“If you are right with Him you will inevitably be right with all your fellow creatures, just as if all the spokes of a wheel are fitted rightly into the hub and the rim they are bound to be in the right positions to one another.”—C. S. Lewis, How to Be a Christian
What does it mean to be a Christian in today’s world? In our era of social media, power politics, and a web of issues that keep us anxious and fearful, keeping the focus on what is distinctively Christian has become something of a lost art. Given the amount of energy spent by Christians articulating their positions and beliefs, one might get the impression that faith is a set of ideas. But that is not the case. The real substance of the faith dwells in the world of action. Christian faith becomes real when it is lived out. Being a Christian entails learning such things as how to be slow to judge others and to check first the log in our own eye; how to quit focusing merely on our fears and worries in order to see how we can treat others as we would wish to be treated; how to rein in our anxieties about tomorrow and dampen our anger before it becomes a sin; how, when we are aggrieved, to forgive others.
Yes, doctrines are important. Christians grapple with beliefs in order to understand that we are empowered by Jesus to live in a new way. But understanding these ideas is a doorway, one that requires us to start walking in order for the ideas to have any meaning. Even the apostle Paul, the grandfather of most Christian theology, reminds us that faith, even if perfect, ends up a mere clanging bell if it is without love. And love can only be expressed by actions.
I learned this deep wisdom from the Christian author who has influenced me the most: C. S. Lewis. His practical wisdom on how to live out the faith often gets lost amidst his more famous works on defending Christian beliefs. His success at apologetics has had the ironic result of people thinking Lewis was one of those arguing that Christianity is essentially a body of ideas. But that would be missing the nature of his ideas.
Lewis never presented his ideas as some new heroic paradigm but only as a summary of “mere” Christianity, what most Christians have always believed. And Lewis’s wisdom does not work best as a “grand theory” but rather as, what I would call, “wisdom on the journey.” In other words, it is only by walking down the path of the Christian life that what he teaches seems to make sense and become “useful.”
Lewis’s writings have repeatedly served as red-light warnings that I had gone off course in my Christian path, beginning to think that the main point was how I thought.
I still remember the light bulb going off when reading Book 4 in Mere Christianity where Lewis explains that by becoming a Christian we have signed on to the task of God making us perfect and anything short of this sometimes-painful process would be admitting that God is willing to give up on us, that God does not love us fully. Wait, does that mean “becoming a Christian” is not a one-time event but more of a lifelong process, a path that takes a lifetime with many lessons to be learned? Indeed.
Another light-bulb moment was reading Screwtape’s masterful meditation on gluttony. I had always thought of gluttony as having to do with ravenous obese souls who devour everything in their paths—in other words, not something I had to worry about. But in a masterful and very humorous segment in The Screwtape Letters, Lewis uses the main subject’s dainty mother as the embodiment of gluttony. And how did this vice manifest itself in her life? By her daily lustful obsession with wanting “a slice of bread properly toasted.” If pining for toast can be an example of one of the deadly sins, maybe I wasn’t as “non-gluttonous” as I had thought.
It is in these moments, when dealing with the nitty-gritty of what it means to live out the Christian faith, that Lewis’s insights seem so deep, rich, and helpful.
For me the best example of what I am getting at comes in chapter 12 in The Great Divorce where the main character, on a day trip from hell visiting heaven, witnesses the spectacle of a heavenly parade with shining angels, saints, and animals flowing and dancing around a luminous woman who was so beautiful she was almost “unbearable” to behold. At first the observer thinks she must be Eve or Mary. But he is told that, no, it is Sarah Smith, who lived as a suburban London housewife. In heaven, though, she is counted as one of the “great ones.” How did she get this status? By no means was she a famous theologian or Christian intellectual. Quite the contrary, in her ordinary life and in her daily interactions, she became mother to every young man, woman, boy, girl, dog, or cat she encountered, loving them all in a way that made them more loveable and more eager to love others.
This chapter by Lewis reset my calculations of what it means to be “great” as a Christian. At the same time, it helps us understand Lewis’s writings as a whole. Lewis sought to help, encourage, and enlighten his readers about the Christian faith, especially when it is seen as outdated or out of synch with our modern times. And in those endeavors, he was masterful and more successful than he ever imagined.
And part of the reason for his success was the fact that instead of desiring to be a great apologist and theologian, he measured himself by how closely he resembled Sarah Smith. And it was because of this humble approach that he did indeed become a great apologist and theologian.
This is the wisdom we are celebrating in a new collection of C. S. Lewis’s writings entitled How to Be a Christian. In this new book, we have gathered chapters, essays, letters, and speeches from a wide range of Lewis’s books, many of which are from his less-often-read volumes, all having to do with how we live out our beliefs and not just how we believe. It is a collection of wisdom for those walking down this particular path—a path that is not designed to garner fame or fortune but a path that will help us become a little more like Sarah Smith. And it is precisely this kind of wisdom we need to be reminded of in today’s world.
Michael G. Maudlin
Senior Vice President and Executive Editor
And for more about C. S. Lewis’s life and books, visit cslewis.com.