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I Found C.S. Lewis Reincarnate in a Flimsy Paperback My Parish was Giving Away Free

Photo by K. Mitch Hodge / Unsplash

A few years ago, I stumbled across a video by some guy with an Australian accent. I listened for awhile and thought, “Man, this guy has a thorough grasp of what he's talking about.” That guy, I learned later, was Matthew Kelly.

Whenever I pick up one of those flimsy Matthew Kelly paperback books that seem to proliferate and litter the back of churches, and read a few pages, I'm normally edified.

But I've never been a Matthew Kelly fan.

I guess I've never been able to get past the self-promotion, the pop “Dynamic Catholic!” trademark, those exclamation points, the relentless “be-the-best-version-of-yourself” admonition that sounds like it came from Tony Robbins.

To be honest, I have always kind of looked down my nose at his works, like they're pablum.

I then picked up I Heard God Laugh. It was lying on our kitchen counter, stained and wrinkled because my wife just grabbed it while walking out of church one day and tossed it in the backseat of her minivan, to be ravaged by the exigencies of being a housewife.

I read a few pages and liked what I read.

It then hit me. “This guy is C.S. Lewis for the 21st-century Catholic.”

An “abysmal bastard,” a “monstrosity,” a “cheap, awful, miserable, touchy, social-meta­physical mediocrity.”

People forget that, when C.S. Lewis was writing his popular polemical and prayer books, the intellectual snobs disdained him. The works, they complained, were simple. They weren't sophisticated.

Although her contempt was probably fueled more by Satan than her intellect, Ayn Rand's thoughts about C.S. Lewis captured a lot of intellectual snobs' view. She called him an “abysmal bastard,” a “monstrosity,” a “cheap, awful, miserable, touchy, social-metaphysical mediocrity,” a “pickpocket of concepts,” and a “God-damn, beaten mystic.” Likewise, academic theologians disdained Lewis, as did public intellectuals like Alistair Cook and George Orwell.

It all prompted Dorothy Sayers to ask a friend in 1948, “Do you like C. S. Lewis' work, or are you one of the people who foam at the mouth when they hear his name?”

Others, however, understood that C.S. Lewis' books were, indeed, simple, but that the simplicity stemmed from deep understanding and the raw intelligence you'd expect from an Oxford professor. Spencer Klavan has dedicated a podcast episode to the assertion that Lewis was “the greatest intellectual of the 20th century.”

C.S. Lewis was able to write simply because he had a firm grasp of the subject matter. He knew what was important and how to “get there” without obfuscation. And he didn't decorate it with needless tangents or ornate prose. He just saw the truth and put it on paper.

153 Fish

I don't know Matthew Kelly. I don't even know much about Matthew Kelly.

But I know I was impressed by the thorough understanding he showed in that video, when I didn't realize it was Matthew Kelly. I know I'm impressed every time I pick up one of his books, even though I've never read one cover-to-cover.

And I was really struck a few days ago when I again picked up I Heard God Laugh and read “The Prayer Process,” in which he basically told readers how to do the examen (without using such an academic word). He said to take it in seven steps (give thanks, look at your screw-ups, etc.).

After he finished, he wrote, “Could 153 words change your life every day, forever?”

153 words.

I grabbed my copy of Evagrius's Chapters on Prayer and confirmed what I thought: that classic work has 153 chapters (really, just quotes) for a reason. That's the number of fish that Peter caught in the 21st chapter of John. The significance of 153 fish was well-known among early Christians.

Perhaps it was St. Jerome who provided the right solution to the meaning of the 153 fish of great size when he observed that, according to the opinion of Oppianus of Cilicia, there are 153 species of fish. Thus the passage . . . refers symbolically to the universality of the Church. This means the catch has a deeper theological meaning than just a manifestation of the miraculous power of the Risen Christ. . . [I]t was a widely accepted belief . . . in early Christian times.
Evagrius Ponticus, The Praktikos & Chapters on Prayer, Cistercian Studies Series (1972), p. 54, fn 11.

Now, I'm not saying Matthew Kelly knew all that when he wrote 153 words to getting a prayer life. For all I know, the 153 words were just a coincidence.

But everything–the impressive video, my consistent approval whenever I read from his books at random, that reference to 153 fish–all added up to bring me to a single conclusion: I'm one of those snobs who would've dismissed C.S. Lewis back in the 1940s.

It makes me cringe.

Lewis: Rigorous Intellectual?

I remember reading a college professor's anecdote from about 25 years ago when he was asked to lead a book club for intelligent laypeople in his parish. He chose Mere Christianity, but was concerned that the choice could be insulting to the book club members, who had explicitly asked him to challenge them with serious reading.

After a few weeks, the members did, indeed, object.

But not because the book was too easy, but because it was just too hard. “We aren't serious scholars like you” was the refrain.

Now, I love C.S. Lewis, from Narnia to The Abolition. I find him simple, direct, easy-to-understand . . . and penetrating.

But that doesn't mean he's the standard. He died in 1963. Prose has shifted since then. Phrases have moved. Our entire thought processes have changed.

In a 2008 interview, Pastor Timothy Keller talked about trying to teach people C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity:

In New York City, these are pretty smart people, very educated people, but even by the mid-nineties I had found that the average young person found Mere Christianity [difficult.] It just didn't keep their attention, because they really couldn't follow the arguments. They took too long. This long chain of syllogistic reasoning wasn't something that they were trained in doing. I don't think they're irrational, they are as rational, but they want something of a mixture of logic and personal appeal.
I know for a fact that Lewis was just heavy sledding for even smart Ivy League American graduates by the mid-nineties. One of the reasons I started doing this was I thought I needed something that gave them shorter, simpler, more accessible arguments.

“Shorter, simple, more accessible arguments.”

That, I think, is what Matthew Kelly is doing these days, and he ought to be praised and admired.

For those like me who intuitively disdain him? I can only adapt Jesus' command from the 16th Chapter of Matthew, “Get behind me, Ayn Rand!”