John Mark Reynolds is the founder and director of the Torrey Honors Institute, and Associate Professor of Philosophy, at Biola University. His personal website can be found at www.johnmarkreynolds.com and his blog can be found at www.johnmarkreynolds.info.
American academic Christians have a deep sense of shame that American Christians have managed to survive secularism, have millions of churchgoers, and still exert political power. If we had only been as clever as the British, we too would see a dwindling Church in need of a revival to save it from being washed over by Islam.
In fact, the Britain many of these academics love is not the Britain Lewis loved, so they are right to feel shame at Christian veneration of C.S. Lewis in America. Lewis was never trendy and these Christians wanted to be on the “cutting edge.” Lewis opposed women priests and the new mark of being “with it” in evangelical circles is to take priesting women for granted. Worse, Lewis often argues for hierarchy and academic Christians are drunk on socialism and egalitarianism at the moment. Lewis fought in the First World War and served the government in the Second and American academics have become functionally pacifist.
Lewis remains a huge cultural force . . . and it is absurd to limit that force to Americans and evangelicals. His Narnia series inspired one of the globe’s biggest grossing films last year. His book Discarded Image continues to be used in classrooms all over the world as a good description of the thought of the Christian Middle Ages. Serious consideration is still given to his views on religion and culture in colleges and universities.
As for me, my first exposure to Lewis was through his space trilogy. My parents wisely gave me unfettered access to the local public library, but became concerned when my reading became centered on Isaac Asimov. The old sinner was a fine writer, but his nineteenth century skepticism did not fit my pastor-father’s hopes for his oldest son. Instead of berating me, Dad bought me C.S. Lewis. I can still see the boxed set of those books whirling through the air toward me. I caught them . . . always happy to get a present . . . and happier when the gift was a set of science fiction books.
They did not let me down. Mom and Dad would socratically dialogue about Asimov, but let me keep reading him. And after That Hideous Strength they never had to worry about Asimov again. I might become a high pagan, but I would never fall for the “scientism” now becoming the rage in Christian colleges a century too late.
Lewis combined the high poetry of the Middle Ages with a love of science. If his science fact was not always correct, his prose was much better. Lewis never wrote anything as wooden, predictable, or angry as “Armies of the Night,” the Asimov piece on creationism. Lewis was a major influence in every area of my life including the choice to study Plato in graduate school.
The C.S. Lewis Foundation has done a great thing in restoring Lewis’ home. Giving them money to keep this project going is a worthy use of funds from what I can see and I was able to see a great deal. The house is perfectly restored and yet is still in use. One can see, a bit, how Lewis lived, but also see the house used by active Oxford Christian students to advance the view of the world of which Lewis was a champion.
If Lewis was an influential writer in my youth, then it was even better to meet a former student of my middle age, Tom Ward, working as one of the caretakers of Lewis’ home as he went to Oxford for graduate work. I would rather have met Tom than seen Lewis’ home, but seeing both at once was a real treat.
Every teacher longs for the student who outstrips him, something Tom has now done. Having graduated with distinction with an MA at Oxford, Tom has returned to do graduate work at UCLA in philosophy while Katie finishes her Torrey diploma.
In the end, what I remember about the Lewis home was it being full of Torrey chums from our trip to England and Tom and Katie. If Lewis had not lived, then Sheldon Vanauken would not have written Severe Mercy and Hope would not have married me. If Lewis had not lived, then I would not have known to look for Plato and when I was far from the faith would have no route back to God. If Lewis had not lived, then Torrey would not exist, since the strange blend of the future (Godblog Con!) and the past (Dante!) that is Torrey would not have come to mind.
And yet all that is in the past, and though we honor the past, we cannot live in it. The house was not full of ghosts that day for me, or fond memories, or regrets, but of living and lively students. We argued, laughed, and cried a bit . . . tried to sneak into cupboards looking for Narnia, but mostly we were alive.
I realized one living Torrey student, a soul created in God’s image, was worth more than all Lewis’ books . . . in fact all the books by all the authors in the world. They are alive . . . Tom and Katie live and love. They can discuss . . . and a book, even the best book is static.
No curriculum that honors propositions or books over students is good or God honoring. Schools are for students, not dead men’s words.
I wanted to shout knowing that I had heard that first from Lewis and his image of Saint Anne’s in That Hideous Strength. I started teaching too young and I utterly failed my first students. . . and there is not a day that I am not sorry for it. But I am glad, so very happy, that I could start again and live for Christ and them by His grace.
What did I learn in Oxford? For the first time, I did not care so much that I have never had time to go and study there. Perhaps I would not be fit to do so, but I found peace in loving Oxford through my students. It may not be for me, but it has been for them what I wished of it and perhaps I helped them get there.
I will never be as good a student as some of my students, a great writer like C.S. Lewis, or even a great teacher, but I can help one or two students go forward . . . and take joy in what God does for them.
C.S. Lewis would have loved Tom Ward and for the good of his intellect I wish Tom Ward could have had him and not me, but this much I know: Lewis would have cherished him no more than I cherish this gifted and godly young man and so perhaps it was acceptable that I helped a bit after all.
If you are a home school mother, don’t despair. There are better teachers, better mothers, but you love your children better than anyone else I know and that, I think, may just be enough. If you are a government or private school teacher without books or money, the role of the mentor can still be yours and good can come of it.
Perhaps you can pray with me:
God have mercy on my failures, but multiply chances for giving and sacrificing for my students until they see Your Face. CRO