Sparks and Whispers of Wonder: Reading C.S. Lewis in 2018

Lewis.JPG

This post will not be a biography of Lewis, nor a detailed explanation of his brilliance. Writing any of those would either be beyond my expertise or time allotment. Instead, my aim is simply to describe why I believe Lewis is so unique, what it was like to read him in 2018, what works I read by Lewis this year, and why I am thankful for God giving him to his world and his people. In a later post, I’ll also compare him briefly to Jonathan Edwards since I read them both this year. I will not jot down any specific thoughts or ideas from his books here. I do not have time now, and I hope next year to go back through my highlights in his books and write about them on this site. 

Sparks and Whispers of Wonder

Before I list the books I read, I first here want to try to describe what I think makes Lewis unique and why it was just a joy to read him. As noted in the title of this post, the best phrase I could come up with is “sparks and whispers of wonder.” These two nouns, “sparks” and “whispers” summarize much of Lewis’ distinctiveness. They elucidate why I think he is still read and universally respected by many today.

If you have read Lewis before, I think you might understand what I mean by “sparks.” You’ll be reading him, following along, sometimes feeling like he is ranting a bit, and then, just like that, you’ll realize you’re being taken up into something brilliant—something which is evidently true, but you’ve never thought of it that way before. This happens over and over again, in his best books and even worst book, in his lectures and longer books, in his apologetics and even in his fiction, especially in the characters of Aslan.

And his “sparks” concerned various topics. I think his sweet spot concerned how we work and how we relate to God. Yet he also had moments of brilliant apologetics, compelling reasoning on cultural issues, and theology about God and his ways. Yes, theology. I want to mention this because it is often said that Lewis was a terrible theologian. I went into this year knowing how much I disagreed with Lewis on things. And many of those disagreements revealed themselves to be true. But after reading him, I now think he was an excellent theologian. Let me explain.

In terms of typical systematic theology, or biblical theology, Lewis was not that great. You’ll do better with any typical evangelical systematic or biblical theology book. But that’s not all there is to theology. Those books—precious as they are—are more about gathering truths from the Bible and putting them together (whether it be facts about certain topics in systematic theology, or facts about redemptive history in biblical theology). I remember reading Charles Hodge describe systematic theology as a science that gathered such ‘facts’ from the Bible. There’s a beautiful place for this—I’d say a bigger place than what Lewis offers. But it isn’t what Lewis brings. Lewis, on the other hand, offers these sparks and whispers which are rooted in Bible truths but aren’t systematic nor biblical theology. They’re more philosophical, but importantly they are still backed and founded upon huge truths: the grandness of God, the horror of sin, the mercy of Christ, and the restoration in the future. For example, in Reflections on the Psalms where he spends a long time explaining why the psalmists so desired “the fair beauty of the Lord” and how they had a certain appetite and craving for God, which to him was better than simply saying they had a ‘love for God.’ Or in The Problem of Pain where he describes why God made each soul unique as fit for glory. Or in Letters to Malcom where he details the difference between ‘adoration’ and ‘gratitude.’ These are just three examples that come to mind. But the point is this: These are all theology; they have to do with God himself (and us in relation to him). But you would never find them in a theological textbook. They rather come from the pen of a brilliant man who is probing into certain aspects of the Christian faith, and thinking thoughts that are true, but which many haven’t thought before. And most of them are brilliant. As a result, he is a good theologian—meaning, he thinks great truths about God and explains God’s ways well often. (See a few paragraphs below, however, for why I think his theology suffers at times).

The “whispers of wonder” are often in the “sparks,” but I distinguish them. Lewis does not only have brilliant moments of explanation, he also has a different quality to him. He has an other-worldly aspect. Or, to be more specific using his own words, a focus on another Nature. This is obvious in his fiction, but it also appears in his lectures and non-fiction books. He is the most wonderful Supernaturalist I’ve ever read. Yes, any Christian is obviously a “Supernaturalist.” But I say he is the “most wonderful Supernaturalist” because this man manifestly believes in something Else—something Grand and Wonderful—which affects everything. It’s not just he believes in God, but he recognizes the true Otherness of God. The same is true for his belief in heaven. Yes, of course he believes in heaven, but he knows it is of some other, mysterious, wonderful Nature. And the same is even true of how he views humanity. Yes, he takes the biblical ideas of the imago Dei and sin. But then he takes it to the next level in uncovering what this means. To put it succinctly, his wonderful supernatural beliefs made him think different and influenced everything he wrote. Because of this, he was the opposite of dry or boring. The majesty of God to him was about his greatness and beauty, yes, but it also was about the good mystery in him and everything he made. And as someone who reads and loves the Bible, I don’t think Lewis usually went outside the Biblical grounds on these things. Instead, he took biblical truths and thought of them in new ways, focusing on the wonder.

