An extended version of the April 2011 article
C.S. Lewis writings added to new NRSV edition
An interview with Dr. Jerry Root
By Ronald E. Keener
Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963) even today is “arguably the most influential Christian writer of his day,” and made his name in literary criticism, children’s literature, fantasy literature, and popular theology. He became a Christian only at the age of nearly 33.
So it is no wonder that HarperOne brought out the C.S. Lewis Bible, using the New Revised Standard Version, that carries more than 600 selections from his contemplation and devotional readings.
Jerry Root was a member of the advisory board, wrote his master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation on Lewis, and has been teaching college and graduate courses on Lewis for more than 30 years. He currently teaches at Wheaton College in Illinois. He generously responded to Church Executive’s questions on C.S. Lewis and the new Bible:
What Bible translation did Lewis himself use?
Lewis primarily used the Greek text for New Testament study as well as the Authorized Version (King James, his preferred English translation) and the Moffat translation. There is nothing in his letters or other books to suggest he used the Hebrew texts and thus relied on English translations in his read of the Old Testament (again, primarily, KJV and Moffat).
How does the NRSV differ from what Lewis used?
There is no substantive difference between the NRSV and the English texts Lewis used. Most of the English translations (with very few exceptions) give a fair rendering of the original translations. It is a mistake to suggest to people that they cannot grasp the text without having the benefit of the original languages. Certainly there are benefits to knowing the Greek and the Hebrew and it is wise for professionals such as theologians and pastors to learn these languages. Nevertheless, the lay person can manage well with the various English translations available.
Lewis was not a lifelong Christian. What is his (brief) conversion story?
Lewis was baptized as an infant by his maternal grandfather who was pastor at St. Mark’s Church in Belfast. His mother’s death when Lewis was only nine years old as well as a deformity of his thumbs led Lewis to doubt the existence of God, at least that God he had been told about in his childhood. He considered himself an atheist until his conversion at the age of 32. He was haunted by longings of his heart but had no clue that these longings might have God as their proper object. He also had a host of plaguing questions he felt Christianity could not answer.
He believed the first problem of life was “how do you fit the stone [reason] and the shell [romantic longings of the heart]” that is, how do you connect head and heart in a holistic approach to life. In time he came to see that his atheism and its supporting materialism could not do for him what he would discover only Christianity could do for him. It was soon after a late night talk with his friends J. R. R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson—the men Lewis called the human causes of his conversion—that Lewis surrendered his heart and became a follower of Christ.
Did Lewis’ writings explain much about how he viewed the Bible?
There are passages throughout his writing revealing that he had a high view of Biblical Revelation and its authority. His letters also reveal his deep respect for the Scriptures and he often used the Bible as a source of encouragement and comfort as he wrote to others. He only wrote one book on Scripture and that was his Reflections on the Psalms. It may be the most concentrated place to discover his views of Scripture and his high value of the Word of God.
Would Lewis have considered the Bible literally or would he have interpreted it?
I find this question difficult to answer for it seems to cast as opposites two things that are not necessarily opposed to one another. It makes no difference if a person takes the Bible literally or figuratively he will still begin to interpret the text as soon as he has any thoughts about it or makes any kind of pronouncement about it. Lewis was a trained literary critic. I think he had respect for the varieties of literary forms contained in Scripture and he interpreted texts with respect for those particular forms. He accepted the biographical narrative, in most cases and certainly in the Gospels, as literal. He interpreted the parables as figurative. He interpreted the Hebrew poetry with respect for that literary genre.
In fact, it was due to Lewis’s respect for literary form and genre that he was so proficient at interpreting texts with a degree of sophistication. His insights are very helpful in this regard. Furthermore, Lewis saw the wisdom of Scripture had application in any age. He was good at applying its insights to the challenges that faced him in his day. This too, provides a model for others who want to see a proper guide for taking the Scriptures and benefitting from its wisdom in light of any current challenge they may face.
Lewis was not an inerrantist, he believed there were some very isolated texts where errors crept into the English translations but these appear to be minor to him and do not affect his strong belief that the Bible is a book that reveals the Word of God and therefore it was the responsibility of Christians to obey it. Furthermore, there is a passage where Lewis observes a discrepancy between Pascal and the Bible, Lewis simply says that Pascal must be wrong. He uses the Bible often in his own writing as conclusive in matters of controversy with the confidence that where it is properly understood it settles controversy for true Christians. His respect for Biblical authority is unequivocal.
