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Tuesday, November 19, 2013

A Catholic in Wheaton: Who Owns C.S. Lewis?

It's been 50 years since C.S. Lewis' passing. I have a profound respect and admiration for the man. The fact that I'm one of thousands writing about him this week is a testament to his influence and legacy.

There's nothing wrong with Lewis, humanly imperfect as I'm sure he was. I love him. But here comes the honest part: part of me is sick of how we see and talk about him. Part of me is sick of how Evangelicals see and talk about him.

Living in Wheaton, there's a joke that Lewis is called, "St. Jack." The joke is somewhat obvious - that Lewis is held in such high regard he's practically a saint. But the joke, though everyone in Wheaton seems to be in on it, has a surprising non-effect. Wheaties appear to like to joke about how much they overly esteem Lewis with one breath and then continue praising him with the next.

The articles and posts I've seen written about Lewis in the past few weeks are smart. They know their stuff. They know that Lewis is an apologist who didn't have degrees in theology or religion nor did he claim such credentials. They know that Jack's strengths lie in his imagination and storytelling.

But like Relevant Magazine's recent post on Lewis, while admitting Lewis never claimed to be a theologian, Evangelicals continue specifically calling him "theologian." Religious fields - ethics, apologetics, theology, biblical studies - can all overlap and be connected to one another but they're not interchangeable. Lewis was an utterly fantastic apologist. He understood love perhaps as well as anyone. And the writings we know and cherish from him cover the realm of spirituality. But spirituality is not theology any more than general mathematics is advanced calculus. And Evangelicals regularly don't seem to know the difference.

"Big deal. Aren't you being pretty nitpicky?" you might ask. No, I'm not, and I'll tell you why.

Because Evangelicals claim Lewis as one of their own. Rather than say, "we greatly admire Lewis for his unique contributions," Evangelicals seem to want to say, "Here's our man! He's just like us. He stands for us. And what he did reflects and represents us." And if you identify with him and believe he speaks for your group, then inflating his resume is a matter of self-interest.

Now, I completely admit this is just one man's opinion. There's a danger of projecting too much onto any one group when you start generalizing. But as someone who lives in arguably the most Evangelically dominated community in America, when you're close to but not necessarily a card-carrying member of that community, you notice exclusion. You notice being left out. And this view of Lewis is a prime example.

In Dale Fincher's blog post from Soulation he does call Lewis a theologian but more importantly he claims that it's fairly obvious Lewis' influence on Christianity is greater than anyone else in the 20th century. Think about that claim for a second and at first glance, do you disagree? If you're Evangelical, chances are higher that you don't.

I know someone who personally knows the aforementioned blogger, and certainly nothing ill was meant by that statement. He has a great voice and this claim wasn't even the main point of the post. But that's also kind of the point: a certain view of (Evangelical) Lewis-as-most-important is simply and subtly assumed. The truth is such a claim is not obvious to "Christians," it only seems obvious to Evangelical Christians.

I, for one, could point out that whereas Lewis understands love like no one else, J.R.R. Tolkien perhaps understands the subtle nature of evil better than anyone I've ever read. I could point out that Thomas Merton's writings contain as much spiritual depth as Lewis'. I could call to mind that Mother Teresa's legacy has more widespread recognition, reach, and teaching than Lewis' works (wildly popular as they are within Evangelicalism). Or I could give the example of Pope John Paul II - the leader of 1 billion Christians - who not only could claim supreme spiritual sway over 1/6 of the world's population but was also one of the main forces causing the fall of communism, a legacy whose practical, moral, and spiritual effects will be felt for centuries.

In my more generous moments this Evangelical view that Lewis is something like the most influential Christian of the 20th century seems simply due to the fact that his writings prove so accessible and universal. In my more cynical moments, I conclude that Evangelicals assume their sphere is the only Christian one and that all of the above figures aren't considered equally influential Christians because, well, they're Catholic.

I'm struggling with myself. I don't know exactly why I have such a strong knee-jerk reaction to all of the "C.S.-Lewis-is-the-best" craze. I think it's partly the inaccuracy of the "theologian" and "ethicist" labels for him. Part of it is wanting to turn a critical eye to the bandwagon that most people seem to be jumping on this week. But part of it is a feeling of exclusion.

I don't get the sense that Evangelicals feel they share Lewis or need to. I get the sense that they claim ownership of him. It's frustrating to feel that some of Lewis' other beliefs are flat-out ignored for the sake of convenience, like, say, the ones in affirmation of purgatory, the communion of the saints, and the Real Presence in the Eucharist. (Of course, any claims that Lewis was 'practically Catholic' are also inaccurate.)

It's this sense of exclusion I feel from the way Lewis is talked about that eventually starts to get under my skin. It's the same frustration I experience when I hear people talk about "Christians" (meaning Protestants or Evangelicals) vs. "Catholics" (who somehow aren't Christian?). It's the same frustration I feel when I hear that Evangelical missionaries are "taking the gospel to Latin America," all predominantly Catholic countries where missionaries are needed but not because the gospel failed to arrive almost 500 years ago with Catholicism. And it's the same frustration I experience with the simple title of Christianity Today magazine*. As well-intentioned as I believe Billy Graham's magazine title to be, it's a little insulting to every Christian outside of Evangelicalism. Imagine being a woman and picking up a copy of Americans Today only to find its content was exclusively catered to men and male-specific issues. It would be difficult not to feel excluded. If one is to use an inclusive label like "Christian" one shouldn't do so exclusive-ly.

I suppose my plea to Wheaties, to Evangelicals is to honor his legacy but to not be possessive of Lewis. He's not one of you and your group. He's one of us and our larger, Christian group. And maybe that's healthier. Maybe that's more than enough. Maybe you don't have to claim, "Wheaton is the Harvard of Christian schools," but broaden your mind to be more inclusive. Say, "Wheaton is the Harvard of Evangelical Christian schools," if that sort of claim is necessary or important to you. If you don't already, maybe give some thought to how you, like any Christian group, don't represent the whole but are only part of it. An important part! A wonderful part! A truly beautiful part! But just a part and not the "everything." It's quite necessary to recognize important voices and vital contributions but equally important is viewing them in their proper context. Just as we should with Lewis.

*Christianity Today is a publication I read regularly and greatly appreciate. They do absolutely wonderful work and apart from the small matter of what I think is a very poor title, I am a great fan of the magazine as well as its message and mission. I hope it goes without saying that I am also a great fan of Evangelicalism and of Wheaton, my home.

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