This then brings me to his least admirable quality. And it became more and more obvious as I read. It’s this: Lewis was such a thinker and wonderer, that it often his own thoughts and wonders took him to unbiblical conclusions. This happens over and over again. This is where his ‘bad theology’ comes in. And this wouldn’t have happened if he had a robust view of the inspiration of each word in Scripture—but he didn’t. As a result, he’d think about a true Christian idea, but then make connections and connections that led him to an unbiblical result. The best example I can think of is his belief in purgatory, which comes up a few times, especially in The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed. He’s not Catholic, so how could he believe this? It’s not too complicated an answer. He believes that God must take more time to fit us to be who we will be forever in heaven. His whole argument in The Problem of Pain is that God uses pain to grow us and mold us. That’s biblical and true. He also argues that one day in heaven we’ll see all the different ways that pain fueled our glory. That’s biblically true as well (2 Corinthians 4:17). But then, his thinking and wonderings take him too far. He then concludes that there must be a time after this life where God continues to form us. Why does he think this? Because when people die, even after going through a life of pain and refinement, they still aren’t fit for heaven. So, there must be some mysterious, refining purgatory. This is a classic example of how Lewis’ mind works, and, as you can see, it is rooted in his preeminence for thinking and his ignoring of the Bible. For if he just believed every word of the Bible, he would’ve known that the Bible promises that we will be transformed and be with Christ instantaneously. There’s no need to logically deduce that there must be some refining process after heaven. The God who molds us with pain during this life can glorify us in an instant to perfection as soon as it’s over. The Bible promises us so; Lewis just misses it because he is so absorbed in his thoughts. This Bible-neglecting, thought-preeminence focus leads him to many of his errors. And for a man of such genius and thinking, this Bible-neglecting often leads him to think poorly. So often (like in Book 2 of Mere Christianity) I was just shocked that he missed it; he didn’t get it. A brilliant man, with such genius, missed such clear biblical truths. But these moments don’t ruin any of his book for me; they’re able to be sifted. His wonderful sparks dominate much more.

C.S. Lewis Books Read in 2018

More could, should, and has been said about this brilliant thinker, but I do not have the time nor talent for it here. So, with all that said, here now are the books I read from Lewis this year with a short summary of each. This list includes virtually all of C.S. Lewis’ books (besides his Space Trilogy, see below). See my previous post for what order I read them in. But here I’ll list them in order of ‘tiers.’ I’ll rank them according to how notable I thought the work was. Tier 1 will be the best; tier 3 the lowest. (That being said, these tiers are in relation to Lewis himself! Tier 3 for him would easily be above the tier 1 of most Christian authors!)

Tier 1a - The Best

  • The Screwtape Letters - See my previous post about why I loved this so much. But in brief, I think this is Lewis at his finest. Namely, when he is analyzing how we work as people—in our hearts, desires, and lives. In this work, the environment he establishes these thoughts in is a conversation between two demons. That I think is clever, but not brilliant. It is what these demons say about how we work that is brilliant. Chapter upon chapter he surprises you with piercing analysis. It’s such a good read and helpful book.

  • God in the Dock - This is a large collection of essays, lectures, and letters. I do not think Lewis’ greatest ability was writing full books. Instead, it was his lectures and essays that were most impressive. When he wrote books, he would make some amazing points, but then he’d also have many poor spots. When he wrote essays on a specific topic, he would be able to condense the brilliance and omit the black. This collection of essays proves that. So many of them were incredible.

  • The Last Battle and The Magician’s Nephew - These two Narnia books were by far my favorites. In The Magician’s Nephew, Lewis’ scenes about the creation were breathtaking and full of wonder. Don’t let anyone fool you by saying these are mere children’s books! Then in The Last Battle, his thoughts about the end of the world, the final judgment, and heaven were astounding. This book was by far my favorite Narnia book for these last handful of chapters. It made me look much forward to glory. I even cried on the last two pages. It was beautiful. Once again, mere children’s books they most certainly are not!

Tier 1b - The Almost Best

  • Miracles - Many find this work laborious, but I did not. I enjoyed it very much. It was compelling apologetics. It was the most Francis Schaffer-like book I’ve read (but in reality, Schaeffer, coming after him, is more like Lewis here). The title, however, I think is quite misleading. Although Lewis does start and end with the topic of miracles, most of the book rather is a defense of supernaturalism (vs. naturalism). It is presuppositional apologetics. And over and over, he was convincing (albeit confusing at times). My favorite part was the distinction he makes between miracles of the old creation and of the new creation. That’ll stick with me! But overall, what makes this work unique is the sparks and whispers of wonder throughout. Lewis shows that not only is naturalism false, but there is something more, we all know it, and he layers out the wonder of it.

