Those who follow my writings know that the U.K. holds a special place in my heart. I’ve had the privilege of studying at Oxford and visiting numerous times for speaking engagements and personal travel. And of particular interest are places where C.S. Lewis made his mark on the world. Whenever I find myself back in Oxford, England, I try to pop into the Eagle and Child pub, where (as the plaque on the wall reads):
C.S. Lewis, his brother, W.H. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and other friends met every Tuesday morning, between the years 1939-1962 in the back room of this their favorite pub. These men, popularly known as the “Inklings,” met here to drink beer and to discuss, among other things, the books they were writing.
I confess to loving English pubs and particularly this one. The dark interior, the earthy atmosphere, the informal and congenial banter and, most of all, the aura of the Inklings and their conversations that still seem to reverberate through the air. I typically sit at my favorite little table, just to the side of the fireplace in the “rabbit room” (as it is now called) where the Inklings met. Streams of tourists enter, gaze at the pictures and memorabilia on the wall, and take their pictures. There is a sense of “this is where it happened” written on their faces.
But what, exactly, happened? What is it about Lewis and his friends that creates such a pilgrimage? What has made Lewis in particular the unofficial patron saint of so many Christians around the world?
Certainly not his life, as it was with a Mother Teresa. It has often been suggested that, due to his pipe-smoking, ale-drinking, free-speaking ways, he could not even be hired by the evangelical college that stewards his personal letters.
Unlike Billy Graham, Lewis didn’t fill stadiums with his oratorical skills. Even the reenactment of his famed sermon The Weight of Glory, which I heard given by the actor Joss Ackland (who played Lewis in the original BBC version of Shadowlands), was difficult listening.
We could argue that his imagination is what grips us – the fantasies of Narnia, the creativity of Screwtape – and that is certainly a part. But still, such things do not explain the esteem, even the reverence, in which C.S. Lewis is held. Even the fact that many Americans are closet Anglophiles doesn’t quite complete the picture.
So what is it about Lewis?
It is his mind.
Lewis is a hero because he was a Christian intellect who stepped forward to engage the world. His Oxford education, his years teaching at Magdalen College (and then later at Cambridge), his abilities to speak of Chaucer and psychoanalysis, Beowulf and humanism, meet a need in our spiritual lives that a thousand books on spiritual formation cannot address. He is the twentieth century’s most accomplished apologist for the Christian faith.
But the big question is: Who will be the C.S. Lewis of our day? As with figures like Mother Teresa and Billy Graham, there will not be a direct replacement – but the ministry of a Lewis is ever before us, for it is nothing less than a mind for God.
One that is willing to think out loud.
But that will not be particularly welcome.
In our day, voices daring to espouse traditional values, much less Christian ones, are increasingly pressured to remain silent. They are not simply met with hostility or trivialized, there is increasing pressure for such voices never to be heard.
This highlights the Christian call to embody one of the more foundational character traits lauded in Scripture: courage. Many years ago, the late Brent Curtis gave life-changing advice to author John Eldredge, “Let people feel the weight of who you are, and let them deal with it.”
As pressure bears down on voices that would speak winsomely and compellingly into the cultural wasteland in ways that challenge the prevailing ethos, we must take heart in Christ and let people feel the weight of who we are in Him, and let them deal with it.
And they will.
I recall a prayer, first offered by John R.W. Stott at the end of his short but profound book, Your Mind Matters:
“I pray earnestly that God will raise up today a new generation of Christian apologists or Christian communicators, who will combine an absolute loyalty to the biblical gospel and an unwavering confidence in the power of the Spirit with a deep and sensitive understanding of the contemporary alternatives to the gospel; who will relate the one to the other with freshness, pungency, authority and relevance; and who will use their minds to reach other minds for Christ.”
And all God’s people said, “Amen.”
James Emery White
Adapted from James Emery White, A Mind for God (InterVarsity Press).
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.