Friday, March 27, 2015

C.S. Lewis : Mythmaker and Apologist of the 20th Century by Chris White

C.S. Lewis

The late British Theologian John Stott has said of C.S. Lewis, “He was a Christ-centered, great-tradition mainstream Christian whose stature a generation after his death seems greater than anyone ever thought while he was alive, and whose Christian writings are now seen as having classic status.  I doubt whether the full measure of him has been taken by anyone”.

That Stott would say his stature seems greater today than ever is a classic understatement when you consider that his books continue to sell in the millions, Hollywood films have been made based on his life and The Chronicles of Narnia, and that there is literally a C.S. Lewis industry that centers on conferences, lectures, and books that interpret his life and work.

When the Hollywood film version of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe was released (2005), Christianity Today magazine noted the similarities between C.S. Lewis and Elvis Presley:


"At first glance, C. S. Lewis and Elvis Presley seem like polar opposites. But a closer look will show that these two cultural icons have a lot in common.
Like Elvis, C. S. Lewis had been a soldier. Both men came to fame on the radio. Both men's homes (Graceland and the Kilns) have become pilgrimage sites. Both left behind estates now valued in the millions. And both rose from relative obscurity—Elvis, a Mississippi truck driver, and Lewis, a tutor at Oxford—to become larger-than-life figures profiled in books and movies and beloved by legions of adoring fans. Like Elvis, even after death, Lewis remains a superstar."

So who is this man behind the books and why is he important to Christians today?

The Early Years

Born Clive Staples Lewis in 1898 to Albert and Florence Lewis in Belfast Ireland, Lewis disliked his name and as a young boy insisted his family call him “Jacksie.” In adulthood he was known as Jack to his friends and associates and in the publishing world he stuck with the ever-so-popular convention of his day of reducing his name to his initials .

By his own reckoning, two things in childhood were to influence the entire direction of his future life.  First was the rain and fog that were constantly present at their home in Ireland.  His parents feared that he and his older brother Warren would get sick and die if they played outside in the wet and so they spent much of their childhood in the house.  This led to voracious reading and lots of imaginative play.  As young as age 7, Lewis and his brother were writing children's stories about imaginative lands and animals.  One such book in print today is called “Boxen”.  This was the precursor to the later and more well-known children's series “The Chronicles of Narnia”.

His second great childhood influence was the death of his mother from cancer when he was 10 years old.  The loss of his mother in the prime of her life and his father’s subsequent grief, left Lewis functionally bereft of both parents for the remainder of his formative years.  Lewis's father never truly recovered from his grief and withdrew emotionally from both his sons.

Lewis and older brother Warnie both attended boarding schools.  Although there is nothing extraordinary about this since it was a very common practice in the day, neither of the boys had loving parents to come home to that would be a balance to that world.  This made the boarding school experience for Jack seem for the most part cruel and sadistic. 
Lewis and brother Warren

Although Lewis grew up in a Christian home, the traumas of his childhood combined with the influence of some of the atheistic teachers he had led him to abandon his faith by age 13.

Young Adulthood

Having prepared for University through private tutoring and attending college prep schools, Lewis won a scholarship to Oxford University at age 18.  This was interrupted by the outbreak of World War I (supply year).  Lewis enlisted in the army and was an officer at the front until he was wounded in France in the final year of the war.  During his officers training he met “Paddy” Moore who became a close friend.  Both Moore and Lewis promised to care for each others parents should they be killed in the war, and in the final month of conflict, Paddy Moore was killed.  The following year, Lewis set up a household back at Oxford with Mrs. Janie Moore and her daughter Maureen.  Many have supposed Lewis’ relationship with Mrs. Moore was possibly beyond just caring for an old war buddies mother.  This is largely because Lewis concealed the nature of his living arrangements from his father for many years which begs the question, if he was being so honorable why was this a secret?  I believe the answer is found in Lewis’ journal which was published under the title “All My Life Before Me.” 

Lewis, like many people of his generation, was receiving a living allowance from his father to help him make ends meet.  Concealing such an arrangement would prevent his father from discontinuing it at an inopportune time.  Lewis would have been able to conceal this quite easily because he lived in England while his father, a fairly reclusive man, lived at the family home in Ireland.  Although it was a complex and stormy relationship at times, Lewis supported and cared for her until her death 33 years later.  This is utterly consistent with his character.  C.S. Lewis valued and retained lifelong friendships with many people.