  • Letters to Malcom - This was posthumously published, and is ever not listed as one of his major works. But it was up there as one of my favorites! Similar to The Screwtape Letters, this work was a fictional correspondence, but this time from Lewis and his friend ‘Malcom.’ The subtitle is “Chiefly on Prayer,” but the book included a handful of other topics. What made it great was not any overarching point, but sparks of brilliance here and there.

  • Till We Have Faces - I do not read much fiction, but I recognized right away that this was excellent. I was struck by the writing. It was like reading an older book in many ways, but was still clear, compelling, and captivating. I see some points Lewis was trying to make, but I mostly just liked it for the way it was written and told. That’s unique for me. So, I’ll definitely read it again.

  • The Weight of Glory - A solid collection of essays. I didn’t enjoy it as much as God in the Dock overall, but as classic Lewis, in each essay he makes provocative and compelling points.

  • The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe - The gospel is clear in this first Narnia book, and it is a great story of substitutionary grace. I, however, loved his story, creativity, and clever thoughts in The Last Battle and The Magician’s Nephew more.

Tier 2 - Great At Times, but Not Best

  • Mere Christianity - It understandably is a classic. But I do think it belongs to top level tier 2. Books 1, 3, and 4 in the book were fantastic, with Book 3 about Christian virtues being Lewis’ sweet spot. But Book 2 “On What Christians” believe brings this book value down. Moreover, I did not think his points in this book overall were any more substantial or striking than in the following three books listed right below. All four of these books have excellent, wonderful whispers of glory. But all of them also have some poor black spots.

  • Reflections on the Psalms - I enjoyed reading this, even though Lewis has a sadly poor view of inspiration in much of the work. I enjoyed how he organized the book, addressing different topics in the psalms. And as typical Lewis, there were moments of amazements.

  • The Problem of Pain - This book, like the two above, was filled with points of clever greatness, but then points of total disagreement. But it’s worth reading for those moments. For example, his thoughts on heaven at the end, and how God uses pain to get us there, are stunning. But some of his other chapters are quite lacking.

  • The Four Loves - I disagreed with less in this than the three books listed above, but it also was less stunning. But I did like and learn from his categorizations of love, and how he describes them. Going into this book, I thought the four different ‘loves’ were arbitrary groupings. But now I agree wholeheartedly with Lewis that these all take place in reality for each of us, and that the greatest in them all is Charity. This overarching idea makes the book worth reading.

  • The Dark Tower - This was published much after his death as a collection of previously unpublished fiction stories. The largest was “The Dark Tower” which was over 100 pages. And although it is disputed whether it is a forgery, I think it wasn’t, and I loved it! Oh how I wish Lewis finished it! The other short stories were okay—some better than others, but all worth reading.

  • The World’s Last Night - This is also a collection of essays, but I don’t think it was overall as good as God in the Dock or The Weight of Glory. But my favorite essay was “The World’s Last Night.” I learned from Lewis’ reflections on the results of not knowing when Christ returns. Also included in this was “Screwtape Proposes a Toast.” Surprisingly I did not enjoy this at all. The Screwtape Letters is my favorite book of his, but this essay wasn’t close to as good to me.

  • Of Other Worlds - This is a unique collection of lectures and essays Lewis gave about writing, fiction, and literary criticism. I wasn’t sure I would enjoy it, but I did. As with typical Lewis (once again!) there are a few points he makes that are things I would’ve never thought of before—like avoiding using certain origin-assuming words in criticism. It just doesn’t deserve to be higher because it wasn’t as edifying nor inspiring.

  • The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Silver Chair, and The Horse and His Boy - These were middle of the pack Narnia books to me. They were enjoyable with good plots and points. But they don’t compete with the three listed above.

Tier 3 - The Least Good

  • Prince Caspian - I thought this was the worst Narnia book. It was still a good kids book, but the plot wasn’t great, and neither were any of his analogies. It’s still good, but in a lower tier.

  • The Abolition of Man - Many love this short book. And it could’ve been a low level tier 2 for me. But overall, it just wasn’t that inspiring or important to me. His points about universal morality are good, but the point is made just as well in Mere Christianity. Moreover, I know he is making cultural points, but these don’t stay with me. Nor do they spark wonder. As a result, it’s a tier 3 for me.

