I recently completed the quest of reading everything C. S. Lewis ever wrote in chronological order. Now when the moment is fresh, I’d like to clarify, celebrate, and reflect upon that quest. My chief goal in reflection is to make as much good out of the reading as I can as well as to pave the way for the second expedition through his works that I hope to make someday.
For both edification and enjoyment you can hardly do better than read Lewis, whatever he was writing. But my relationship with him (and I am not alone in this) goes far beyond that of reader and writer. He has been a mentor to me in a spiritually difficult phase; a mentor and guide; a guide and companion. And if not quite a friend, he has been a fond (on my side—the relationship is very one-sided) acquaintance in sharing some roads, some distresses and fears and insights and joys, that no one in my direct experience has walked or, at least, divulged walking. I’m thankful that the Lord led me, at a time of spiritual darkness, to this companion, to these writings, to this quest. It has been my daily nourishment without which I may very well have starved, shriveled, and died, but with which (along with other food) my faith has been nursed and fattened to reasonable good health.
I must have begun the quest on or near 4 November 2012. I’ve been reading Lewis on and off all my life, so in that sense the quest began with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe when I was seven, but this concerted mission of reading everything, roughly in order, began after seminary.
Spiritually, seminary had been the best of times and the worst of times. It was undeniably valuable, certainly fruitful, but also cultivated in my soul a frail dryness borne of analytical biblical studies, linguistics, the fine incisions and distinctions of systematic theology, the reading and writing of endless papers. I graduated in 2011 full of knowledge but devoid of passion.
Lewis had been all but verboten at seminary. His books were never assigned, seldom referenced, and when mentioned, almost never praised. Although Lewis is the darling of evangelicals, he himself was no evangelical. He did not accept Scripture as inerrant. He was prone to theological speculation—such as an attraction to the doctrine of Purgatory, or to the immortality of pet animals—that make us uneasy. My professors didn’t like him and didn’t promote his presence in the curriculum.
As I emerged from six years of intensive study, my faith was in danger, a brittle exoskeleton emptied of flesh. As I prayed and analyzed my condition I sensed that my problem was one of sheer negativity not in the emotional but in the most direct sense. Seminary had prepared me to carefully eliminate error: bad theology, bad interpretation. But a person who only eliminates error is engaged in a negative activity. He lacks a positive purpose. A living theology, I now see, needs a positive stroke: not only the annihilation of error but the creation of insight, joy, and new action.
Immediately after graduation I could hardly look at a Bible, and I staggered back to Lewis like a man emerging from a desert. I devoured two or three of his works in the space of a few days, almost literally slavering for his particular blend of wild imagination, steely intelligence, and joyous spiritual depth. I don’t know whether I could then have articulated that I was turning back to him because he married the careful, reductionist theological method that I had received in seminary with a bold, expansive, creative heart.
The marriage unnerved me, actually. I had prayed that God would bolster my faith; in answer, it seemed, he had led me to Lewis. Yet Lewis’s superior attitude to Scripture in Reflections on the Psalms repulsed me, and the milquetoast and uneven theology he sometimes displays in Letters to Malcolm left me shaking my head. So I prayed again for clarity of direction and, if I was to read Lewis, for his works to be of benefit rather than harm to me. And somehow—I can’t explain exactly why—even the more troubling and unevangelical works (Malcolm and Psalms top the list) acted as food to me. My faith began to steady. The skeleton began to strap on flesh. Even without exactly accepting Lewis’s own beliefs, his companionship in facing the questions was steadying and energizing.
The idea of reading everything—all he wrote—rooting the schedule in his letters, must have formed in the autumn of 2012 and in any case was enacted about then.
It took me about four years to complete his works. There were intervals when I would set him aside and read other things, but I’d say that about three of those years saw me reading every day. The letters (in three volumes) make up the bulk of the content, the spine of the reading program, and no small part of its value.
