Blog | Topic: Atheism

Remembering C.S. Lewis (1898-1963): A Guide to Life and Learning

sbjSurprised by Joy, the autobiography by C.S. Lewis, was the first serious book I ever read. By serious, I mean, it was the first book I took seriously. It wasn’t an easy book to read either. For the first time with a book I wasn’t assigned in a class, I took notes. I underlined passages. I looked up words I didn’t know. Before the Internet this required having another book by my side. A dictionary, I think it was called.

I don’t even know where I got a copy. All I remember is that I was in college and I was beginning to ask “big questions” about life and faith. A few older people suggested I read something by C.S. Lewis. I learned that this is something many older Christians do when they’re not sure how to answer your questions. It’s a good strategy. Now I use it.

The phrase “it changed my life” is overused. It easily becomes cliché. But I don’t know how else to say it: reading C.S. Lewis changed my life. But here’s the thing… it has less to do with the words he wrote and more to do with what he represented as a person of faith. During the formative years of my life (college), I needed a model for living. Lewis, for me, was my first Christian mentor from afar, a guide for life and learning.

Today, November 22, 2013, marks the 50th anniversary of the death of C.S. Lewis. I’ve been reflecting this week about all of the things Lewis has taught me. I offer my top three.

First, by reading C.S. Lewis I became a better student. It’s easy to adapt to playing the school game. Most of my schooling life was about doing the least amount of work required to get the grade desired. After reading Lewis, I had a renewed passion for learning. I wanted to know more about how ideas “worked” and where they came from. I began to see the connection of learning and living. Ideas have legs. Lewis taught me that Truth is important and should be taken seriously. And we should be willing to follow the truth wherever it leads. God is, after all, the source of all truth.

Second, by reading C.S. Lewis I learned that it is a possible to think and be a Christian at the same time. Maybe this is obvious to most people, but I had to learn it. I had to gain a vision for it, really. And Lewis was a model for me. After reading Surprised by Joy, Lewis’s story of journeying through atheism to Christianity, I remember thinking: if Lewis can be a Christian, I can be a Christian. Lewis didn’t seem bothered by the supposed challenges to the Christian faith. He took them on, offering engaging and thoughtful replies.

stlettersThird, by reading C.S. Lewis I learned that it is possible to be creative and a Christian at the same time. Unfortunately, in some Christian circles I was running in, creativity was often squelched. I don’t know any other way to say it. Some Christians, and some Christian traditions, seem to fear creativity. Not so for Lewis. In fact, he dedicated the latter years of his life to shaping the Christian imagination. The Narnia Chronicles and his The Space Trilogy are obvious examples, but my favorite Lewis book is The Screwtape Letters. A senior devil writes letters to a junior devil about how to keep someone from becoming a Christian. I couldn’t get enough of it. I still can’t. It’s the Lewis book I return to again and again.

There’s much to learn from C.S. Lewis. I didn’t even mention the many ways that his writing helped me answer tough questions about the faith. But it was his story and character that has shaped me the most.

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The Relevancy of C.S. Lewis for Today’s Transitioning Students

LewisFriday, November 22, 2013 will mark the 50th anniversary of the death of C.S. Lewis. A few years ago I had the opportunity to interview David C. Downing, a renowned Lewis scholar, about his then recent biography of Lewis The Most Reluctant Convert: C.S. Lewis’s Journey to Faith and about Lewis’s relevancy for today’s college students. Dr. Downing commented:

“I think some students feel more defensive than they need to be about a Christian worldview. I think that, by reading C.S. Lewis, they can realize that a lot of what sounds to them like new criticisms of Christianity are actually the same issues people have been arguing about for 2,000 years: the authority of scripture, the problem of evil, the nature of the incarnation, the atonement. All of those issues have been around, but sometimes students are confronted with them for the first time in college…

In his spiritual and intellectual quest, Lewis was a pilgrim but also a pathfinder. He seriously considered atheism, the occult, various forms of pantheism and New Age philosophy. I think it is very relevant for contemporary Christians to see how he weighed each of  these worldviews and found them wanting. Even though he called himself a “most reluctant convert,” Lewis looked long and hard at the alternative philosophies the world has to offer, but returned to re-embrace his  childhood faith with all his heart and mind and soul.”

You can read the full interview (.pdf) here.

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Christopher Hitchens and Life’s Biggest Questions

Christopher Hitchens died last year on December 15, 2011. He had a well-established career as a writer, covering a wide array of topics. But he is probably most known for being an outspoken atheist. His book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything was a New York Times bestseller, and identified Hitchens, along with Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Sam Harris, and Victor J. Stenger as one of the “Four Horsemen” of the “New Atheist” movement. According to CNN, “what the New Atheists share is a belief that religion should not simply be tolerated but should be countered, criticized and exposed by rational argument wherever its influence arises.”

Peter Hitchens, Christopher’s brother, is an outspoken Christian and author of The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith. Shortly after Christopher’s death week he offered a very moving tribute to his brother’s life worth reading: “In Memoriam, my courageous brother Christopher, 1949-2011.” I can only imagine what their dinner conversations were like! Christopher was a fierce debater. In fact, a documentary was made about his public debates with the evangelical Christian Doug Wilson. Shortly after Christopher’s death, Christianity Today posted a eulogy, of sorts, entitled “Christopher Hitchens Has Died, Doug Wilson Reflects: How to think about the death of the outspoken atheist.”

I never met Christopher Hitchens. I only knew him through his writing and reputation. From what I gather, I think I would have liked talking to him. Doug Wilson described him as “an affable and pleasant dinner companion, and fully capable of being the perfect gentleman.” That doesn’t surprise me. Religious people, too often perhaps, assume that atheists are malicious and unkind. It is always somewhat shocking to discover that many atheists are not much different than most people of faith. Atheists have well thought out ways of understanding the world, they cling to their ideas, and many genuinely hope that others come to share their beliefs.

I am a Christian of the evangelical variety. I affirm the historic creeds of the church, believe the Bible to be the inspired, infallible word of God and pray that all would come to put their hope and trust (faith) in Jesus as Lord and Savior. Christopher Hitchens’ death, however, reveals a tension that I have always lived with. As I think about my own interactions with atheists, one word comes to mind: thankful. In a strange, almost paradoxical way, I have been blessed by and thankful for my interactions with people who don’t believe. I have often noted that being exposed to an atheist professor very early on in my college career was one of the best things that ever happened to me. Far from becoming a stumbling block to my faith, the professor forced me to wrestle with tough questions about why I believed what I believed. I learned that there are no easy answers to life’s biggest questions.

I’ll never forget the last day of class with my atheist professor. We were invited to ask him anything we wanted. A classmate nervously lifted his hand and asked, “What do you think happens to us when we die?” Without flinching, the professor smiled and said, “Worm food.” I can still see his face like it happened yesterday. No one dared to ask him any more questions.

Here’s my quandary: I’m not sure what kind of believer I would be if it were not for the atheists in my life! Much is made of the mystery of Christmas: the virgin birth, the baby-king in a manger, the bright star appearing, the angels singing. “Veiled in flesh the God-head see! Hail, incarnate deity!” As I get older, I’m realizing more and more that the greatest gift of all is that of faith itself. Indeed, faith is a gift. Now, why was that gift given to me? I’m reminded that there are no easy answers to life’s biggest questions.

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