Thursday, September 9, 2010

C.S. Lewis: The "Mere Christian", Soldier, Scholar, Communicator, and "Narnian"

He was a teacher who said he hated teaching.  A dedicated Shavian atheist at adolescence and a young adult  who came at age 31 to accept that "God was God" and became in his words, "the most reluctant convert in all England" one night in 1929 while kneeling all alone on a quiet night in his rooms at his college.   And an cloistered intellectual and homebody who disliked traveling abroad, yet graced the cover of "Time Magazine" and continues long after his passing to reach millions all over the world. 

Two years later he took a memorable walk with his friends and came closer than ever to accepting  the  Christian faith.  Little could he have known that night along "Addison's Walk" in Oxford that he would become world famous in his own lifetime as an "apostle to the skeptics" and his life the subject of many books, documentaries, film dramatizations and articles. While Lewis scholarship in the field of literature is significant--he wrote an entire volume of the Oxford Dictionary of English Literature for the 16th Century (sans poetry) over a twenty-year period and taught at Oxford and Cambridge for most of his life, his greatest gift to the world was in reaching out to believers and want-to be believers through stories, critical essays, books for all ages and endless articles and personal  correspondence with people he mostly never met who had been touched in some way by at least one of his works.   

"The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens — at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle."--Lewis, from his Collection of essays" "God in the Dock"  

C.S. "Jack" Lewis (1898-1963), born in Belfast to a Ulster Protestant family,   is best known today for his seven part  'Narnia' series, written when he was in his fifties and already established not only as an Oxford University don at Madgelan College, but also as a writer of Christian apologetics in works such as "Miracles", "The Problem of Pain" and the most famous of his mature works, "Mere Christianity".  The latter work was drawn from a series of radio lectures Lewis was asked to give on the BBC early in World War II by the Director of Religious Broadcasting.  A brief overview of Lewis central thesis in the talks concerned that a proof of the existence of God came from what he called "The Tao" (The Way) , a set of ethics known in common to all religions and even the non-religious also as The Moral Law. It is a law that stands above nature and gives humans an innate sense of right and wrong and how they wish to be treated.  And, just as humankind might yearn for food and water or other desires, and there is food and water to fulfill this need, so must there be a God to which the embodiment of this yearning exists to fulfill our inner selves. 

In the forties Lewis debated atheists and believers in the evenings once a week at The  Socratic Club.  He was a formidable debater, but  not a smug one. He once warned a group of Welsh clergyman in a speech: 

'No doctrine of the Faith seems to me so spectral, so unreal as one I have just successfully  defended in a public debate. .. it has seemed to rest on itself; as a result, when you go away from that  debate it seems no stronger than its weakest pillar. That is why we apologists take our lives in our hands , and can be saved  only from by falling back continually from the web of our own arguments from Christian apologetics  into Christ Himself."  

Lewis himself was a man  on guard against the trapping of ego.  Despite his vast learning and reputation, he sought to remind himself and others that faith is more or less a longing, a yearning for a better place and how its effects are replicated in our conduct of "the shadowlands" of this life.  

   The Narnia stories are  books for children that brought in elements of Christian allegory with other more ancient views of supernatural powers of good and evil as well as the nature-gods of various pagan religions of the past.  A good friend of Professor Lewis for much of his life was J. R.R. Tolkein, creator of the Middle Earth novels of which "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy is most famous. Tolkein, a strict Catholic, didn't like the way Lewis mixed all types of pagan and popular imagery together in these stories, but for Lewis I suspect it  was  all to the good to bring as much of his fertile imagination and love of fantasy together to create a world that held all enduring myths in some mode of sacred power.  
Both these men met at Oxford University in the 1920's with Lewis as a tutor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature and Tolkein as a young professor of Old English.  Both men had served on the Western Front during what was then called the Great War and seen many of their friends lost in its terrible wake of blood, explosions, muddy trenches and flying steel. These meetings with one another grew as friends and fellow writers gathered to hear first drafts of their works in a group that came to be called "The Inklings" in the 1930's.   It was on these Thursday evenings and in other gatherings at the "Eagle and Child" pub in Oxford that Lewis felt most at home, sitting with other writers and keen thinkers discussing a myriad of topics around a fire, relaxed and in good company.  Little wonder that he once described to his American publisher that "he was most happy hearing the could of male laughter". 

Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art... It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that give value to survival. 
C. S. Lewis 

 Another irony of Lewis life was that he was a long-time  bachelor, living with his older brother Warren "Warnie" Lewis, a retired army officer and an older woman named Mrs. Moore, the mother of a close friend  who he had pledged to look after to a friend who did not return from the trenches of 1918.  After Mrs. Moore died, he came to marry an American woman named Joy Davidman who had come to England in part to meet him.  She too was a former atheist and writer.   When she came down with cancer in the mid-fifties Lewis married her so she would not have to worry about overstaying her visa.   After a seeming miracle recovery from the cancer, Lewis and Davidman and her two male children moved in together at "The Kilns", the small house he and his brother shared on a few acres near Oxford. (By this time Lewis was spending his weekdays at Cambridge, where he had been granted a full professorship.)

After just a few years together the cancer returned in  1960, and Joy soon died.  The blow from this loss hit Lewis like a thunderbolt.  Amazingly, and in the true fashion of a writer, he recorded his mental torments and anger with God in perhaps his most harrowing  book, "A Grief Observed".     

Lewis faith in God was shaken but recovered in his later works and he continued to write more essays and letters in his brief retirement right up to the last few days of his life. He died on November 22, 1963, the same day as the death of Aldous Huxley and the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Here is a clip from "The Question of  God: Sigmund Freud and CS Lewis" a PBS documentary. Much of Lewis' words in this documentary are taken from the  spiritual memoir of his early life,  "Surprised By Joy".


  1. C.S. Lewis is one of a very handful of Christians I respect.

    For what it's worth, Doug - you are also among them.

  2. Lewis at his desk--for some reason I couldn't get this on the blog so I reproduce it here.

  3. I'm embarrassed to be in such company, Will, but thank you.

    One thing I admit CS Lewis and I have in common is we both converted to theism about the same point in our lives. He was to me what GK Chesterton was to him, and I was releived to find the doubts he had from early life and from time to time later as much as his faith. That's why its called "faith", as some Christians might forget when debating materialism or whatever is the topic of the day.

    Respect is all we can ask of others, and a proper hearing.

  4. Sadly, neither is available in any quantity today....

  5. Lewis was the hammer used by a friend to knock this non believer about a bit. For a year or two I counted myself among the ranks of believers. But now I count myself amongst those who have 'seen the light' if you pardon my stealing the expression, who can not find a reason, logical or otherwise, to hold a belief in any form of supernatural being, good or bad.

    There's no doubting Lewis' superior intellect nor his genuine faith. I just cannot find a reason to agree with him.

  6. Lost on this one as I thought he was a union leader Doug ....

  7. He was an English academic, doubt he belonged to a union in his entire life even.

  8. I have read bits and pieces about C S Lewis over the years, thanks for bringing it together Doug, I always thought he sounded like a nice man actually, and as a children, my sister and I really enjoyed the Narnia books and I bought the full set for my own children. Never read any of his other writings.

    I have just one reservation about the Narnia stories which I think comes from the period in which they were written rather than intent, (I have similar reservations about at least one Tintin book too btw and probably a few other "classics"), and that is, that there is some noticeable racism shown particularly in one of the book, the one where a young boy is brought up by a horrid black "arabic type" uncle and has to run away. I think he eventually finds he was stolen by these black people from his white royal family. Also, in another book I think, the evil satanic type god turns out to be an ugly black monster.

    It all seems very much a product of the English - Eastern conflicts well recorded elsewhere, from the crusades type era. While I acquit C S Lewis of intent, I discovered I was uncomfortable with just reading this to my children and we ended up having some interesting discussion about the whole subject.

  9. I appreciate your honesty Jim. I don't think Lewis would have appreciated your friend using his books as a hammer; his books were was more the light tap that brings a man or woman who sees things that make him question the subject of God and come to it themselves.

