C. S. Lewis Then and Now

By Wesley A. Kort
Oxford. 2001. 208 pp. $25. ISBN 0-19-514342-6

— reviewed by Daniel L. Durway, Raleigh, N.C.

If you last read something written by C.S. Lewis during your student days, or if you have never read anything at all by him, you may want to pick up C.S. Lewis Then and Now by Wesley A. Kort, professor of religion and member of the graduate faculty at Duke University.

Kort retrieves Lewis from the days of his popularity in the Fifties and places him in the context of the present without handing him over to the evangelicals, who have often turned his word into gospel and mistakenly understood Lewis to advocate retreat from the world and modern culture.

Kort writes in his introduction: “This book is intended . . . to take the reader into what I think of as the most useful aspects of Lewis’ work for people attempting to articulate ‘world and life views’ that are both relevant to our current location and informed by religious beliefs” (p. 9).

To begin his project to update Lewis and bring usable ideas and perspectives from his writings into the 21st century and onto American soil, Kort addresses Lewis’ relation to the past in his chapter “Retrieval.” He ends the chapter with a question addressing the present: “What kind of changes must occur to enable a person to view the world in a way that will be open to the spiritual and moral content of literary culture?” He proceeds to answer this question by exploring the themes which are his chapter headings: “Re-enchantment,” “Houses,” “Culture,” “Character,” “Pleasure” and “Celebration.” He deliberately moves toward the middle chapter on culture, and then away from it; the first three chapters being less religious and the latter three chapters more religious in emphasis.

After exploring these themes, he concludes with a challenge to American religious people to open a conversation about the role of belief in contemporary American culture. Kort reminds us that although Lewis was critical of the materialism and narcissism of modern culture, he believed that only through culture can Christian beliefs effectively shape moral character.

Kort points out one very pertinent theme in Lewis’ writings for today: his interest in human relations; indeed, his interest in all relations, human and nonhuman. Our tendency is to construe our relations with other people to be marked by difference and distance instead of based on what we share with other creatures and one what we receive from them. For example, he writes that “genuine pleasure is received as a gift.” “It is the kind of pleasure of which ultimately the Christian faith speaks. It speaks of and offers gifts of grace. . . . When we live in terms of these primary relationships we have moments of genuine pleasure. Only because we experience moments of genuine pleasure can we begin to understand the language of religion in general and of Christianity in particular (pp. 138-139).

Another example is celebration. Celebration is based on the relations anchored in Creation, not on individual or group victories in which one is a winner and the other a loser as in modern sports. “Celebrations are like tips of icebergs. They make us aware of a great deal that is under the surface of life, namely, the basically relational character of our being in the world” (p. 154).

Kort’s concluding chapter, in which he fleshes out a program for cultural reconstruction in the 21st century using some of Lewis’ ideas, contains some solid-yet-novel suggestions: he turns to the Wisdom books of the Bible and to American literary culture as sources. He continues to focus upon Lewis’ emphasis on relationships and states the goal of the project for the American people in the 21st century. “The goal is to foster a culture that emphasizes a shared sense of right relations between people and their environment, between people and their neighbors, and between people and future prospect for a common life. When that culture has begun to restore our humanity, Christians can then turn to the larger task of giving a more specifically Christian account of the world and recommending it to their nonreligious neighbors as coherent and revealing” (p. 170).

I believe that Kort succeeds in his retrieval project, giving us a starting point to begin a 21st century American project similar to the one Lewis provided the 20th century. The one thing missing from this book was a chronological bibliography of Lewis’ writings.

Wesley Kort has given us a literary Rosetta Stone to update and understand some of Lewis’ themes that are pertinent to contemporary life. This well-written book houses many ideas that should be entertained in sermons and studies throughout congregations that take seriously solid thinking to the glory of God.