The Cult of C.S. Lewis: The Ironic Legacy of the Merry Wine Bibber

The question as to whether there may be a “cult” surrounding the works, and indeed the person, of C.S. Lewis is a piquant one. Loud shouts of “Never!” from the one side and “Indeed!” Indeed!” from the other.

Doubtless anyone who is a Lewis reader of more than the most casual stripe will have an opinion in the matter. For hundreds of thousands of people who have read one or more of Lewis’s books, and would gladly own a debt to him, the question is one which may have cropped up often enough to create in them a certain diffidence about acknowledging such a debt: one does not want to be thought part of a cult. This diffidence is apparent in academic and theological circles. One may have read and profited vastly from The Allegory of Love, or A Preface to Paradise Lost, or Mere Christianity; but one would rather drop names of a somewhat less popular hue amongst one’s scholarly colleagues. Saussure, yes, or Schillebeeckx: but not (soft cough) Lewis.

Among whole generations now who have read only Lewis’s Narnia tales, the question is of little interest. Enthusiasm for Beatrix Potter, or A.A. Milne, or the Oz books brings no obloquy. When it comes to the so-called space trilogy of Lewis, however, we approach once more the question, since science fiction is a notorious matrix for cults, and enthusiasm here can become almost cabalistic.

Sodality growing up around the work of an author is an old tendency. No doubt Stagira, the Lyceum, and the Stoa saw such groups sprouting. The scholarly societies which have for their center of interest the work of Dante or Shakespeare or Milton are, of course, entirely respectable, Dickens, Conan Doyle, and Gilbert and Sullivan may come forward as writers whose work supplies matter for legitimate scholarly discussion, but which is also the occasion for great and perennial bonhomie.

How, by contrast, shall we classify the interest which forms itself into all sorts of brotherhoods among the devotees of, say, A.E. Waite, Arthur Machen, or Gurdjieff? Are they mainstream? Perhaps not. Are they cultish? What about C.G. Jung?

In our own century there are two writers whose works have aroused interest not altogether dissimilar to that aroused by Lewis: Chesterton and Belloc. Both had robust, agile minds, both wrote in behalf of Christian orthodoxy, and both attracted widespread enthusiasm. The devotion to both Chesterton and Belloc by many of their readers would, in some senses, be analogous to what we find in some reaches of Lewis’s readership. That is, you can find a certain type of Chesterton reader (usually Catholic), or Belloc reader (always Catholic), whose whole vision of things has been formed by one or the other of these writers, and who can on the smallest provocation quote tags, bon mots, poems, or whole paragraphs. There is a heartiness, clarity, and toughness of mind in these zealots, and often also a zest that borders on the exhausting, for the paradoxes of faith and the more outrageous the better. Dinners with good wine, good cigars, and merry persiflage are characteristic of Chesterton/Belloc enthusiasts. It ought also to be said that there is plenty of sober scholarship as well; all is not mere conviviality.


Is Enthusiasm Limiting?

One mark of such devotees may be that their mental habits, outlook, and religion seem to be limited by their very enthusiasm. But whether this is a remark which is fair to begin with, or which may in any sense rise to the level of a criticism, is open to doubt. There are Heideggerians and Thomists and Platonists; there have been Ciceronians and Horatians; certainly there are Johnsonians. Why should there not be Chestertonians — or Lewisians?

None of us would wish to assume too rigorist an attitude on the point. But we are not quite sure that to be a Chestertonian or a Lewisian is quite analogous to being, say, a Platonist. The latter suggests a stance that commands a horizon as wide as the history of the West itself; whereas to be a Chestertonian (a true zealot, anyway) marks one as delighting in certain very good things (exultant Christian orthodoxy, coruscating wit, and sheer clarity), but also as having one’s intellectual manners touched with something faintly swashbuckling.

But I am at only one remove from being a Chestertonian myself. My effort to locate and characterize such a frame of mind, far from being pejorative, is a thinly-clad encomium. Nevertheless, the extent to which one is pleased to think of himself as a “Chestertonian” or “Lewisian” may indicate horizons of mind and imagination which are not coterminous with the horizons of reality. It may be protested that Chesterton’s mind did, in fact, range over the whole of reality, with even more urgent claims for Lewis. However, both men would demur. Or at least they would demur if they suspected that any reader of theirs was shaping virtually the whole of his view of things on the basis of their works. Chesterton himself, or Lewis, would certainly have wished, as any thinking man does, to address himself to the whole scope of reality, as it were: but he would not want me, for example, to turn myself into a card-carrying Lewisian — a votary — whose whole theology, say, or ecclesiology, or literary theory, was derivative.

