The Christian apologetic writings of C. S. Lewis still sell in their millions, says Cyprian Blamires. But, in the end, aren't they missing something?
More Christianity by Dwight Longenecker, Our Sunday Visitor/Gracewing
0 ne autumn day in the mid-1930s, a bright young greengrocer's son, brought up in the smog and the factory chimneys of a northern woollen town, knocked on the door of his new tutor in Magdalen College, Oxford. The tutor was a then little-known Ulsterman destined to become, not just a great literary critic, not just a' Magical children's writer, but the most celebrated apologist for Protestantism in the English-speaking
world. He was C S Lewis, known as Jack to his friends. The young man was my own father, Harry Blarnires.
The encounter was extraordinarily fruitful for my father, for he has since gone on to write more than 30 of his own books, many of them with a definite Lewis flavour. Twenty years after my father had sat at Lewis's feet, I and my brothers were thrilling to the tales of Narnia. A decade later, in the 1960s. I found myself drinking deep at the wells of spiritual wisdom contained in such masterpieces as Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters. If nothing else, Dwight Longenecker's incisive and masterly new book is a reminder of the extraordinary fascination exercised by Lewis over generations of readers.
Carefully holding in his sights the devotees who continue to take Lewis books away from the bookshops by the bucketload, Longenecker journeys through a series of key Christian doctrines, to show that the Catholic Church offers "more Christianity" to supplement and fill out Lewis's "mere Christianity". In 10 closelyargued chapters covering the authority of Church and Papacy, the Mass, prayers to the saints and Catholic teaching about Our Lady, he shows how Lewis's work provides not a final resting-place for inquiring souls but a point of departure for a journey elsewhere.
In this hook, Longenecker is especially addressing the huge constituency of evangelical Protestants in the English-speak ing world for whom (ironically, given that Lewis was a sacramentally-minded Prayer Book Anglican and anything but an evangelical) Mere Christianity has become a fundamental text. To this end, he skilfully interweaves substantial Catholic teaching with intriguing glimpses of his own childhood and youthful experiences in an American evangelical family. And, all the time, he is inviting his audience to look at the Catholic Church not as an adversary but as the completion and fulfilment of everything they
already believe. A host of converts will say Amen to that.
Forty years after his death, Lewis's powerful mind and spiritual wisdom continue not only to pull souls into Protestant denominations, but also to keep them there and that is one reason why Longenecker's book is so timely.
The sheer genius of this First World War veteran and Oxford academic has subjugated so many who feel that there just couldn't be anything in the claims of the modern Catholic Church, because if there was, he would surely have seen it. His loyalty to the Anglican way is undoubtedly an immense comfort to many.
And yet 1, for one, always had a niggling doubt, and for me it focussed on that very word "Christianity". It was an abstract word, a vague word, a philosopher's word. Lewis seemed to be offering an argumentative way to an abstraction. Where on earth was this abstract thing to be found?
The evangelicals are, of course, ready with their answer: Christianity is to be found in Jesus, and Jesus is to be found in the Bible. But the Bible is a book, and God did not come to earth as a book but as a living person — hence the Catholic Church made up of persons, in which he continues his earthly life. The contrast between these approaches is brought out in the first elpter of More ('hristianity, entitled "the Bible Church". It is rightly placed at the start of the book, for it is the basis of everything else. But, whatever way you look at it, the evangelical God-in-a-book will always remain an abstraction, an idea, a prisoner of our minds. (Incidentally, he will also always be a problem for the billions of poor illiterates for whomhooks arc on another planet.) Ireally don't know where Christianity is, but I do know where the nearest Catholic church is; I know what its rules are and what you have to do to become a member of it and how it teaches you to live. and I know that the Catholic Church doesn't just purport to be one, she is one. Indeed, the Church is a living. breathing, acting entity present to every one of our senses.
In essence, Protestantism is a theory that there is or can be something better out there than the actually existing Church. So the difference between Catholic and Protestant is actually much greater than the quantitative gap between the lesser and the more — which is the theme of Longenecker's book. It is, of course, fair enough to explain the difference in terms of degree, as he does, so long as we remember that this is only part of the difference. For the truth is that these two ways of life move on two different, though intersecting, orbits.