BOSTON — Clive Staples Lewis, an atheist until a mystical experience at age 31, is this century's best-selling author of Christian books. What is the secret to his vast appeal?
"He was an extremely talented writer," says Marjorie Mead, a Lewis scholar and associate director of the Marion E. Wade Center in Wheaton, Ill. "He helped people think through their convictions. He combined the imagination and rational side. He had the ability to reason and depict. That's a very unusual combination."
Lewis had a gift for analogy. He described Christ's incarnation in "Mere Christianity," for example, by asking readers to imagine humanity as a table-top of tin soldiers whose owner wants to give them the gift of being human. The soldiers persist in remaining what they know -tin -until their creator sends a new toy soldier among them as an example of how to be fully alive.
"Lewis gives life to theology," says Jerry Root, co-editor of "The Quotable C.S. Lewis" and an assistant professor of Christian education at Wheaton College. "He doesn't get off track. He sticks with mere Christianity."
The Anglican Lewis's simplicity and clarity has won him legions of readers among Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Orthodox Jews, and Mormons. "Jews, of course, don't agree with his Christian beliefs, but they find common ground in his moral and ethical teachings," says Ms. Mead. Among Mormons, he is the most read religious author outside the Mormon faith.
His popularity soars each year, Mr. Root says. Years ago, his students unfailingly knew J.R.R. Tolkien, a Lewis compatriot, but few knew Lewis, he says. Today, nearly all students know Lewis.
Lewis's fellow scholars at Oxford, most of whom were nonbelievers, scoffed at his conversion and sniffed at his success. Oxford never gave him a full professorship and he moved on to Cambridge.
Some Lewis detractors claim that his theological concepts are simplistic and that his ruminations on pain and suffering are too pat, too easily won. Hogwash, say many Lewis scholars. Lewis suffered greatly in his life, they point out. His beloved mother died when he was nine years old, after which he was sent to an English boarding school. He fought in the trenches of World War I and was severely wounded. Late in his life, his new bride fell ill and died.
Readers say Lewis's personal travails only add to his appeal, as does his embracing of the richness and mystery of life. "When I read him in college, I saw him as completely rational," says Tony Dawson, a Lewis devotee who volunteers at the Wade Center, which houses a collection of Lewis's memorabilia. "I'm older now and see that he was very much in tune with the mystery of faith, and I appreciate that."
Lewis himself realized he was out of step not only with his peers but his age. Rejecting the exaltation of reason, he called himself "a dinosaur" and "a man not of his time." For his readers, he remains a man for all ages. "There is a real sense of transcendence about his writings," Ms. Mead says. "There is a spiritual hunger in people, and he spoke directly to that."