If you spend any length of time interacting with contemporary writing about CS Lewis, you’ll discover one thing almost instantly: Lewis has become a theological Rorshach test for his readers. This was one of the dominant themes of the many tributes published about him on the 50th anniversary of his death this past November.
A certain group of Catholic readers—let’s call them “Chesterton’s warrior children”—cannot imagine someone like Lewis writing the things he did and not converting to Catholicism at some point. And since they cannot grant the possibility that one can write like Lewis and be Protestant, they are forced to conjure up fanciful theories to explain Lewis’s Protestantism. The best example of this is the “Ulsterior motive” theory, which claims that Lewis never got over the deep-seated anti-Catholic sentiments of his youth. (These critics conveniently fail to note that his family never seemed to possess any strong anti-Catholic sentiments to begin with, given that their servants were Catholic and Lewis’s parents were not terribly committed to the more radical brands of Irish protestantism.) The warrior children manage to say this with a straight face, which is somewhat remarkable given that many of Lewis’s closest friends were, of course, Catholic.
Meanwhile, American evangelical readers tend to see Lewis as a proto-evangelical, a man utterly committed to classic creedal orthodoxy and utterly uninterested in delving any deeper than that. He is the mere Christian par excellance in their minds and represents a tacit endorsement of the evangelical tendency to avoid the thornier theological questions that usually prompt one to seek out a confessional identity of some sort.
Both readings, of course, miss the most basic fact of all about Lewis the Christian: CS Lewis was a conservative Anglican churchman. It’s perhaps fitting that amongst all the tributes, it the was the Anglican Alan Jacobs who made this point about Lewis’s identity while also drawing attention to its neglect amongst many of his readers.
“I want to suggest that one significant reason for Lewis’s widespread positive reception in the U.S. involves simple ignorance on the part of American audiences of what it means to be a layman of the Church of England.”
Understanding Lewis the Anglican can take readers a long way toward understanding the respective strengths of Lewis’s mentioned by others in their tributes to him.
Any student of recent Christian history will, of course, be unsurprised to find an Anglican doing marvelous work while writing as a broadly orthodox Christian. Lewis is simply one of many to do so. Consider his contemporary (and sometimes rival) TS Eliot, or later 20th century preachers like John Stott and JI Packer. Most recently, N.T. Wright has risen to prominence on the back of both impressive scholarly works and accessible popular writings. (Jacobs himself likely deserves a mention here as well for his essays and writings on reading and technology, amongst many other topics.) Wes Hill, though very young, seems another promising example of this trend based on his fine work Washed and Waiting.
Catholic readers seeking to understand Lewis’s depth and orientation toward the world need not chase down fanciful (and, when one actually thinks about it, rather insulting) theories of “Ulsterior” motives that kept Lewis from simply crossing the Tiber like all good Christian humanists apparently should. They simply need to understand that he was an Anglican and that Anglicans seem to have a particular talent for distilling complex Christian truth into clear, accessible language that anyone can understand. What Lewis was doing in books like Mere Christianity and The Problem of Pain is simply another species of what Stott did in The Cross of Christ or what Wright did in books like Simply Christian and Surprised by Hope.
And yet, Lewis’s membership in the Anglican communion should also speak to evangelical readers of more free church or non-denominational persuasions. It is striking that as much as Lewis spoke about mere Christianity, when asked to speak about his own spiritual life he constantly returned to his roots in Anglicanism. Lewis might have written about a broad Christian orthodoxy, but the spiritual experience that enabled him to do so was much narrower.
It’s a key point to remember for American evangelicals who specialize in a more cafeteria-style approach to theology, sampling a bit of Lewis here, a bit of Luther there, and a bit of Carson over there. You cannot be a theological cosmopolitan—at least not if you wish to think with any clarity about Christian faith, life, and practice. You must belong to a specific tradition, a specific church body. But by binding yourself to a confessional tradition, you open yourself up to the entire possibilities of the merely Christian tradition. For proof, look no further than Lewis himself. It is only when you stand within a particular confessional tradition that you can walk out into the hallway of the Christian house and enjoy it for what it is. If Lewis were speaking to us today, it’s highly likely that his first advice to Protestant readers would not be to immerse ourselves in broad Christian orthodoxy, but to commit ourselves to a particular Christian tradition. Once we learn to live within a more narrow specific confessional tradition, then we become far more capable of speaking with verve and clarity about the creeds.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise, of course. Remember your Aristotle—the universal form adheres within particulars. If you set out to tell a story about Everything, you’ll get nothing. It will be so broad and ambitious that it ends up signifying nothing. But if you, for instance, tell a story about an ordinary family in an ordinary Texas town, you might end up with an incredible story of love and loyalty and duty, of courage during times of trouble, and of fidelity to people and to place, that speaks in universally accessible language. By committing yourself to a particular confessional (and orthodox) tradition, you open to yourself the full riches of Mere Christianity. To paraphrase Lewis: Aim for the particulars of a specific confessional tradition and get the universals of mere Christendom thrown in. Aim for mere Christendom without any confessional roots, and you’ll get neither.