How Does It Feel to Be the Next C. S. Lewis?

C. S. Lewis is dead and we need a new one, someone who can articulate a smart mere Christianity, not just a vague pan-Christianity. We need someone with imagination and intelligence, uniting the visible with the invisible, helping people accept the unseeable God behind the tangible world and like what they have received. Surely, someone must rise to the challenge. Wherever that person is, whatever he or she is doing, I bet I know what it feels like to be the next C. S. Lewis.

Never mind that Lewis died fifty years ago (1963) and thirty years before that he started writing Christian literature. His books have labored ceaselessly to build his reputation right up to the present, so the new C. S. Lewis’ feelings will hardly give him away. Never mind that 24-7 news makes it difficult to rally around good authors. They give us the meat in their books and their interviews are peanuts. One good author, J. K. Rowling, has in this way shot her wad. Some people seem to think that getting a book published gives an author a voice when in fact readers have already heard the author speak. For Harry Potter, Rowling spoke seven times and the world listened. There was some furor a while back when she said that she thought of Dumbledore as gay, but she has already spoken in the books 95% of what she could have to say about Dumbledore. She will, of course, continue to write. Perhaps she will retcon some things in Harry Potter, but now the real task is to stand by her and her work, establishing the greatness of what the books say, but that is hardly a job for network TV.

C. S. Lewis was a person, not a title to put on a business card. Although Lewis was a person and not a position, he would have given his person to have readers respect positions–in his case, Anglican bishops and the Queen of England. There is something of a search on for “the next” C. S. Lewis, some names are put forward, it is suggested that Lewis’ successor will have to be a geek, and one Dr. Mitchell, newly of the Torrey Honors Institute, sanely states that looking for a new Lewis might be a bit much but that God “never leaves his people without a witness” and that people doing that job are not too hard to find. No one can claim in good conscience to be “the next” C. S. Lewis. His self-declared intellectual descendants prove that half the genius needed to perpetuate a dynasty is exhausted in founding it. Those acclaimed his successors are between the devil and the deep blue sea: it is polite to acknowledge a compliment, but the mantle of C. S. Lewis does not make for modest dressing! Remember the Scriptures: “Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death for their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin.” (Deuteronomy 24:16, ESV.)

Whatever Lewis did was normal for him to do. Books? Lectures? Teaching? Letters? He did it all. Perhaps when he wrote Mere Christianity as a basic handbook for Christian theology and practice, he thought it was good enough for the time. He could read it like a musician listens for his own mistakes, and perhaps he did not anticipate that it would become a historically important textbook of what all Christian traditions can agree upon. We keep looking for a new C. S. Lewis who will speak to our time. The original Lewis spoke to his time, and he still speaks to ours. Being able to speak to your own time is overrated, but really, who else is there to talk to? Lewis kept writing. People wrote back. He married one of those people. Lewis did his thing and he kept on doing it, and there is much to revere in what he did.

I revere my dad at least as much as I revere C. S. Lewis. There is a sense in which Lewis is not a real person and that my dad was. I knew my dad and the memory of him includes utterly commonplace things, and these drive my reverence for him even deeper. I have books that C. S. Lewis wrote, but I never heard Lewis tell me to go to bed, clean up my toys, or do certain jobs to earn that coloring book I wanted from the school book fair. My dad laid the spiritual foundation that is with me today and Lewis’ writing certainly built upon it, but I would choose an hour with my dad over an hour with C. S. Lewis any day. When you find the next C. S. Lewis, as soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him (forgive my vanity as a writer), but if the new Lewis is not as real to the people around him as my dad was to me, then he is no “next C. S. Lewis”.