  • Surprised by Joy - See my previous post for why I disliked this. Many like it, but I had to push through it. It wasn’t that interesting and it was seemed very jumbled. It was still worth reading for little snippets of his life, but most of it was forgettable.

  • A Grief Observed - This one is a little more complicated, so I’ll direct you to my recent Goodreads review for more. In sum, the book was less about just observing his grief and more about seeing his progression in grief. Therefore, the second half of the book is considerably better than the first half.

  • The Great Divorce - Perhaps as a surprise to some, this was my least favorite Lewis book. A Grief Observed comes close, but I appreciated the second half of that book considerably more than I appreciated any part of this book. I know he is making an analogy, but I just do not appreciate it nor think it is helpful here. But I will have to read it again for sure. If you think I’m totally off on this, hear me out in my Goodreads review for more.

I listened to his Space Trilogy on audiobook, and so they are not listed above (since I think ‘reading’ and ‘listening’ are quite different). But after only listening to them, I would include Out of the Silent Planet in Tier 2, and Perelandra and That Hideous Strength as top level Tier 3. But again, I merely listened to them. I loved Till We Have Faces, but if I only listened to it, I might not have liked it anywhere near as much since Lewis is difficult to merely listen to.

5 Reasons Why I Am Thankful to God for C.S. Lewis

I’ll conclude with five reasons why I’m thankful to God for C.S. Lewis after reading him this year.

First, I am so thankful to God for how magnificent it is to read Lewis. Let me just say it straightforwardly: I was shocked how much I loved reading C.S. Lewis this year. Because of his poorer systematic theology (see above), I thought I wouldn’t love it. But I did. I’m also not a poet, nor a reader of fiction. And so I might think Lewis isn’t my cup of tea. But there was something about it. It’s hard to pin down (see above for some thoughts). But he was so different than any other Christian writer I’ve ever read. It was a thrill reading his thoughts and ideas about any subject. He’s an excellent writer and thinker. And I’m very thankful to God for it.

Second, I learn much from Lewis, but most importantly, he changes the way I think. I am more of a Bible-focused systematic thinker. I don’t want to say something to be true unless it is revealed in the Word. But Lewis adds a creativity element, which isn’t unbiblical nor extra biblical. It’s a more imaginative way of thinking about the truths revealed in the Bible. He (usually) maintains truth, but then adds mystery and wonder. And he displays God, in this way, more beautiful and majestic. As a result, I want to maintain my adherence to the Bible and what God says (like Jonathan Edwards displays), but I also want more of Lewis’ wonderful way of thinking.

Third, Lewis instills in me a longing for Wonder. I capitalize Wonder because the wonder isn’t just for some sort of magic, or mystery, or unknown; it is a longing for God himself. After reading Lewis this year, I have more of an appreciation now for the mysterious wonder of God’s holiness. I know God is all-powerful, perfect, and good. These are all aspects of his holiness. Now, Lewis shows me that God is Other. He is a beautiful Other. Yes, we still know much about him because he revealed much in his Word (see Edwards, for example). But he is still Other. I approach God now with more of this appreciation and adoration because of Lewis, and more of an appetite to see more of this God.

Fourth, Lewis gave me a better appreciation for story. I went to a seminary which so emphasized ‘the story’ that it honestly was obnoxious and I think unbiblical. They pushed hard against systematic theology in favor of story-focused theology. It wasn’t helpful. There was not much wonder. Lewis, however, loves story, but emphasizes it in a different way. He uses story to explain the truths about God and the wonder of history. He displays that God is the master Dramatist. He does not seem to have a beef with systematic theology. Instead, he maintains Christian truths with a poets heart, probing into God, us, and history.

Fifth, Lewis produced in me a desire to communicate better for God’s esteem and glory. He wasn’t clear at times, but he was always a great writer. I don’t think I ever appreciated ‘good writing’ as much as I did while reading Lewis this year. I realize now that most Christian writers write for bare content. This isn't bad. But Lewis added another element—a creative style. I truly enjoyed it, and desire to imitate any of it I can.

Much more should be said. Honestly, I feel all I just wrote above to be rubbish when I consider what I’m trying to do. The impact, influence, and ethos of this man cannot be put into my own words, especially into one post. Seeing it would take going through his books, writing his main ideas, noting what makes them so unique, and more. In sum, it would take reading Lewis again and again. That I recommend anyone to do. That I will do again. I’m very thankful to God for giving his church such a unique thinker. And I now see more than ever why this man is so universally loved and respected. I love and respect him and his thoughts more than I ever thought I would.

See my next post here for my thoughts on reading Jonathan Edwards in 2018.