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  C.S. Lewis’s Case for Christianity | An Interview with Richard Purtill | By Gord Wilson

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Catholic author Dr. Richard Purtill is Professor Emeritus in Philosophy at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington. He is the author of twenty books, including J.R.R. Tolkien: Myth, Morality, and Religion and C.S. Lewis’ Case for the Christian Faith, both published by Ignatius Press. For more information about his writing, visit his website at www.alivingdog.com.

Wilson: Your books on J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis are both bestsellers for Ignatius Press. What attracted you, as a philosopher, to study these authors’ ideas?

Richard Purtill: I read a lot of C.S. Lewis’ nonfiction and apologetics before I read his well-known fantasies, The Chronicles of Narnia. Somewhere along the line I read his science fiction trilogy.

Gord Wilson: You referred to "apologetics." What does that mean?

Purtill: C.S. Lewis has been called "the apostle to the skeptics." He’s probably the best apologist of the twentieth century. He’s a key figure in apologetics, which means, showing people the rational basis for Christianity, and that you don’t need to simply say, "it’s just a matter of faith."

Wilson: Why do you think Lewis and Tolkien are so widely read?

Purtill: Tolkien is largely read due to his fiction, of course. I think things he’s written in his letters and in a short essay called "On Fairy stories," which is in The Tolkien Reader, are quite insightful about the way fantasy fiction is written.

Wilson: Tolkien was a Catholic, and a close friend of Lewis, and influential in Lewis’ conversion from an atheist. Why do you think C.S. Lewis did not become Catholic?

Purtill: That’s a good question. Joseph Pierce has written a book about it [C.S. Lewis and the Catholic Church]. I suspect partly it was due to his upbringing in Northern Ireland. One of his friends said he had a "skunner," that is, a prejudice against the Catholics. He never quite overcame that. But his brother, Warnie, who had a drinking problem, often stayed with Roman Catholic nuns in Ireland. Somebody gave a metaphor that Lewis was like a church bell: he calls people into the Church, but he stays outside. It may be that his staying outside enabled him to reach more people who eventually came into the Church. Many of his friends and students did eventually come into the Church.

Wilson: Do you think he may be read with profit by Catholics today?

Purtill: Oh yes. If you didn’t know he was Church of England, you probably would just assume he was Catholic.

Wilson: If someone wanted to encounter C.S. Lewis today, where should they begin?

Purtill: It depends on whether one wants to start with the logical side of his nonfiction or the imaginative side of his fantasies and science fiction. For the first, Mere Christianity would be a good introduction. For the second, the space trilogy: Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength would be a good place to start.

Wilson: What approach do you take in your book, C.S. Lewis’ Case for the Christian Faith?

Purtill: That book is almost entirely about his apologetics, although a couple of times I mention his fiction. He made a case for the Christian Faith which could be answered and argued. What I try to do is draw together the various things he said in various places and give a coherent picture from his various writings.

Wilson: Are you a "cradle Catholic?"

Purtill: No, I’m a convert. When I converted in my ‘teens, it was largely due to reading Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters and a lot of works by G.K. Chesterton. So Chesterton and Lewis sort of guided me into the Catholic Church, even though Lewis wasn’t a Catholic.

Wilson: C.S. Lewis wrote across an unusually wide spectrum: from fantasy and science fiction to philosophy and poetry. You also have written widely.

Purtill: If you have a certain type of mind, which I admire in Lewis, and maybe share to a small extent, you have both an imaginative side and a logical side. I’ve written everything from fantasy novels to textbooks on logic. Lewis had both the logical side and the imaginative side. They don’t conflict; they support each other. By using his imagination, he came up with marvelous metaphors that really add to his nonfiction writing.

Gord Wilson has an M.A. in English from Western Washington University, where Dr. Purtill was his philosophy professor. He has written for Campus Life, His, CCM, New Oxford Review, HM, and various animation magazines and local publications. A convert to Catholicism, he states that he followed Malcom Muggeridge, Thomas Howard, and G.K. Chesterton into the Catholic Church. Prior to becoming Catholic he was active in Campus Crusade and InterVarsity. He still enjoys contemporary Christian music and is writing a book about gospel rock.

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