November 22 was the day we remembered C.S. Lewis in the Episcopal Church calendar. Lewis is one of the truly amazing figures of church history. Many of the people we remember influenced those in their own church “tribe.” I think only two people in the Church’s history can be said to influence directly a large number of people in the Church from all sorts of denominational backgrounds. One of those is St. Augustine of Hippo; the other is C.S. Lewis. To honor him, I decided to write of his influence on me personally, rather than write a short account of his life. For those not interested in my spiritual journey — or part of it, at least — you may want to scroll down to the last section: “What I learned through C.S. Lewis.” However, I suspect that a large number of the readers of Covenant will resonate with my own journeys recounted herein.
My early experiences in the Episcopal Church
For the first six years of my life, our family was unchurched. My parents were heavily involved in the PTA and in Jaycees and Jaycee-ettes. They hosted bridge games and home-made ice cream evenings for the neighborhood, and they were involved in Republican politics — a very rare bird for 1950s Texas. The only time we darkened the door of a church was when we visited my cousins in rural East Texas and would attend their church and sometimes their revivals.
I was six years old when my father died in a car accident on Christmas Eve. My mother, a young widow with three boys ages 10, 8, and 6, decided she needed to find comfort in a church. Although she grew up attending the Baptist church, she found a spiritual home in the Episcopal Church. A new mission had just started a mile from our house. Additionally, she tried the Episcopal Church because many of her Republican Party friends were Episcopalians. She took to it like a duck to water.
She did not bring us to church with her at first. My introduction to her new-found faith was when she nailed a crucifix on the wall in our dining room one evening, brought my brothers and me into the room, and told us to kneel down because we were going to pray?
I can’t say that I learned a whole lot about the faith in those early years. Mostly, I had unanswered questions, such as: “Will Santa Claus come to our house and bring presents at Christmas since we are at church all night long on Christmas Eve? Also, why do those people go up front on Sunday and kneel? Why don’t we boys do that?”
Nor did I understand why “Psalms” was pronounced “Salms” and not “Palms.” And I noticed that at church we concluded the Lord’s Prayer with “…forever and ever. Amen,” whereas at school, it was “…forever. Amen.”
We attended the Episcopal Church for about five years, but we drifted away when my mother remarried, and she seemed not to have time for church anymore.
My teenage years in Bible churches
Around the time we quit going to the Episcopal Church, one of my brothers and I began attending a neighborhood “Boys Bible Club” held in the garage of a neighbor several streets away. This blessed man explained God’s plan of salvation in a way that I could understand; I gave my life to Christ, and I began to attend church with this man and his family.
It was a Bible Church in the orbit of Bob Jones University, which looked with suspicion on anyone who was not in their orbit. They even concluded that Billy Graham had “sold out.” I, too, came to view with suspicion all denominations, not only my previous one, but also Methodists, Presbyterians, Catholics (of course), and even Southern Baptists. I was taught to mistrust science, philosophy, sociology, and the whole humanist movement from the Renaissance forward.
When I went to college I became a part of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. Little did I know how this group would affect my life. Through InterVarsity, I was encouraged to explore the world of ideas, not to fear them. I was introduced to a whole array of writers heretofore unknown to me: people like John Stott, J.I. Packer, Thomas Howard, and C.S. Lewis. When I finally began attending a local Episcopal church, I discovered that it all seemed so familiar, I think, both because of my early years in the Episcopal Church but also because I was reading so many Anglicans whose way of writing about life and the world began to shape me. But that is getting ahead of the story.
When it came to C.S. Lewis, I started with The Screwtape Letters, then devoured his science fiction trilogy, then Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain, Till we have Faces, the Narnia books, and on and on. I was hooked.
Shock of all shocks: I came home to the Episcopal Church
In InterVarsity, we were passionate about finding the “right church.” Many of my fellow IV-ers were Presbyterian and Reformed in their theological orientation. I journeyed for a while in that thought world, exploring the depths of TULIP and Double Predestination and so on. Most of us attended a Presbyterian-leaning Bible Church. But what had previously been so comfortable was no longer a fit for me. I was looking for something more. I didn’t know what that “more” was, but I figured I would know it when I saw it.
So, I explored other churches. Since Presbyterian churches seemed to be the church of choice for InterVarsity leaders, I tried one or two more, but they weren’t a good fit. Too much mental stuff, not enough mystery (ah, my reading of C.S. Lewis was starting to help me articulate what I was looking for).
I tried a couple of Baptist churches and attended one with a friend for a bit. Too emotional. Also, the music was, well, um, never mind.
Catholic Student Center? Too much mystery, not enough Bible. I was an evangelical, after all.
Then a friend invited me to go with him to the downtown Episcopal church.
What? The Episcopal Church? The church of my childhood? In my view, God had long since left the Episcopal Church. So, nope, let’s keep looking.
I tried an Assembly of God church. Too noisy. Not enough order.
A Friends church. Definitely not.
My friend kept inviting me to his Episcopal church. I finally relented. “I’ll try it,” I thought. “But I know I won’t like it.”
That first Sunday, I was stunned. I was home. More than the church of my childhood, it was the church with a worldview that resonated with what I was learning through my intellectual mentors through InterVarsity. What they were saying at St. David’s — both in the pulpit and through the liturgy — resonated with what was soaking into me through reading C.S. Lewis (and others like him). Then, I came to discover the British roots of InterVarsity and came to appreciate how it had prepared me to find a spiritual home in the Episcopal Church.
What I learned through C.S. Lewis
I have come to view C.S. Lewis as a spiritual conductor. I use the term “conductor” because, although he influenced me, he led me to other people who have influenced me as well. He opened up for me the world of ideas and intellect and led me to read people and books and things that I would never have read on my own. Here are a few ideas that Lewis has taught me.
Mystery and imagination are a key for me to engage in worship. Lewis’s notion of being Surprised by Joy is a wonderful way of approaching the mystery of God. I cannot control God; I can only receive him. I cannot truly understand God; I can only bask in his presence. Sometimes, the best approach to things of faith is not to try to figure them out but to be silent. In Till We have Faces, Lewis presents the answer to suffering not with a rationalistic explanation but with a gaze into God’s eyes.
The Christian world is larger than my tribe. The thing I appreciated about reading Lewis (and Stott and Packer and Howard) was that it never occurred to me what church they were a part of until after I found a spiritual home in the Episcopal Church. In Lewis’s attempt to describe Mere Christianity, I gained an appreciation for the Church in a non-sectarian way and came to view those of other tribes as friends and fellow travelers, and I began trying to discover what we had in common rather than trying to figure out how we were different.
The voices of the past matter. Through Lewis, I came to recognize that all the thoughts of the best thinkers are transitory. The tenets of the Enlightenment were simply that generation’s attempt to make sense of the world based upon what they knew at the time. Lewis placed himself as a medievalist, not because he thought they had got it right, but because he knew they had got it right for him, and they had something to say as a corrective to our contemporary arrogance of thinking that we’ve finally got it all figured out. G.K. Chesterton writes in his book Orthodoxy, “Tradition means giving a vote to that most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.” Chesterton goes on to say: “Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.”
Christ is the center. I view Lewis’ Narnian books as among his best theological writings. They speak to us theologically, not through the front door of propositional truth but through the back door of imaginative truth—which then informs our propositional truth. In the Narnian books, Christ, in the form of Aslan, stands at the center of our human encounter of God. St. Paul writes in Colossians that in Christ dwells the fullness of the Godhead bodily (Col. 2:9).
The image above is a modified photo (2012) of the C.S. Lewis statue in Belfast by Flickr user Belfast Snapper. It is licensed under Creative Commons.