I’ve interviewed myself in these pages before. The following are questions I came up with to ask a number of Lewis scholars when I was the editor of The Lamp-Post: The Journal of the Southern California C. S. Lewis Society. So I thought I might as well ask myself too and see what I had to say.
I am a minister of the Gospel and missionary who makes his living by teaching English and Philosophy at a small Christian college. If it weren’t for Lewis, I doubt I would be a Christian today at all—so you can blame him for all of the above! He showed me that a Christian mind was possible, and no one has done more to form mine. Discerning readers can find Lewis in all of my books, but he shows up most explicitly in Mere Humanity: G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien on the Human Condition (Nashville: Broadman, 2006) and Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2012).
What was your first C. S. Lewis book? How did you come to read it, and what impact did it have on you at the time?
My senior year in high school one of my friends said, “If you like Tolkien you should check out his friend C. S. Lewis.” So I went to the library and checked out the first Lewis book that fell into my hands: An Experiment in Criticism! I’ve never met anyone else for whom that was his first Lewis book. I was captivated by the combination of depth, clarity, and common sense that we find in all of Lewis’s books, and I was fortunate enough to recognize myself in Lewis’s portrait of the literary reader. I’ve been trying to follow his advice ever since.
You are going to spend a year marooned on a desert island. You can take one Lewis fiction book with you. Which one, and why?
Only one? That’s hard! And I suppose I can’t cheat and count the Chronicles of Narnia or The Space Trilogy as one book? O. K. Perelandra. It’s one of the most original secondary worlds ever created, and every detail of it is loaded with spiritual significance. Accepting what the Waves bring you rather than sleeping on the Fixed Land as a metaphor for the life of faith, for example, is a picture I cannot meditate on enough.
You are going to spend a year marooned on a desert island. You can take one Lewis non-fiction book with you. Which one, and why?
Miracles. It has more good philosophy, good theology, and good mythology all woven together into one rich whole than any other book I’ve ever read. The Argument from Reason is a devastating refutation of Naturalism, and The Grand Miracle doesn’t just defend the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ, but really shows it to be the heart of theology and of life and the fulfillment of all human longing.
What to your mind are Lewis’s greatest strengths and weaknesses as a Christian story teller?
Lewis is Tolkien’s equal in mythopoeic imagination. That sounds like a controversial claim, but it shouldn’t be. Lewis’s imagination was more original, but Tolkien’s more careful and consistent. There were dwarves, elves, and goblins (orcs) before Tolkien—but where was the Hross, the Pfiffltrigg, the Sorn, or the floating island? On the other hand, you will get glitches in Narnia (like where vegetables came from in the Long Winter) that don’t happen in Middle Earth. Lewis is a master of spiritual symbolism. The Stone Table portrays the atonement better than Mere Christianity explains it. On the other hand, he sometimes allowed himself speculations that go beyond the bounds of “mere Christianity,” such as Emeth’s inclusivist conversion. See my article “’For the Sake of the Story’: Doctrine and Discernment in Reading C. S. Lewis,” Modern Reformation 18:3 (May-June, 2009): 33-36.
What to your mind are Lewis’s greatest strengths and weaknesses as a Christian evangelist?
He meets people where they are. He communicates Christian truth without watering it down but also without using Christian jargon. Most importantly, through his evocation of Joy and his positive portrait of the loving and lordly Aslan, he shows us why Christ is above all things to be desired. His only weakness is sometimes a little dithering on the vicarious substitutionary nature of the atonement—but he atones (ahem) for that by portraying it so potently in the Stone Table.
What to your mind are Lewis’s greatest strengths and weaknesses as a Christian apologist?
His unique combination of wide learning, no-nonsense clarity, elegant language, and apt analogy remains as the standard to which Christian apologists should all aspire and the example they should seek to emulate. In himself he has no real weaknesses as an apologist, but the passage of time has caused some of his arguments to need updating. It will not now be quite so easy to maintain, for example, that in the midst of the Moral Argument no one is going to say, “To hell with your standard,” as Lewis could assume of his audience when he wrote Mere Christianity in the 1940’s. The argument is still valid, but the change in the assumptions of the audience will require more work from us now to get to the same place.
What to your mind are Lewis’s greatest strengths and weaknesses as a Christian thinker?
There are great rational minds good at analysis; there are great imaginative minds good at synthesis. There is no other mind I know of that combined both of those virtues so strongly, or meshed them so seamlessly into one unified whole. It is the combination that makes Lewis so valuable—indeed, I would argue, the most important Christian intellectual of the Twentieth Century. Lewis employed this uniquely gifted mind in the service of Christ and of mere Christianity. Nevertheless, his lack of formal training in theology sometimes caused him to be led astray. He had never encountered an intelligent and nuanced presentation of the doctrine of the plenary verbal inspiration of Scripture, for example, so he dismisses it as “Fundamentalism,” which is misleading.
Which Lewis book (or essay) do you think has been or become sadly neglected and which you would like to see more people read?
One essay I don’t see quoted as often as it deserves to be is “The Poison of Subjectivism” (Christian Reflections 72-81).
Which Lewis book (or essay) has had the greatest influence on your own thinking?
I would have to give a three-way tie to Miracles, The Abolition of Man, and “Meditation in a Toolshed.” Miracles I discussed above (I took it to the Desert Island). The Abolition of Man may be the most incisive and profound refutation of Reductionism ever written—I devote a whole chapter in Mere Humanity: G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien on the Human Condition (Nashville: Broadman, 2006) to explaining why that is so important. And for a mere essay to make this list? You should go read it, and you will immediately see why!
You have been given the power to ensure that your readers will truly “get” one Lewis idea, understand it, digest it, and forevermore incorporate it into their thinking. Which idea is it?
Aslan is not a tame lion—but he’s good, I tell you!
For more of Dr. Williams’ thoughts on Lewis, click on the Lantern Hollow e-store. Inklings of Reality shows Lewis’s influence, and Reflections from Plato’s Cave has four chapters dealing with aspects of Lewis’s thought.