C. S. Lewis died forty years ago this November 22. In his own way, he was one of the most influential Christians of the twentieth century. Most of the great theologians of his day are now passé. The sermons of the great preachers of his day are long out of print. Lewis once wrote that most of his books were evangelistic, and he had one of the most fruitful evangelistic ministries of the twentieth century with every indication that it will continue well into the twenty-first.1 People from all walks of life have found spiritual direction from the writings of Lewis.
What can a preacher learn from C. S. Lewis? Lewis was not a preacher. Though he preached from time to time, Lewis would probably have been the first to acknowledge his short comings as a preacher. He was not an expository preacher. His sermons were lectures, brilliantly conceived and biblically based, but lectures nonetheless. He used wit and humor, but he did not tell jokes. His sermons were filled with vivid illustrations, but the great teller of stories did not tell stories in his sermons. Lewis, the poet who loved and taught poetry, did not end his sermons with a poem. Lewis, the philosopher who had a passion for logic, did not employ an obviously discernable three point outline to his sermons. What, then, can a preacher learn from C. S. Lewis?
The Point of the Sermon
C. S. Lewis never stood up to speak or put pen to paper without having a specific point to convey. He had a single, major idea to communicate. He wanted his audience to understand the idea and leave persuaded of the importance of the idea. He fit the structure of the sermon to the idea he wanted to convey.
For the pastor who feels bound to have three alliterative points to a sermon, this approach may seem heretical. It is easy to get lost in the mechanics and structure of a sermon. In the effort to make the points alliterate, the preacher may fail to make the main point. The cleverness of the sermon may outwit the audience to the degree that they miss the point. In fact, the point may never get made.
The Difficult Work of Preparation
C. S. Lewis was not a trained theologian. He never attended seminary nor studied for the ministry. He never considered himself a theologian. In fact, he received sharp criticism from professional systematic theologians for writing about subjects that belonged to systematic theologians. Many pastors leave the difficult matters of religion to the theologians to sort out. On the other hand, many other pastors “shoot from the hip” in vague but dogmatic declarations of theological truth.
Lewis provides a model of a humble approach to preaching that begins with a profound sense of spiritual poverty. Lewis knew that he needed to look to great teachers in order to understand the Christian faith in an ever maturing way. As a result, he read the great Christian teachers from ancient times until his own day. By the time of his conversion, Lewis had already digested Augustine and Boethius, the two greatest theologians until Thomas Aquinas appeared almost a thousand years later. As a maturing Christian, he read Thomas as well as the Reformers. He named his most important apologetic work Mere Christianity after a phrase from Richard Baxter, on of the great Puritan pastor-theologians.
In short, Lewis prepared himself to address the great questions of the day. The great questions of the day have always been the great questions. The Holy Spirit has guided others on the subject. Lewis discovered that he could draw upon the great cloud of witnesses who had to deal with the same questions in earlier times. He was not too proud to learn from them.
From Difficult to Plain
Perhaps Lewis’s greatest accomplishment as a communicator lay in his ability to take some of the most difficult philosophical and theological ideas of the last three thousand years and make them clearly understandable. I had a theology professor in seminary of whom the doctoral students used to say that he was the only man who could make a German theologian sound more obscure.
After doing the difficult work of preparation and study, Lewis then went further. He digested what he himself had learned and passed it on to his audience in a way that they could recognize and understand. Many preachers stay at the shallow level, always avoiding the dangers of boring the congregation with something too weighty. Some venture into the depths and drawn their congregations in technical language. Lewis went beyond the confusion of technical theological and philosophical discourse, and spoke to people in language they could understand. He once said of the problem of communication from the pulpit:
“What we want to see in every ordination exam is a compulsary paper on (simply) translation; a passage from some theological work to be turned into plain vernacular English. Just turned; not adorned, nor diluted, nor made ‘matey’. The exercise is very like doing Latin prose. Instead of saying, ‘How would Cicero have said that?’, you have to ask yourself, ‘How would my scout or bedmaker have said that?’”2
Lewis believed that if we cannot explain something to a sensible person without resorting to technical language, then we do not yet understand the thing itself.
Lewis picked up this theme in a rare moment of public stridency when he responded to Norman Pittinger who had attacked him in an article published in the Christian Century.3 After a careful response to Pittenger’s criticism of his theological writings, Lewis concluded his brief essay with a powerful broadside aimed at Pittenger and his ilk:
“When I began, Christianity came before the great mass of my unbelieving fellow-countrymen either in the highly emotional form offered by revivalists or in the unintelligible language of highly cultured clergymen. Most men were reached by neither. My task was therefore simply that of a translator – one turning Christian doctrine, or what he believed to be such, into the vernacular, into language that unscholarly people would attend to and understand . . . One thing at least is sure. If the real theologians had tackled this laborious work of translation about a hundred years ago, when they began to lose touch with the people (for whom Christ died), there would be no place for me.”4
The lesson from Lewis is to preach for the congregation that God has given, rather for one’s old seminary classmates and professors.
