In a still, sunny classroom in Old Main Hall, Edmund is talking about Narnia.
But this Edmund isn’t the hero of the beloved children’s series The Chronicles of Narnia — he’s St. Olaf College Professor of Religion and Philosophy Edmund Santurri, and the class he teaches goes beyond Narnia, delving deep into the varied and fascinating writings of esteemed author and theologian C.S. Lewis.
According to the course description, the religion class Beyond Narnia: The Theology of C.S. Lewis “introduces students to Christian theology through examination of selected works of C.S. Lewis. It considers both Lewis’s explicitly theological writings and his fictional works as resources for theological reflection.” Students begin by reading Lewis’s works of straight theology and philosophical theology, such as Miracles and The Problem of Pain, and then move on to more literary works like The Screwtape Letters, finally ending with novels such as the science fiction Perelandra.
“I’ve always been very interested in Lewis. And I thought that since a good number of students would have heard of C.S. Lewis, mainly through the Narnia series, this might be a way to incite a certain kind of interest in theology,” Santurri says. “And the course has incited such interest. To be honest, I’m actually stunned by the kind of demand there has been for the course.”
Santurri estimates he could teach another three or four sections of the course with the number of students who are interested.
A theologian for the masses
Like many of these students, Becky Bowman Saunders ’16 grew up hearing C.S. Lewis’s name. She took this class last year, and a paper she wrote for it, “Myth Becomes Fact,” was published in Avodah, the St. Olaf Journal of Christian Thought. She took the course partly to put the books she loved as a child into context, and found studying Lewis’s theology beyond the Narnia series very rewarding.
“Students learn about Lewis’s theology, and are able to synthesize it in a way that is applicable to their own lives,” she says. “Concepts of eternity, pain, and glory become relevant to everyday life through Lewis’s theology.”
A wide variety of students are drawn to the class, from religion majors to students searching for an interesting way to fulfill St. Olaf’s theology requirement. All types of people are at home in exploring Lewis’s writings.
“Even if you don’t agree with everything he has to say, there is something there for everyone — compelling ethical arguments, astute observations of the human psyche, as well as a witty sense of humor that is sure to keep you in a good mood,” says Harrison VanDolah ’16, who is currently taking the course.
Paul Escher ’16, who took the class last year, agrees that the accessibility of Lewis’s work is very important. “Lewis is a theologian for the masses, explaining difficult doctrines in understandable terms without oversimplifying them, and I think his great success points to that.”
Escher adds that the way the professor teaches is just as much of a draw as the content. “Professor Santurri is a phenomenal lecturer, which really added to the interesting subject matter,” he says.
Cultivating theological literacy
Santurri notes that Lewis is both a rigorous intellectual and a devout Christian, and he says it is useful for students to see that these two characteristics can co-exist.
“St. Olaf College is committed in the mission statement to what it calls cultivating Christian ‘theological literacy’ — and what it means is not trying to convert people, but making it clear what Christianity is about and showing it at its intellectual best. And I think you get that with Lewis,” he says. Santurri particularly enjoys the way that Lewis’s critique of naturalism, or the idea that there are no moral or spiritual realities beyond the material world, challenges many students’ presuppositions.
“There’s a kind of excitement that revolves around that argument in Lewis that I just love… to see the looks on students’ faces when they’re encountering the argument for the first time,” Santurri says. “Initially they’re ready to dismiss it: ‘Oh, of course naturalism is true, and this spiritual stuff is a bunch of nonsense.’ But they see the arguments and they try to come to terms with the arguments, even as they’re fighting with Lewis; I just find that to be an incredibly exciting thing.”
VanDolah chose this class for its tight focus on one specific author.
“I would highly recommend this class to anyone looking for experience in close textual reading,” he says. “Or if you are just interested in learning more about how your favorite childhood author really thought the world worked.”