During the remainder of his twenties, Lewis's life consisted mainly of finishing university, trying to write poetry for publication, and trying to support his adopted family on his meager allowance for college and the funds he could make tutoring.  At age 27 he became part of the faculty of Magdalan College at Oxford.  The following year he published his first book of poetry and by age 31 he begins his return to the Christian faith.

The conversion of CS Lewis was fairly undramatic.  He renounced his faith as a young lad and tried to live consistently with this view for many years but found himself constantly being troubled by God.  At 31 he decided once again he believed in the existence of God but said he would never become an enthusiast.  When he was 33, he had a long late-night discussion about Christianity with his friend J.R.R. Tolkien himself a devout Roman Catholic.  The next morning he and his older brother Warnie set out for the Whipsnade Zoo.  When he got in the motorcycle side-car he did not believe Jesus Christ was the son of God, but when they reached the zoo he did.  That's it.  His conversion happened while riding to the zoo!

One of the great ironies of C.S. Lewis is that for all intents and purposes he is regarded as a saint in the evangelical world.  However, Lewis was certainly not an evangelical himself at least in the American sense.  He did not subscribe to biblical inerrancy or Christ’s substitutionary atonement. He also believed in purgatory and baptismal regeneration.  Lewis was by denomination an Anglican, but probably why he is popular with Christians of many denominations is that he never emphasized denominational distinctives.  He boiled things down to the essentials that have been believed by Christians throughout all time.  This approach is what is behind the title of one of his most popular books Mere Christianity.

For the next 31 years, C.S. Lewis quietly taught college students and wrote his many books and essays which presented and defended Christianity to the World War II generation.  His early publications drew next to no attention at all.  Sales were lackluster and Lewis was even having his manuscripts returned or turned down.  But then he wrote a book called The Problem of Pain in 1940 which dealt with the existential problem of how a good God can allow suffering in the world.  In 1940, England was in the darkest days of World War II and this was a topic that resonated with many people.

One of the early readers of that book was the director of religious programming for the BBC and he approached Lewis about doing a 4 part series for broadcast on the basic beliefs of Christianity for the common man.  Lewis enjoyed the task and the audience enjoyed him.  His 4 part series was extended to a total of 29 shows and next to Winston Churchill, C.S. Lewis was the most recognized voice in England at the time.

Hear one of Lewis's broadcasts on the BBC 

It is said that broadcasting actually shaped Lewis’ writing style quite a bit.  He had to speak in short, crisp sentences that were easy to listen to and understand.  This in turn made him a better communicator in print.  After his stint with the BBC, his writings became more well-known and there was greater demand.  This launched him as a popular writer on Christianity for the lay person.  Another innovation in this era that helped Lewis’ career was releasing books in paperback.  Having them in this inexpensive format meant his works would be purchased by a wider reading public.

He also frequently wrote on social issues for magazines and newspapers published in England.  Two of his books: Present Concerns and The Screwtape Letters are both compilations of this work.  Lewis was also a public speaker and lecturer.  It is important to remember that Christianity was not all he talked about.  His main expertise was that of late Medieval English literature.

Get "Mere Christianity" audio or print book for free here 

During the late 1940’s and 1950’s Lewis became very popular in the United States.  He was featured over 8 times in Time magazine and even appeared on its cover.  The perennial appeal of Lewis was the gravitas he had as an Oxford don, yet able to write on religious subjects with such clarity and humor.  One of the fruits of his popularity as a writer was the large amounts of letters he received.  Lewis felt it was an important part of his calling as a writer and a sacred obligation to answer every letter he received.  Lewis himself burned the letters he answered and so collections of his extant letters are very one-sided.  When he grew wealthy through his writing, he gave away by his brother’s estimation nearly 70% of his income to needy people.  He never upgraded his wardrobe, his home, or even bought a car.  He was a thinker and writer and though celebrated he himself never cared to live like a celebrity.

Although a bachelor most of his entire life, he had a two to three year marriage to Joy Gresham, an American woman who came to the Lord through his writings.  Lewis married her shortly before her death and this is the subject of a movie called Shadowlands.  Joy Gresham had two son’s whom Lewis adopted and raised after her death.  Douglas Gresham is still living speaks very warmly of the love and Christian witness of C.S. Lewis to him and it being the central reason he is a Christian today.

In Lewis’s own words he said that he was destined to be a writer and academic because he was so utterly uncoordinated, he couldn’t make a living at anything else.   Lewis never considered himself a great writer, but did feel his writing was his best and only real contribution he could make to the world.  In fact, Lewis was part of a literary self-improvement group called the Inklings for most of his writing career.  They would meet Tuesday mornings at an Oxford Pub called the Eagle and Child and on Thursday nights at Lewis’offices at Oxford.  The membership was informal and flexible but the mainstays through the years were Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.  It should be noted that this was not an mutual admiration society.  Lewis himself was criticized for his evangelistic writing and the Chronicles of Narnia in this group.

Lewis was a life-long smoker and drinker of beer, wine, and spirits.  While frowned upon by most evangelicals in the United States, this was a normal part of his context in England.  He was once asked in a letter from a child in the United States why he smoked since he was a Christian.  His reply was that he had smoked for so long, that to quit would require him to spend too much of his time thinking about not smoking and this in turn would leave little time to think about God.  Thus, he felt it might be more honorable at his stage in life to keep smoking and keep his focus on God. He died of cancer a week before his 65th B-day on November 22, 1963.  Because it was the same day of President Kennedy’s assassination, his passing was almost unnoticed even though he was a widely known writer.

Why is C.S. Lewis important to the Church today?

  1. First and foremost, he is an example of creatively sharing the faith in a way that is meaningful to modern man.  Lewis did not dwell on evidence for the existence of God so much as he dwelt on the philosophical problems of mankind and how Christianity answers them.  People respond more to what’s on their heart than convincing arguments.  This is partly why C.S. Lewis’s writings sell as widely today as they did when he was living. 

  1. He is also an example how Christians best influence their culture.  Many Christians invest huge amounts of energy into political action because political power has a top-down effect on culture.  But culture is influenced more profoundly by the arts and sciences.  These connect with both decision makers and common people alike.  Lewis focused his art of writing towards the culture in a variety of ways and did it well.  Christians are going to have a greater influence in America not through democratic politics but when the best books on any topic are written by Christians, when the best films and music are written by Christians, when the best art is produced by Christians.

  1. He focused on the universals of Christianity, not the small intramural differences between Churches.  Most denominational distinctives are only important to those within them but are pointless to an outsider.  Lewis was concerned that the essentials be clear for all people of all ages.  This was Mere Christianity.

-although a bachelor his entire life, he had a two-three year marriage to Joy Gresham, an American woman who came to the Lord through his writings.  Lewis married her shortly before her death and this is the subject of a movie called Shadowlands.  Joy Gresham had two son’s whom Lewis adopted and raised after her death.  Douglas Gresham is still living speaks very warmly of the love and Christian witness of C.S. Lewis to him and it being the central reason he is a Christian today.
-Lewis’ entire library and the wardrobe that inspired “the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” are located today at Wheaton College near Chicago Illinois.

C.S. Lewis said himself, the best way to know an author is not to read their biography or autobiography, or even an introduction to their works.  Just jump in and read what they have written first and then read other works about them.  Having read nearly the entire corpus of Lewis's work there are very few of his books I wouldn't recommend.  However, let me make a recommendation based on the category of reader you are:

Category 1 "Never read any of his books but want to now"---for you I would recommend starting with his fantasy The Lion, Witch, and Wardrobe.  It is technically a children's book but it is very engaging, humorous, and presents the truth of the gospel in a unique and disarming way.  Next I would read Mere Christianity which is a basic explanation of essential ideas of the Christian faith.  Then I would read The Screwtape Letters.  This entire book is written from "a devil's" point of view and so you the reader are supposed to listen to his advice and do just the opposite.  It is actually a very clever book and gets you thinking.

Category 2 "I've read a couple but I think I might want to read some more"---if you are in this category read God in the Dock which is another longer and more detailed apologetic work and read the Space Trilogy.  I know its hard to envision Lewis doing sci-fi but this works and of course in true fashion the stories explore other important themes of morality, the meaning of life, and the existence of God.  Lewis afficianados will also enjoy the clever tie-in between this trilogy and The Chronicles of Narnia.

Category 3 "I am thinking of making a pilgrimage to the Kilns"---you, of course, are the deeply committed Lewis reader.  If you haven't read Til We Have Faces you should.  Lewis was fascinated with Norse tales and this was his attempt at this genre.  Not knowing a thing about Norse literature I couldn't say whether it was a successful attempt, but having read the book it is a gripping story.  Definitely read Pilgrim's Regress and All My Life Before Me.  Both give great insights into the formation of Lewis's early life and thoughts. 

By the way, if the Kilns and Oxford are an impossibility for you, there is a delightful spot in the United States for the C.S. Lewis fan at Wheaton College near Chicago.  The C.S. Lewis Library contains Lewis's personal library, writing desk and the Wardrobe that inspired the unique portal into Narnia.

Information about Lewis collection in Illinois here

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