Timeless C.S. Lewis at 100

Culture | He still influences Christian culture warriors

Issue: "Clinton: Time to resign," Aug. 29, 1998

Shortly before his death in 1963, C.S. Lewis told a friend he doubted that his books would still be in print more than a few years after his demise. Great 20th-century prophet that he was, this time C.S. Lewis was wrong. Thirty-five years after his death-and 100 years after his birth-interest in Lewis has never been greater. To mark the centennial of his birth, some 650 Lewisphiles converged on Oxford and Cambridge universities last month to attend "Oxbridge '98: Loose in the Fire," a two-week celebration of the life and work of the famous Oxford don. The conference, according to organizer Stanley Mattson, emphasized "the quality of Lewis's willingness to step out in a very critical environment and speak what he understood to be the truth," even though his views were "utterly at variance with all the reigning prejudices of the period." Lewis's work still appeals to Christians because, as speaker Peter Kreeft put it, "the issues that bothered him bother us. He searched out the unchanging, permanent things. He didn't get distracted by fashions." Another reason we're still reading Lewis, said novelist Tom Howard, is because his books are "masterful works of English prose. No matter what the topic is-Christian reflections, fiction, or literary criticism-Lewis brings this gigantic, incandescent intellect to bear, an intellect heightened by a tremendously agile and fruitful imagination." Lewis continues to inspire those who work in the artistic as well as the intellectual realm: Actors, poets, playwrights, and dancers were much in evidence at this conference. The Lamb's Players Theatre turned Lewis's novel, Till We Have Faces, into a stunning play; actors Josh Ackland, who portrayed Lewis in the 1985 version of Shadowlands and David Suchet (familiar to American audiences as PBS Mystery!'s Hercule Poirot) reenacted two of Lewis's most famous addresses. Tom Keys, who performed a mesmerizing one-man show of Lewis, says Lewis still speaks to artists because he "so often captured the truth-and truth is an inexhaustible classic." Mr. Kreeft noted that Lewis "saw the main problem of our century as a crisis of truth," and the notion that truth, especially moral truth, is relative "as the most destructive belief of the 20th century." How destructive? As Chuck Colson put it, Lewis was "uncannily prophetic in foreseeing the emerging naturalistic philosophy, which has stripped the transcendent dimension from every area of thought, whether science or law or ethics." In The Abolition of Man, Lewis "dissected the moral relativism that has devastated modern education." In the essay Men Without Chests, Mr. Colson says, "Lewis puts his finger on the fatal flaw in all secular ethical systems: They address how to know what's right, but they cannot shape the will to do what is right." Stanley Mattson's advice to this new generation of Lewis fans was to "get out there, mix it up, enjoy yourself, be assertive-and speak the things you understand to be true, even if the world regards them as absurd-which, of course, it did with Lewis."

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