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C.S. LEWIS: A half-century later

JACKSON, Tenn. (BP) — C.S. Lewis died the same day as John F. Kennedy 50 years ago. Twenty years before that in the midst of World War II — before the Normandy invasion when the outcome of the war was still uncertain — Lewis delivered a series of lectures for the University of Durham that he published as “The Abolition of Man.” Had he written nothing else, Lewis would be important for how Christians understand culture because of his analysis of the great change occurring in our culture that, now, almost has come to completion.

Lewis only wrote one more piece of philosophical apologetics after writing The Abolition of Man, as he shifted to a different form of apologetics that would speak to the changing culture more effectively.

Lewis argued that our educational system had begun to teach children that all values are only statements about how we feel. If values are only statements of feelings, then nothing is right or wrong in itself. We may not like something, but that is only the way we feel about it. Objective value does not exist from this point of view. This perspective frees people from any moral or ethical constraints since morals and ethics would only be someone’s personal feelings, and everyone has a right to their own feelings.

Of course, if we no longer have any absolute values of right and wrong, then we no longer have anything that we can call “rights.” We only have what happens. Lewis anticipated the changes that have occurred in Britain, the United States and Canada since World War II related to the broad cultural understanding of morality. He accurately predicted the rise of relativism and the urge to venture into areas of human genetic science that would once have been written about only in horror stories. Without moral constraint, humans become inhuman; thus, The Abolition of Man.

Though Lewis lamented the loss of critical thinking and the blind acceptance of relativism, he also knew that one form of communication remained that still had powerful force even when people could no longer attend to a rational argument along the lines of his philosophical apologetics. Stories still move people.

So Lewis then focused his apologetic energies on writing stories that caused people to feel appropriately about the issues of abuse of power, sexual immorality, truth, faithfulness and a variety of other spiritual issues. He wrote two science fiction novels that explored the moral limits to scientific experimentation and the very idea that some things are simply wrong. In “Perelandra” and “That Hideous Strength,” Lewis laid out compelling stories that portrayed the moral dilemmas about which the reader must decide. The reader cannot help but conclude that the bad guys are bad. Art works on our feelings while philosophy works on our intellect. When the two are combined, a formidable force emerges. C.S. Lewis excelled at combining the two.

In the 1950s, Lewis wrote a series of seven children’s stories called “The Chronicles of Narnia.” In these books, Lewis tells stories with Christian values undergirding the background of the stories. They work as apologetics because they first work as good stories for children. Lewis said that this kind of book by a Christian was the best kind of apologetics, for it focuses on its subject, but the faith of the Christian permeates the whole as the foundational assumption of reality.

Fifty years after his death, the works of C.S. Lewis may speak even more powerfully than in his own lifetime because he had the insight to understand the culture in which he lived and how to address it with the Gospel even as it was turning into something his own generation later would not recognize.
Harry Lee Poe is the Charles Colson Professor of Faith and Culture at Union University in Jackson, Tenn. He also is the author of “The Inklings of Oxford: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Their Friends” and co-editor of “C.S. Lewis Remembered: Collected Reflections of Students, Friends, and Colleagues.”

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  • Harry Lee Poe