(RNS) Fifty years after his death, not many people can claim to have known C.S. Lewis personally. But one of them is James Houston, one of the founders of the respected Christian institution Regent College in Vancouver, who ran in the same circles as Lewis while they were both at Oxford.
Houston, who turned 91 on Thursday (Nov. 21), a day before the 50th anniversary of Lewis’ death, still teaches theology at Regent and co-founded the C.S. Lewis Institute in Washington, D.C. He spoke with RNS about Lewis’ strengths and weaknesses, his triumphs and shortcomings. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: How did you know C.S. Lewis?
A: I was a colleague of Lewis and lived with a friend of his, and he would join us once a month for an evening.
Q: Why do you think Lewis was so effective in his work?
A: Simple truths can be communicated simply. A mathematical truth that 2 + 2 = 4 is a simple communication about simple fact. The more you have density about meaning, the more ways of communication you need to express that depth of meaning. The great skill of Lewis was that he was against reductionism. The great appeal that Lewis has today is that he has an extraordinary range of a diversity of genre in communicating truth. He used fairy tales, mythology, poetry, science fiction, children’s stories, scholarly essays. He used the whole gamut to communicate the depths of truth.
Q: Do you think it’s true that he became more popular over time?
A: What often happens to people who are deeply prophetic against the culture is it takes a long time for them to be heard and understood. That’s why truth has longevity. It takes time. What’s happening with “Lewis-mania” is that there are many people wanting to be attached to someone whose popularity is rising. I’ve always refrained from name-dropping. I want my own identity and not have it smothered by Lewis. The danger of becoming popular is the interpretation that comes from it. People are interpreting Lewis from their own investment in Lewis and not allowing Lewis to speak his own mind. There’s always a danger in identifying too much with someone.
Q: Lewis is praised for his achievements, but did you see many shortcomings?
A: The thing about Lewis is that he was extraordinarily naive. He was a bachelor and met a former communist from America. He promised to marry her to give her a visa, but he was not in love with her. It was only when she was taken ill that he did fall in love with her. That’s not the normal behavior of someone with emotional intelligence. We can have extraordinary influence in a public way but not have that intelligence in a private way. Our dear friend C.S. Lewis was a human being, subject the same human frailties as the rest of us.
Q: What do you think people would be surprised to know?
A: Lewis didn’t have close confidences with friends, so he was very shy and didn’t disclose his feelings. He used humor as a smokescreen. That was disappointing about Lewis. He’d be shocked and surprised about all the fuss about him today. His intimacy was in his books. His intimacy was not social.
Q: How do you think he has stood the test of time?
A: In terms of lifelong legacy, Lewis will stand for many decades and centuries to come. What we call the millennial generation is disenchanted with the boomer generation, a generation of reductionism. It’s a generation that found identify from your profession instead of from relationships. The new generation feels cheated by that.
Q: What do you mean by reductionism?
A: That’s a malaise of modernity, which is saying that the whole enterprise of human sciences is not human enough. Is anthropology aware of being made in the image of God? No. Is psychology capable of understanding the human person? Only slightly. You begin to realize what happened in the 20th century was reductionism. God himself was reduced to deism. It’s not theism, or the understanding the person of God. The human sciences were founded on the presuppositions of deism. The abstraction of God is the abstraction of human.
Q: What impact did Lewis make on Christians and intellectualism?
A: Lewis is a shining example of someone who thought Christian-ly about literature as much as he would about theology. There’s a consistency about his intelligence in faith and his intelligence in mind, and there was no difference between the two. We might think the pastor looks after our souls, the account looks after our taxes. Lewis is a corrective to that. When we created Regent, I wanted to create 10,000 students like Lewis. There’s scarcely a man like him.