There has been much talk about spiritual illiteracy, usually in relation to its startling absence among people of faith.
Less discussed are the repercussions of spiritual illiteracy in the secular world, and particularly the cultural elite in positions of influence.
Consider the dismissal of Sarah Palin by MSNBC commentator Richard Wolffe for reading C.S. Lewis for “divine inspiration.” Appearing on MSNBC’s “Hardball” with Chris Matthews, Wolffe reacted with mocking incredulity, noting that Lewis wrote “a series of kid’s books.”
Credit to Matthews who responded, “I wouldn’t put down C.S. Lewis.”
“I’m not putting him down,” Wolffe responded. “But you know divine inspiration? There are things she could’ve said to divine inspiration. Choosing C.S. Lewis is an interesting one.”
This isn’t about Palin. It’s about the ignorance of Lewis.
Simply an author of children’s books? Lest we forget, and obviously some have, this is the man who, in the words of the London Times, “in his own lifetime became a legend.”
Clive Staples Lewis went to University College, Oxford, where he achieved a rare Double First in Classics, an additional First in English, and the Chancellor’s Prize for academics. He was soon offered a teaching position at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he was a fellow and tutor from 1925-1954, and then later at the University of Cambridge as professor of Medieval and Renaissance English (1954-1963).
In 1931, Lewis came out of atheism into the Christian faith, aided significantly through his friendship with J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings. The intellectual questions that plagued him during his spiritual journey – why God allows pain and suffering, how Christianity can be the one and only way to God, the existence of miracles – became the very questions he helped others navigate with such skill as a Christian. His first work, The Pilgrim’s Regress: An Allegorical Apology for Christianity, Reason and Romanticism came out in 1933. There followed a torrent of works, eventually reaching 40 titles, the vast majority attempting to put forward Christianity in a very non-Christian world. Among the more widely known being The Screwtape Letters, a trilogy of science fiction novels (when the genre was hardly known), and, yes, the Chronicles of Narnia, a series of seven children’s books that are widely heralded as classics of fantasy literature.
It was a series of radio addresses, given over the BBC during the Second World War but later published in three separate parts, where his conversational style, wit, intellect, and rough charm revealed Christianity to millions. The first invitation was for four fifteen-minute talks. The response was so overwhelming that they gave him a fifth fifteen-minute segment to answer listener’s questions.
A second round of talks was requested and given. The clarity of thought, his ability to gather together a wide range of information and make it plain, led one listener to remark after hearing the talks that they “were magnificent, unforgettable. Nobody, before or since, has made such an ‘impact’ in straight talks of this kind.”
The BBC asked for a third round of talks, this time stretching out for eight consecutive weeks. Lewis consented, but made it clear it would be his last. His goal throughout was simple: “I was...writing to expound...‘mere’ Christianity, which is what it is and was what it was long before I was born.” Eventually gathered together in a single work titled Mere Christianity, the work continues to make Christianity known to millions.
So yes, Mr. Wolffe, I believe it can be said that C.S. Lewis has been, and continues to be, good reading for divine inspiration.
But ignorance surrounding someone like Lewis is only a hint of the problem. More recently the Bishop of Winchester, the Rt. Rev. Michael Schott-Joynt, has warned that the death of religious literacy among those who make and administer the law in the U.K. has created an imbalance in the way in which those with faith are treated when compared to sexual minorities.
Cases in point: The Christian counselor who was fired for refusing to give sex therapy to a homosexual couple; the Christian bed and breakfast owners sued for turning away two homosexuals who wished to share a bedroom; the Christian adoption agencies forced by the Government to close their doors after they refused to place children with same sex couples.
The Bishop’s point is that “for the first time in British history politicians and judges were largely ignorant of religion and so failed to appreciate the importance Christians placed on abiding by the scriptures rather than the politically correct values of the secular state.”
Scott-Joynt’s comments to the BBC are worth repeating at length:
“Probably for the first time in our history there is a widespread lack of religious literacy among those who one way and another hold power and influence, whether it’s Parliament or the media or even, dare I say it, in the judiciary. The risk would be that there are increasingly professions where it could be difficult for people who are devoted believers to work in certain areas of the public services, indeed in Parliament. Anybody who is part of the religious community believes that you don’t just hold views, you live them. Manifesting your faith is part of having it and not part of some optional bolt-on. Judgment seemed to be following contemporary society, which seems to think that secularist views are statements of the obvious and religious views are notions in the mind. That is the culture in which we are living. The judges ought to be religiously literate enough to know that there is an argument behind all this, which can’t simply be settled by the nature of society as it is today.”
It’s one thing to be ignorant about the twentieth century’s greatest Christian apologist; it’s another to be ignorant about the mere Christianity he so faithfully professed and, in turn, persecute Christians who embrace it.
One is galling; the other is frightening.
James Emery White
Material on C.S. Lewis adapted from James Emery White, Serious Times (InterVarsity Press).