One of my favorite characters in the C. S. Lewis canon is the Anglican bishop in The Great Divorce. Along with the other characters in this parable, the bishop has taken a bus from a vast purgatorial city to the very gates of paradise. Once at the gate, he can accompany his appointed guide into heaven if he simply lays down his burdens and follows. Easy!
But the bishop waffles. During his lifetime, he was an important person in the church — does he now need a guide? He was “courageous” in advancing heterodox opinions — must he now admit weakness? He had suggested that heaven can be created on earth through cooperation and dialogue — must he now believe in a real, literal heaven?
In the end, the bishop decides to take the bus back to purgatory. There's an essential committee meeting he simply must not miss!
C. S. Lewis died 50 years ago today. A scholar of English literature, he toiled for many years in obscurity, with a heavy teaching load at Oxford. His rise to fame began in 1941, when the BBC invited him to give “broadcast talks” to boost home-front morale during the darkest days of the World War. Later published in book form as Mere Christianity, the collection of talks revealed Lewis’s particular genius: His ability to explore Christian doctrine and ethics in a voice that was utterly compelling to lay people.
Lewis wrote only seldom about clergy and even less about theological education, although he numbered Anglican priests among his friends. Yet for some reason, Lewis’s writings, though replete with obscure quotations, are cited by many as key influences on their religious life. Why? Is there a lesson in Lewis for theological educators?
Lewis operated outside of theological education and was not a theologian in the strict sense. Trained in the classics, he was a literature scholar who branched into popular theology through speaking and popular writing (as opposed to his academic writing, which remained focused on the history of English literature). There are indeed theological colleges at both Oxford and Cambridge, but the training of clergy was not Lewis’s job.
Perhaps it’s because he operated outside the traditional theological disciplines that Lewis has been so influential. His job (tutoring, academic writing) and his avocation (popular fiction, popular theology) were clearly separated, so his religious writing was free to roam in creative directions. While privately a loyal Anglican, he felt no obligation to defend the state church and enjoyed skewering its pretentions (and its bishops) without fear of reprisal.
I think that creative voices like Lewis’s have a great potential for impact, but we can hardly hope to train new Christian leaders by praying that a novelist or popular theologian will emerge to transfix a new generation.
That’s why I think that one of the oft-forgotten lessons of Lewis’s life should be recovered: teaching. For 30 years, before he was named to a prestigious chair at Cambridge, Lewis’s daily work was meeting one-on-one with students: marking their papers, listening to their recitations, sharpening them, molding them.
While we celebrate Lewis’s genius, I hope that we can also pause to honor his daily faithfulness and commitment to his students. That’s something we can aspire to on this day of remembrance.