During the course of my theological studies, never once were we required to read the writings of C.S. Lewis. He was generally considered a popularizer and a theological lightweight, such that in the very first seminar for my introductory systematic theology course the tutor advised us that we’d not be reading Lewis, and that we’d best leave his books on the shelf. As if to drive the point home, at the end of the seminar the tutor assigned chapters from Barth’s Church Dogmatics and Karl Rahner’s Theological Investigations. As I plowed through those assigned readings (a theological dictionary open on the desk to assist me with this strange new language), I’d have gladly pulled Lewis from my bookshelf… preferably the comfort and light of the Narnia series.
To be fair, part of what our theology tutor was saying was that strictly speaking Lewis was not an academic theologian. He was a scholar of English literature, who also wrote short occasional pieces, works of apologetics, two volumes of what might be called highly personal spiritual autobiography (Surprised by Joy, A Grief Observed), and fiction. Mere Christianity—one of his most widely read works of non-fiction—began as a series of BBC Radio lectures. He really was something of a public Christian intellectual, whose considerable gifts as a writer and lecturer brought him widespread—and yes, popular—acclaim. And yet the theological fraternity has often seemed inclined to dismiss him.
How refreshing to read a book by Rowan Williams, one of this generation’s foremost theologians, in which he makes a case for Lewis’s lasting significance as a theological writer. Based on a series of Holy Week lectures delivered at Canterbury Cathedral in 2011, the book’s primary focus is on the theological themes Lewis explored in his “Chronicles of Narnia.” Yet while “the Lion’s world” is the one most clearly in view, Williams connects Narnia to Lewis’s larger project, along the way touching on many of his other works.
Unlike some of Williams’ more academic books, The Lion’s World is very readable and almost conversational in style. Without sounding dismissive, he deftly handles the concerns that have been raised by Narnia’s critics; that the series is rather chauvinistic in its attitude toward its female characters, for instance, and that it is racist in its portrayal of the “Calormene Empire.” And without losing the sense of wonder that should accompany the reading of great children’s literature, Williams manages to unpack the theological weight of Lewis’s vision, reclaiming him from those who would dismiss him as a mere popularizer.
With new illustrations by Monica Capoferri, The Lion’s World is a lovely little feast for the imagination. Take, read, and enjoy.
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The audio of Williams’ original lectures can be accessed by clicking here.