Why would Lewis have liked how you organized and arranged this Bible?
It is always impossible to say exactly—and truthfully—how someone who is not present might have thought or felt or what they would have liked. So, this is not a question I could answer. Perhaps it would be easier to say that Lewis encouraged students to read and know their Bibles, whether or not his students were Christians. As a teacher of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Oxford University and later at Cambridge, Lewis believed that any liberally educated student should have a well worn Bible otherwise they could not properly understand their own literature, let alone their culture.
If this Bible organized and arranged as it is, would encourage people to read Scripture I think he would have been in favor of the effort. I doubt, if Lewis was alive, he would have been enthusiastic about having a Bible named after him. But, most people with any kind of humility would share similar sentiments if they were alive; perhaps this is why we do things like this after people die. It is possible at that point to cull from the corpus of their written work comments that would explain and highlight texts of Scripture. It is little different than what preachers do every Sunday as they pick out passages of the Bible and comment on it. This Bible contains Lewis’s thoughts in the hopes that these will help readers to grasp particular texts and understand them better.
How should one read the Lewis Bible?
How should anyone read any Bible (or any other book for that matter)? A good way is to start at the beginning and read to the end. Such a read will give one the grand flow of the Biblical narrative and a sense of Redemptive history. Along the way one can also pick up Lewis’s insights about certain texts or his development of ideas presented in various passages. Of course some people prefer to study various passages of individual books of Scripture in depth and this Bible will benefit that person as well.
The hopeful thing is that people will read the Bible and if the C. S. Lewis Bible encourages that its editors will be pleased. Unfortunately, most people, let alone Christians, have not read it. In fact, it is possible to read the Bible once a year at a speaking rate of 13 minutes a day which is less than the commercial time of one hour of television. Maybe the Lewis Bible will be a valuable tool to encourage people to become Biblically literate once again.
Do we know how influential the Bible was in Lewis’ life, especially early in his Christian life?
Before Lewis actually became a Christian he already knew his Bible. There are references to the Scriptures in his many pre-Christian letters. He was, after all, an honest scholar who knew the importance of the Bible and its influence on culture; how could an academic neglect to have read this book? But, after he converted to Theism and before he converted to Christianity he mentions in his letters that he is attending Chapel at his college at Oxford University and that he is reading his Bible. So, in fact, his Bible reading preceded his conversion.
He was a faithful Bible reader. Each day he would read from the Authorized Version, or the Moffat translation and he would usually spend some time in the Greek text. He was not merely a reader but he thought about what he read. Perhaps his book, Reflections on the Psalms, would give insight into his contemplative work on Scripture; of course, The C. S. Lewis Bible also supplies a rich number of quotes making it possible for the reader to benefit from Lewis’s contemplative life.
What myths might Lewis have challenged about the Bible and God and Jesus that arise in our modern understanding of Christianity?
Lewis was a thorough going Supernaturalist, that is he believed in God and that He was active in our world. He believed in the Atoning efficacy of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He believed in miracles. I suppose the myths he would challenge most are those myths that assume the Bible is not a supernatural book, that Jesus did not raise from the dead, and the myth that miracles do not happen. In other words, Lewis would challenge the myth of materialism and those forms of Christianity that were compromised towards materialism.
Lewis passed through atheism to materialism to agnosticism to idealism to theism. How old was he when he became a convert and do we have a sense of his discipleship and how he would have explained it?
Lewis became a Christian on September 28, 1931, he was almost 33 years old and he had been teaching at Oxford University for five years at the time of his conversion. As with anyone, many things contributed to his coming to faith, but Lewis acknowledged in his autobiography that Hugo Dyson and J. R. R. Tolkien were the human causes of his conversion.
Lewis already had several Christian friends at the time he came to faith so one could say that his nurture in the faith came from his wide range of reading and from discussions with his friends. In fact, virtually all, save one, of the Inklings (his literary group at Oxford) were Christians. Furthermore, he attended church regularly on the weekends and was a regular at the daily chapels in his college at Oxford. All of these things contributed to his growth and nurture as a Christian. For many years after his conversion Lewis also sought weekly Spiritual direction from Frank Adams one of the “Cowley Fathers” (an Anglican, monastic order formally called The Society of St. John the Evangelist).
