Would Eighteenth Century Pietists Have Embraced C.S. Lewis?

Devin BrownNovember 22, the day that marked the passing of that strange threesome of JFK, C.S. Lewis, and Aldous Huxley, is now itself history. Here at Grace College, we marked the occasion with a symphonic concert of 1960s pop music (strange as that may sound) as well as a more academic event for which well-known C.S. Lewis scholar, Devin Brown, provided a lecture. (No one seemed to remember Huxley, but I guess two out of three isn’t bad)

Having a hand in planning the Lewis event, I was interested to pick Devin’s brain about Lewis’ ongoing legacy. This was the point of Devin’s lecture, in fact, and he framed much of his talk around a documentary he helped to make about this topic. Over dinner, Devin remarked about the diverse range of circles that have embraced Lewis – circles that might share little else. Remembering his comment, I did a quick perusal of the online attention Lewis has received in recent months. Evangelicals of course have become some of the biggest fans of Lewis and so it is not surprising that numerous CCCU schools with on-site Lewis “centers” held events commemorating Lewis’ death: e.g., Devin’s campus, Asbury University (C.S. Lewis Study Center), Taylor University (Center for the Study of C.S. Lewis and Friends), and Wheaton College (Marion E. Wade Center). Likewise, from neo-Calvinist notables like Tim Keller and John Piper to Eric Metaxas and Alister McGrath, virtually every evangelical celebrity I could think of had something to say about Lewis.

But did you know that Bono, lead singer for my all-time favorite rock band, has drawn connections with Lewis – as has JK Rowling and Gregory McGuire (writer of the popular musical, Wicked)? American Catholics have also embraced Lewis, a point made by Joseph Pearce in C.S. Lewis and the Catholic Church. In Lewis, some Catholics have argued, can be found an “Anglo-Catholic trajectory” that has resulted in a “dizzying array” of conversions to the church’s fold. Latter-Day Saints have also claimed a connection with Lewis, Brown told me. Indeed, Utah’s Deseret News recently featured an article on Lewis’ impact among Mormons, written by James Jardine, who has offered classes on Lewis for the University of Utah. “Since 1971,” Jardine reports, “Lewis has been the most quoted non-Mormon in LDS general conference talks, with 31 references, compared to 20 for Shakespeare.” He is “grateful to Lewis” he says, for “helping me see life and eternity through the lens of Christianity with an increased brightness of clarity and hope.”

Given the fact that everyone seems to claim Lewis for themselves, I wonderewhat eighteenth century Pietists would have thought about Lewis if they could time travel. I would like to think that they, like so many others, would have embraced him. Granted, they would no doubt have been taken aback by Narnia’s realms of wizards and witches and understood little of the Space Trilogy; but like Lewis, Pietists gravitated toward a style of faith that found value in the imagination. “Reason is the natural organ of truth,” Lewis once said, “but imagination is the organ of meaning.” In their devotional writing, hymns, and liturgies, Pietists from Johann Arndt to “Count” Zinzendorf tapped into the same sentiment, using imaginative writing and worship to quicken the heart and breathe meaning into stuffy Christianity. It would anachronistic to make Lewis into a Pietist, of course, but one could argue that there exists a universal attraction to the imagination that both the Pietists and Lewis used to promote living, breathing spirituality.


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