At this point demurrals are in order from these supposititious votaries. “We don’t take all of our cues from Lewis.”

D’accord. But any zealot, or any member of a cult for that matter, can fairly claim to have aspects to his life, and thought other than what he draws from the cult. The Branch Davidians themselves presumably had interests and fields of expertise quite unrelated to the group: perhaps there were ornithologists, or Sumo wrestlers, or readers of Hittite tablets, or lovers of the music of Gesualdo among them. But cult, in our sense here, comes into play when we find an absorption with a set of things which appears to exceed proper bounds. This is, of course, a loose and ad hoc definition of cult: the word in liturgiology, for example, designates worship. We can therefore speak of “the cult of the Mass.” And no one, of course, would urge that any full-dress worship has been organized in Lewis’s name. The question of cult arises, rather, when we find people the whole ambit of whose minds seems circumscribed by Lewis’s influence.

There is the rub. I am close enough here to guilt myself to speak with both knowledge and a faint blush. Certainly Lewis was, and is, to an incalculable degree my mentor. I was regaled as an undergraduate by the prowess of his mind when I read Miracles and Mere Christianity. And, as a doctoral candidate in English Literature, I found Lewis’s volume in The Oxford History of English Literature (which he called the Oh Hell) pure bliss. The lucidity, energy, and sheer good will with which Lewis approaches and speaks of figures like Skelton, Foxe, or Holinshed have been the delight of all who have been lucky enough to read this volume. Lewis’s works on Spenser deserve to be much more widely known because everyone’s Christianity, let alone his grasp of The Faerie Queene, would benefit. And of course, like innumerable others (among whom we will not find A.N. Wilson) I was swept away by The Chronicles of Narnia.

I myself could happily have sailed forever on the glorious sea of Lewis. There is so much there: intellectual severity; remorseless clarity; immensity of vision; a fathomless capacity for joy; sheer good health; and prose beautiful beyond one’s fondest wishes. One could profitably put in a lifetime and more soaking it all in.

Or could one? There again is our question. When does appreciation become inordinate? When does devotion become febrile? When do you become tainted with cultishness? No one can say exactly. In my own case, the stark demands of graduate study obliged me to turn to other authors, from Boethius to T.S. Eliot; other interests brought me to Dietrich von Hildebrand and Romano Guardini. This was salutary. There are not many regions better than Lewis country, but there are other regions, and Lewis would be horrified if he found that “Lewisia” were the name of anyone’s intellectual or imaginative homeland.


The Allure of Sheer Sweetness

My guess is that it has been Lewis’s fictional works which have been responsible more than any other category in his oeuvre for arousing passion which approaches the cultish. For in these tales of Narnia, Malacandra, Perelandra, and Glome, we are taken into worlds of such sheer sweetness, and encounter evil in such miserific, and goodness in such beatific, terms, that it is hard not to be carried off from the world where one’s own quotidian lot is cast.

This, I think, is a key to the particular kind and intensity of passion for Lewis’s fiction which one finds among evangelicals. For one thing, here is highly wrought narrative, full of beauty, arousing almost fathomless sehnsucht (Lewis’s usage, referring to the wistfulness, or “sweet desire,” which he believed to be a hint of our exile from Eden; it is our inconsolable longing for home). Of course one does not have to be evangelical to be susceptible to this. Thousands of Catholic and Anglican and other readers would testify to this. But evangelicals have had no one since John Bunyan who has given such vivid and appealing shape to the very things they talk about all the time. “We love Jesus. We taste God’s grace. We struggle against sin. We long for heaven. And now here are tales that unfurl it all for us in ravishing colors. Hurrah!” Evangelicals are ardent believers. They have a keener capacity to be thrilled than almost any other species of Christian.

Hence it is not at all difficult to understand what it is that takes shape in numberless local Lewis groups and that hums across a global web of avid Lewis readers. What could be more natural than to start meeting with people who share one’s enthusiasms? Philatelists do it, and spelunkers, and bald people (I have seen a TV program on this last one. I am bald myself, but I do not want to talk to another bald man about it). In the case of Lewis’s fiction, there is more at work usually than just delight in fauns and pfifltriggi. More often than not, there is in these Lewis groups a deep bedrock of shared moral, eschatological, and even ontological suppositions. “Lewis has said it!” would be the refrain.

