The best religion writers begin by forming a personal relationship with their readers. And the best readers respond by treating them as close friends.
"Emerson's good company," we say. Or: "That sounds like something Talmage would say."So it is with C.S. Lewis, the British writer who may be the most-quoted, best-loved Christian writer of our era. With 1998 being the "Lewis Centenary Year," articles about the man are rolling off the presses. And most of them could carry the title: "My C.S. Lewis."
We all take the man very personally.
Last week, for instance, I got a package. The note read, "Enclosed you'll find a press kit dedicated to C.S. Lewis' very special relationship with Harcourt Brace and Harvest books."
In other words, "Here's `My' C.S. Lewis."
For kids, "My C.S. Lewis" means the "Chronicles of Narnia," those fantasy novels about lions and witches that are an allegory for the way Jesus saved the world.
Those in mourning embrace Lewis in "A Grief Observed."
Those who like a good laugh buddy up to him in "The Screwtape Letters."
Movie buffs find him in the film "Shadowlands."
If the miracle of the loaves and fishes teaches us anything, it's that there's always enough of Jesus to go around.
And in the case of Lewis, always enough of the great minds who write about him for everybody.
My own personal Lewis is colored by the concerned, earnest tones that drift down from LDS pulpits. For me, C.S. Lewis will always sound a little like Elder Sterling W. Sill.
John Hart, a writer for the LDS Church News, helped me put some names into a computer database to find Lewis references in the talks given at LDS General Conferences. We found that Lewis had been quoted from the Tabernacle podium almost 20 times in 20 years - more than Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Winston Churchill, Pearl S. Buck - more than any other non-LDS author we could think of.
Lewis shows up in talks by President Ezra Taft Benson and President James E. Faust, second counselor in the First Presidency. Elders Dallin H. Oaks, Marvin J. Ashton and Neal A. Maxwell cite him. It was Elder Maxwell, in fact, who introduced me to Lewis when he listed "Mere Christianity" among his favorite books.
But if Lewis is quoted an impressive number of times, it's only because his words are impressively quotable.
Like Elder Sill, he had his own radio program, so his comments always had the flow and speed of spoken English.
Listen to the following quote. It's as if Lewis were standing on a street corner with us, jutting his finger in the air and talking above the din:
"We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us - like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at sea . . . We are far too easily pleased!"
That, in the end, is the C.S. Lewis we all claim as our own - the one who leans over and speaks into our ear, the one we can't help but take into our hearts.
A native of Belfast, Lewis died in a London nursing home in 1963 at age 65. But in that short time he told the world what it needed to hear. And it has made him the most popular Christian writer of our century.
The other day I dropped by a local bookstore to see what Lewis books were on the shevles. I counted 18 titles - including "The Quotable Lewis," a collection of his clever sayings. I looked under the heading "Fame" to see what Lewis might have to say about being such a celebrity. I found this:
"Even posthumous fame depends largely on accident."
But for once, Lewis was wrong. At least about himself. If you believe in divine intervention - as he did - his popularity hardly seems an accident. The man seems put here for a purpose, to tell a lost and lonely world how to be "Surprised by Joy."