C. S. Lewis in America by Mark A. Noll

Charles Malcolm Wingard

C. S. Lewis in America: Readings and Reception, 1935–1947, by Mark A. Noll. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2023, xviii + 158 pages, $18.69, paper.

The works of C. S. Lewis have found a home in America for nearly nine decades. His technical studies in literary criticism, imaginative works, and expositions of the Christian faith have been well received by Christians of various denominations. Avid Lewis readers are found among adherents of both Protestant and Catholic traditions. Reviews of Lewis’s books were numerous and not limited to Christian publications, but also appeared in secular magazines and journals. One would be hard pressed to think of other writers so highly acclaimed by such a diverse readership.

With modest revisions, the book contains three lectures delivered under the auspices of Wheaton College’s Marion E. Wade Center at its 2022 Ken and Jean Hansen Lectures.

Noll recounts the reception of Lewis’s writing during the pivotal years of 1935–1947, a period that included the Great Depression, World War II, and the early years of the Cold War. A helpful table lists his books published in America during that time, from The Pilgrim’s Regress (1935) to Miracles (1947)—seventeen books in all—arranged in three categories: literary scholarship, imaginative writing (including The Screwtape Letters and the Ransom Trilogy), and Christian exposition (5).

Each lecture is followed by a response from a member of the Wheaton faculty:

  • Lecture 1: “‘Surprise’: Roman Catholics as Lewis’s First and Most Appreciative Readers,” with a response by historian Karen J. Johnson
  • Lecture 2: “‘Like a Fresh Wind’: Reception in Secular and Mainstream Media,” with a response by historian Kirk D. Farney
  • Lecture 3: “‘Protestants Also Approve’: (But Evangelicals only Slowly),” with a response by political scientist Amy E. Black

An appendix includes two 1944 articles by Catholic author and Canisius College English professor Charles A. Brady.

Lewis and Roman Catholic Readers

Early Catholic reviews of Lewis’s early works were generally favorable and appeared in lay, Jesuit, and scholarly publications (9). Noll observes that

of Lewis’s ten works that were noticed at least twice by Catholic authors, five received positive or even enthusiastically positive notices (with very occasional quibbles): The Pilgrim’s Regress, The Screwtape Letters, Perelandra, The Great Divorce, and The Abolition of Man. Three works received mostly positive reviews: Out of the Silent Planet, The Case for Christianity, and The Problem of Pain. For two others, Catholic judgments were mixed: Beyond Personality and That Hideous Strength. (13–14)

While reviewers could be critical of Lewis’s neglect or departure from official Roman Catholic teaching, they affirmed him in his commitment to natural law and objective moral values. The favorable reception to Lewis reflected a diminishment of the insularity that marked American Catholicism prior to the Second Vatican Council (25–6).

Lewis and the Secular and Mainstream Media

The high quality of Lewis’s scholarly writings during the period under consideration was recognized by both the secular academy and the mainstream press. Noll reminds us that at this time, before the New Criticism became a formidable force in college and university English departments, there were still many literary critics who shared Lewis’s high regard for Western Christian tradition and belief in the existence of universal moral absolutes (61).

Moving from American intellectual life to the mainstream media—think the Chicago Tribune, New York Times, and Washington Post—Noll notes that Lewis’s imaginative works found more than a warm reception. The mainstream media “loved these books, even loved them ecstatically” (62), an indication that the “public sphere could still respond positively to Christian writing when it was artfully framed” (67). Examples include favorable comparisons of Lewis to G. K. Chesterton, That Hideous Strength to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra to the works of H. G. Wells (69). Even Lewis’s expositions of the Christian faith earned more positive than negative reviews (70), although some commentators, like Alistair Cooke, could be sharply critical, as he was in a 1944 piece where he asserted that “Lewis offered only ‘fantasies,’ ‘befuddlement,’ and ‘a patness that murders the issues it pretends to clarify’” (79–80).

From 1935–1947, Christian culture was still sufficiently prevalent for Lewis to win the admiration of both literary scholars and popular audiences. In his response, Farney notes that Fulton Sheen’s The Catholic Hour and Walter Mair’s The Lutheran Hour reached worldwide audiences as high as 17.5 million and 20 million respectively (86–88). Whatever talents Lewis, Sheen, and Maier possessed, they worked in a time where significant numbers of Americans wanted Christian exposition, a desire that the mainstream media gladly accommodated.

Lewis and Protestants

In his concluding chapter, Noll reviews Lewis’s reception among mainline Protestants and those theologically conservative Protestants who eventually came to be known as evangelicals.

Not surprisingly, The Christian Century, the mouthpiece of theologically and culturally progressive Protestantism, expressed criticism of Lewis’s work. Otherwise, the response of mainline Protestants was “strongly positive” (97). In a 1947 review, Princeton Theological Seminary’s Theology Today praised Lewis while also responding to the criticisms of Alistair Cook (100–101).

Evangelicals were slower to embrace Lewis. Readers of Ordained Servant will be interested especially in Noll’s comments on reviews by ministers associated with Westminster Theological Seminary—including Paul Wooley, Cornelius Van Til, and Edmund Clowney (104–14). Wooley was the most appreciative of the Westminster reviewers, going so far as to say the volumes he reviewed were “the ‘find’ of the year for any literate Christian.” At the same time, he pointed out what he considered the weakness of Lewis’s apologetic methodology, namely, that “thinking and rational argument that do not begin with God as a premise are useless and prove nothing.” Noll says of Wooley’s presuppositional apologetic: “The shift in starting point from belief in objective morality to belief in God was the crucial matter” (109). Van Til was blunt, asserting that because Lewis did not sufficiently grasp the Creator-creature distinction, “the main argument of [Beyond Personality] is destructive of the evangelical faith” (110).

According to Noll, the Westminster Presbyterians were the only evangelicals in the 1940s providing serious theological engagement with Lewis. The author is certainly correct to say that their criticism “deserves theological reflection in its own right” (113).

Lewis’s widespread popularity among evangelicals would come later. But even in the few years preceding 1947, future evangelical missionary and author Elisabeth Howard (later Elliot) and well-known Presbyterian pastor Donald Grey Barnhouse had begun to articulate highly favorable views of Lewis’s work.

In his concluding remarks, Noll praises Lewis for his learning, creativity, and wise focus on “emphasizing what the main Christian traditions held in common” while cautioning that today “there is no guarantee that writing oriented toward ‘mere Christianity’ will gain a hearing. It is, however, almost certain that writing advocating only one variety of Christianity will not gain a wide public hearing.” (123–24)

I recommend this book. As the last Christian public intellectual to earn widespread admiration in the United States, the writings of C. S. Lewis are worthy of study. So also is the culture that eagerly purchased and read his works. Noll gives us insight into the relationship between Lewis and his American readers.

I also appreciate the extended treatment Noll gives to the reactions of confessional Presbyterians to Lewis’s work. Whatever might be said of their critiques, their desire was to bring Lewis’s work to the touchstone of Scripture. They, like Lewis, are worthy of commendation too.

Charles Malcolm Wingard is minister of shepherding at the First Presbyterian Church of Jackson, Mississippi (PCA), and professor of pastoral theology at Reformed Theological Seminary. Ordained Servant Online, April, 2024.

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Ordained Servant: April 2024

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