This past year, I had the opportunity to teach two classes, one each for middle school and high school homeschoolers, exploring the writings of C.S. Lewis. I was excited to offer classes on an author whose ideas had so impacted me personally as well as the entire Christian church for the past eight decades. Few writers combine imagination and careful logic the way Lewis does. Rarely is any writer able to cross the categories of fiction and nonfiction, academic and popular, so seamlessly. Lewis is simply unparalleled in his ability to draw intelligently from theology, philosophy, literature, history, and ethics. He’s the kind of author that you can read over and over and discover new depths of meaning each time.
I was also excited to do something I had always wanted to do: spend an entire uninterrupted year studying one dead author deeply. Lewis, in his introduction to Athanasius’s On the Incarnation, once recommended the reading of old books on the basis that we “need books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period.” I’m sure he didn’t yet foresee the day when his own books would fit that description. Nevertheless, that day has arrived, and I have discovered that his books do as fine a job as any of correcting our age’s characteristic mistakes. Here’s why you should pick up Lewis and start reading soon:
First, Lewis’s writings speak timeless wisdom that has the power to ground readers during chaotic and confusing times. Alan Jacobs, in his book Breaking Bread with the Dead, argues that reading books from the past enables one to add to his or her own “personal density.” By “personal density,” he means weight, or the ability to remain in place when cultural winds start blowing. In a period of drastic change, the reader of old books can see beyond his or her own transitory moment. By using the image of “breaking bread with dead” Jacobs means to communicate the concept of table fellowship. We sit down to encounter wise people who are different than us in significant ways so that we can learn from them.
Sometimes those dead authors appall us, and Lewis is not above initiating this experience, as my students saw this year. But it’s by wrestling with these differences that we grow in wisdom, thus adding personal density. We need voices from history to shake us from the false assumptions of our own age. Like fish who are oblivious that we swim in water, we so often breathe in the conventions of culture uncritically.
Several times this past year, my classes had the experience of reading a Lewis passage that seemed to speak directly into what was happening in our world. My high school class read Abolition of Man, which sparked so many conversations about what a society loses when it denies universal values. Unfortunately, we don’t have to look far to see for ourselves. When Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, all of Lewis’s wartime writings took on new relevance. We had conversations about courage and wrestled with Lewis’s contention in Screwtape Letters that “courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means, at the point of highest reality.” Lewis’s writings have a timeless quality.
Second, Lewis’s works are accessible and fun. I’ll be brief here, but my students genuinely enjoyed reading these books this year. During the last week of class, I asked my middle schoolers what had surprised them the most about the class. Several of them expressed surprise over how interesting Lewis’s writings were for them.
How many writers do you know who can channel their exhaustive knowledge of medieval literature through the prism of their Christian faith and come out with a timeless fantasy series enjoyed equally by adults and children (The Chronicles of Narnia)? Lewis wrote a book about a bus ride to hell (The Great Divorce). He also penned a series of “affectionate” letters from a senior demon named Screwtape to his novice nephew Wormwood giving practical advice on how to tempt human beings. There’s something for everyone in Lewis.
Finally, reading Lewis requires diligence and patience. As I laud Lewis for the accessibility and pleasurability of his writings, I need to also offer a word of caution. Lewis was, by vocation, an academic and a brilliant one at that. If the Chronicles of Narnia is your sole contact point to Lewis’s thought world, you need to realize that you’ve met him on the lowest step of accessibility; it’s only up from there! If you really want to profit from Lewis, you’re going to need to follow the same steps required for understanding any difficult literature: slow down, reread, take notes, ask questions, look up words, and, most importantly, don’t give up!
In a world averaging seven hours of screen time per day, we could all use a habit that requires cultivation of the virtues of diligence and patience!