Fr. Andrew Cuneo - Why is C. S. Lewis Still So Popular?

Youtube has a weird algorithm for video recommendations, but sometimes it gives me something interesting–this was one of those times. It’s a brief talk by Fr. Andrew Cuneo about Lewis’ enduring appeal. From the video description:

Fr. Andrew is rector and founding priest of St. Katherine Orthodox Church in Carlsbad, California. He helped Walter Hooper with research on the unpublished letters of C. S. Lewis, a subject that became the focus of his doctoral work at Oxford University. Fr. Andrew has taught English Literature at Hillsdale College and St. Katherine College.

He addresses something that’s troubled me as well. I’ve always found Lewis’ popular writing (to distinguish from his academic writing, with which I’m entirely unfamiliar) to be very clear and easy to follow. I read Mere Christianity in high school, and though it certainly dealt with weighty subjects, there was no difficulty at all following what he was saying. Today, though, I see intelligent, well-read people, who regularly read the Puritans, comment on how “deep” it is, suggest that it’s slow going, etc. Fr. Andrew has apparently observed the same thing, and chalks it up to “people just don’t read”.

Dan, I see that God has brought you (a little) into the midst of the Orthodox world (:-).

It’s an interesting video, for sure. But I wonder whether it’s really true that “people don’t read”. They have certainly read a lot of Harry Potter (my grandson among them), and those are certainly not short books. Maybe the crucial difference is that works of fantasy and adventure are more interesting than theological stuff, i.e. Narnia is more interesting than Mere Christianity. To be honest, I also enjoy Lewis’s fiction more than his theological/philosophical works (isn’t that why Christ used parables in his ministry?).

But I’m surprised by the Orthodox monk’s reference to Lewis’s “ascetic” insights, as supposedly illustrated in the Screwtape Letters. What might that be?


“Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. Love does not demand its own way. Love is not irritable, and it keeps no record of when it has been wronged. It is never glad about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance. Love will last forever.” (1 Corinthians 13: 4-8)

I suspect there is a bit of a difference between those who read for entertainment (and even those, I think, are fewer than they were a generation ago), which would primarily be those who read fiction, and those who regularly read nonfiction for content. It reminds me of T. David Gordon’s Why Johnny Can’t Preach, to which his answer is that Johnny can’t read–more precisely, that Johnny (like most of Western, or at least American, culture) is no longer capable of reading complex documents and analyzing them. And I think he has a point there.

Nothing comes to mind on that one.

I think the “Johnny can’t read” argument falls short of the mark.

People today imbibe knowledge over a wider bandwidth than simply reading.

To give two examples: there is a huge amount of knowledge to be gained from YouTube and the like. And the audio-book market is positively booming.

There is also, thankfully, a large and increasing amount of C.S.Lewis available on YouTube. The C.S.Lewis Doodles channel is whole new and immensely potent conduit for Lewis’s legacy.

Free Thulcandra!


I don’t think I’d agree.

This suggests that any medium out of that “wider bandwidth” is more or less equivalent, which I also don’t think I’d agree with–and more to the point, Gordon definitely wouldn’t agree, and spends a good part of that book explaining why. Media are not value-neutral–different media do different things, they reflect different values, and we consume them in different ways.

One of the bigger issues, IMO, is that it’s much harder to follow a closely-reasoned argument by audio or video than it is in writing–our minds don’t work the same way when reading as when watching. We’re aware of that, and we generally write differently than we speak (which is why a bunch of topical sermons compiled into a book, however brilliant of a preacher he may have been, make for a tough read–for a modern example of this, see D. Martin Lloyd-Jones’ Spiritual Depression).

When I read Gordon’s book, I was somewhat skeptical of his premise. But with more observation, I’m more convinced he’s got a point that we ignore at our peril. A situation that went a long way toward convincing me involved the mess Volkswagen got in some years back–you’ll likely recall that they got in trouble (all around the world, but especially in the US) over the diesel models. A number of US government agencies sued, and eventually reached a settlement which was (IMO) very generous to owners of those cars. But in an online community very interested in the settlement, it struck me that very few of the participants could actually parse the settlement documents to understand what they were saying, and thus what they were entitled to.

“But that’s legalese,” you may be thinking. Not really, no. Legalese isn’t Klingon; it’s simply English with a little bit of specialized vocabulary (most of which would be defined in the document, as it was in this case). But it does use more complicated sentence and paragraph structure than most popular-level writing, and it often carries a thought through a number of pages of discussion. Most of the participants on that forum just weren’t able to follow it.

Of course, the Bible isn’t a settlement agreement, but in some cases it presents greater challenges. The settlement agreement was a modern document, written in modern English, and in a single, obvious genre. The Bible, meanwhile, was written 2000-3500 years ago, not in English, and in a variety of genera, which are occasionally not obvious.