Why I Am So, So Sick of C.S. Lewis

Clive Staples “C.S.” Lewis, a perfectly good children’s novelist and passable sci-fi author, has been adopted by evangelicals as the architect of contemporary evangelism in a way that is not merely wrongheaded and foolish but very harmful. “Mere Christianity” is a terrible book, poorly argued, badly written, and borderline blasphemous (seriously, Christianity is the next phase of evolution? What are you smoking, Clive?), and it’s become the principal method of communication with nonchristians among plenty of our co-religionists. “DId you share the love of Jesus with that guy?” “Oh, I gave him ‘Mere Christianity’ to read.” THEN THE ANSWER TO THE QUESTION WAS “NO.”

Nobody on God’s black earth ever converted to Christianity because a Christian beat her in a debate. People who know the first thing about arguing will kick your ass ’til Tuesday if “Mere Christianity” is the only tool in your kit, and atheists or agnostics who dislike arguing and are shut down, condescended to or humiliated in a discussion about theology will wind up hating not merely Lewis but you, as well.

Apologetics is worse than useless. It starts from a perspective of superiority that no one, especially not a Christian, should presume to take over another human being. Evangelism is one beggar telling another beggar where to find food, and that’s it. If you are honing your arguments, sharpening your points and strategizing, you are preparing for war, not the fulfillment of the Great Commission. It is certainly more satisfying to view yourself as a crucial member of a noble but embattled minority fighting the forces of darkness, but it is not correct. Left unchecked, this martial perversion of Christianity gives us the culture wars, in which prudes and fools like James Dobson and Pat Robertson tell Christians by way of giant television networks, multimillion-dollar ad campaigns, huge lobbying franchises, and chains of bookstores devoted to selling their wares, that they are disenfranchised. If you cannot discern the irony here, you cannot read.

I think that “Mere Christianity” bears some of the blame for this. Implicit in its pages is the assertion that its argument stems from common sense, that people who do not admit its extremely debatable premises (Descartes’ proof for God is a legendary failure, so it’s not exactly a given that God exists) are being dishonest, and that the badly-lit intellectual avenues by which Lewis claims to arrive at his own Christianity are the only avenues available. If they were, I would certainly not be a Christian and I doubt many others would, either, possibly including Lewis himself. The book represents the total intellectualization of theology and morality, and morality, at base, is tautological. Many things are wrong because they are wrong. We can agree on that and move on, or we can investigate it and justify it carefully enough to go to war against people who don’t come to our conclusions and watch society crumble around our ears.

It baffles me that we are arguing about abortion and gay rights as the world destroys itself in paroxysms of carnage that dwarf wars that birthed a dozen Shakespeare plays a few hundred years ago, and are now merely another sad footnote in the ongoing chronology of death and hatred and mutual destruction. Abortion and homosexuality are matters of individual morality. It’s unproductive to go around blaming gay people for… whatever it is you think gay people do that is so terrible, and it’s cowardly to blame the government for abortion. If you think abortion is wrong—and I’m right there with you—your quarrel is with the people having the abortions, and you should maybe try to make them less ashamed of being pregnant and hopeless about their children’s futures. The daily practice of Christianity is very literally about minding your own business. The spiritual, of its nature, is individual and in conversation with your body. You can’t go to church if there’s no one else there—the church is a group of people, not a building or a state of mind. Communion, perhaps unsurprisingly, is communal.

I love “The Screwtape Letters,” because it’s full of concrete advice about how to live your own life—not how to justify your own life, but how to live it. And the frame is scary and interesting. I like most of the Narnia books, but let’s face it, Lewis was a guy who got out of his depth theologically, FAST. Remember in “The Last Battle” when we learn that Susan doesn’t get to go to heaven because she’s into boys and lipstick? I must have skipped that verse in Romans. And the Tarkaan, whose good deeds in the name of Tash—a totally different creature from Aslan, also, good deeds?—endear him to Aslan? Again, this passage is missing from my copy of the Bible.

There’s also the racism. I don’t think Lewis approached his work with malice aforethought but I do think the characterization of the Calormenes as “darkies” is pretty gross, as is the weird conflation of all Arab peoples into a gang who are not merely enemies of Narnia but enemies of Aslan himself. It doesn’t destroy the books for me, but it does call into question the worshipful attitude Christians take toward them.

Narnia also doesn’t address the basic human realities of everyday life in the way that good contemporary fantasy does, though it does have its charms. China Mieville, George R. R. Martin, T.H. White—these guys are concerned with the minutiae of living, and with dramatizing it in a compelling way. Lewis, or at least the noisiest contingent of his readership, is concerned with didactic metaphor, and while a lot of contemporary literature could stand more blatant moralizing, that kind of writing has to be tied to life if it’s going to work. 

This is why the best bits of the Narnia Chronicles are about bad people trying to become good—Eustace learning to be a better dragon than he was a human; Edmund sliding into temptation and being delivered from it, to his shame; Digory Kirke needing to atone for freeing Jadis in Charn; Eustace and Jill Pole failing every test but the last one in The Silver Chairthese are useful moral lessons, far moreso than any wankery about Deep Magic and Deplorable Words.

Readers of any fiction who spend their time looking for “Christ figures” and “uplifting stories” are implicitly tossing quality out the window in a search for a flattering mirror. If you’re reading fiction, you should be reading something that upsets you and makes you examine yourself more closely. You want a really great, obvious Christ figure? Go with Optimus Prime. You want a really great, Christian novel? Go with “The Brothers Karamazov,” in which the character who moves the action of the plot is a shame-ravaged fornicator and possible murderer. That’s not to say that there aren’t beautiful religious metaphors in Dostoevsky, but that Christianity is about being fucked up and getting unfucked by the grace of God through Jesus.

If that phrasing offends you, I would like to take this opportunity to question your priorities.