Every morning before breakfast, Clive Staples Lewis, known by his friends simply as “Jack,” walked down to the small lake near his home in Oxford for a swim. “I swim on my stomach toward the rising sun. Then I reverse direction, swimming on my back, gazing overhead at the willow trees,” he wrote.
If you’ve ever had the pleasure of cracking open one of his books, a charming detail about his personal life like this comes as no surprise. Lewis spoke frequently and with great fondness about the simple pleasures of his academic life—friends, books, nature—so it’s easy to gloss over these thing as just that: simple pleasures.
When you consider the sheer weight of his life’s work—nearly 50 works of nonfiction, 20 of fiction, and four collections of poetry—it’s hard to believe the man ever left his desk. But if you’re like me, when you think of C.S. Lewis, you don’t think of him as the academic juggernaut that, in respect to the extent of his canon, he actually was. You think more about the warmth and the honesty in his voice as a writer. You think about what it might have been like to chat with him over a pint, or to stroll along an oak-lined path, and you realize that reading his work 50 years after his death might not be all that different.
My memories of reading Lewis seem less like the study of a far-off, long-dead Christian intellectual, and more like conversations with a wise mentor, a storyteller, an old friend. Throughout the extent of his work, Lewis’s writing is marked by an unmistakable sense of wonder; the kind of tireless curiosity that manifests itself time and again, never in the same way as the last. It was as if each essay, poem and story he penned was at once his first and last, his only opportunity to convey, by whatever illustrious means necessary, what he knew full well he could never completely describe.
But to say that Lewis is the only Christian thinker to write in such a way would be a slight against a thousand other great ones. It would be an even greater slight, however, to suggest that Lewis remains influential for any one reason in particular. Some claim Lewis is still accessible because he just wrote so dang much. There’s an infinite supply of Lewis’s work for young evangelicals with free time and newly whetted intellectual appetites to dive into, and Lewis’s writing is, for many people, a great place to start.
But this still doesn’t explain why people are so frequently returning to his work, why people, like me, find themselves getting lost in the vast and variant immensity of his canon; in everything from his essays to his children’s novels. And of course, as a culture of skeptics, Lewis’s reputation as “the ideal persuader of the half-convinced,” could also easily be his legacy. I’ll admit, as a young, intellectually restless new believer, Mere Christianity was a beacon of light in my toilsome struggle with Christian apologetics. But to claim we still love Lewis because he was the best at articulating the conundrums of Christianity would also be to sell the man’s brilliance terribly short.
Trying to pin down the legacy of a writer like C.S. Lewis is like trying to pin down an octopus. The second you think you’ve grasped the most important aspect of his influence, another one of his brilliant tentacles wraps itself around your torso. So, before we get ourselves all tangled in one of his many rhetorical tentacles, perhaps it’s better to consider how he even became such a great octopus.
It’s no secret that Lewis spent a large portion of his life as an atheist—30 years, in fact—but the significance of his gradual, yet dramatic conversion shouldn’t be overlooked. There’s something very unique about new believers, especially those who were once staunchly opposed to the Gospel, who find their faith later in life, and Lewis is a prime example.
The fact that Lewis had fortified such a rigid defense against Christianity before his conversion makes everything he wrote that much more powerful. His work was charged with the electricity of past despair transformed into present joy. Perhaps Lewis’ own struggles with doubt explain part of the indescribable sense of wonder that I referred to: He never forgot what life was like before knowing God’s grace, and therefore never ceased trying to explain why his life of knowing, or seeking to know God’s grace, was so much richer. Maybe this is one of the greatest marks of a man prone to wonder, prone to speak with thanksgiving and joy—that he takes little for granted.
And though it may seem abstract, even small, I think this single thread of wonder—this thread of tireless thankfulness and awe at what he’d been undeservedly given, at what he saw in the beauty of creation and in the story of the Gospel—is what binds all of Lewis’ work together.
While his intellect speaks for itself in his most influential apologetic works, wonder explains the playfulness that keeps the reader from becoming overwhelmed by the complexity of his arguments. Wonder explains the heartbreaking honesty in a book like A Grief Observed, wherein Lewis returns to his past arguments about evil and suffering amid the pain of losing his own wife. Wonder explains how a series of children’s fantasy novels, and entire world therein, can come from a wardrobe. Wonder explains why reading Lewis feels like chatting with a friend.
The fact that Lewis wrote so much, so well, and with such virtuosity, is not merely a result of an excess of talent. And though I’m sure talent oozed from his pores, Lewis’ artistic and intellectual abundance should be a testament to what giving one’s life to the glory of God actually looks like. Lewis knew his skill was writing, and once that tidal wave of wonder washed over him, he saw no other way to express his gratitude, passion and hope than to devote his entire life to writing about it.
So we shouldn’t look to Lewis for inspiration and guidance simply because he was a great Christian writer. We should look to him because he knew that his inclination towards writing, and natural talent therein, were proof to him that he was supposed to write, that he was created to write, all for the sole purpose of pointing back to the Creator. It’s just as he says in The Weight of Glory: “A mole must dig to the glory of God and a cock must crow. We are members of one body, but differentiated members, each with his own vocation.”
And again, we arrive at the man’s humility. A thousand quotes from any of his works will reveal the same thing: a man who knew full well his gift and how to use it, and yet knew even more that his words were no different than the sweeping of a broom. His words reveal a man who knew that he had nothing but his own shabby self, his own broken voice. And isn’t that the peak of God’s glory; that He makes broken things beautiful?
Perhaps we remember C.S. Lewis because he never cared if we forgot about him, or even if we forgot about what he made, as long as we remember Who made him.
Paul Anderson is a native of Naperville, IL and a graduate of Westmont College. He currently resides in Orvieto, Italy as a Teacher's Assistant and writer. Read more of his words at Binding North.