Top Ten Reads of 2014

Eastman Johnson, The boyhood of Lincoln, an evening in the log hut, 1868

The time has come, yet again, to count down my top favorite reads of this past year! I know. I know. My opinion simply doesn’t matter, and you could possibly care less about this post. Still, for those looking for some good reads to mull over this next year, this list may help.

Now, it is time to reclaim my Evangelical Membership Card by blogging (yes, again) about C.S. Lewis. This past year was a self proclaimed Year O’Lewis. He’s a force to be reckoned with, and if you’re serious about understanding popular Christianity­–or, if you live in the South, your next-door neighbor–you simply can’t ignore him. So, I’ve spent this past year reading any work of Lewis I could get my hands on. I’m still not finished with my list (the man wrote so much), but here goes…

10. The Discarded Image. This one made the list because the Lewis in this work is so different from the one I’m used to reading. This work is his exploration of medieval cosmology and showcases Lewis as an academician. The Discarded Image provides us with a backdrop on which to situate Lewis as an academician, apologist, story-teller, and Christian. As his last work, it reveals his utter expertise in and passion for all things medieval and helps us understand a framework he so utterly admired and one that crept subtly into so many of his prior works. In typical Lewis fashion, the closing chapters remain the most powerful and enlightening, as he brings us to the present to gaze at our own model and conception of reality. The last few pot-shots question the very ground our modern thought stands upon and leave us yearning for Absolute Truth in an age of utter uncertainty.

9. Reflections on the Psalms. Beyond its devotional use, Reflections on the Psalms is also an extremely important work to wrestle with for understanding Lewis. Here, he explores various themes found in the Psalms. Still, the gem in this work is not simply Lewis’ treatment of themes, it is also Lewis’ method of treating them. In this work, we get a glimpse into Lewis’ theology of the Scriptures–his prolegomena–something we only get snippets of in other works. And what do we find? Lewis simply cannot separate himself fully from the modern era of Biblical criticism and elevation of rationalism which had come to dominate his time. It really does present us with a fun, slight paradox that all of us can sense in Lewis: he’s so spot-on a lot of times, but he simply falls short in others. Reflections of the Psalms helps us understand the genius that much more, and so it remains on this list (albeit low on it). It’s devotional, but it’s also telling of the man behind the pen.

8. Till We Have Faces. Written as a re-telling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, this is Lewis’ last novel. It’s just good story telling, friends. And, in his notable fashion, the last few pages reframe and restructure the entirety of the story, enlightening the whole in sublime ways. We can all relate to the envy and covetousness which eats away at us over time, only to discover what we had so desired was not what we had intended. As Lewis elegantly put in other works, we spend our whole lives pounding on a door that has been bolted from the inside. We want answers, but we must all learn this lesson: “I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?” (294). Till We Have Faces is utter tragedy mixed with ultimate hope.

7. A Grief Observed. Don’t let the page count fool you. Coming in at under a hundred pages, the density of this book makes A Grief Observed worthy of all our attentions. This work was published under a pseudonym for, obviously, anonymity’s sake. It’s easy to see why he didn’t think it was worthy of–or suitable for– publication, but sometimes those works that are most raw and honest are those that the everyday man needs most. A Grief Observed is Lewis’ most honest exploration of one of the darkest themes of the Christian life- grief. I found it to be refreshment. It’s unadulterated Lewis. No more lofty ideas, no more speculating. We’ve come to the meat of humanity and the real questions and pains that linger there. After losing his wife, Lewis looks pain–and our God– in the face in desperation. Perhaps this is Lewis as Job? This work is more than a comfort to those who are hurting; I read it and found a fellow traveler. A quote from his work, Letters to Malcolm Chiefly on Prayer ironically summarizes the contents of A Grief Observed: “I think it is only in a shared darkness that you and I can really meet at present; shared with one another and, what matters most, with our Master. We are not on the untrodden path. Rather, on the main road,” (47). In A Grief Observed we find unparalleled intimacy, true humanity, and One who holds onto us despite our kicking and screaming.

6. Pilgrim’s Regress. Bathed in obscurity, The Pilgrim’s Regress is Lewis’ first novel. I don’t understand seventy percent of the references in this work, but it’s #6 because it’s such a fun read. Who doesn’t love Bunyan’s classic word, The Pilgrim’s Progress? Well, this is Lewis version of the story, framed in his own search for the classic principle that dominates Lewis’ repertoire: Joy. If you can grab a copy with Lewis’ own Afterward to the Third Edition, the time spent reading it will prove extremely rewarding. He examines in detail his experience of Joy and Desire and gives us some keys to unlock his allegory. One line will do to showcase Lewis’ wonderful approach: “It seems to me, Father, that I am going where I do not wish; for I set out to find an Island and I have found a Landlord instead,” (143). God is, indeed, the object we search for, though we often begin the journey searching for one of His gifts. That’s what this work is all about.

