Christians battle over 'Narnia'

Conservative and liberal theologians try to lay claim to author C.S. Lewis's towering legacy as a Christian thinker.

The legacy of one of the 20th century's most influential religious figures is suddenly up for grabs, thanks to a new family film intended to make millions at the box office.

That's because Walt Disney's "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," set for release nationwide Friday, has helped fuel fresh interest in the beliefs of its late creator, C.S. Lewis. Though perhaps best known for his entertaining children's books, Lewis has attained a following among millions of Christians drawn to explore - and debate - what he believed to lie at the heart of Christianity.

In one camp are evangelicals, whose churches regularly use Lewis's book "Mere Christianity" to introduce newcomers to orthodox understandings of Jesus Christ. The evangelical magazine Christianity Today goes so far as to call this work "the best religious book of the 20th century."

"He still gives one of the best rational defenses of the Christian faith," says David L. Neuhouser, director of the Center for the Study of C.S. Lewis and Friends at Taylor University, an evangelical school in Upland, Ind. "His view of biblical truth in particular might not be where fundamentalists would like him to be, but in the important things [such as doctrinal claims], I think he is one with evangelicals.... Evangelicals do claim him, certainly."

Others, however, insist that Lewis cared chiefly about bringing the worldwide Christian family together. Since he helped advance a vibrant ecumenical movement in his day, he must not be reduced to a sectarian champion posthumously, according to the Rev. Dr. Clair McPherson, associate priest at the Church of the Transfiguration, an Episcopal congregation in lower Manhattan.

Lewis "makes it very clear ... that his purpose is not to be biased toward any denominational point of view or even any theological point of view within Christianity," says Reverend McPherson, who's been leading about 50 adults this fall in a four-week study of Lewis's "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." "I would never say to evangelicals, 'you can't have him.' I would say, 'he belongs to all of us.' "

Laying claim to Lewis's legacy is serious business in the diverse world of 21st century Christianity. That's because 42 years after his death, this Irish-born Oxford University instructor still sells books like hotcakes: "Mere Christianity" alone has sold almost 1 million copies since January 2001.

Through a corpus that includes more than 30 books, Lewis explains and popularizes a faith that now nurses painful fractures along political as well as theological lines. Whichever of the competing strains can lay claim to his legacy stands to enjoy the fruits of association with a widely loved giant of Christian faith.

In this milieu, left-leaning Christians are refusing to let Lewis fossilize as an archetype of modern-day evangelicalism.

Adherents to "a sectarian style in confrontational evangelical circles could learn a lot from Lewis," says Stephen G. Post, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. "I think what I do is more in tune with his tonality and content" when turning to science, Islam, and elsewhere for guidance on unforeseen moral dilemmas.

Such an eclectic method would please Lewis, he says, because it reflects the author's commitment to reason and "humility rather than hubris."

As a writer, Lewis defies easy categorization, as his books span genres ranging from his academic discipline of medieval literature to Christian apologetics, science fiction, and fantasy. As a Christian, he called Anglicanism his denominational home, yet he continues to inspire devotion to other branches of Christianity.

David Tiede Hottinger of Greenville, S.C., for instance, renounced the conservative evangelicalism of his youth and became in his words a "liberal Protestant with a social-worker view of Jesus" before encountering Lewis's writings as a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School. Rather than lead him back to evangelicalism, however, Lewis inspired him to leave Protestantism altogether.

"I became a Catholic in no small part due to the writings of C.S. Lewis," Mr. Hottinger says. Hearing Lewis reflect reverently on the church's sacraments, Hottinger says, made him rethink and recommit: "I guess it was a reconversion I had by reading Lewis in those years."

Lewis resonates with Roman Catholics and evangelicals alike, Hottinger says, through his refusal to water down Christian doctrine and yet write in a "style quite inviting." Lewis insists, for instance, in "Mere Christianity" that Jesus must have either been the Son of God he claimed to be, or a madman. Though he keeps readers laughing page after page, he also leaves no room for fence-sitters.

Others, however, emphasize that Lewis never framed humanity in terms of who was inside or outside the fold.

Bioethicist Post contends, for instance, that Lewis's determination always to "embrace rather than alienate the other" in such books as "The Abolition of Man" means "he wouldn't have given the time of day" to such contemporary hot sellers as the "Left Behind" series, where fictional accounts imagine nonbelievers suffering on earth during the biblically forecast rapture.

Without doubt, Lewis appeals to readers well beyond evangelical circles. The seven-book Narnia series has sold 95 million copies since its original release a half century ago. Sales of his nonfiction books have climbed 125 percent since January 2001, according to Harper San Francisco, which publishes six Lewis titles in its "Signature Classics" series. Only 25 percent of those sales came via the Christian Booksellers Association; the other 75 percent sold through such general market outlets as Costco and Barnes & Noble Booksellers.

Evangelicals appreciate where Lewis comes down on matters of orthodoxy, says Marc Tauber, deputy publisher at Harper San Francisco. But, he suggests, the all-too-human way Lewis gets there - by welcoming human passions and foibles while trusting in unconditional divine love - is sure to keep kindling feelings of kinship between Lewis and those outside evangelicalism.

"Lewis somehow supersedes those differences" demarcating liberal and conservative Christians, Mr. Tauber says. "I think that's what people love about Lewis: He's not afraid of the doubts.... But at the end of the day, it comes back to faith."

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