  10. You might be thinking of John L. Lewis, the major American labor union leader of the coal miners in the 20's and 30's .

    He was decidedly more combative than Lewis--literally on some occasions--although they were both men with a mission I guess ;-)

  11. I didn't read the Narnia books as a child and I wish I did now, Iri Ani.

    I refused to read them for my first wife's two little kids because I was such a nose-out-of-joint sort when it came to spreading allegory about anything Christian to kids when I was in my twenties.

    Reading them later to my grand daughter I found them as charming in, in a different way, as clear-headed as any writing I came across. I did read and loved "The Wind in the Willows' as a child so talking animals we're not entirely new to me, lol.

    Yes, I think there is that one unfortunate reference to "darkies" and black monsters in Lewis' "The Last Battle", his final Narnia story. I just didn't say the "darkies" part aloud to Stacey.

    Also, there is some obvious English-Eastern stuff in "The Horse and His Boy" which is set partially in an Arabic-style kingdom called Calormen (to the south of Narnia and Archenland, a buffer state.)

    I think your read on it is quite correct,and I was glad you could bring that up for discussion with your kids. I think Stacey and I had some talk about that, too.

    I remember from "The Last Battle" one of the obvious Muslim characters winds up in the new Kingdom Aslan creates, so that's worth some acquittal in my book. Lewis is always thought provoking even when he is a product of his own time and place, as most authors are.

    You're welcome as always.

  12. I'm working my way through this bit by bit Doug but the above quote seems to me to be an extremely dubious claim. However even if Lewis is correct and there was a historical Jesus tried by Pontius Pilate that does not in my view move us a jot closer to making the assertion that the aforementioned Jesus was (a) God's 'son on Earth' or (b) demonstrates in any way that God actually exists.

    I think this is a rather loose use of the term 'fact' by Mr Lewis here Doug, a notion that historians quite rightly in my view, usually treat with the utmost caution.

    It therefore seems a little ironic that CS Lewis wants to cite history as his authority by a means that would be rejected by most historians I think....but I'll read on.

  13. The friend in question is an ordained minister and he has an odd sense of the absurd and a very clearly defined sense of humour. We often talked about things religious and secular. As I said, I flirted with the notion of god and faith for a few years. Ultimately though I decided that there is no evidence, convincing or even vaguely interesting to support the existence of a deity of any form.

    I am quite convinced of the awe inspiring beauty of this planet and of the great and wondrous things both natural and man made on it. None of that convinces me that there is an overarching intelligence of any sort at work though. Indeed, though who erroneously site that as evidence for something called intelligent design are in fact just plain barking! Pardon me for being provocative, but the attacks made by such fundamentalist science deniers need to be attacked and shown for what they are.

  14. I think that English "odd sense of the absurd" is one of the saving graces of your society---the eccentrics who can use the humor in everyday life can also appreciate someone else's point of view. Wish we had more of that here.

    I'm sure some important thinkers like Stephen Hawking would likely agree with you on the Earth's beauty and the lack of a Higher Power. Others, like the American geneticist Francis Collins who led a group mapping the human genome, would be on the other.

    To me, science is science and religion is something else. You cannot prove or disprove a higher entity out of what is a process of discovery. Science is about how the universe works and not why it does. Men and women of good will can disagree on this, and even scientists aren't always on the same side of this debate. And trying to seek intelligent design into the back door of a science class simply is trying to impose a belief system that proper science--in term of empirical evidence-- is not set up to expound upon.

  15. Of that much I'm happy to accept that JC did in fact exist. There is considerable written evidence about him in correspondence to and from Rome. I'm sure he was some sort of charismatic notable of the period and his execution certainly would have drawn a crowd therefore. However, taking the evidence, which was aural mostly at that time and the new testament was not even written down for a good many years after the event, it is difficult in the extreme to place any credence on these stories.

    That said, the christian movement ultimately lead to judeao christian laws which are still reflected in much of the law in western democracies today. So the movement was ok, just can't accept the whole god thing I'm afraid and wish we'd all get past it. It being faith in general of course.