5. The Great Divorce. This work showcases and illustrates Lewis’ Platonic idealism more than any other thing he wrote (although someone who really knows Plato and Lewis might grill me on that statement). Granted, Plato had some crazy ideas, but Lewis’ re-appropriation of them in talking through the afterlife make for rich reading. Everything in Lewis’ afterlife is more solid, more real than anything this side of eternity. It shines with a brilliance that penetrates to the core, and threatens our darkness and complacency with its overwhelming power. This work will make you question why you hold on to the things that you do when something so much greater is offered. While Lewis explores this theme in many places and in differing works, here he illustrates it with story, and the story works. Again, the last page or so is worth the read in its grandiosity and tension as our main character, a mere phantom, is threatened by the coming Eternal Dawn: “‘The morning! The morning!’ I cried, ‘I am caught by the morning and I am a ghost,’” (145). What will we do when caught by that Great Morning?

4. Mere Christianity. Why is Mere Christianity #4? You can get all of the material–and more– in #1. Still, the collection of ideas in Lewis’ most well known work is a collection of unrefined gold. I say gold, because there are ideas here that are absolutely brilliant, and he describes them, in the usual Lewis fashion, winsomely and uniquely. Still, many are unrefined. Lewis’ notion of free will pervades this work, and if he had been a wee bit more honest with his own reading of the Scriptures, he would have seen how inconsistent this view is with them. While it pervades, it is not dominant (except in one chapter), which makes the work still one that has proven extremely valuable for us Christians ever since it was published. Here, Lewis examines some of his most classic arguments for Christianity and then turns his attention to the “mere” aspects of Christianity, explained in ways that only Lewis can spin. We can all agree, Lewis is at his most quotable within these pages, and every Christian should make it a priority to grapple with the rich, challenging, and life-changing truths found within them.

3. Chronicles of Narnia. Alright. This was a tough one for me. It almost was bumped to #4, but due to the number of works in this series and the diversity between the books, it climbed to #3. If you want pure adventure mixed with some of the best allegory literature has ever seen, pick these seven books up. What else can I say? Races through deserts on horseback, magical wardrobes, giants and fauns, ancient woods, lampposts, talking beasts, adventures on the high seas, an ancient Lion, and more await us and welcome us in. If your theology textbooks have become dry (and they often do), here is good theology (with the exception of Emeth in The Last Battle–I had to throw it in there) distilled into story. These books are Lewis’ beloved idea of “Joy” written into narrative. They create longing, awaken desire, and propel us forward towards Truth and Beauty. It’s a worthwhile work that can awaken those kinds of things in a person. The Chronicles of Narnia–read them. Duh. And be a kid again.

2. Space Trilogy. It seems to me that in these three works, Lewis is at his most creative. Out of the Silent Planet follows our main character, Ransom, as he is kidnapped and thrust into an adventure on Malacandra, the true name of Mars. This is science fiction at its best (although people who love to read Dune and Star Wars fan fiction might disagree) and follows Lewis’ familiar strand of thought, if Christianity is true, it’s true for the whole galaxy. Most people I talk to think Perelandra, the second book in the trilogy, is Lewis’ best work of the three, and I agree. Ransom, again, is sent to another planet–this time it’s Venus. He finds himself immediately involved in the planet’s Garden narrative as he meets the “Eve” of the planet. What follows is a battle between Ransom and a demonic force to sway the allegiance of the young woman as the future of the planet dangles precariously on the edge of corruption. The story is nothing less than superb. That Hideous Strength, the last of the trilogy, is the odd-child of the three. Heavily influenced by Lewis’ love of medieval and Arthurian literature, this last book is about the attempted takeover of our planet by domestic enemies and the desperate fight of pure good and utter evil couched in a familiar question: what if we had to sacrifice everything–our jobs, our reputations, and even our families– for the sake of the Good? The trilogy is completely original and drips of things greater than Lewis’ pen could fashion by itself. Here he touches the Everlasting, and distills it into a potent liquid that goes down smoothly and warms the soul.

1. Essay Collection and Other Short Pieces. Weighing in at eight hundred and eighty-eight pages, this work is #1 for one reason: the sheer number of things contained within its covers. It is the only collection of Lewis’ works on my list because it may be the largest. Almost every idea Lewis explores in the rest of his works is contained here in essay and short story form; it is simply a treasure chest. It is now out-of-print, but there seems to be an audio book of its contents out there. I received the hardcopy as a present a few years ago, and it remains one of my most beloved books. This work contains almost every–not all, mind you! – essay you can find in any smaller collection. One hundred and thirty five essays, short stories, and letters–enough said. If you love Lewis, you have to have this book. Have to. Really.

Now that I’ve devoted over 2,000 words to this man, maybe my Evangelical Membership Card will be secure for a bit.

Still, the beauty here is not Lewis. It can never be. He is a signpost, and that’s what I’ll leave you with:

“When we are lost in the woods the sight of a signpost is a great matter. He who first sees it cries, ‘Look!’ The whole party gathers round and stares. But when we have found the road and are passing signposts every few miles, we shall not stop and stare. They will encourage us and we shall be grateful to the authority that set them up. But we shall not stop and stare, or not much; not on this road, though their pillars are of silver and their lettering of gold. ‘We would be at Jerusalem,’” (Lewis, Surprised By Joy, 206).

This post is gargantuan. I apologize. Happy 2015, and happy reading!

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