In his book on Thomas Aquinas, the great German philosopher Josef Pieper notes that what sets Thomas apart is not his originality. It is his perfection.
He then goes on to develop the distinction between the two in a striking way:
What, in short, is the greatness of Thomas that has made him the doctor communis of Christendom?
Probably it is not the ‘originality’ of his ideas; Augustine is far more original. Perfection and originality seem in a sense mutually exclusive; what is classical is not, properly speaking, original. George Bernard Shaw in his brilliant music criticism made a remark about Mozart that can apply to Thomas as well. Shaw says: ‘Mozart, like Praxiteles, Raphael, Moliére, Shakespeare, was no leader of a new departure or founder of a school.’ Shaw might safely have added: ‘any more than was Thomas Aquinas.’ … Shaw continues, that one cannot say about Mozart: ‘Here is an entirely new vein of musical art, of which nobody ever dreamt before Mozart…. Anybody, almost, can make a beginning: the difficulty is to make an end—to do what cannot be bettered.”
Something like the above would apply to C. S. Lewis, though in a sphere quite different from that of the angelic doctor. Lewis was a synthesizer beyond compare, a man able to express “what he thought about everything in what he said about anything,” as one friend memorably put it.
If you take the time to really read Lewis, you will not simply come away with some helpful arguments to use in apologetic settings or a new way of understanding a core Christian doctrine as part of one’s personal piety. You will, rather, encounter the totality of the classical western Christian tradition.
The syntheses that Pieper identifies in Thomas—the synthesis of theological study and personal humility to the point of material poverty and the synthesis of Aristotelian natural knowledge and rich Biblical study—are made real in Lewis’s work as he draws together the fulness of what the western church has traditionally taught and, somehow, routinely makes it accessible and even exciting to the common reader. That ability to popularize is what makes Lewis so remarkable. But it is the density of Lewis’s work—the ability to pack so much into such ordinary packaging—that can sometimes cause a person to think they have exhausted Lewis’s work when really they have only waded into the shallowest waters of it.
We might put it this way: When I make pulled pork for my family, my three-year-old son enjoys it. He cleans his plate. He may even remember to say thank you without being prompted. (We’re working on that.) But he won’t really appreciate the meal in the fuller sense of the word—he’ll know that it tastes good, but he won’t know why. He’ll like the flavors, but he won’t know how to name them. My theory is that most evangelicals in particular read Lewis in the way my son eats pulled pork. We like reading him. He says some good things that are useful when defending the faith. Some of his Narnian stories help us to understand our own experience of the Christian life a bit more deeply. But that’s as far as many will go.
Now let’s go back to the pulled pork: Obviously the best way to enjoy the meal is to take the time to understand everything that goes into it. If you learn about different types of wood and the different flavors they add to the meat, if you learn about different kinds of rubs, how different temperatures cook the meat in different ways, and how different parts of the pig produce different types of meat… well, if you understand all that, your enjoyment of the meal is going to be that much greater. And so it is with most things we enjoy. Greater understanding leads to greater pleasure.
My brother-in-law will sometimes talk about the pleasure of watching gymnastics at the Olympics with his wife. She is a former gymnast and understands what is going on in a way that he does not. So watching with her improves the experience for him because he better understands what is happening.
This is one of the reasons I enjoy writing posts about soccer tactics for various soccer blogs online—the work of writing the post helps me better understand the game as I’m watching and by writing about what I learn I’m helping other fans to also enjoy the game more. I will never have the chiefest way of enjoying soccer at that level as I’ll never be a Premier League footballer. But by analyzing the artists at work, I can approximate some degree of the pleasure they feel, noticing the intricacies of their work and how they do what they do. Tutorials of this sort can be immensely helpful because they amplify the pleasure of others who enjoy the same thing by helping them to better understand what makes something good.
That brings me, finally, to Joe Rigney’s new book C. S. Lewis on the Christian Life. What Rigney has done with the book is both simple and remarkable: Rigney has taken the perfect system of classical Christianity as articulated by Lewis across thousands of pages and many different genres and distilled it down to core ideas organized around a small number of main themes.
If you have not read Lewis, you might not appreciate how difficult this task is. Lewis worked in a variety of genres both because he was an immensely talented and well-read scholar and because the nature of his subjects practically compelled him to use multiple genres. While he does write about heaven in his apologetic works, his best work on heaven is doubtless The Last Battle. Similarly he writes about the virtue of humility and the vice of pride in many places, perhaps most notably in Mere Christianity, but I’m not sure we see anything that captures the beauty of humility so well as Till We Have Faces or the horror of pride so magnificently as That Hideous Strength. The man’s powers and understanding were unparalleled and the full utilization of them practically compelled him to branch out from straightforward prose into imaginative theology, children’s literature, science fiction, and satire.
Rigney has, somehow, managed to summarize Lewis’s work in a way that is faithful and compelling in itself and he has done it in fewer than 300 pages. Not only that, but he has done it while writing at an accessible level, such that an average reader can pick the book up and come away with a clearer understanding of what Lewis was doing and, by extension, a better picture of the perfection of Christianity as our fathers and mothers in the faith understood it and developed it over many centuries.
To be sure, if you were to ask me “should I read Joe Rigney’s 300 page book about C. S. Lewis or should I read the thousands and thousands of pages that Lewis himself left behind?” then the answer is, as it often is when we ask the question, ad fontes, back to the sources! Rigney’s book is not a replacement for reading Lewis himself and Rigney knows it well, stating the fact himself at many points in the book, most notably in his treatment of Lewis’s writings on heaven.
But, of course, Rigney’s book is not meant to be a replacement for reading Lewis anymore than a video I might watch on YouTube about smoking pulled pork is a replacement for cooking the meat. Simply watching the video doesn’t free me from the need to eat. But that is not its intent. The intent is simpler: To help people better understand how to go about a task so that they can do it themselves with greater pleasure and better understanding. By that standard, Rigney’s book is a great success. Indeed, given Lewis’s own convictions about writing, I can think of few greater tributes to the great Oxford don than C. S. Lewis on the Christian Life.
Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).