  16. I'm working my way through this bit by bit Doug but the above quote seems to me to be an extremely dubious claim. However even if Lewis is correct and there was a historical Jesus tried by Pontius Pilate that does not in my view move us a jot closer to making the assertion that the aforementioned Jesus was (a) God's 'son on Earth' or (b) demonstrates in any way that God actually exists.

    I think this is a rather loose use of the term 'fact' by Mr Lewis here Doug, a notion that historians quite rightly in my view, usually treat with the utmost caution.

    It therefore seems a little ironic that CS Lewis wants to cite history as his authority by a means that would be rejected by most historians I think....but I'll read on.

  17. Why Jazzman? There is no convincing evidence that I am aware of, or perhaps you know of something concrete to go on?

  18. Saving graces? Seems to imply we need saving? ;-))

    I do of course take the point in the manor it was made, we do have more than a few who are shall we say a bit off centre. And yes, sometimes their out of kilter approach can point out the oddities of our lives in a more affective way than perhaps others who 'tilt at windmills'!

    I enjoy the argument and long for an open, honest argument (in the dictionary sense of the word) where points are made and opponents listen attentively and then respond with well reasoned argument which is in turn given the respect that was previously accorded the other. However, far too often religious argument descends in to intransigence and later hate. There should be no room for it, religion and hate, to my mind.

  19. History being an inexact science is of course more difficult and open to interpetation than say carbon dating in archeology. The first reliable references to Christ's resurrection come from Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 15. Most historians today put that letter at around 50-55 AD, or roughly 20-25 years after the events in Jerusalem. Paul's friend Luke describes him having his"Road to Damascus" moment in 35 AD. in the Book of Acts, which was likely written in the early 60's before Paul and Peter were put to death in Rome. Mark's Gospel (the first) has been said to be written for a Roman audience shortly after. The rest of the Gospels came after the destruction of the Judean world in the war of 66-70 AD.

    People can argue dates back and forth of course and what they mean butit appears to me something major happened on a Passover around 26-30 AD that convinced a lot of people that Jesus was no ordianary exorcist or itinerant rabbi. But, as I said before, this is faith and thatcomes down to what my own former pastor called "a cosmic hunch". To go with or against that for reasons benign or otherwise in either direction is a matter of individual conscience.

  20. There is correspondence from the Roman governor of the region to head office about a troublesome Jew call Jesus Christ. The correspondent was seeking advice on how to deal with the problem.

    It does not, as far as I'm aware tells much more but is contemporaneous with the events leading to his execution. Neither does the evidence clearly or even indirectly refer or support miracles or other godly like behaviour apparently.

  21. Not at all. ;-)) Someone once said formal fascism could not come to England because the minute people start goose-stepping down the street they would be laughed at. It's like PG Wodehouse's character of Mr. Spode, the amateur dictator in one of the Jeeves and Bertie Wooster novels, who also designs and sells ladies clothing on the side.

    The loudest voices in any movement, secular or religious, are likely the most unreasonable. Any type of moral certainty, as Karen Armstrong said in one of her books, will eventually lead to violence. And its certain that any religion whose leader pointed out one should love your enemies certainly shouldn't be getting hateful with those who simply have separate belief systems.

  22. I would add that I'm quoting my religious friend who at the time had completed his theological studies leading to being ordained as a minister in the Church of England. Part of those studies included spending some time in the Holly Land on a couple of occasions with his college.

  23. And there would perhaps be no finer example of an English eccentric than Wodehouse.

  24. I gather Lewis was saying, as the documentary points out, that he had read a good deal of literature and the myths contained in other cultures and he found the Christian story a true myth--one that has echoes in other cultures in other times but actually seems to have heralded its fruition in the first century of the modern era. There are aspects to the Christian story---Christ's final agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, for one example,and the story in Luke and Matthew about his being repudiated by a Syro-Phonichan woman in Tyre who rejects his notion that non-Jews are like dogs at the table (no doubt after he's worn out from helping people) --that rings true in ways that I can accept others cannot accept.

    Lacking absolute proof of the matter I cannot say that another interpretation is wrong; simply that I disagree with it.

