Monday, January 25, 2016

C.S. Lewis Recommends Books to a Seeker

I've been reading through a collection of C.S. Lewis' letters and recently ran across a section where he recommends a number of books to a woman, a former student of his, who was exploring Christianity. Lewis wrote the following to his brother about the exchange:
This week I received a letter from my former pupil Mrs. Neylan... who is trembling on the verge of Christianity — admits that the issue 'can no longer be avoided' — and asks what to read and (more difficult still) who to see. I felt almost overwhelmed by the responsibility of my reply, and naturally the more because the two other people whose conversion had something to do with me became Papists!.... The letter's gone now. I suppose if God intends to have Mrs Neylan it won't make much difference what I've written! — yet that is a dangerous argument which would lead to its not mattering what you did in any circumstances.
Here's what he recommended for her to read:
On this whole aspect of the subject I should go on (since you've read his Orthodoxy) to Chesterton's The Everlasting Man. You might also find Mauriac's Life of Jesus useful... By the way, if childish associations are too intrusive in reading the New Testament, it's a good idea to try it in some other language, or in Moffatt's modern translation. 
As for theology proper: a good many misunderstandings are cleared away by Edwyn Bevan's Symbolism and Belief. A book of composite authorship and of varying merits, but on the whole good is Essays Catholic and Critical ed. E.G. Selwyn S.P.C.K. Gore's The Philosophy of the Good Life is rather wordy but taught me a lot. If you can stand serious faults of style (and if you can get them, they are long out of print) George Macdonald's 3 vols. of Unspoken Sermons go to the very heart of the matter. I think you would also find it most illuminating to re-read now many things you once read in 'English Lit' without knowing their real importance — Herbert, Traherne, Religio Medici.
Mary Neylan wrote an article about her friendship with Lewis, published in The Chesterton Review in 1991 (available to purchase here). Of the books he recommended, one still widely read today is Chesterton's Orthodoxy. My son is now reading the Space Trilogy for the first time, which reminds me that I need to re-read it, having not read it since college.

In the letter he also recommend two of his own works (at her request), The Pilgrims Regress and Out of the Silent Planet. In an interview Eric Metaxas, Walter Hooper said Lewis told him That Hideous Strength was his favorite book of all he had written (or, as he made the distinction, the "one he liked best"). One would think he would have recommended Mere Christianity to her, but the letter was written in 1940, a few years before he gave the lectures upon which the book would be based. Who knows, maybe this conversation helped him see the importance of writing such a book?

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