fictional Cosmic Trilogy. I very much appreciated Lewis’ essay, On the Reading of Old Books, which he wrote as the introduction to a translation of Athanasius’ work On the Incarnation. Everyone should read that essay. Nevertheless, there is very much of Lewis’ work that I have (yet) to assimilate, though his general theological perspective is apparent in what I have read.
Lewis was certainly not orthodox in a great deal of his theology, as Patton observes. Even in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, for example, it is decidedly odd that Aslan pays a ransom to the Snow Queen. Lewis’ view of Scripture was rather lower than many of us would think proper. He believed in a form of purgatory. And he had inclusivist tendencies – the belief that a person could ‘belong to Christ without knowing it’ (Mere Christianity). Lewis’ views on evolution, though – particularly in later life – are perhaps not as straightforward as Patton seems to suggest.
Why, then, given his questionable-at-points doctrine, is Lewis as popular as he his among those who would – notionally, at least – subscribe to sounder doctrine?
Patton makes his case well, though I suspect a further factor is that Lewis was possessed both of an extraordinarily fine mind and the literary prowess to be able to communicate his thoughts clearly and engagingly to a wide audience. Whether or not one agrees with him, Lewis makes us think. And this, for the discerning reader, is a great benefit. However, the problems inherent in Lewis’ theology are a potential trap for the unwary. I am not therefore quite as ready to endorse Lewis’ ministry as is Patton. The danger of false doctrine is not lessened by an accomplished and affable presentation, nor by the attending presence of a great deal of truth. Quite the contrary.
And therein perhaps lies another small piece of the puzzle with regard to Lewis’ popularity. I wonder whether too many of us are insufficiently discerning, too attracted by the superficial lure of a cool well on scorching summer’s day to be concerned by reports that it is tainted by a mortal threat. For Lewis’ doctrinal foibles are not excused by his undoubted greatness, but magnified. As the writer of Ecclesiastes observes:
Dead flies putrefy the perfumer’s ointment,
And cause it to give off a foul odour;
So does a little folly to one respected for wisdom and honor.
Thus, if we are to read Lewis, let us exercise diligent discernment – as indeed we should do with even the most excellent of teachers (cf. Acts 17:10–11).
Like us, Lewis was imperfect, a fallen sinner prone to err. Thanks be to God, then, that we have in Jesus Christ a perfect Saviour who has paid the punishment for all our sins, whether those of doctrinal imperfection or of insufficient discernment. Believing this, we stand before God declared righteous in Christ.
The Christian Research Institute has a brief, balanced and helpful assessment of Lewis’ theology (PDF).
A year or two ago, I started to listen to a lecture series (available for free on iTunesU) on C.S. Lewis by Dr. Knox Chamblin at Reformed Theological Seminary. Regrettably, I became sidetracked before I learnt very much. I have recently started to listen to it again, and I am thus far very much enjoying Dr. Chamblin’s manifest enthusiasm for his subject.