While the rest of the country thinks about John F. Kennedy next week on the 50th anniversary of his death, the C.S. Lewis Society of Chattanooga will be celebrating their own hero, one of the great minds and most beloved writers of the 20th century, who also died Nov. 22, 1963. The Chattanooga group is but one of the passionate many, here and abroad, in cities large and small, keeping C.S. Lewis’ work alive.
Though the subject of their admiration was, among other things, an Oxford scholar, a literary critic, a poet, a writer of more than 30 books and countless shorter pieces and speeches, a war veteran, and even a broadcaster, to many it is Lewis’ contributions as a masterful Christian apologist that most endears him to readers and endures a half-century after his death. He made the complex simple and the brain-bending breezy. An estimated 200 million copies of his books are in print, and today they continue to sell about 2 million copies annually.
Raised in Belfast, Ireland, Clive Staples Lewis left the church as a teenager, but embraced it again at age 32, influenced largely by the works of G.K. Chesterton and his friend J. R. R. Tolkien.
For his fans in Chattanooga and elsewhere, Lewis is before everything a fellow Christian, one who explains and defends what they believe, who sees faith the way they do: smart, beautiful, perplexing, and – when seen though Lewis’ simple everyday images – an easy reach.
Lewis’s fiction fans are “in love with the worlds he creates, and with the beauty and truth found in them,” says the society's moderator the Rev. David Beckmann. Lewis wrote many books for children, including the wildly popular “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” one of his seven Narnia chronicles. He aimed to “sneak theology through the fairy tales,” says Rev. Beckmann. His fiction for grown-ups – “That Hideous Strength,” from his space trilogy, for example, as well as “The Great Divorce” and the funny, perennial favorite “The Screwtape Letters“ – is just as beloved. Characters and plots gave theological concepts like death and redemption of the heart that comes when the concepts are played out in human form. “There’s something transcendental about them which gives them a reality the everyday world doesn’t give,” Beckmann says.
Lewis’ nonfiction apologetics and autobiographical works were no less accessible. “He was a master of making things sensible,” the moderator explains. There’s a favorite for every Lewis fan: “Mere Christianity,” “The Four Loves, Miracles,” “The Problem of Pain,” his more autobiographical “A Grief Observed” and “Surprised by Joy,” and dozens of others, now classics.
You needn’t be religious to love Lewis, who held an academic chair at Cambridge University. “There are also just people who like the world of ideas and beauty in literature who gravitate to him because he’s been so important in reviving and preserving literary issues,” says Beckmann.
In Chattanooga, the society will be celebrating not just the 50th anniversary of the author’s death this fall, but also the 50th anniversary of his final autumn – a season he relished – with a season-long poetry reading. Societies elsewhere will also mark the moment, and in his native UK, Lewis will join the likes of Shakespeare, Blake, Byron, and Keats in being commemorated with a memorial in Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner.
Literature lovers all over will find an excuse to dip back into their Lewis libraries this month. And Christians feeling pushed back by a world which often misunderstands religion will appreciate anew having this elegant, intellectual giant doing some explaining for them. Lewis continues to be like found treasure.