Archives For Christian Life

Books C.S. Lewis Loved

April 23, 2013 — 21 Comments

csl booksThose of us who admire C.S. Lewis respect his words on many subjects, not least of which would include literary matters. He was, after all, both a gifted writer and a professor teaching related subjects at two of the world’s most prestigious universities.

In 1962 The Christian Century asked him to list the ten titles most influential in his professional and philosophical life. (Most of these are available as free downloads on the internet.)

1. Phantastes by George MacDonald

2. The Everlasting Man by G. K. Chesterton.

3. The Aeneid by Virgil

4. The Temple by George Herbert

5. The Prelude by William Wordsworth

6. The Idea of the Holy by Rudolf Otto

7. The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius

8. Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell

9. Descent into Hell by Charles Williams

10. Theism and Humanism by Arthur James Balfour

The following year Lewis was interviewed by Sherwood Wirt, longtime editor of Decision magazine. (Decision is published by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and you can learn more about the publication here.)

During his interview, Wirt focused on spiritual rather than professional benefits from books Lewis had found beneficial.

Sherwood Wirt: What Christian writers have helped you?

C.S. Lewis: The contemporary book that has helped me the most is Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man. Others are Edwyn Bevan’s book, Symbolism and Belief, and Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy, and the plays of Dorothy Sayers.

Fortunately all of these titles are readily available for those who would like to explore works that influenced Lewis’ conversion and Christian growth. Let’s briefly consider them in the order Lewis cited them.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) was a prolific English writer. Just how prolific, one might ask. Well, he wrote approximately eighty books, hundreds of poems, hundreds of short stories and about 4,000 essays. His works continue to inspire many today, and merit contemporary reading.

Chesterton shared many of the same values as Lewis, and preferred calling himself an “orthodox” Christian rather than adhering to denominational labels. (In this he foreshadows Lewis’ invaluable emphasis on “mere” Christianity.)

The Everlasting Man was published in 1925 and ponders the universal significance of Jesus Christ. It was composed in reaction to The Outline of History, in which H.G. Wells paints Jesus as just one more political agitator in a political backwater of the Roman empire. Honestly, he does describe him as being remarkable, but mostly in terms of having a charismatic persona.

Lewis said that Chesterton’s Everlasting Man “baptised” his intellect, which is no small expression of praise.

You can purchase The Everlasting Man through normal channels or download a free text format version at this site. If you enjoy listening to audiobooks, you can obtain a free audio copy of the volume here.

Edwyn Robert Bevan (1870-1943) was an English philosopher and historian who specialized in the Hellenistic world.

In Symbolism and Belief, based on a series of lectures presented in 1933-34, Bevan discusses major religious symbols and metaphors. He illustrates how figurative language is best capable of describing spiritual truth. He argues that the greater precision offered by philosophical terminology is actually counterproductive in this quest.

The volume offers insight into the rationality of religious faith, although it concludes with his conviction that it ultimately boils down to a genuine encounter with God—“what actually causes anyone to believe in God is direct perception of the Divine.”

Symbolism and Belief is available for free download in a variety of formats at this site.

Rudolf Otto (1869-1937) was a German Lutheran theologian. He spent most of his ministry teaching at one of the most prominent seminaries in the world, the University of Marburg Divinity School.

In The Idea of the Holy Otto espoused the concept that the things of God were “numinous.” He defined this as a “non-rational, non-sensory experience or feeling whose primary and immediate object is outside the self.” The word itself was derived from the Latin numen which refers to divine power.

Otto explains how the numinous is a mystery (mysterium) that is simultaneously terrifying (tremendum) and fascinating (fascinans). C.S. Lewis found the notion of the numinous particularly useful in his book, The Problem of Pain.

The Idea of the Holy: an Inquiry into the Non-rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and Its Relation to the Rational is available in multiple formats here.

Dorothy Leigh Sayers (1893-1957) was a personal friend of C.S. Lewis. In a 1963 letter he wrote: “She was the first person of importance whoever wrote me a fan letter. I liked her, originally, because she liked me; later, for the extraordinary zest and edge of her conversation—as I like a high wind. She was a friend, not an ally.”

Sayers was an extremely successful English writer. Her versatility allowed her renown to grow as a poet, playwright, essayist and as a writer of popular detective mysteries. She was also a classicist, and regarded her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy as her finest work.