In the movie Ratatouille (2007), there is a line, “Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.” This is no democratic pandering to mediocre riffraff, and C. S. Lewis was a wizard, pouring out page after page. There is no “so what?” here, his stuff was awesome. Lewis is plainly worth emulating, with his commitment to intelligently articulating Christianity, his catholicity of belief, readiness to deal with pain and anger, humility about recommending other authors, sense of humor, and willingness to see good all over the place. The next C. S. Lewis could come from anywhere, but before you try to be him, imagine him as he breathes his last breath. If you do not want him to come back from crossing the threshold of death just to manfully weep for seven days because of what you have become, trying to imitate him, him going to the grave tossing and turning, rolling in his crypt until his flesh goes to dust and his bones to rattling splinters because of you, get out and blubber and sob into a good drink as you realize your own petty incompetence! If you think you deserve to try, you certainly aren’t it. If you realize that your writing could bear to be significantly improved but think it worth having a go, there is hope for you.

With all of that, I do know how it feels to be the next C. S. Lewis, wherever he or she is, whatever he or she is doing. Do not ask by what occult and forbidden arts I came to know this, nor by what twisting of arms and greasing of palms this came to be told to me, but I do know. It feels like Tuesday. Both great and terrible things have happened on Tuesdays the world over, let alone pleasantly prosaic things, and that it what it feels like.

  • Scott

    Ravi Zacharias

  • Amy Mantravadi

    I enjoyed reading your article, Nathan, but it seems the true answer is staring us right in the face (and perhaps you have already guessed it). There can never be another C.S. Lewis, and I’ll tell you why. First, since we’ve already had one C.S. Lewis, there would be no reason for God to send us another. Rather, he should send people with new ideas to build on those of the previous generation. Second, there will never be a successor to C.S. Lewis because even if we could find someone with the same skill set, they would probably not gain the same level of respect. At any point in time, there are plenty of good authors out there, but the level of admiration granted to Lewis is (dare I say) somewhat disproportional to his actual contributions. I say this without wishing to take anything away from his achievements, but I’m pretty sure that if he had not also written a series of highly popular children’s novels, he would not be well known outside of our seminaries. Finally, even if we were to narrow our definition of “the next C.S. Lewis” to “an intellectual theologian capable of expanding our knowledge of God while also increasing the appeal of Christianity”, I think we would also face some difficulty. I don’t mean to be a snob (though I’ll accept any insults that come my way with the standard humility of which I am so proud), but the kind of Christian literature popular with the masses today tends to be: 1) a famous pastor repeating the same point over and over again, 2) a couple of Amish people falling in love with one another, or 3) something by Beth Moore. Of course, this is all coming from an American perspective – I doubt they are reading Beth Moore in China. Ok, I think by my lack of brevity and/or originality, I have insured that whatever the reaction to my comment, no one will accuse me of being “the next C.S. Lewis”. However, a long article deserves a long response.

  • Nathan Bennett

    I completely agree with you. If you want to try, though, there is still the matter of humbly having a go at it. I heard a story once of a student telling a professor that he was the next C. S. Lewis and how that didn’t go well for that particular student. “But time and chance happen to them all” (Ecclesiastes 9:11) comes to mind. Somebody could be good enough but be faithfully pastoring in rural Wyoming.
    That was an interesting point about Lewis escaping obscurity through the Narnia series. There are so many authors I read in Bible college (Soren Kierkegaard, Thomas Traherne, Athanasius, and yes, even John Calvin) who have stuff to say that would be great to have everybody reading, but alas . . . !

    Snob? I should rather say “reader with broad taste”.

  • Walter Bjorck

    The concept of “mere Christianity” has many possibilities in the modern world. Even though C.S. Lewis saw it as the hallway leading to doors of denominational fellowship, I for one think it can be a door to a church unity like that before the both Reformation splintering and the East/West split.

  • Walter Bjorck

    (Word order correction)The concept of “mere Christianity” has many possibilities in the modern world. Even though C.S. Lewis saw it as the hallway leading to doors of denominational fellowship, I for one think it can be a door to a church unity like that before both the Reformation splintering and the East/West split.