Dr. Peter Kreeft is one of the great master communicators of modern times. To become effective communicators, Kreeft recommends that we steep ourselves in the writings of gifted Christian communicators; one of whom, according to the eminent Boston College professor, is C.S. Lewis.
A Great Influence
It is hard to find an apologist in the Church today who has not been influenced by the works of C.S. Lewis. Not only is Lewis a good writer — but he is also a powerful writer, and has brought many people into the Catholic Church through his works. The peculiar thing is — Lewis was not a Catholic himself.
He was, however, “near” the Catholic Church. His biographer, Joseph Pearce explains in his article, C.S. Lewis and Catholic Converts:
“He believed in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, which he referred to as the Blessed Sacrament; he practiced auricular confession; he vehemently opposed female ordination, condemning in forthright terms the danger of having “priestesses in the Church”; he declared his belief in purgatory and in the efficacy of praying for the dead; and, last but not least, he crusaded against the errors and heresies of theological modernism. It is perhaps, therefore, not so surprising that C.S. Lewis has ushered so many people into the Catholic Church.”
The influential Catholic apologists and evangelists who were influenced in their conversions to the Catholic Church by this great Anglican writer are many. Some include Fr. Dwight Longenecker, Mark Brumley, Francis Beckwith, Carl Olson and Al Kresta (more here).
Thus, it is clear that the best way to learn anything is to learn from the best of the best; and Lewis is doubtless one of the best of the best in the area of Christian thought and apologetics.
But how does one even begin with such a intellectual giant as Lewis?
Here are some suggestions you might draw from to get started (in no particular order):
1. Read the Chronicles of Narnia. This is his most renowned work of fiction, and an easy and stimulating read packed with Christian symbolism. It’s a great introduction to Lewis’ genius. Prepare to have your imagination evangelized!
I must note, however, that there are modern discrepancies about which order the books should be read. There is an answer, however.
The experts I trust recommend reading Narnia in this order:
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
The Silver Chair
The Horse and His Boy
The Magician’s Nephew
The Last Battle
As an introduction to the series and for further insight into why heeding this particular order is so important, read Steve Greydanus’ article, There’s only one right order to read the ‘Narnia’ books.
2. Read about Lewis’ life. If you really want to draw wisdom from any author, it is critical that you introduce yourself to their entire person — not just their writings. This will give you more profound insight into why and how they have written what they have, and what exactly they are intending to communicate. It may also put certain words, phrases, anecdotes, analogies or stories into a deeper and more personal context, resulting in a more enlightening reading experience.
Read Lewis’ spiritual biography, Surprised By Joy.
Read his biography, C.S. Lewis & The Catholic Church by Joseph Pearce
3. Read his letters. Shorter in length than his books and deeply personal, letters by Lewis will help you gain an insight into his personal life and at the same time expose you to his everyday logic. His intelligence was not restricted to the grounds of Oxford alone!
For an introduction to his personal correspondence, popular Catholic blogger Brandon Vogt, who is well-versed in the life and works of Lewis, suggests beginning with Yours, Jack or Collected Letters: Volume 3.
4. Read his essays. These shorter writings of Lewis are less volume to tackle and good introductions to his thought. It takes time for many people (including myself) to get accustomed to Lewis’ style of writing and deep genius. Often, especially in the beginning, less is more. Keep in mind — Lewis is a mid-20th century British writer. Cultural, societal and linguistic influences were not all the same for him as they are for us today.
We must, then, have patience and perseverance as we begin to unpack the brilliance of this man’s works.
5. Pray the Psalms with Lewis. The psalms, particularly in the Liturgy of the Hours, are the heartbeat of the Catholic Church as an extension of the Holy Mass. Every Christian should pray with the psalms regularly — and C.S. Lewis can help!
Read his popular work, Reflections on the Psalms. His reflections will enrich your experience of these beautiful and timeless prayers that come to us straight from the Word of God.
6. Read G.K. Chesterton. If you really want to thoroughly understand someone — seek out the writers
(and books) who have most profoundly formed the understanding of the one you’re seeking to understand.
It has been said that G.K. Chesterton baptized the intellect of C.S. Lewis. According to Lewis himself, Chesterton’s popular apologetical work, The Everlasting Man, was a key influence in his conversion from atheism. Lewis, thus, became a lifelong fan of Chesterton and was formed by his works for the remainder of his life.
Read, also, Orthodoxy by Chesterton.
For more on Lewis and Chesterton, click here.
7. Read George MacDonald. Chesterton baptized the Oxford professor’s intellect; and George MacDonald baptized Lewis’ imagination. In fact, Lewis said it himself in Surprised By Joy, recalling the night he read MacDonald for the first time as an 18 year old atheist: “That night” says Lewis, “my imagination was, in a certain sense, baptized”.
So as we must read Chesterton, we must also read MacDonald. A well-formed imagination is just as essential for us as a well-formed intellect.
8. Read popular introductions to Lewis’ thought. By extracting essential passages from Lewis’ writings and teaming up with some of the clearest minds today to unpack them, you are sure to get a firmer grasp on his works as a whole.
I cannot think of anywhere better to start, than with these two fantastic Catholic philosophers:
C.S Lewis’ Case For The Christian Faith by Richard Purtill
C.S Lewis For The Third Milennium by Peter Kreeft
You may also want to read some more informal personal reflections on the life, writings and thought of C.S. Lewis by today’s best Lewis scholars — one of whom is (yes, you guessed it) Dr. Peter Kreeft. Here is an interview done with Kreeft. The topic: C.S. Lewis.
9. Don’t be afraid to dive right in. My appreciation for and intellectual gain from Lewis’ non-fiction writings came after much perseverance. I struggled with his writings at first. I just couldn’t follow him without getting a headache. It was like being forced to chew steak when all I wanted was pudding. But eventually that changed.
Read his books. Struggle through them. Smart people read smart books, and smart books are rarely easy to read no matter the level of one’s intellect. But just because something is hard work does not mean it can’t be useful and gratifying.
I recommend you begin with these books by Lewis:
Then read them again. I once heard a Catholic scholar I admire immensely, say: “People often think you can tell a lot about a person by what books they have read. I say, however, that you can tell a lot about a person by what books they’ve read twice.” And I concur.
Once you’ve read the three books above — and read them again — then consider moving into these other non-fiction writings:
And ONE LAST THING. You need to be sure you aren’t just reading good books, but that you are reading good books well.
I just completed Brandon Vogt’s Read More Books Now course for myself this weekend. Wow. I can think of no tool out there today that is more effective and efficient at teaching you how to read more books faster, and read every book better.
Regarding this reading course, Dr. Peter Kreeft says, “I’ve taught college philosophy for over 40 years. This excellent course, if taken to heart, will do more for your education than 99% of the courses in school that you ever took.”
If you are interested in becoming a better reader now, get Brandon’s course here!