Thinking Out Loud

February 17, 2012

C. S. Lewis, not C. S. Lewis C.B.E.

Across the pond, Tim Chester reported this a few weeks ago:

A freedom of information request has led to the disclosure of people who declined official honours from the Queen as part of the British honour system. I was interested to notice that among them was CS Lewis. Lewis turned down a CBE in 1952…

A reader quickly noted that the story had been shared previously by Lewis’ brother; as relayed by Timothy Keller:

C. S. Lewis' death the same day as John F. Kennedy was so under-reported, some Mere Christianity and Narnia readers believe he is still living.

In his unpublished biography of his brother C. S. Lewis, W. H. “Warnie” Lewis related how in late 1951 his brother received a letter from Prime Minister Winston Churchill. In it, Churchill offered to recommend him for a C.B.E. (Commander of the British Empire). 

The C.B.E. is one class in the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, a chivalric order established to recognize gallantry and service to the Empire, and Lewis was nominated to appear on the last list of honours of King George VI, in December, 1951. It was an extremely coveted honor, and evidently it was offered to Lewis for his public service for writing and broadcasting during the war. 

In a letter to the Prime Minister’s secretary Lewis turned down the offer, which was very unusual. “I feel greatly obliged to the Prime Minister, and so far as my personal feelings are concerned this honour would be highly agreeable,” he wrote. However, he added that many people said or believed that Christianity is basically, “covert anti-Leftist propaganda, and my appearance in the Honours List would of course strengthen their hands. It is therefore better that I should not appear there.” (W. Hooper, ed. The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, volume III, p. 147.) 

Over the years some other notable figures have turned down membership in the Order of the British Empire, but usually it was as a political protest against some aspect of British government or policy. In Lewis’ case the reasoning was completely different. He knew that if Churchill, a Conservative politician, recommended him for the order it would only lend credence to what people believed about the Christian faith, namely, that it was not really about truth, but was rather a tool for non-progressive political interests. Lewis refused to let a political entity reward him for Christian service, fearing it would identify Christianity too closely with one political system. 

Keller goes on to say that similar suspicions about Christianity continue to this day. Especially in an election year — Keller was writing in March of 2011 — people want to equate religion and politics, and he notes that there will be times when the “truth claims” of Christianity will intersect with political ideology.  But then they take it a step too far when they believe that upholding a particular position is “doing the will of God.”

C. S.Lewis refused to be a part of that. He was far-sighted.In our country over the last 60 years, alliances between churches and politics have resulted in many people dismissing Christianity as only “the Conservative (or) Liberal party at prayer.” The results have been destructive (as we discussed in last month’s newsletter article on ‘Civility.’)

That doesn’t mean Christ-following is completely apolitical — though it is in its purest form — or that we don’t have an interest in what’s going on in government.  Keller adds,

[W]e believe that the gospel shapes all areas of life. Christians can and should be involved in government, and their Christian faith will be the driving force behind how they engage in politics as well as how they evaluate many policy issues. Also, Redeemer teaches God’s word and often what the Bible says will have public policy implications that are direct and/or indirect. But Christians must not implicitly or explicitly identify their Christianity with political figures and parties.That has always been the balance we have tried to strike in our ministryin the city. It is tempting of course, when the honours of earthly kings are offered to us for doing Christian ministry. C. S. Lewis allowed the honor of the King of Kings to be enough for him.

Got a friend who is an avid Lewis fan?  Send her or him this link to Keller’s article.

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