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C.S. Lewis Bible provokes debate

Some evangelical Christians question whether the late 'Chronicles of Narnia' author and lay theologian would want his religious insights interspersed in a gender-neutral version of the Bible, saying he held a more conservative view.

April 16, 2011|By Nomi Morris
  • Hundreds of excerpts of C.S. Lewis' writings on religion are interspersed in a New Revised Standard Version of the Bible.
Hundreds of excerpts of C.S. Lewis' writings on religion are interspersed… (John Chillingworth )

At a time when the words of the late British novelist, scholar and lay theologian C.S. Lewis are reaching more people than ever, a newly published Bible bearing his name has excited fans and provoked debate over whether Lewis would have approved.

"The Voyage of the Dawn Treader," the third film created from Lewis' "Chronicles of Narnia" series, has earned more than $400 million since its December release. Next month, Lewis' translation of Virgil's Aeneid will be published. A stage adaptation of "The Screwtape Letters" is on national tour. And C.S. Lewis College, a Christian school, is expected to open in 2012 in Massachusetts.

For HarperCollins, which has published nine of Lewis's nonfiction books on Christianity and is the main licensing manager for the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, it made sense to issue a Bible with 600 Lewis excerpts interspersed through the text.

"What a great fit," said Michael Maudlin, executive editor of HarperOne, the publisher's imprint for religion and spirituality. "This is a devotional Bible. It uses Lewis' writings to illuminate what is being addressed in the Scripture."

Overseen by Lewis' stepson Douglas Gresham and Lewis scholar Jerry Root, who teaches at Wheaton College in Illinois, editors sifted through the suggestions of nearly two dozen academics to decide which insights to include.

After Genesis 3:1-13, for example, about Adam and Eve's expulsion from the Garden of Eden, the editors use this Lewis excerpt: "He would rather have a world of free beings, with all its risks, than a world of people who did right like machines because they couldn't do anything else."

After Hosea 14:1-7 comes Lewis' view that "God gives what He has, not what He has not: He gives the happiness that there is, not the happiness that is not."

Born Clive Staples Lewis in 1898, Lewis became a professor of literature and classics at Oxford and Cambridge universities. An atheist in early adulthood, he converted to Christianity at age 32. He often discussed religion with his friend J.R.R. Tolkien, the "Lord of the Rings" author, who was also a believer.

In its first few months, the C.S. Lewis Bible has sold 19,000 clothbound copies and 5,300 leather-bound copies.

But no sooner had the new Bible appeared than some evangelical conservatives circulated a petition saying Lewis' name and writings should not be paired with a gender-neutral translation of the Bible that came out decades after his 1963 death.

Louis Markos, an English professor at Houston Baptist University, sent the petition to 1,000 academics urging that HarperOne withdraw the book. About 35 representatives of colleges and religious journals have signed. "The majority consensus among C.S. Lewis scholars is that Lewis was firmly against gender-neutral usage and the egalitarianism on which it is based," the petition says.

Markos, who has written two books on C.S. Lewis, says the late writer believed instead in "complementarianism," that God created men and women with different roles and responsibilities.

"C.S. Lewis' position throughout his works is the traditional Christian position that men and women are different but of full and equal value," said Markos, who is urging HarperOne to reissue the Bible in the King James Version — used during Lewis' time — or the Revised Standard Version.

Some scholars say Lewis was leaning more toward egalitarianism in his later years.

Maudlin responds that the New Revised Standard Bible is used by a wide swath of Christian denominations. He says the petition may have discouraged some conservative evangelical bookstores from carrying the Lewis Bible but hasn't slowed overall sales. "It caused a few ripples but in the end helped us with publicity," he said.

Bibles remain the backbone of the book publishing industry. According to a survey last year by the Pew Research Center, 37% of Americans say they read it more than once a week, not including during services.

Weighing in at 1,568 pages, the Lewis Bible is the latest of about 60 Bibles published by HarperCollins, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. The media conglomerate also owns Walden Media and 20th Century Fox, which are putting the Narnia books onscreen.

In recent years, Lewis has become so popular among traditional Christians that Eastern University professor Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen was quoted in the evangelical magazine Christianity Today warning that some evangelical Christians wish to turn him into "the 13th Apostle."

"He is treated like a saint, which is ironic since it is a community that doesn't believe in saints," said Craig Detweiler, director of the Center for Entertainment, Media and Culture at Pepperdine University.

Even Sarah Palin, who is also published by HarperCollins, cited C.S. Lewis as a source of "divine inspiration" when broadcaster Barbara Walters asked her about her reading habits in a December interview.

Both Joy Behar of ABC's "The View" and MSNBC commentator Richard Wolffe poked fun at Palin for citing a children's book author. But Lewis, an Anglican, wrote many adult books on Christian philosophy that are well respected by many theologians.

"He articulated Orthodoxy so cogently," Detweiler said. "No one has assumed such a sharp, insightful and authoritative voice from within the evangelical community. So Lewis is bandied about to settle old arguments and even new ones."

The new Bible with Lewis' writings, says Detweiler, is typical of the issues that divide progressives from conservatives among evangelical Christians.

"Lewis was a pipe-smoking, alcohol-drinking Anglican who has been embraced by an evangelical community that may not have room for him in many of their churches," he said.

metrodesk@latimes.com

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