But any group that reads and talks about Lewis should be exquisitely alert to any sign of the atmosphere thickening with the miasma of the cult. Things do not always work out this way, however. There are Lewis groups, including even adults, which meet in elvish or dwarfish costume. (Tolkien’s work is far more subject to this treatment than is Lewis’s: people learn elvish speech and eat mushrooms forsooth.) If there is a pantheon, certainly Reepicheep and Puddleglum are high in it. And who will carp? Not to love such creatures must be in some sense to be debauched. Or so it might be urged.

On the other hand, it cannot be gainsaid that there are wise and saintly readers who would be entirely immune to the whole business. I cannot, for example, imagine in my wildest fancies that Monsignor Knox or Dietrich von Hildebrand would be other than put off by dwarves. Even some of the Inkling habitues (Humphrey Havard for one, and also, I think, John Wain) were very far from being alive to the appeal of dwarves.

There are C.S. Lewis societies all across the world, some of them reaching a certain august longevity by now: one thinks of the New York and Southern California C.S. Lewis societies. While no doubt these groups always attract eccentric hangers-on (and what monastery, denomination, or lodge does not?), it must be said that their organizers have tried valiantly to carry on a tradition of discussion, criticism, and scholarship that takes its cues from the best of such enterprises — Henry James groups, or Blake, or Trollope groups. Things very often range across the terrain from solid, sober scholarship to a mere taste for faerie. I have never been a member of such a group, but I can remember one evening perhaps 25 years ago when I was asked to address a Lewis society. The leader arrived, sweaty, baggy, gasping, and disheveled, with an immense fat leather briefcase stuffed to overflowing with books and papers pertaining to Lewis matters. There was a humorlessness and an almost brontosaurian ponderousness at work in the group that would have embarrassed Lewis keenly.

There are, of course, Lewis songs and trinketry and T-shirts, and all the other trumpery that festoons the enthusiasms of our epoch, and to laud or deplore these things is to say very little to the purpose. A Trufflehunter mug or a Rumblebuffin cap are probably no more noisome than are Mickey Mouse ears. But there is a catch here. Walt Disney’s apostolate was avowedly to whisk us away from reality. Lewis would be chagrined to the point of anguish if he learned that his work had been pressed into any service other than to bid people towards reality. To be sure, like any teller of tales, Lewis delighted in children’s delight in his creations. But he had to cope, albeit gently, with people who confessed to finding that they loved Asian more than Jesus. Lewis’s letter to one such correspondent — actually the mother of a small girl who had owned to just such a love — is a model of pastoral wisdom and charity. But he would have given abrupt shrift to any adult whom he suspected of dawdling in Narnia when he ought long since to have pulled himself together and gone to help his neighbor.

I know of at least one Narnia club which seems altogether good. A Catholic woman of the most sensible ilk has organized this club in New York with a view to introducing Catholic schoolchildren to the Faith that they ought to be getting in CCD. There is nothing at all misbegotten about the enterprise, as far as I can see.


Lewis’s Evangelical ‘Sponsors’

Sooner or later any such discussion must land us at the doors of the Marion E. Wade Collection at Wheaton College in Illinois. A.N. Wilson played cruel hob with this facility, in the most sardonic way, in his biography of Lewis. The Collection had welcomed him and offered its resources. He spent, the curator told me, 90 minutes there, and then poured vitriol upon it for the delectation of his readers, mocking the presence of the wardrobe and so forth. The wardrobe — perhaps we should capitalize it — is easy to mock. What is this doing here? It has all the earmarks of a relic in a shrine. People, not only children, open the doors and peer in, some, myself among them, going so far as to knock on the back wall to see if any passage through to Narnia presents itself. It all seems frivolous.