What is it that makes CS Lewis of such importance to us today, after all these years?
I am not exactly sure how to explain the ongoing interest in Lewis; it is really remarkable however when you consider that he thought his books would be out of print three years after his death. In fact, almost all of the 73 Lewis titles are still in print today and are being sold widely. The phenomenon is noteworthy but I can only provide guesses as to why rather than an explanation.
First, Lewis was a master of logic and his skill with language (he knew just the right word to use in order to avoid ambiguity of expression) makes him a very clear writer. Second, Lewis was brilliant at depiction which makes him an imaginative writer. He was incredibly skilled at crafting metaphors and analogies; these allow his readers to visualize, with the mind’s eye, exactly what he meant. Furthermore, his power of depiction makes his writing pleasurable to read. Third, he read widely and therefore wrote things that were informed, measured, and wise, which made him write with depth. Fourth, he had a winsome personality full of good humor which made him fun to read.
Fifth, because Lewis writes with such penetrating honesty and humility his works speak to the heart as profoundly as they do to the mind. This has given him holding power. His words and images are unforgettable and they begin to shape the world view of his readers in a very positive way. Lastly, he was a writer with devoted followers who have not let his legacy die. Many names could be listed here but a few stand out. Perhaps Walter Hooper his literary executor is most note-worthy among this group; also his son, Douglas Gresham has done much to keep his legacy alive.
Furthermore, the wisdom of Professor Kilby who started the Marion Wade Center (the world’s largest collection of Lewis material) must be noted, and with him the curators who followed Kilby and maintained the vision of the Wade Center: Lyle Dorsett, Marge Mead, and Chris Mitchell. The hard work of these people kept Lewis’s work in circulation. Now, I think, the writings, beloved by so many, by virtue of their own merit and availability have sealed Lewis’s reputation for a long time to come.
How did the editors go about organizing the book and inserting the Lewis excerpts into the text of the Scriptures?
All of those who participated in the Lewis Bible project were interested readers in Lewis, some of us are academics, some are pastors, but all of us know Lewis’s books and know the Bible. We culled through the corpus of Lewis’s books and pulled out those passages where Lewis addressed specific texts of Scripture and the connection was on made naturally by Lewis himself.
We also took text that were not explicitly commenting on a particular text but the implicit connection was evident and these were also inserted near those texts to highlight the thoughts of the Scriptures themselves (again, not unlike a pastor might do on any given Sunday in a sermon). The remarkable thing about a project such as this is the confirmation that Lewis’s on thought was so deeply marked by the Bible and its wisdom. Furthermore, it was clear he was a devoted follower of the Christ of the Bible.
What other important information about this Bible is it important to know?
Regarding Lewis, it is important to see how much the Scriptures meant to him and how highly he valued the Bible in his own life. Lewis’s commitment to study the Bible, as a sincere Christian, is noteworthy and an example to all. Regarding the editors, their earnest desire is that everyone read the Bible with habitual devotion to its words and wisdom. They will be pleased if this particular edition encourages people to do just that.
Are there portions where today’s readers might find Lewis’ explanations challenging or mistaken?
The idea that one could say Lewis was mistaken here or there assumes that the editors have some kind of transcendent knowledge whereby they could make such pronouncements. When Lewis wrote The Screwtape Letters (a collection of fictitious letters where one devil writes to another on how to tempt someone) his intention was to write a sequel where one angel wrote to another angel on how to help someone.
Lewis rightly acknowledged that nobody could write the second book because nobody could honestly suggest he or she had achieved that level of insight. At the end of his life he wrote Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer these are also one side of a fictitious correspondence, one Christian to another, trying to figure out how to honestly follow God. There is no pretense in this book. It is merely two Christians who find themselves on the same pilgrim road earnestly trying to discover answers to those kinds of questions that ought to percolate in the minds of all who have not deluded themselves into thinking they have achieved omniscience.
So too with the Lewis Bible one discovers, in Lewis’s comments the words of an honest mind and a questing heart. Since Lewis was human we can assume there may be some mistakes in what he says but it will be difficult to miss his honest and sincere devotion to God and His word. And, as for challenges, I hope the readers of The C. S. Lewis Bible will find something challenging in each of the Lewis quotes and insights that will inspire them to go deeper with Christ.