'One Mythology among Many': The Spiritual Odyssey of C.S. Lewis

By Nelson, Michael | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Autumn 1996 | Go to article overview

'One Mythology among Many': The Spiritual Odyssey of C.S. Lewis


Nelson, Michael, The Virginia Quarterly Review


The student's name was Ben. He was a first-year student in his first week of college, and as I ate my lunch in the refectory I could see that he was waiting for me to finish so that he could approach my table. "I hear that you are a Christian," he said when, my tray pushed aside, he at last came up. I nodded. "Well," he said, in a rush, "I'm a Christian, too, and last night I got into a long discussion in the dorm with some other students and they were saying things that I didn't know how to answer and I was wondering if you could help." Instantly the scene of the night before unfolded in my mind. Ben, it was obvious, had gotten into his first college bull session and, as often is the case, the subject had been religion, science, evolution, and all the apparent conflicts and contradictions among them. He was a small town Alabamian from a small Baptist church and had found what the other students were saying very disturbing.

Ben and I agreed to meet and, when we did, there was no small talk. His first and only question was, "Do you think Genesis is true or is it just a myth?"

I smiled-having been down this road before, I knew exactly what to say. "Ben," I said, "I think Genesis is true and it's a myth. Myths aren't lies, even though the word is sometimes misused that way. Myths are stories that are told and retold because people find them helpful in making sense of the world and their place in it. I happen to think Genesis is a story that God gave us and that the truths in it are capital-T truths, not mere facts.

"Think what we learn from Genesis," I continued, warming up to my own eloquence. "We learn that God created everything and that it's good. We learn that God created us in his own image. We learn that God cares about how we behave and that there is a price to pay when we disobey. But we also learn that even then, even as he is banishing us from the garden, he's still with us to give us clothing and a pat on the back. Those are truths, Ben. How long it took to create things and whether or not there was really a garden of Eden-those are just details."

I sat back, pleased with myself, and waited. After a couple minutes, Ben looked up from his thoughts. "So what do you think?" he said. "Is Genesis true or is it just a myth?" ,F?

If I had been smart, I would have spared Ben my myth-is-truth rap and told him about C. S. Lewis.

Not everything about Lewis, of course-there is simply too much to tell. Does any other writer turn up on so many shelves of a good bookstore or library? In the literary criticism section one is likely to find, at a minimum, The Allegory of Love and English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, two books that, according to Norman Cantor's Inventing the Middle Ages (1993), were "bold, original, seminal works that rocked the transatlantic world of medieval studies" and had an "incalculable effect" on modern understandings of the Middle Ages. In literature we find Till We Have Faces, a retelling of the Cupid and Psyche myth that is arguably one of the finest English language novels of the 20th century. The religion shelves will be chock full, of course-books like Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, The Problem of Pain, and Miracles continue to sell millions of copies each year. But then so will the science fiction shelves with Lewis's trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength), and the children's section, with his seven-volume Chronicles of Narnia, the most famous of which is The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. And don't stop there-look in poetry for one of several collections of his verse, in biography for his spiritual autobiography Surprised by Joy, and in the section on death and dying for A Grief Observed, the nakedly powerful memoir of Lewis's tormented reaction to the death of his wife that provided the basis for the movie and play Shadowlands. If there is a book about great teachers to be found, it probably will contain a chapter on Lewis, a famously successful lecturer and tutor at Oxford and Cambridge Universities from the 1920's to the 1950's. …

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