I have mixed feelings about reaching the end, but not mixed in the way I would have expected. The bitter is less bitter and the sweet less sweet, yet strong flavors abound. As for bitter, I’m less sad than I thought I would be. There is some poignancy to reading about any person’s death; you’d think this effect would be amplified by the person being Lewis; you’d think it would be amplified by it being someone whose thoughts you’ve spent so many hours absorbing. When I reached the last page of his letters, I bowed and prayed for a few moments but I was nothing like tearful. I can’t say exactly why. My best guess—I feel it’s a poor one—is that he himself does undergo a sort of journey of detachment after Joy’s death in 1960, so that one is perhaps prepared for his death along with him. A less lofty reason might be that it’s simply a very great deal to read, and I was ready for it to be over. And, I had already read of Lewis’s death in Warnie’s diaries; perhaps this prepared me. In any case the end was poignant but not melancholy.
I almost regret not having reflected more throughout the process. I might have blogged my journey as I went, or irritated and edified friends with daily quotations to Facebook, or written book reports of one kind or another to help capture what I was uncovering. In fact I’ve barely written about Lewis even privately, much less more formally, publically, or fully. There is a lost opportunity here to better understand, synthesize, and recall the flurry of information that has passed through my mind and to disseminate more of Lewis’s valuable insights (for example in his letters, which are not often publically quoted) to others.
I almost regret it, but I don’t. Writing would have added a great deal of pressure to the process, not to mention time and labor. It might easily have taken twenty years rather than four, and would have made the act of reading much more artificial, more extrinsically motivated, than it was. I think there’s a general principle here—one I learned in seminary—that the best way to learn a corpus is to read it quickly to begin with, then read it again for deeper reflection.
So I don’t regret reading Lewis without writing about him, but all the more do I look forward to reading him again with more writing and reflection. Unless other demands prevent it I’d like to find an academic advisor, or program, somewhere that will give me credit of one kind or another for my second reading and the writing that should accompany it.
A lot has been written about Lewis by those with more expertise and insight than I have. The most obvious and important themes of his writing and life—such as his involvement with the Inklings—are thoroughly explored elsewhere. But here are some major themes that are less often discussed and happened to catch my attention.
Jack’s relationship with his brother Warnie is peculiar, unexpected, in many ways wonderful, and not a little sad. It’s a major, though often unspoken, aspect of his life, and worthy of reflection.
That they were lifelong friends is undeniable and, I feel, enviable. Their shared Christianity, love of literature, and pursuit of the craft of writing made their friendship both possible and fruitful. Yet there were two besmirchments: on Jack’s side, Mrs. Moore and other distractions; on Warnie’s, alcoholism.
Jack’s failings in the relationship are most clearly seen from the complaints (always sad, plaintive rather than enraged) in Warnie’s diary. It was Warnie’s tragic fate that the man he most loved was forever beside him, yet out of reach. Until 1950 Jack’s attention was occupied by tutorials, books and letters, and Mrs. Moore, and although they all lived together Warnie felt he had too little of Jack. After she died there was a brief respite. Warnie was ebullient. Then in 1954 Lewis’s (partial) move to Cambridge again separated them. It seems that throughout their adulthoods, and then most vividly upon Jack’s death, Warnie regretted, and at least somewhat resented, these incursions on their brotherly companionship.
On Warnie’s side, his alcoholism was at least an annual trouble and a great worry to Jack. The binges were often extreme and led—at best—to hospitalization. They are a persistent theme through the decades the brothers lived together. We see Warnie at his worst during Jack’s last summer, in 1963. Jack is very sick, has been increasingly ill for over a year, then suffers a heart attack that leaves him an invalid. Yet Warnie, rather than rushing home, stays far away in Ireland, drunk. Incredibly—in a manner that dispels almost any other sympathy—he remains both absent and incommunicado for months, haphazardly missing much of Jack’s endangered period and returning just a few weeks before his death.
In the end we’re left with a mixed impression of their relationship, pity mixed with joy. They remained close brothers throughout their lives, bonded by memory and suffering, two old, bookish gentlemen pottering around house and garden. Yet it was no perfect companionship, and in fact there was great loss, even neglect, on both sides.
Something similar may be said of Lewis’s relationship with Arthur Greeves. Arthur was Lewis’s closest lifelong friend. They were very close in their teen years, suffered a tapering off when Lewis moved to Oxford, yet always shared a deep fondness. They met occasionally throughout their lives, perhaps once every two or three years, normally with Lewis going to Ireland where they could travel together in the countryside of their shared boyhood.
