Terry Mattingly urges Christian writers to create works of lasting quality that will appeal to ordinary people outside the church. A lesson involving C.S. Lewis and a Tokyo subway shows the way.
by Terry Mattingly
The bookstore was only a few steps away from one of those intersections where it seems like half of the population of Tokyo is headed one direction on foot and the other half is going the other direction in a bus, in a taxi or on a bike.
A steady stream of customers flowed right off the sidewalks into the long rows of Japanese newspapers, magazines, comics, computer books and novels. There wasn't much to look at, if you couldn't read Japanese. But near the checkout desk I found a revolving display rack of English-language paperbacks.
Sure enough, there were plenty of books by Stephen King, John Grisham and Tom Clancy. I turned the display and there was the Oprah book club. Then one more turn and there was "The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe" and the other six volumes of "The Chronicles of Narnia."
I wasn't surprised. You can walk into just about any mainstream bookstore on Planet Earth and you will at least one shelf dedicated to C.S. Lewis, the witty Oxford don who wrote "Mere Christianity," "Miracles," "The Problem of Pain," "A Grief Observed" and numerous other works of popular Christian apologetics.
And then there are the Narnia books, which remain a phenomenon in children's literature, selling millions of copies year after year even though it has now been half a century since Lewis finished the first volume. Come back in 2050 or thereabouts and let's see if you can find new editions of Harry Potter books selling in the same rack as the bestsellers in a Tokyo bookstore.
The books are, of course, full of good stories that pull children through that mysterious wardrobe with Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy and into a world populated with talking beasts, fawns, wizards, giants, dragons and legions of other wonderful and horrible creatures. Narnia is created, redeemed and ruled by the great lion Aslan, the "son of the Great Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea."
The books full of child-friendly Christian symbolism and parables, of course, but they also are laced with adult messages about politics, theology, science, economics and who knows what all. The books can be read time after time by readers of all ages and that's precisely what millions of readers do, generation after generation.
But that is not why the 50th anniversary of "The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe" has been celebrated as a major publishing event. That is not why all of Lewis' books remain in print and many remain bestsellers, decades after his death in 1963.
What matters the most is that Lewis set out to write books that were good enough to be read by bright people -- young and old -- all across England and, then, around the world. He did not set out to be a popular Christian writer. He set out to be a great writer -- to produce what he called popular "little books" -- who appealed to everyone. As people say in the American South, Lewis didn't settle for "preaching to the choir."
"What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects -- with their Christianity latent," argued Lewis, in an essay entitled "Christian Apologetics."
"Our business is to present that which is timeless (the same yesterday, today and tomorrow) in the particular language of our own age," he added. The bad preacher and apologist "does exactly the opposite: he takes the ideas of our own age and tricks them out in the traditional language of Christianity."
Lewis, of course, knew what he was saying about his own goals and motivations. He knew that he was paraphrasing the words of St. Paul, who reminded the leaders of the early church that "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever."
So Lewis was setting the highest possible standards for his work, in the here and now and in eternity. It's sad that there are so few religious believers who are willing to pay the price to follow his path into the mainstream.
You see, it's hard to produce stories, and books, and songs, and movies, and magazines, and newspaper columns that appeal to ordinary readers in America and around the world. It's easier to produce Christian products that sell to Christian consumers who occasionally visit Christian stores.
But it is highly unlikely that you will find many stores of that kind only a few steps away from busy intersections in Tokyo, or London, or New York City.
Prof. Terry Mattingly directs the Institute of Journalism at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities in Washington, D.C. He writes the nationally syndicated "On Religion" column for the Scripps Howard News Service.
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