Loving C.S. Lewis as an Exvangelical

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The road to leaving Evangelicalism has been long and fraught with tension.  I wrestled with Christianity from 2008-2010, recommitted myself as a Christian on the rainy streets of Oxford in 2011, and then…promptly went back to wrestling with Christianity again.  Or at least, the Evangelical Christianity I was raised in, which I thought was the only Christianity worth believing in.  But I lost faith more and more as I sought for a space that would grant my LGBTQ friends communion and fellowship.  Less hot pastors in skinny jeans talking about complementarian theology, more working to create healthy community and undoing the damages of the past.

This road has had its share of bitterness.  I once described myself as a Christian to a friend, but “the crabby drunk aunt in the family that yells and insults the others after she’s had a few.”  I still feel that way a lot of the times, particularly in our post-2016 world, where everything I believe in and love seems under a particularly vitriolic attack.

I haven’t looked back, for the most part.  I felt the loss of community and that sweet, sweet wine of certainty I used to have, that wonderfully addictive self-righteousness that would fill me up after every service.  had it all together.  had all the answers.  It’s a potent drug, to be sure, and if truth be told, I’ve been searching for that high in every church community I’ve been a part of.  But I’m never going to get it again, because it’s unhealthy and it was killing my soul.

It’s easy to laugh at creationism, to get angry about how my LGBTQ friends have been treated, to deconstruct the toxic messages of purity culture piece by piece.  That part was easy to walk away from and I haven’t missed that part of Evangelicalism one bit.  But there was one thing I was terrified of losing.

My teacher, C.S. Lewis.

C.S. Lewis has a big presence in American Evangelical culture.  The blogger Matt Walsh, whose ignorance infuriates me on a near weekly basis, cites him as one of his favorite authors, Sarah Palin said the Chronicles of Narnia were her favorite books (perfectly understandable), and Eric Metaxas, who makes me want to to tear my hair out with his complete misunderstanding of Bonhoeffer, likes him too.  C.S. Lewis is deeply well-liked by conservatives and complementarians and Evangelicals–basically all the people I do not want to have a drink with.

So when my faith shifted, my politics shifted…I was scared my love for C.S. Lewis would shift too.  I was scared I would have to leave him behind.

And oh, how I did not want to do this.  C.S. Lewis gave me so much.  He gave me my best understanding of God, he got me interested in theology, inspired my pursuit of higher education.  He gave me Oxford.  I don’t want to write angry dark short stories about his female characters.  I don’t want to hate C.S. Lewis.  I want to love him and devote my life to researching everything about him.

Things got particularly troublesome when I embarked on my independent study in 2016.  I was granted the opportunity to go through his manuscripts and notes at the Bodleian Library in Oxford.  I spent seven hours every day shut up in that beautiful ancient library with nothing but C.S. Lewis’ messy handwriting and it was heaven.  I never wanted to leave.  I knew this was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

Write.  Research.  Sing.  Mother.  That’s what I want out of life.

I was hoping, in my research, to somehow prove Lewis wasn’t as conservative or Evangelical as others thought.  I wanted to prove that Joy Davidman, his fantastic firecracker wife, “cured” him of his earlier biases.

This had…mixed results.  I learned two very important lessons:

  1. Nothing in academia is linear.  People do not fit into neat little boxes all wrapped up in string.  Lewis is no exception.
  2. C.S. Lewis is not as conservative as conservatives make him out to be, neither is he as Evangelical as Evangelicals make him out to be…but he is also not as progressive as would like him to be.

After my senior thesis, I gave Lewis a wide berth.  I couldn’t tame him with research after all, but neither could I let him go.

But then…oh, then.  Then I gave a long infamous Twitter thread about the popular misconceptions of Susan Pevensie.  (You can read my full post on that here!)  And then I realized how much I missed talking about C.S. Lewis and sharing in his scholarship.

So I started tentatively rereading him.  Bit by bit.  And to my absolute delight, I saw things from an Exvangelical perspective that I’d never seen before.  His ideas on gender and sex had certain problems, yes, but there was also strange strands of progressive ideas that later feminism and queer theory explored too.  His flummoxed and shocked an American church program by talking about sex frankly and openly, which led me to wonder what he would think of the Evangelical purity culture movement.  The Calormenes presented some racist caricatures…but were almost immediately subverted by Aravis and Emeth.  Jane Studdock was ordered to “dream no more, have children instead”, but Queen Orual ruled a nation and fought for her queenship through honorable duel.

There was so much there.  And not only that…I had things to add to the conversation.

We are used to looking at Lewis through a western lens, through a lens that, forgive me, has been inundated with white male readings.  That’s all very well and good.  But what can women bring to reading Lewis?  What can black women bring to reading Lewis?  Or Muslim women?  Or trans men and women?  What could gender fluid people bring to Lewis’ separation of sex and gender?

There is so much THERE.

And I intend to discover it.

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