Arthur, however, seems to have been a somewhat emotionally troubled person, and the mismatch in their intelligence (few could match Jack’s intelligence) limited the depth of their relationship. Arthur never had a career, never married, and seems to have suffered ill health throughout his life. Despite this lack of occupation (Lord knows how he spent his days), he refused Lewis’s frequent urging to visit Oxford. If I recall rightly he visited just once in all those decades. I suppose it’s likely that if Greeves hadn’t grown up in Lewis’s own hometown they might have fallen out of touch in their 20s. Instead, they preserved the friendship. But one gets the sense that there was yet more available in the relationship than they were able to secure.
A remarkable theme through Lewis’s writings are his worries and frustrations as an author.
Working backward, as late as 1963 he feared that his writings would fall out of print within three years of his death. There’s no indication that he feared a loss of prestige: rather, that the income would no longer support Warnie. In (about) 1948 he wrote in a letter (I wish I could find it) that he thought his days of publishing books was over. Not long after, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe came to him.
I suspect that prior to this—at least until the 1950s—Lewis reckoned himself a failed poet rather than a successful novelist or author. This perspective gave him a certain freedom. Lacking ambition and pretence, he wrote what amused him rather than what he thought most estimable. He thought Till We Have Faces his best book, yet it sold poorly, and he disliked the title (which was the publisher’s choice; he had preferred Bareface). Perhaps I’m projecting, but I believe he felt he had succeeded in creating merely “good” books, not great ones: books that met a particular need (like Screwtape Letters or The Problem of Pain) or that dabbled in a curiosity or amusement of his own (Perelandra or The Lion…) but were hardly great literature. By no means did he reckon himself one of the great authors or foresee his ongoing success.
Connected with this, Lewis’s financial worries are interesting to regard with hindsight. In this respect I think his experiences are typical of people in general or Christians in particular. One year (about 1960) he discovered to his horror that he had vastly underpaid taxes on book earnings for several years. The resulting bill threatened to undo them. Yet after a few weeks or months of worry the problem turned out to have been an error and all came to nothing. I find that an easy fear to identify with and a welcome reminder that these fears tend to evaporate, at least with prayer. I should also say, for it is another great theme and I shall neglect it badly, that to his very great credit, Lewis never shrank from lavish generosity.
I think it’s clear that Lewis was a good friend. His decades’ worth of letters to Owen Barfield, Greeves, Joy Davidman, Mary Shelburne, Cecil Harwood, the Farrers, June Freud, including visits with them in Oxford, Ireland, or on walking tour, give ample evidence. It’s not clear to me how he cultivated these friendships or what they were like up close, but they were clearly a major aspect of his life.
Incidentally, Lewis at the Breakfast Table is a book about Lewis by his friends that I’d like to read by way of coda.
I envy Lewis his Anglicanism, another major theme. It seems to me that a good part of the spiritual health and insight that he demonstrates so soon after his conversion and maintains thereafter may be attributed to the theological tradition he inherits as well as the spiritual disciplines this tradition makes available to him: the daily rigor of Common Prayer, regular Eucharist, and the guidance of a spiritual director. In his Christian writing Lewis shrinks from denominationalism, and in his own thought and practice he departed from classic Anglicanism in many ways (disliked the hymnody, believed [at times] in Purgatory, was no inerrantist, veered toward Arminianism rather than Calvinism), but his tradition served him well in enviable ways.
His theological orthodoxy and speculativeness are interesting themes. It’s incredible, given his background and his path to faith, that he was as orthodox as he was: perfectly orthodox in all the key particulars. This miraculous conformance to the necessities of Christian faith is worth a study in its own right.
But Lewis was more imaginative than most, and his imaginativeness did invade some important Christian doctrines: Purgatory (as I mentioned), the souls of animals, the nature of hell and those who are cast there, the relationship between human choice and divine sovereignty. He certainly toed the edge of orthodoxy in some places but never, I think, earned an accusation of heresy.
For my part, I think I most disagree with him in areas that touch on Arminianism (though he was not, quite, an Arminian). In particular, I think that Lewis too easily accepts the Kantian doctrine that the Euthyphro question should be resolved by placing Moral Law as a separate and, in some sense, superior thing to God. I understand and in essence accept Lewis’s protest that the direct alternative—that God arbitrarily defines morality—is despicable, not to mention untenable. But I don’t believe this is the only alternative; and even if it were, it’s not clear to me that it is more despicable, or more untenable, than Kant’s approach.
