June 09, 2005

Enjoying C. S. Lewis

My friend Coyote is trying to expand his horizons by reading some C. S. Lewis, whom, surprisingly, he has not yet dug into.

He's got some suggestions up, but if you are a Lewis aficionado, why not drop by and give a brief rationale for your own choices?

Here are my personal top five choices for a Lewis sampler, with the caveat that I have probably read only half of Lewis' published works.

  1. Mere Christianity: A compilation of Lewis' wartime radio broadcasts on basic Christian doctrine. While it's probably not Lewis' best work, it is arguably his best known, and anyone wanting to deal with Lewis has to deal with Mere Christianity. This book is probably best known for the "Lord, liar, or lunatic" trilemma.
  2. The Chronicles of Narnia: Classic children's literature; if Mere Christianity isn't Lewis' best known work, then this is without question.
  3. God in the Dock: This is a collection of essays compiled from various sources in which Lewis discusses various subjects, including the possibility of miracles, the relationship of science and faith, modern Bible translations, female priests, and others. There are two editions of God in the Dock available: one by Eerdmans and one by HarperCollins. Avoid the HarperCollins edition; it is severely and poorly abridged, not containing at least half of the essays in the Eerdmans volume and leaving out some of the best, such as Lewis' satirical essay "Bulverism" and his famous critique of the humanitarian theory of punishment.
  4. The Screwtape Letters: One of the best satirical works ever written, this is a series of letters from a demon named Screwtape instructing his nephew on the finer points of temptation. Sometimes mistakenly identified as a book on spiritual warfare (see, for example, the critics' blurbs on the back of Peretti's This Present Darkness), it's really a neat little book on avoiding temptation through renewal of the mind.
  5. The Problem with Pain and A Grief Observed: The former is Lewis' attempt at theodicy in which he famously argues that pain "God's megaphone to rouse a deaf world." He wrote the latter book following the death of his wife; whereas The Problem with Pain is a detached, "theoretical" discussion of suffering, A Grief Observed is his personal, visceral reaction to it in his own life.

A couple of other personal favourites:

  • The Space Trilogy: It would be irresponsible to read Lewis-as-theologian while ignoring Lewis-as-literary-author. Some of his earliest work, this trilogy of science-fiction novels - Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength - are something of an homage to the fantasies of Verne and Wells, but with an unashamedly Christian slant. There hasn't been literary fiction like this written by a Christian in over 50 years (Frank Peretti does not count).
  • The Pilgrim's Regress: As the title suggests, this is a parody (of sorts) of John Bunyan's classic allegory of Christian sanctification. Only Lewis uses the "similitude of a dream" to present a spiritual autobiography of sorts: the main character "John" experiments with various faddish philosophies while trying to reach a beautiful island on the other side of the world.

Someone really brave might consider tackling Lewis' academic magnum opus: his contribution to the Oxford History of English Literature, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (Excluding Drama). I'll be honest. I haven't yet.