Column: The Bible as mere literature
“You are cutting the wood against the grain, using the tool for a purpose it was not intended to serve.” – C.S. Lewis, Selected Literary Essays
Lesser known than his renowned ability to explain Christianity is C.S. Lewis’s stature as one of the world’s first and great professors of English literature.
Prior to the 1900s plenty of literature existed – English and otherwise – but its study was not deemed worthy of the highest levels of academia. Philosophy, law, theology and natural science had ruled the academy for centuries. Literature was valued only as it might illuminate one of these more respectable disciplines.
That changed through the first half of the 1900s with Lewis at the forefront. In 1942 Lewis wrote the still-definitive commentary on John Milton’s 17th-century classic “Paradise Lost.” A decade later, he wrote the definitive survey “16th Century English Literature.” But his academic career was nearly derailed by his fame as a Christian apologist, publishing what his Oxford and later Cambridge literary colleagues dismissed as academically unserious “popular books.”
A brilliant student and then a philosophy and theology instructor at Oxford in the 1920s, Lewis (1899-1963) as a child had struggled through his mother’s early death and his father’s distant non-compassion. Then came the trauma of World War I trench warfare he endured as a British soldier. Though he was raised a pious Irish protestant, these challenges took their toll and Lewis slid into atheism.
It was 1929 before Lewis came to Christ as, he famously said, the “most dejected and reluctant convert in all of England.” After years of doubt, Lewis became intellectually overwhelmed and convinced that “God was God.”
Perhaps those years as a non-believer were key to Lewis gaining the faith and perception that would lead him to write the game-changing Christian descriptives “Mere Christianity,” “The Screwtape Letters,” “The Problem of Pain,” “A Grief Observed,” “The Chronicles of Narnia” and several others.
Lewis wasn’t a Bible expositor. He described the faith it took to understand the Bible in terms of the Creator God, the Lordship of Jesus Christ, the abiding of the Holy Spirit and the Trinity’s relationship both within itself and humanity.
Although the Bible certainly contains great literature and poetry, Lewis the literary expert cautioned against isolating the Bible in the literary realm. He described the Bible as a religious book “so remorselessly and continuously sacred that it … repels the merely aesthetic (literary) approach.”
The Bible, Lewis observed, “demands to be taken on its own terms.”
And the Bible’s terms are God’s, which, when properly read, are not negotiable.
Walters (firstname.lastname@example.org) found the Bible impossible to understand before coming to faith in Christ, the key that unlocks the Bible.