Lewis’s view is closely connected (as he states in The Problem of Pain) to the belief that human moral sense, though flawed, is basically adequate. That is, when all’s said and done, people have enough good “in them,” in some sense, to recognize good and evil. These views start Lewis down the Arminian path. (Actually for him it’s the George McDonald path, and I think the cause and effect are reversed from how I’ve just said it, in that McDonald first indoctrinated Lewis in the conclusion, and authors he read later helped him understand the premises.) The conclusion is that people do possess some basic and essential, if flawed and corruptible, good, and that God is so loving that his operation in creation is to call and reach out to people in an effort to woo them. This is very Arminian. It leaves Lewis open to the idea that people can come to Christ after death, or serve him through another god in life (as in The Last Battle); that the pagan gods and myths were not (wholly?) demonic but in fact, at least in part, an outreach of God to ancient peoples; to minimize hell as a sort of inevitable self-immolation not of people per se but of the detritus of what might have been people; and to believe in Purgatory as a necessary phase of the afterlife (though I think he held this doctrine very tentatively, at least until his last few years). I’m not necessarily far from Lewis on every last one of these ideas but I distrust them more than he seems to have done.
There is a soft, human-oriented tone to his theology that, at its best, is sympathetic, open, gracious, and oriented toward love but, at its worst, minimizes God’s sovereignty and justified wrath, denigrates Scripture, and understates the centrality of explicit faith-acceptance of Christ’s saving work on the cross. I’m not so sure that Lewis would flinch, in fact, at the charge that he minimized God’s sovereignty, or wrath, or even Scripture, at least relative to those who in his view overemphasize them. But he would strongly object that he minimized Christ’s saving work on the cross. Yet as a “tone”, as I’ve named it, I think the charge stands. Christ’s saving work, or explicit faith in it, is sometimes—not always, nor even usually—an indirect element of Lewis’s soteriology rather than a direct and necessary one, and I think this is a mistake.
In a word, I accept some Calvinist ideas more than Lewis does. It must be said, though, that Lewis became more Calvinist in his later years, more explicitly concerned with God’s sovereignty. But certain objectionable elements in his theology—objectionable to evangelical Protestants, anyway—remained throughout his life.
John Piper has just about made a career out of one of Lewis’s major themes: that pleasure is by its nature good. Lewis mentions this idea many times in writings of every kind, both as a detail and as a fundamental and explicit theme. As the title indicates, pleasure (in one of its forms) is arguably the central character of Surprised by Joy. Again, books could be (and have been) written about this.
I appreciate and enjoy, and largely accept, this element in Lewis’s thought. It was part of what made his words an antidote to the spiritual dryness and thinness I experienced after my seminary years.
And it affected his praxis. Lewis was no ascetic. Beer and cigarettes at the Bird and Baby, or merely the joy of literature, of a laugh, of “bawdy”, were not very guilty pleasures for him. Mostly this is a characteristic of the English in general rather than of Lewis in particular; my reaction is that of a Bible-belt evangelical rather than of a Christian per se. The point is that Lewis accepted pleasure intellectually as well as hedonistically and was much less stuck-up and legalistic, as a result, than many Christians of my ilk or even, perhaps, of his.
And of course one of the greatest, if not the greatest, themes of Lewis’s life is that of literature, of reading. He was an incorrigible bookworm. He read well, taking notes and making indexes. He was shameless (this goes back to the pleasure theme) in reading what he liked, imbibing the same succulent book repeatedly, and ignoring what he didn’t like. (An Experiment in Criticism captures his attitude to reading and readers.)
I’ve emerged from his works with a strong desire to read more as he did, but also vividly aware that I will never match him. His early training in Latin, Italian, and German gave him access to works that are far out of my realm, and of course his vocation as a professor of literature justified reading as a daily occupation.
Here’s a theme that simply can’t be summed up except by saying that it is the dominant theme of his life and separates him inevitably from most Christians who love his work and would like to resemble him more generally.
What works should a person read if he wishes to read what Lewis himself most read, enjoyed, and discussed?
