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Few would deny the claim that C. S. Lewis was the twentieth century’s most influential and insightful apologist. He is less often acknowledged as a perceptive and prophetic cultural critic. And yet those two roles are inseparable in his writing. When Lewis wrote essays, lectures, and books explicitly intended to defend the faith, his imagination was informed by an abiding and sensitive awareness of how modern assumptions about life and meaning (mediated through our cultural experience) create obstacles for belief and for the ramifications of belief we call “faithfulness.” And those insights permeate his other writing as well, works of and about literature, about history, and about spiritual struggle.
In 1998, during the centenary of Lewis’s birth, I interviewed for Mars Hill Audio a number of Lewis scholars, including the philosopher and ethicist Gilbert Meilaender, whose 1978 book The Taste for the Other: The Social and Ethical Thought of C. S. Lewis had just been reissued. During the interview, we talked about the distinctive qualities of Lewis’s writings, particularly his apologetics works. Gil noted that he didn’t think that Lewis’s success as an apologist was tied (as many have asserted) to his skills in making arguments. “His work is so fundamentally imaginative,” Gil observed,
I think he’s not so much trying to argue anybody into thinking something as he is simply trying to help us understand what it would mean to believe something, through the enormous gifts he has for illustration and metaphor and story. A great deal of what he does is simply trying to think through what the world looks like from a Christian perspectivemake it understandable and make it come alive for us.
Having been presented with that rich vision of the world from a Christian angle of vision, Lewis’s unbelieving readers were invited to decide whether they found that vision more compelling than their own picture of reality, a picture typically shaped (Lewis knew) by certain assumptions that were peculiarly modern. It was Lewis’s penetrating perception of the prejudices of modernity that gave books like Mere Christianity their power.
The New Archetypal Image
But in many lesser-known essays, lectures, and articles, Lewis was much more explicit about how those assumptions create a barrier to accepting the claims (and demands) of Christ. Like the best practitioners of the sociology of religion, Lewis understood how rearrangements of everyday life caused by political, economic, or technological developments often led to profound reorientations of the imagination, and hence, of the beliefs of modern men and women.
Consider, for example, one of the central arguments made in the inaugural lecture Lewis gave in 1954 upon assuming the Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge (“De Descriptione Temporum,” available online). In that lecture (as in many other places), Lewis laments the mentality of “Presentism,” of provincialism in time, that plagues modern imaginations. “How has it come about that we use the highly emotive word ‘stagnation,’ with all its malodorous and malarial overtones, for what other ages would have called ‘permanence’? . . . Why does ‘latest’ in advertisements mean ‘best’?” Lewis argued that this preoccupation with the present (and indifference to or suspicion of the past) was a function of living with so much technology:
I submit that what has imposed this climate of opinion so firmly on the human mind is a new archetypal image. It is the image of old machines being superseded by new and better ones. For in the world of machines the new most often really is better and the primitive really is the clumsy.
He went on to argue that our assumption that everything is provisional and soon to be supersededthat we should live for the next thing rather than treasure and honor the permanent thingswas the single aspect of modern life that detached us most thoroughly from all previous ages of history. “I conclude that it really is the greatest change in the history of Western Man.”
Predisposed Toward Skepticism
But this change was of more than academic interest to historians. In his 1948 essay, “God in the Dock,” Lewis argued that suspicion of the past led many people to unbelief. He described some experiences he had had speaking to a group of RAF servicemen about Christianity.
I had supposed that if my hearers disbelieved the Gospels, they would do so because the Gospels recorded miracles. But my impression is that they disbelieved them simply because they dealt with events that happened a long time ago: that they would be almost as incredulous of the Battle of Actium as of the Resurrectionand for the same reason.
Similarly, in the essay “Modern Man and His Categories of Thought” (written in 1946, and now in the little-known anthology Present Concerns), Lewis observed: “The mere fact that St. Paul wrote so long ago is, to a modern man, presumptive evidence against his having uttered important truths.” In that essay, Lewis attributes suspicion of the past to the abandonment of education in the classics. “It was natural to men so trained to believe that valuable truth could still be found in an ancient book. . . . Even where Christian belief was rejected there was a standard against which contemporary ideals could be judged.”
Throughout Lewis’s writings is an awareness of how Christian beliefabout sin and forgiveness, Creation and eschatology, love and deathis necessarily situated in a cosmological picture that modern culture renders incredible. Christians who are interested in cultural engagement would do well to read or re-read Lewis’s writings with a special alertness to his diagnosis of how our cultural habits predispose us toward skepticism. The findings from such a survey could be remarkably helpful in forming an agenda for cultural renewal.