My Debt to C.S. Lewis
I owe more to C.S. Lewis than I can ever express. On this day, Nov. 22, 2013, the fiftieth anniversary of his death and the day that he is honored with a memorial in Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey, I wish more than anything to say ‘thank you’ to this great man.
And so I decided to share a glimpse of how Lewis helped change my life. In my memoir Not God’s Type, I’d alluded to Lewis’s significance in my conversion to Christianity, but not gone into detail. In the revision, significantly expanded and revised, which will be published in 2014 by Ignatius Press (and tentatively retitled The Sword and the Cross) I write a great deal more about the role of Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles in my journey.
The following is an excerpt from Chapter 12 of my forthcoming book.
At this point in my journey of faith, I had accepted the arguments for the existence of God; I had become a theist. But what about the idea of a personal God? And in particular, what about Jesus? I found myself struggling, resistant, terrified . . . and so we jump in as I wrestle with the meaning of the Incarnation:
I had rejected the idea of ‘talking to God’ in prayer – not from intellectual disagreement, but from a visceral reaction of fear and anger, and although the cause was new, the feeling of baffled rage was all too familiar. I had felt it when I was eight or nine years old, weeping over my long-division homework (and refusing to do it); in high school, my stomach in a knot as I stared at geometry proofs that meant nothing to me; as a college freshman, sick with frustration as I struggled with my chemistry problem sets. I knew that there was some meaning locked up in these figures, these equations and problems, but I was unable to see what the teacher (and the other students!) seemed to find so obvious, and my inability easily to understand made me both angry at myself and, eventually, dismissive of the subject.
The idea of a personal God was almost impossible for me to grasp to begin with, let alone the Christian claim that the Creator become a human person, flesh and blood like me, yet also fully God. The ‘watchful dragons’ (as Lewis calls them) of my rebellious self spoke up loud and clear, insisting, “It can’t possibly be true that the Creator of the universe would respond to you, or even be aware of your existence. Who do you think you are, anyway? And these Christians are obviously talking nonsense. How could it be that the First Cause of the universe would somehow become a man, an actual human being walking around, getting his hands dirty, getting killed. Ridiculous. Who can believe that?”
I had nothing to say.
These new philosophical ideas about God made rational sense of the world as I saw it, but they did not show me that the God of the philosophers would have anything to do with me as an individual – much less that His concern for human beings would extend to becoming incarnate, as the Christians said that He had. God’s morality might apply to me, yes, but like gravity, indiscriminately to all people; or like a law code, written down and handed over, with its authority coming from the Law-Giver, but at a distance. Surely He could not, would not, take notice of me: I was too small; He was too big. Surely He would not enter into His creation; it was grubby and messy and material, and He was spiritual and orderly and infinite.
I could understand the definition of the word ‘Incarnation’ but not grasp its meaning. It seemed unimaginable that God would come close enough to be touched, would become man.
Or was it? I began to recall glimpses of something I’d been intrigued by, yet had been unable to name, from an earlier, deeper vision.
What if the idea of the Incarnation did not have to be solved like a math problem . . . what if I could get hold of its meaning in a different way?
I picked up The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: this time, not to analyze it for my dissertation, but to enter Narnia like a little girl again.
And I encountered Aslan.
First just as a name, a glimpse of hope – “Aslan is on the move” – and then as a hope fulfilled, the great Lion really present in Narnia, bringing an end to a hundred years of winter. Aslan was a force to be reckoned with: he led the Narnians into battle, and killed the White Witch himself; when he roared, “they saw all the trees in front of him bend before the blast of his roaring as grass bends in a meadow before the wind.” No tame lion, indeed.
And yet he was touchable, playful, personal. If I could have stepped through the wardrobe door and seen this character for myself, I don’t know if I’d have first run up and buried my hands and face in his shaggy mane, or fallen down before his great velveted paws with their terrible claws, afraid to look at him, but love and awe would have been mingled in both.
In Narnia, I found that the Incarnation was not a bizarre idea, out of place in the world. It infused the very atmosphere; I breathed it in and was strengthened by it. That God would join His creatures by becoming part of creation Himself seemed, here in Narnia, as fitting as the fact that winter’s end brought crocuses peeking brightly through half-melted snow; as right as the fact that sunlight warms chilled limbs and water quenches thirst.
In Narnia . . . but here, in real life? It might not be true that God was involved with His world; it might not be likely that Jesus was God incarnate . . . but it was no longer unimaginable.
From The Sword and the Cross – forthcoming, Ignatius Press, 2014
Dr. Holly Ordway is a poet, academic, and Christian apologist. She is the chair of the Department of Apologetics and director of the MA in Cultural Apologetics at Houston Baptist University, and the author of Not God’s Type (2010; revised and expanded 2nd ed. forthcoming as The Sword and the Cross, 2014, Ignatius Press). Her work focuses on imaginative and literary apologetics, with special attention to C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams.