Interview with Robert Velarde

June 15, 2008
Posted by Joe Gorra

We interviewed Robert Velarde about his book, Conversations with C.S. Lewis: Imaginative Discussions About Life, Christianity and God (IVP, 2008). Robert is a Christian philosopher and apologist who used to be an atheist.

What motivated you to write Conversations with C.S. Lewis?

One of my academic specialties is C.S. Lewis. As a result, I’ve studied his life and works in-depth. My motivation for writing Conversations with C.S. Lewis (CCL) began as a fun side project when I had the idea to write a book featuring Lewis as one of the main characters of a story. The motivation is to reach a broader audience with an engaging presentation of the life and thought of C.S. Lewis.

How would you characterize the genre of your book?

CCL is tough to pin down to a typical genre. InterVarsity Press has it listed as “Christian Theology” and “Apologetics”, though that doesn’t quite capture the extent of what I cover. While working on the manuscript, I described CCL as a mixture of A Christmas Carol by Dickens and The Dialogues of Plato. Whether I pulled this off or not is debatable, but Lewis scholar Peter Kreeft, who endorsed my book, likened it to a mixture of A Christmas Carol, The Great Divorce, and It’s a Wonderful Life, so maybe there’s something to that.

At the most fundamental level, I’d characterize the genre as creative fiction with an emphasis on biographical apologetics. This is because I cover key aspects of the life of Lewis, as well as communicate his essential apologetic approach, but do this through a story. The two main characters are C.S. Lewis and a contemporary skeptic named Tom. They are on a journey through the life of Lewis, as well as being on a figurative spiritual journey for truth.

Who are the sorts of readers that you think would appreciate this book?

I would like to delight three kinds of readers. First, the Christian who may not know a lot about C.S. Lewis beyond maybe having read Mere Christianity or the Chronicles of Narnia, and not having a background in apologetics.

Second, CCL is appealing to open-minded skeptics–those who are really looking for truth in this world, but haven’t found it or are doubtful about the claims of Christianity as a viable worldview. I think CCL offers a great opportunity for a Christian and open-minded skeptic to read and discuss the ideas presented together or even as part of a book discussion group.

Third, those already familiar with C.S. Lewis or even advanced in their knowledge of Lewis and his writings will enjoy CCL as an entertaining journey through the life and thought of Lewis. I’ve made a number of allusions to many books and ideas set forth by Lewis, so committed fans of Lewis will enjoy spotting these connections. Beyond that, it’s just enjoyable to have Lewis “come to life” and interact with a contemporary skeptic through a fictional narrative. I did my best to have Lewis come across as true to his ideas, as well as making the skeptic a believable character and not a pushover.

Please briefly state what you attempt to accomplish in your book and why you think it is important to your readers?

I’d hope readers would come away with a better understanding of how Lewis defended Christianity in light of competing beliefs, particularly skepticism and atheism. The book will not only provide readers with an introduction to Lewis’s life and thought, but it is also a sort of primer on defending Christianity, as it addresses the problem of evil, the existence of God, morality, the claims of Christ, grief, immortality, heaven, hell, and more.

I’d also like readers to see in Lewis an example of defending Christianity with gentleness and respect, as we’re told to do in 1 Peter 3:15. In an age of incivility on the part of some atheists, and sometimes on the part of Christians as well, CCL offers a friendly dialogue between a Christian and a skeptic, demonstrating that we can still disagree but remain civil or even be good friends.

How does CCL contribute to the other books that you have written on Lewis?

My other books about Lewis include The Heart of Narnia (NavPress, 2008) and Inside The Screwtape Letters (Baker, forthcoming). The Narnia book focuses almost exclusively on the ethics of the Narnia series, exploring and assessing various vices and virtues represented in the series, as well as Lewis’s ideas on ethics as represented in his other writings. Similarly, my Screwtape book, which is a reader’s guide and commentary, also spends a lot of time on ethics, though it does touch upon other areas of philosophy.

Conversations with C.S. Lewis, however, is broader in its coverage of apologetics and philosophy as they relate to Lewis. It covers not only ethics, but also metaphysics and epistemology. The fact that this is done via creative fiction also means that it’s meant to entertain as well as edify and educate. As such, it is my goal to appeal to a broader audience and communicate the Christian worldview in a manner that is appealing.

What are the benefits of your approach when seeking to understand Lewis, his ideas and their significance for our lives?

In an era of literally hundreds of books about C.S. Lewis ranging from his life, thought, fiction, and just about everything else he was involved in, why do we need another book about him? Just about every book about Lewis is non-fiction, presenting facts and information almost as textbooks would.

Unfortunately, not everyone wants to read a textbook or a non-fiction title. But everyone loves a good story. That’s why people enjoy going to the movies or reading the latest bestselling novel. It’s about the story and drawing readers into an engaging world. And that’s exactly what I do in CCL. I give readers an entertaining story that also offers thought-provoking discussions on timeless philosophical questions such as the existence of God, evil and suffering, and the meaning of morality.

Readers will get to journey with Lewis, listening in as he converses not only with a skeptic, but with real-life individuals such as J.R.R. Tolkien and Lewis’s wife Joy Davidman, visiting places such as Lewis’s rooms at Oxford, the pub where Lewis and his friends–the Inklings–met to discuss their various projects, the trenches of World War I where Lewis fought, his imaginary world of Narnia, and more. But the topics they discuss along the way are timeless and relevant to anyone.

How would you assess evangelical apologetic efforts?

I think we have access to some of the best apologists and apologetic material around. But I still run into Christians regularly who have no idea what apologetics is or why we should be engaged in it. There is still, in my assessment, a conscious or subconscious anti-intellectualism in the church in Western culture. As such, apologists need to continue to spread the word regarding the role and value of defending the faith.

As to the strengths of evangelical apologetic efforts, I’d say it is in the fact that there remains a core of committed Christian individuals willing to engage culture intelligently, yet wisely. We’re producing some great materials in the area of apologetics and holding some amazing conferences and debates.

But there are weaknesses. One of those weaknesses is the constraints that most apologists remain bound to by choice. That is, the kinds of resources being produced, with few exceptions, are largely the same sort of thing we’ve come to expect from the Christian apologetics movement. We’re producing non-fiction books that in many cases continue to appeal to the same kinds of readers.

But by using creative fiction to communicate Christian truth, as Christ did with his parables, we can reach a much broader audience interested in story. There is a danger here, too, in that we need to be careful that when creative fiction and apologetics meet, we need to remain faithful to God’s truth and avoid falling into theological error.

In one sense, creative fiction and apologetics or theology is not new. Milton’s Paradise Lost or Dante’s Divine Comedy, for instance, are in one sense works of creative Christian fiction. More recently, Lewis’s space trilogy, especially That Hideous Strength, communicated apologetic elements largely based on his non-fiction work The Abolition of Man.

Don’t get me wrong, though. We certainly will continue to need non-fiction works and textbooks on apologetics. They are desperately needed in the academic arena, as well as at a popular level. Some people read only non-fiction, while others read only fiction or a mixture of both. But we should not neglect the broad audience eager to read creative fiction that is winsome, entertaining, and edifying, but true to God’s Word.

How might CCL contribute to the strengths of our apologetic activities and help us to address our weaknesses.

Conversations with C.S. Lewis will reach a broader audience with the message of apologetics and a reasonable faith because it is written as an engaging story. Its strength is in its unique presentation and delivery.

If it helps Christians know more about what they believe and why they believe, that would be great. If it moves an open-minded skeptic closer to a decision for Christ that ultimately sees that person come to Christ, then it has made an eternal contribution and one that I would rejoice in. If it spurs other apologists and Christian thinkers to reevaluate their approach in order to present their message in a more creative way, then I think together we’ll reach a lot more people more effectively.

Robert Velarde is an author, editor, and philosopher. His books include Conversations with C.S. Lewis, The Heart of Narnia, Inside The Screwtape Letters (forthcoming). More of Robert can be found at his A Reasonable Imagination blog.