Wednesday, 04 February 2015 17:39

C.S. Lewis and True Myths

Written by  Matthew Jordan
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One of the pivotal events of my life took place in the spring of 1997. I was walking across the campus of my alma mater, Ohio University, and I noticed a table full of Christian books. One of them was titled Mere Christianity. Its author was C. S. Lewis. “Excuse me,” I asked the man standing next to the table, “is this the same C. S. Lewis who wrote The Chronicles of Narnia?” The man nodded yes. “And… these books are all free?” He smiled and nodded again. I picked up the book, took it back to my dorm room, and started reading. My life would never be the same.


Lewis, it turns out, was much more than merely the author of a series of children’s books. He was brilliant, and a man with a fascinating life story. Born in Ireland in 1898, he fought in World War I and attended Oxford University, graduating with degrees in both English and philosophy. His first job was a one-year position teaching philosophy at Oxford; from there he moved to the English faculty, where he would remain for decades and write most of the works for which he is remembered today. No one who knew him as a young man could ever have supposed that he would prove to be one of the twentieth century’s most prominent defenders of traditional Christian faith—“mere” Christianity, as he liked to refer to a robustly orthodox set of core convictions that provide common ground between all of the great Christian traditions.


No one could have expected this because Lewis, as a young man, was a committed atheist. In a 1917 letter to his friend Arthur Greeves, he mocked the gospels for containing a lot of “tomfoolery about virgin birth, magic healings, apparitions and so forth.” But as the years passed, his views slowly changed. By the time he had completed his undergraduate studies in philosophy, he had become an agnostic, willing “to postulate some sort of God as the least objectionable” philosophical theory, even though he did not think we could have any knowledge about what God is like or what God desires of us. This was more or less his attitude when he first met another young English professor at Oxford, J. R. R. Tolkien. (Yes, that J. R. R. Tolkien!)


Thanks largely to their shared love of mythology—especially the Norse myths—Lewis and Tolkien grew increasingly close. Tolkien was himself a Christian, and it was through his influence that Lewis began to consider the possibility that the gospel is a “true myth.” The phrase sounds odd, of course, because we are accustomed to thinking that the word “myth” means “false.” Obviously, this is not how Lewis and Tolkien understood it. Rather, in their view, the function of a myth is to make abstract realities discernible to us. Myths endure because they enable us to encounter goodness and beauty in ways we otherwise cannot. What Lewis eventually came to believe is that the Christian story of Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection is a “myth” of this kind—but with the exceedingly important difference that this myth actually happened. Lewis came to faith in 1931, and eventually produced a dizzying array of scholarly and popular works. Some, like Mere Christianity, seek common ground between faith and reason, demonstrating that clear thinking and serious discipleship belong hand-in-hand. Two of Lewis’s best works in this genre are The Abolition of Man and Miracles. Other books by Lewis are profound commentaries on the spiritual life: The Screwtape Letters is the most famous of these; my personal favorite is The Great Divorce. And, of course, Lewis wrote some wonderful and inspiring fiction. His space trilogy and his last novel, Till We Have Faces, deserve to be mulled over by any thoughtful Christian.


In my view, however, it is the Narnia books that remain Lewis’s greatest legacy. Instead of attempting to unpack their brilliance here, I will take this opportunity to invite you to a public lecture at Auburn Montgomery at 7 p.m. on March 12, in 109 Goodwyn Hall. That evening, one of the world’s leading experts on C. S. Lewis, Dr. Michael Ward, will present “The Heavens are Telling the Glory of God: C. S. Lewis, Narnia, and the Planets.” I hope to see you there!






Last modified on Friday, 13 February 2015 17:41
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