From time to time I’ve decried the marketing ploy that advertises an author as the next C. S. Lewis or the next J. R. R. Tolkien. Those greats are matchless, in my view, and we aren’t going to see The Next, as if they were simply links in a long chain of literary figures accomplishing more or less the same thing in their generation as those who went before and who will go after.
Recently, however, I read an article by Christopher Mitchell, professor at Biola University’s Torrey Honors Institute, entitled “Still Looking for C. S. Lewis.” In it, he explores what C. S. Lewis gave the world and whether looking for another C. S. Lewis is asking for too much.
Dr. Mitchell’s opening caught my attention at once. He relates how for the past two decades he regularly has entertained the question, where are the C. S. Lewises of our day?
As I see it, then, on one hand marketing people are saying, here is the next C. S. Lewis, and on the other, everyday Christians are saying, where is the next C. S. Lewis? Either the everyday people are not listening to the marketers, the marketers aren’t speaking to the everyday people, or the two simply disagree.
I suspect there is truth in all three aspects. First, these marketers are speaking to a fairly small crowd–those who frequent Christian book stores and who pull a book by an unknown author off the shelf to read the back cover copy, because honestly, that’s about the extent of the marketers’ reach when it comes to Christian fantasy.
In addition, everyday people are not listening to the marketers. For one thing, they have become, by necessity, fairly jaded when it comes to marketing. In part they are adept at looking past it. But if they should allow marketing to penetrate their thinking, they are just as apt to be skeptical about what they’re told as they are impressed by it.
Consequently, any book with the claim that its author is the next C. S. Lewis had better prove it within the first few pages because, if the writing isn’t there, readers who turn to the first chapter will surely conclude the back cover is typical marketing hyperbole.
Thirdly, the marketers and the everyday people seem to be in disagreement about what they’re looking for. This point, I believe, is critical.
Are everyday people looking for stories set in a make-believe world like Narnia? Do they want books they can read to their children? Are they looking for stories with allegorical meaning like The Great Divorce? A Christian-ized retelling of a Greek myth in the vein of Till We Have Faces? A space-travel story about aliens, with Christian implications?
My guess is, those things are what marketers believe readers want in the “next C. S. Lewis,” but I suspect they miss the mark. Readers aren’t so much looking for the same kinds of stories as they are the same depth of story telling.
Lewis’s depth first came from his interaction with Scripture, evidenced by his non-fiction apologetic works. Certainly his imaginative thinking also benefited from his interaction with his colleagues at Oxford, particularly those in the Inklings. In other words, his fiction did not spring to life in a vacuum, nor did it germinate exclusively from the fertile soil of his own imagination.
Rather, Lewis read widely, studied profusely, and spent hours discussing literature and theology with other scholars. Dr. Mitchell summed up Lewis’s ability as “a rare combination of theological reflection and poetic imagination.”
Perhaps he also enjoyed the rare environment of Oxford at the rare time of the post-World War II era.
But aren’t all times and environments rare in their own ways? I can only imagine what Lewis would have done if he’d had the opportunity to express his ideas in Facebook updates or Tweet his thoughts. The latter seems almost laughable, except for the fact that Lewis is so eminently quotable. His ideas are expansive, and he took books to explain his positions, and yet he had the knack of encapsulating deep truths in a sound bite.
In the end, I don’t think writers today should try to emulate Lewis’s stories or writing practices and certainly not his style. Rather, I think those everyday people looking for “the next Lewis” are actually looking for a writer whose fiction opens up spiritual reality the way Lewis’s does.
Of Lewis’s non-fiction, Mitchell says,
In addition to Lewis’ remarkable ability to translate Christian doctrine into lively, jargon-free, accessible prose, he also succeeded in communicating its essential depth and substance, turning what had become for many a mere religious relic into a potentially potent spiritual reality.
I suggest his fiction accomplished the exact same thing. This “next C. S. Lewis,” then, must delve into the depth of Christian doctrine and learn how to translate it into potent spiritual reality through the vehicle of stories. And that, I believe, is precisely what everyday people are looking for.