Donald T. Williams, PhD
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Lewis Agonistes: How C. S. Lewis can Train us to Wrestle with the Modern and Postmodern World by Louis Markos

From Chad Walsh's pioneering C. S. Lewis: Apostle to the Skeptics (1949) to Michael Aeschliman's The Restitution of Man: C. S. Lewis and the Case against Scientism (1983) to John Beversluis's C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion (1985) to Scott Burson and Jerry Walls' C. S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer: Lessons for a New Century from the most Influential Apologists of our Time (1998) to Victor Reppert's C. S. Lewis's Dangerous Idea: In Defense of the Argument from Reason (2002), a number of substantial attempts have been made to evaluate C. S. Lewis as a Christian apologist. In some ways the best of these studies is Lewis Agonistes by Louis Markos, professor of English at Houston Baptist University. The title means "Lewis the wrestler," from the Greek (agon), an athletic contest or struggle. It nicely captures the fact that for Lewis, apologetics was not simply a polite academic hobby, but rather a phase of the battle of light against darkness, a struggle for minds and hearts with the eternal souls of men and women at stake.

As a general guide to Lewis's apologetic work, Lewis Agonistes is clearly the class of the field. Walsh is dated, Beversluis unsympathetic and tendentious, Aeschliman and Reppert excellent but limited in scope to one issue or argument. Markos is comprehensive, covering not only the standard nonfiction works (Mere Christianity, Miracles, Problem of Pain, etc.) but also showing how Lewis's fiction, literary scholarlship, and works such as Surprised by Joy and A Grief Observed contribute to a holistic approach in which the modern estrangement between Reason and Imagination is overcome. The book is organized thematically, first covering Lewis's preparation for his wrestling in both education and life experience and then analyzing his response to five challenges: science and the modernist paradigm, the new age and neopaganism, evil and suffering, the meaning of art and language, and heaven and hell. The emphasis is not so much on Lewis's arguments in themselves (which, however valid, must be constantly updated) as on Lewis as a role model for our own apologetic wrestling. In the process Markos gets beyond the typical caricature of Lewis as a reactionary to elucidate the wholeness of his approach, which responds to the challenges of modernity "both by means of a reactive defense that takes us back to an older, medieval countervision and a proactive offense that looks ahead to a new synthesis of ancient and modern" (x).

The general excellence of Markos's treatment is marred by an occasional yielding to the temptation to psychologize, speculating about the sources of Lewis's own need to wrestle toward a synthesis of Reason and Imagination. I also think he misses the point in his attempt to show how Lewis might have responded to Postmodern forms of intellectual nihilism such as Deconstruction. Markos contrasts "conservative Evangelicals who argue that language is meaningful because it is not slippery" with "liberal theorists who claim that it is slippery and therefore meaningless." He finds a middle way in "poetry that cries out on the rooftops that language is more meaningful precisely because it is slippery" (130). But why use the word "slippery," which concedes too much, when a more positive description like "rich" would have achieved his purpose equally well? One can't resist imagining a Lewisian "Distinguo!" being thundered over a mug of Eagle and Child beer at that point. For a much better treatment of this question see Bruce Edwards' outstanding study, A Rhetoric of Reading: C. S. Lewis's Defense of Western Literacy (1986).

These are about the only flaws I can find in a very fine work, except the fact that a book of this much intellectual substance rather demands the bibliography and index which are inexplicably missing at the end. Markos avoids the endless dreary summarizing and rehashing which makes most secondary works on Lewis a waste of time that would have been better spent re-reading (or reading) Lewis and give us readable analysis that is profitable to follow even when I think it is wrong. And it is mostly right.

LOUIS MARKOS, Lewis Agonistes: How C. S. Lewis can Train us to Wrestle with the Modern and Postmodern World. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2003. ISBN 080542778-3, pb, xv + 174 pp., $19.99.

Updated 2/5/2006