    Michael Grant's "A Historical Guide to the Gospels" to me is a good example of a book that doesn't make a hard case one way or another, and leaves the case for resurrection open.

  25. You make some interesting points about Lewis's friendship with Tolkien Doug.....the latter was obviously an Anglo Saxon philologist and antiquarian who coming from a Baptist background endorsed his late mother's conversion to Catholicism shortly before she died at the age of 34 and left him in the care of a senior Catholic priest in Birmingham when he was 12 years old.

    What I see here is the trauma of war and shell shock in both cases, but when I moved house in 1995 JRR Tolkien's granddaughter drove the removals van....the Lewis's never did a damn thing for I'm with Tolkien here Doug even if he did say of Lewis

    "Lewis would regress. He would not enter Christianity by a new door, but by the old one: at least in the sense that in taking it up again he would also take up again, or reawaken, the prejudices so sedulously planted in childhood and boyhood. He would become again a Northern Ireland protestant."

    All very interesting stuff Doug, thanks for a great blog that opens up these issues

  26. That's put the lid on it for me. The best claim to fame and literary put down in one sentence I've ever read!


  27. I don't think so Iri....given that Lewis was Irish and Tolkien a South African of German was the class system that gave these lads access to the ivied halls of academia... facilitated by whatever the opposite of racism is amongst the liberal chattering classes...but after WW1 both were not a little bit crazy I think, Tolkien was a hysterical arachnophobe as well btw

  28. Certainly Lewis and Tolkein had different stages in their friendship, AA. That's an interesting quote, by the way. Thanks for the link, too. There's a lot about Tolkein I still need to find out... like did he have a family removal van service on the side. ;-)

    Andrew Jacobs' "The Narnian", whic his the best book on Lewis I've read, does indeed explore the spiritual rifts that developed in their later life. Tolkein thought Lewis had no business writing some of his books because he was of the laity. Lewis thought that the clerics weren't doing enough to explain Christianity outside the confines of a church. So there you have something of a classic Catholic--Protestant split there that put a strain on their friendship.

    Thanks to you and Jim and others for contributing so much here!

  29. Muchas gracias as they say in Dudley (where she lived at the time).......... :-)

  30. I should throw in that as a young man "Jack" Lewis regarded England as a foreign country and was quite miserable at the public school his father sent him off to. His letters I've seen reprinted speak of the snobbishness of the English kids and how he wishes his father could take him out of the school.

    Rather an outsider, like Orwell in a sense.

  31. Yes but he was wrong Doug, what he was complaining about was the snobbishness of the public school system, not the English.....most of the English stood absolutely no chance of being there... it is I think a class issue like almost everything in England has a class component. It is the demographic makeup of the classes that is the only thing that changes, but the class system remains resolutely in place and CS Lewis like Tolkien and Orwell are almost as otherworldly as Nania or Middle Earth (or Oceania) to the labouring classes ....these were toffs who had a fright, fish out of water, articulate anomie.. but also esteemed men of letters too as well of course. There's no argument there

  32. You're quite right, AA. Of course, Lewis still being a young lad associated all the bullying and "bloods" and "hearties" stuff with all of England itself, initally--and he was wrong. "Fish out of water" is a good analysis as I gather both Orwell and Lewis, at least, were given some grief by their old school chums when they as grown men and esteemed ones to boot wrote about their childhood experiences in such schools.

    It's odd how kids can experience the same school, sometimes the same classroom even, and some come away with rosy memories and others recall those same school year(s) with dread. I've seen this with old friends when we've talked into the night about our former grade school times. But that's a topic that needs its own blog.

    In America, of course, we are obliged to pretend to have no "toffs", or say 'anyone can be anything they want' and all that Disneyland stuff that doesn't match the dire straits our state schools have fallen into lately. ,Maybe we were more of an an opportunity society once, but that seems as remote to me as the old NASA/Apollo moon rocket program.

  33. I could be corrected on this but i am not sure that C S Lewis was a christian when he first started writing the Narnia series. I seem to remember that his revelation was supposed to have come along about halfway through.

    You correctly identify just the books I had most concerns with.