But then we are back with Beatrix Potter’s house, and 221-B Baker Street, and Henry James’s Lamb Cottage, John Knox’s house, Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, and Cardinal Newman’s study. Memorabilia are of the essence. Any sacramentalist knows this, of course, for the principle is at work from the top to the bottom of the fabric of our life. George Washington’s false teeth and Marie Antoinette’s fan are lovingly displayed for us. Shall we refuse Lewis these courtesies? It is therefore disingenuous to light upon the Wardrobe and thereby conclude that interest in C.S. Lewis has slumped into bathos and frivolity. The letters, manuscripts, and biographical and critical materials that Clyde Kilby and his successors have assembled at Wheaton make a showing that can stand up bravely with similar collections at the Houghton, the Bodleian, or (of Waugh) the University of Texas.

There is, however, an irony which towers over all other considerations of Lewis’s legacy. It lies in the American evangelical zeal for Lewis, already mentioned. It is a zeal which has made the evangelicals virtually Lewis’s sponsors, so to speak. He is their man. (I do not speak as a total outsider: evangelicalism was my nursing mother, and I would defend evangelicals on most points.) Second only to Billy Graham, and far more influential in some ways, Lewis stands in the affections and loyalties of the evangelicals. But he would be nonplussed, on several accountings.

For a start, Lewis was very, very far from being a Calvinist, and evangelicalism, although it has Arminian sectors, tends to be quasi-Calvinistic. For example, the evangelical slogan “once saved always saved,” known as “eternal security,” would have given Lewis hives. Moreover, evangelicals’ picture of salvation with its extreme punctiliar focus on accepting Jesus as personal Savior at such and such a moment is alien to Lewis’s notion of things, even though he was an adult convert to belief who could point to the day when he bowed to Christ. But his work rings with what can only be called a traditionally catholic notion of salvation, namely, that the sacrifice of Jesus Christ at Calvary is the fountain of salvation for all men, but that we have to cooperate with grace in the business of moving from our inherited alienation from God (we live on the “Silent Planet”) to the Beatific Vision. Nobody in Lewis’s books gets “farther up and farther in” without paying the uttermost farthing. Orual, the heroine in Till We Have Faces, would be Lewis’s most complete portrait of the soul en route to joy (“You also shall be Psyche”). One does not say, in Lewis’s world, “I am saved.” And sola fides is a phrase that does not at all fit in the Lewis vocabulary.


Lewis’s Provocative Pagan Prime

Lewis’s figure of Emeth, the pagan prince in The Last Battle, always arouses anxious questions among evangelicals. Although he has served the false god Tash all his life, Emeth is nevertheless taken by Asian into “heaven” at the end because Emeth always offered his works to Tash with charity, purity, nobility, and good will (cf. Acts 1o:34, 3 5 and Romans 2:14-16). If the theological implications of this vignette were pressed home, Lewis and all his works might find themselves quickly on the evangelical Index. Surely this is crypto-Universalism? And we know that that is false….

Hum. Deafening shouts from every quarter of Christendom. We cannot here settle questions of unconditional election, limited atonement, and irresistible grace. But Lewis was no friend to these doctrines, as indeed many evangelicals are not, though their preaching tends to strike a note that would seem to ring everyone who has not clearly “decided for Christ” in this mortal life quite summarily into hell. At the other extreme on this point we might locate the old-fashioned meliorism — so dear to the “modernists” — which somehow manages to reverse the destinations of the broad and narrow ways. Everybody, willy-nilly, is going to paddle happily into the precincts of felicity on a tide of general divine benevolence one fine day. So goes the modernist hymn.

Steady on, says Lewis. Certainly such a tide of divine benevolence has rolled over the world from the Cross: but the strait gate is just there. No one who ends up in the precincts of felicity will have come by any other way. There are no other saviors. There is only one oblation — the “full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world,” offered by Jesus Christ at Calvary: Lewis was an orthodox Anglican here, and on this point all orthodox Christians, and hence all evangelicals, join him. But no one can claim to have done justice to Lewis’s soteriology without taking into account his figure of Emeth. Emeth did not, to be sure, get into heaven by the merits of Tash, but by the grace and merit of Aslan. Yet Emeth was not a “believer” during his lifetime. An evangelical tribunal might well jib at the scene.

