When Clive Staples Lewis breathed his last on November 22, 1963, the world was looking elsewhere. The beloved American president, John F. Kennedy, had just been assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Oddly, science fiction writer Aldous Huxley also died the same day, creating a trifecta of influential deaths. But 50 years later, one of the three deceased stands above the rest in terms of continued global impact.
“[C.S.] Lewis is now more popular than he ever was,” says Robert Banks, an author and professor with a particular interest Lewis. “And each year he becomes more popular than he ever was by far in his lifetime.”
Lewis was known both for his popular fiction–including The Chronicles of Naria series and Space Trilogy—and his theological non-fiction, such as Mere Christianity and The Problem of Pain. The Lewis canon of literature have sold more than 100 million copies and have been translated into 40 languages. It’s estimated that Lewis’ books still sell around two million copies annually. His books have been turned into screenplays and major motion pictures, grossing hundreds of millions of dollars, and Lewis’ life has been profiled by numerous biographers including recently by British evangelical Alister McGrath.
To commemorate his life and legacy, Harper Collins, who owns rights to publish Lewis’ works in the U.S., is releasing an annotated version of The Screwtape Letters. Paul McCusker, an author and playwright, was hired to write the annotations for the new version. Here, I talk with McCusker about Lewis’ legacy and what we’ll miss in his work if we aren’t careful.
JM: Reading Lewis is a bit like reading the Bible—in that we think we understand it, but might not even realize what we’re missing. Paul, what are some of the references that a 21st century American reader would most likely not catch?
PM: For people who don’t know the Bible very well, Lewis’ references to Biblical phrases and ideas could be missed. Lewis was also a man of literature, who often quoted or alluded to the works of Milton or Homer or even more obscure authors and books that his readers at the time may have known, but we have long-since forgotten. In one of Screwtape’s letters, Lewis spends a bit of time dealing with George Bernard Shaw and a particular philosophy few now would know (though elements of that philosophy exist in people’s thinking today). Lewis also assumed a common understanding among his readers of the Church of England’s liturgies, which Americans in general – and Evangelical Protestants in particular – might not recognize. My hope with the Annotations is to bring all of those to light.
JM: And what about Lewis’ context? Was he addressing particularities of his historical context that we’re not hearing?