Why C.S. Lewis Was So Persuasive

A new book lays out why Lewis was such an effective communicator.

In the new book Seasoned Speech: Rhetoric in the Life of the Church, James Beitler III looks at C.S. Lewis’s rhetorical strategy to reflect on what made him so successful at rhetoric. Beitler ascribes to Lewis a rhetoric of goodwill, and fleshes this out in three different categories. Lewis was a powerful and effective communicator because he

1) Defined his audience and addressed them specifically

Beitler writes that Lewis was not afraid to be explicit about the kind of people whom he was addressing in a given context. By deciding who it was that he was most trying to reach, Lewis was able to craft his logical approach in a way that was specifically effective for that audience. This meant, among other things, deciding what particular angle his particular audience needed most, and then putting his ideas where that audience could best access them. Beitler writes, “Lewis’s observations speak to the necessity of learning about one’s audience members before addressing them, and his willingness to do such legwork is an important aspect of his rhetoric of goodwill.”

2) Asserted objective truth humbly.

Beitler points readers to Lewis’s writings on hell—especially The Great Divorce—as exemplifying Lewis’s attitude that truth mattered, and that he (Lewis) needed the truth spoken most of all. Lewis doesn’t divide the world into those who get it and those who should; rather, he preaches intellectual and spiritual repentance to everyone, and to himself most of all. Granting that Lewis could be arrogant (in a footnote, Beitler cites scholarship testifying as much), Beitler finds in Lewis a persistent unwillingness to see himself as better than the ones to whom he was writing.

3) “Cultivated communities of goodwill.”

Lewis practiced the art of friendship. His intellectual work was not created in a vacuum but emerged from relationships in which Lewis practiced the virtues and mercies of grace. Lewis sought out the presence and advice of others, was generous with his critics, and showed kindness and tenderness to his students. On at least one occasion Lewis declined a publisher’s financial offer because he didn’t want to write the scathing review they sought. In other words, Lewis was not simply made of pure logic, but a Christian who lived out the beauty of Christianity and made its claims appeal to the imaginations of those who knew him.

Beitler’s essay on Lewis’s rhetoric is outstanding, and I’m enjoying the rest of the book. By laying out Lewis’s rhetorical effectiveness so plainly, Beitler offers the church at large a model to aspire to. Lewis was indeed brilliant, but that’s not why God used him.

photo credit: CS Lewis sculpture, Belfast (3)
cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Albert Bridgegeograph.org.uk/p/2826954

How Christians Hate

One thing I am continually appalled at is how many professing Christians I know seem to think the following line of thinking is OK:

“When I look at the people who dislike President Trump, that makes me like him all the more.”

I want us to get honest for a minute about what this sentence really means, and I think we can get there if we simply change the context.

Imagine that you, a Christian, have a 16-year old child. Despite your best efforts, this 16 year old of yours hated Christianity, hated the Bible, and hated the church with a passion. Their animosity toward the things of God breaks your heart on a daily basis. You pray continually for their repentance. And you cling to God in faith, trusting in His promises, despite all the temptation you feel to compromise for the sake of growing closer to your child.

Now imagine that one Sunday after church, a fellow member approaches you. As you talk, the conversation turns to your wayward child. Burden, pain, and desire fill your soul as you think about this person you love who has taken a wrong turn. But then, completely out of the blue, this fellow church member utters this: “You know, when I think about the fact that someone like your kid hates the gospel and hates the church so much, heh, it makes me love both even more!”

Question: What do you think this fellow church member has just said about your child? Have they said they are praying every day for their restoration? Or have they just admitted to you that their personal hatred for your child expresses itself in a kind of gleeful satisfaction that rejoices in their lostness, and congratulates itself for not being that kind of worthless person?

Could you carry on this conversation after such a remark? If right now you’re thinking, “No,” then you have sensed, possibly even beyond an intellectual level, what it means for a person to be so controlled by a sense of self-righteousness that they admit that people who disagree with them are useful only for validating it. Not only is it astonishingly illogical for a person to gain validation of their worldview from the kind of people who oppose it (because one can be an obnoxious person and still be right), it is profoundly inhumane. We wouldn’t, as this thought experiment demonstrates, want to hear people we love talked about in such a way. Why do we talk about our political opponents like that?

The answers to that question, I’m afraid, just get more uncomfortable.