Lewis himself will thrash me to within an inch of my life when I get to heaven (or Purgatory) unless I mention that he himself disliked reading lists of this sort (see for example his letter to Robert Metcalf Jr dated 25 August 1959), believing instead in the importance of reading in context and from a natural outflow of discovery rather than under an obligation to conquer “The 100 Best Books of the Century.” Still, there’s no harm noting what works he seemed most to enjoy.
Please don’t take this list as authoritative; it’s what springs to my mind after four diffuse years in his letters.
- The Bible
- Milton (though I get the sense Lewis dealt with Milton professionally rather than approving him as such)
- Walter Scott
- George McDonald
People sometimes wrote to Lewis to ask him what books he would recommend to new Christians or which had influenced his own thinking. His answers varied, but these recommendation are consistent. I should say, by the way, that these are not all sound evangelical choices (in case that sort of thing concerns you). The Theological Germanica, for example, has been roundly condemned by both Protestants and Catholics for many centuries; but Lewis evidently found some good in it. He recommended it regularly.
- Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity
- Thomas Traherne, Centuries of Meditations
- Anonymous, Theologica Germanica
- William Law, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life
- Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ
- Tolkien, of course
- Charles Williams, of course
- David Lindsay, Voyage to Arcturus
- Eric Eddison, The Worm Ouroboros
Others I’m forgetting?
If I ever read through Lewis again I want to remember these questions of method.
It’s best to take his life one year at a time and for each of his years read his published writings first, then the letters. For most of this round I read his letters first, but it’s better to reverse that. If you read the writings first you get a clear sense of what he was thinking and saying; the letters then become an enriching commentary on how and why the published work emerged. If you read the letters first, a great deal of their commentary and insight fall on deaf ears: though you get the thoughts that lead to the works in the proper chronological sequence, you don’t know what it is they’re leading to.
Warnie’s diary (Brothers and Friends) is valuable, but perhaps gives away too much. I read it quite early on, in Lewis’s 1930s I’d say. Warnie goes quickly all the way to Lewis’s death, and any year prior to 1963 is too early to be reading that. Better to read Warnie as an afterward or in segments, annually, like everything else.
Boxen is, alas, not that much fun to read (I find), and covers a fairly long span. It was written when Lewis was about 9 to 14. It’s absolutely remarkable, and wonderful to skim through, but not something most adults are likely to find greatly interesting or edifying. It’s like reading the private picture-stories of your extremely—extremely—precocious nephew. You might skim it first, before anything else, or maybe associate it with the year 1907.
All My Roads Before Me should be read for 1922–1927, the years Lewis journaled. His choice of subject matter is usually inconsequential so it can certainly be read all at once anytime during those years without harming the flow of thought, emotion, or events, but dividing it per year would be the most diligent approach.
The Literary Works
An interesting experiment would be to read his literary works in reverse chronological order. He becomes less specialized, more lucid—by which I mean less academic and more Lewis—in his later literary works. Perhaps reading this whole stream of work backwards from everything else is too much; but reading Discarded Image as a sort of preamble to his literary corpus toward the beginning of his career isn’t a bad idea.
It’s difficult to find a single page of Lewis, whether in his letters, his fiction, his non-fiction, his books or articles, that isn’t brimming with challenging and helpful insights beautifully expressed, often with sharp wit and memorable humor. I don’t know of anyone else like him. I’ve no question that God led me to him as a child nor back to him as an adult, and these years of reading—perhaps a million words, and untold hours—have already paid back hefty dividends in comfort, enjoyment, challenge, and spiritual growth.
It seems comical to others, no doubt, that I’d already be thinking of taking a second journey through Lewis’s works sometime in the future. Dogs return to their vomit, you say. There probably is a little madness in it. Lewis himself would weep if he knew (and maybe, by his own lights, he does) and would certainly dissuade me with abashed modesty. But I think God has wrought something significant in this man. Not only in him I hasten to add. Augustine is another like him. Tolkien’s authorial imagination is greater, as I think Lewis recognized. And Scripture itself is perpetually underrated for its unsurpassed (even by Lewis) beauty of expression, skill in storytelling, intelligence, potency, and good humor—all the same qualities for which Lewis is praised. But of course I’m not alone—none of us are alone—in finding in Lewis a mentor, guide, sometime surgeon, and muse who, improbable and silly though it may be, seems almost as near to hand as anyone alive and serves our sanctification at least as well.