Evangelicals may be troubled by lesser points about Lewis as well. Lewis was a sacramentalist, and evangelical piety and spirituality have traditionally been at a polar extreme from sacramentalism. Lewis availed himself of auricular confession, a practice which would scandalize many evangelicals, who tend to see the exercise as interposing a mediator other than Christ between the penitent soul and God. Lewis also held to the doctrine of Purgatory. “Not the Romish doctrine,” he once said, although one wonders what it was he thought he was distancing himself from here — fifteenth-century tableaux with souls rising slowly from the flames as you clinked your money into the box? I asked Lewis about Purgatory during a visit in 1963. “There might be such a place,” he said. In one of his poems, an epitaph, he speaks of the soul being reunited with the body after having been “Purged by aeonian poverty/In Lenten lands.” And of course The Great Divorce leaves the question open to anyone who wishes to see the grey and drizzly city as a locale from which one may opt into Paradise. The picture here does not bear too narrow a scrutiny theologically, since in traditional doctrine Purgatory is the state of affairs where the redeemed finished their schooling in grace, so to speak. Whether those snappish and querulous souls at the bus stop are redeemed is a question.


A Merry Wine-bibber

There are some even smaller points yet at which Lewis is an odd bedfellow for the evangelicals. For example, teetotalism has traditionally formed part of the evangelical ambience. Wheaton College to this day insists that all faculty, staff, administration, and students pledge themselves to forswear wine for as long as they are associated with the college. This sort of thing nettled Lewis. In more than one passage or letter he displays pique at what seemed to him the sheer effrontery of such an interdict. He would have been miserable if he had had to remain on the Wheaton campus for more than half a day. Actually he could not have lasted that long: he was a heavy smoker. He would protest, “In so far as you people have made matters of alcohol and tobacco seem to be components of the godly life, you have very sadly misunderstood the Gospel. Beware that you aren’t tithing mint, anise, and rue.”

Two questions arise here. Why the stout evangelical sponsorship of Lewis when his doctrine and piety were at such removes from theirs at such crucial points? And, can evangelicals not hear that so much of what he says calls them to come from their non-catholic, non-sacramentalist, non-liturgical churchmanship and piety to the center which Lewis simply assumed? Especially when they themselves are deeply and perennially vexed by anomalies in their position which seem to sunder them from the very catholicity which nourished Lewis’s whole vision, and which made possible the fictions which they find so strangely alluring? It is no coincidence that most of the writers whom Wheaton so sedulously guards in the Wade Collection were “catholic” — that is, either Roman Catholic, or Anglican of a highly sacramentalist posture. You cannot ordinarily get literature like theirs from the radically verbalist, propositionalist, discursive religion of the Reformation. (This is not a blot on the Reformation escutcheon: it is simply to point out that the decree-oriented, non-sacramentalist cast of Reformed theology can never find shape in mythic terms.)

The answer to the first question would be that Lewis has spoken with great eloquence and power in behalf of “mere Christianity” — the creedal confession that all orthodox Christians share — and the evangelicals applaud this perhaps more fervently than most others in Christendom. They are energetically evangelistic, and Lewis is a powerful ally. The second question is puzzling: why don’t Lewis’s evangelical partisans pick up more of his sacramentalist and catholic vision? The answer would seem to be threefold: first, Lewis never spoke in so many words on such topics. He hated the questions that divide Christians. Second, evangelicals are so keen on Lewis’s creedal orthodoxy that the distance between his churchmanship and piety and theirs seldom presents itself to their consciousness. Third, it is hard to get a leopard to change his spots, and evangelicals are profoundly and passionately Reformed Christians, and usually free-church to boot. They do not want to be catholic, even in the senses implied in the sacramentalist Anglicanism which Lewis wore, wholly unconsciously, like an old pair of slippers. In fact, ironically, Lewis would line up with the evangelicals if anyone tried to tax them in matters like this: he was a ferociously mere Christian, so far as he knew, and he abominated all ecclesiological questions.

May the loyalty to Lewis, especially among the evangelicals, be called cultish? Certainly there are cultish purlieus. But abusus non tollit usum. Lewis is not to be blamed for the steamier varieties of ardor which his work at times rouses. And if any of us, in our attempt to escape being tarred with a cultish brush, has neglected his Lewis, he will be hailed, if he picks up almost any Lewis work again, with the qualities which won Lewis his reputation at Oxford, at Cambridge, and across Great Britain, then America and the world: lucidity; intellectual sinew; rich imagination; titanic vision; moral toughness and pastoral charity (he would have loved Veritatis splendor); and a use of the English language that can only be called blissful.


  • Thomas Howard

    Thomas Howard is the author of Evangelical is not Enough and C.S. Lewis, Man of Letters: A Reading of His Fiction.

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