Dealing with the Eternal Issues
Lewis dealt with the eternal issues. He affirmed the truth of the foundational doctrines of the Christian faith. He also explored what they have to do with day to day life and society at large. His essays, his sermons, his books of apologetics and his fiction all deal with the fundamental teachings about Christ and the Christian understanding of God, such as, the incarnation, the second coming, creation, divine sovereignty and human freedom, revelation, prayer, heaven and hell, the problem of suffering. Lewis helped people understand why these teachings matter.
Lewis wrote that he labored “to expound ‘mere’ Christianity, which is what it is and what it was long before I was born . . . whether I like it or not.”5 In regards to the importance of passing on essential Christianity to the next generation, Lewis remarked in several of his writings that he was not at all interested in being original or innovative. He aimed at passing on that which he had received.
This task is more difficult than it seems on the surface. Each generation has its own context, and Lewis taught the great doctrines in relation to the great issues of his own day and time. Preachers tend to be tempted in two alternative directions that Lewis avoided. Some gladly embrace what they consider doctrinal preaching, but it consists in nothing more than a lecture on how some eminent and worthy theologian of the past explained the doctrine. Others ignore doctrinal preaching entirely in order to focus on the “felt needs” of the audience.
The Bible tells us precious little about God apart from God’s dealing with people. Even those veiled references to God in the heavenly realms surrounded by the hosts of angels deal with God’s dealings with people. All Christian doctrine is practical theology that affects people and human society. Lewis understood that the context of life provides the occasion for expounding how the truth of Christ solves the dilemma of life.
The Responsibility of Interpretation
C. S. Lewis studied Greek and Latin literature while an undergraduate at Oxford and went on to study and to teach medieval and renaissance literature. Immersed in the world of poetry, allegory, and language, Lewis took seriously the responsibility of interpretation. As one who devoted his professional life to the interpretation of old texts, Lewis grew increasingly conscious of how lazily, incompetently, or irresponsibly people may go about interpreting a text. If literary scholars can create outrageous new methods for interpretation, then those who interpret sacred scripture are not immune from the same dangerous tendencies. Unfortunately, mishandling of the Bible can occur as easily with a conservative as with a liberal.
I once led a preaching workshop for pastors in Minnesota at which one pastor remarked that he never interprets scripture. His remark startled me, and when I pressed him on it, he replied, “I just preach the truth.” The serious business of rightly dividing the word of truth demands that we develop a profound awareness of our own opinions, or worse, unexamined assumptions.
When he prepared the radio broadcasts that later became Mere Christianity, Lewis went through the exercise of distinguishing between the foundational articles of faith (such as, Christ died for my sins), and theories about how the atonement works. He clearly had strong views on virtually everything about which he had views at all, but in his evangelism he did not want to press as gospel something that was intended for discussion by more mature Christians.
In addition to recognizing the assumptions that the interpreter brings to the text, Lewis also insisted that the reader understand what kind of literature is being interpreted. Fifty years before “postmodernity’ became a catch word, Lewis recognized and predicted the looming problems that threatened the discipline of interpretation. He began A Preface to Paradise Lost by insisting, “The first qualification for judging any piece of workmanship from a corkscrew to a cathedral is to know what it is – what it was intended to do and how it was meant to be used.”6 It does no good to ask who 666 might be if the form of literature of Revelation has not first been understood.
An alarming number of modern pastors have little or no literary training, so it is not unusual to hear a pastor give an allegorical interpretation to a text that is not allegory or to hear an allegorical text interpreted as literal history. Lewis reminds us to take seriously the literary forms in which God has spoken. When we fail to take these matters seriously, we misrepresent what the LORD God has said, a truly dangerous enterprise.
Forty years after his death, C. S. Lewis still offers preachers a model for how to approach the serious task of bringing the word of God to a congregation of believers or an audience of unbelievers. The attitude toward preaching that Lewis represents does not produce dull or boring sermons. Rather, it engages people in a way that they must come to grips with what God has said.
Harry L. Poe is Charles Colson Professor of Faith and Culture at Union University, and is a member of the board of the C.S. Lewis Foundation.
1 C. S. Lewis, “Rejoinder to Dr Pittinger,” God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979), 181.
2 Ibid., “Before We Can Communicate,” 256.
3 W. Norman Pittenger, “A Critique of C. S. Lewis,” Christian Century, vol. 57 (October 1, 1958), 1104-1107.
4 Lewis, “Rejoinder,” 183.
5 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), ix.
6 C. S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost (New York: Oxford University Press, 1961), 1.