    There was a point during my parenting years where I also drew the line at overtly christian stories for my kids too and in fact, preferred for the most part to read more modern stories to my children which more often agreed with the values that I wished my children to acquire.

    Anyway, as a child, I just read the Narnia stories all the way through as cracking good stories, just as I read all those fairy stories about princesses being rescued by handsome princes and everyone living happily ever after, and all that stuff. I think that children are influenced very much by their environments and therefore, while children may read racist stuff or about things which we as parents do not agree with, they mostly will remain fairly unscathed if their own parents are fair-minded people. And discussion is good. But if a child is brought up in a family where racism and imperialism is considered normal and right then books like these may only serve to reinforce the family ideologies.

  34. Gosh I am working my way through some seriously interesting discussion here. And picking up on points I think.

    It seems to me that as soon as one introduces a term like "intelligent design" than one is immediately implying a designer? I think that, rather, evolution occurs as a result of changing circumstance - an example being birds of flight finding themselves on the islands now known as New Zealand and, because there were no predators gradually evolving into flightless birds.

    Evolution is therefore nothing to do with intelligent design nor is it a random thing where creatures and/or plants just decide to try something out for the heck of it.

    Sorry about the divergence.

  35. Nevertheless he seems to have picked up in the imperialist culture and brought it to the Narnia series. A dominant culture can trip us all up at various moments.

  36. I' mpretty sure Lewis was a Christian by the time he came to write the first "Narnia" novel. But, in a way, you're quite right, Iri Ani: all of his life Lewis was a keen reader of fantastic literature and mythology.

    I'm convinced the ideas for a place similar to "Narnia" were developed early in his life and just lay fallow for a time. So, in that sense, Narnia is from his pre-Christian period and I thin khe would have written something similar to these stories had he never converted, but she still finished them.

    I have a Jewish friend, who, as a girl ,was reading the Narnia books and enjoying them--until her parents told her that they were allegorical to Christianity and discouraged her. Her attitude wassimilar to yours--they were very good stories and she was hooked on them the same way kids read the "Harry Potter" books and "Lemony Snickert" and all those. If there are good values in books--respect for others, love for kindred, fairness to those less fortunate, whatever---in that way I don't thin kyou can go wrong with children's lit. (I must say the video games kids play with today can look very violent and the interaction bothers me, even the "Star Wars" stuff whic is for kids. But i also remember playing "war games" and "army" in the back yard with my friends and none of us that I know of ever even owned a real gun.

    Yes, the parents are the most important source for young kids. If they are raised to be little snot-nosed racists that's what they will likely be. But if they have a good grounding in values and respect for diversity then the odd bigotry in a book or violence in a film or video game will likely roll off their backs.

  37. No problem at all Iri Ani.

    We may not agree on points of religion, but we do I think on avoiding intelligent design in science studies. But this is not as unusual as some findementalists (or hardline athiests) would have us believe.
    Some of Darwin's early adherants were also Christian--although of course he was agnostic--- and, today, manny Roman Catholics and mainline American Protestants would have no problem with the notion of flightless birds in a predator-free environment. Evolution is part of nature and you can't understand it by filling in the gaps with the phrase "God did this." The notion of all this, the why we exist and what is there to come, is the role of rreligion and obviously is not somethng you can reproduce in a labratory, just as the love parents feel for their children or a friends for his or her pal has no scientific paradigm.

  38. Glad you caught that one, Iri. I hadn't really considered that.

    Yes, Lewis was assimilated to imperialism to some degree; he found as an adult that he had lost his Irish accent for one thing! "The Naranian" biography I read recently points out that the school kids in his stories are often unhappy being away from home or getting grief from bullies, just as the young Lewis was.

    One interesting thing that impressed me about Lewis was that he turned down a knighthood offered to him by Winston Churchill in the early 1950's. He was concerned that his writings would be compromised if he was seen as too far in one political camp or another. But of course he would be the first to say he was a scholar of musty tomes and somewhat backward-looking. He described himself as a dinosaur compared to his more liberal colleagues at Cambridge.

    But the "dominant culture" business is a heavy burden to watch out for--I catch that in myself as well. Thanks for opening up this discussion.