Fortunately, four of her plays are available in a collection available here. They include “The Zeal of Thy House,” “The Devil to Pay,” “He That Should Come,” and “The Just Vengeance.” And, although you can’t download the file, if you would like to stream the recording, an audio version of her famous “The Man Born to be King” is available here.

In our last conversation, we considered the importance of friendship. It is truly a precious treasure. And it soothes the loneliness that scars our souls as a result of humanity’s fall.

Choosing to live our own lives, apart from our heavenly Father, has damaged every other relationship we experience. Our bonds with other human beings, even our own families, are twisted and stretched . . . sometimes beyond the breaking point. Even our relationship with nature has suffered, but that’s a subject for consideration some other day.

One of the temptations that arises from our desire for companionship, is that we settle for having it on the wrong terms, with the wrong people. As C.S. Lewis says in Mere Christianity, “vices may sometimes bring people together: you may find good fellowship and jokes and friendliness among drunken people or unchaste people.”

In such circumstances, it seems to me you experience the trappings of “friendship,” without touching its essence. It’s hollow. For the moment, it may appear and sound similar to the real thing, but when the alcohol wears off and the consequences of our poor choices cascade upon us, it becomes evident this version of friendship was merely a façade.

Simply put, we are wise to avoid bad “friendships.”

It dawned on me when I was teaching at the USAF Chaplain School just how much other people influence my behavior. No one who knows me would call me weak or pliable. And anyone attempting to manipulate me would likely fail. (Aside from my grandchildren, of course.)

Yet, when I spend lots of time around people with worldly values and behaviors, it very subtlety influences my own actions. I recognize it most clearly when it comes to language. As a military veteran who used to work in construction, my tongue knows how to utter a worldly phrase or two. Normally, it’s reined in fairly well in that regard, but if I’m immersed for very long in an “earthy” environment, some of those words unconsciously slip back into my own conversation.

I realize that “cussing” or cursing may seem a small sin to some, but let’s consider a more substantial example. When someone is delivered from addiction to drugs—a process that frequently requires lengthy treatment—one of the critical ways to protect them from returning to the slavery of addiction, is by keeping them away from their so-called friends who remain captive to drugs.

If they restore those destructive bonds, they are like apostates, who have known the truth but later denied their Savior. As the Apostle Peter says, “it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them. What the true proverb says has happened to them: “The dog returns to its own vomit, and the sow, after washing herself, returns to wallow in the mire.” (2 Peter 2:21-22, ESV).

When I realized how susceptible I was to the behavior of others, I determined to seek out people who were better than me. Men and women who would bring out the best in me. People, especially, who excelled in virtues and traits in which I was conscious of my own shortcomings.

This is a principle I wholeheartedly recommend to everyone. Choose as friends those who are noble, virtuous, selfless, loving, and godly. You will never regret it.

Lewis provides for us an insightful description of how our friendships or overall community of relationships influence us. He is discussing here our universal tendency to justify bad behavior because “everyone is doing it.”

We must guard against the feeling that there is “safety in numbers.” It is natural to feel that if all men are as bad as the Christians say, then badness must be very excusable. If all the boys plough [fail] in the examination, surely the papers must have been too hard? And so the masters at that school feel till they learn that there are other schools where ninety per cent of the boys passed on the same papers. Then they begin to suspect that the fault did not lie with the examiners. Again, many of us have had the experience of living in some local pocket of human society—some particular school, college, regiment or profession where the tone was bad. And inside that pocket certain actions were regarded as merely normal (“Everyone does it”) and certain others as impracticably virtuous and Quixotic [chivalrous].

But when we emerged from that bad society we made the horrible discovery that in the outer world our “normal” was the kind of thing that no decent person ever dreamed of doing, and our “Quixotic” was taken for granted as the minimum standard of decency. What had seemed to us morbid and fantastic scruples so long as we were in the “pocket” now turned out to be the only moments of sanity we there enjoyed. It is wise to face the possibility that the whole human race (being a small thing in the universe) is, in fact, just such a local pocket of evil—an isolated bad school or regiment inside which minimum decency passes for heroic virtue and utter corruption for pardonable imperfection. (C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain).

Here is an interesting and valuable exercise: pause and conduct a mental and spiritual survey of the influences your individual friends exert on you. If you find they help you grow in ways that are positive, you are fortunate. If they influence you in ways that are unhealthy, maybe it’s time for some relationship pruning.

All of this discussion leaves unconsidered the role we play in bringing out the best (or worst) in our friends. Then again, if they truly are our friends, there is nothing else we could ever wish for them than the very, very best.