Apologetics: C.S. Lewis
"HE WAS A HEAVILY BUILT MAN who looked about forty, with a fleshy oval face and a ruddy complexion. His black hair had retreated from his forehead, which made him especially imposing. I knew nothing about him, except that he was the college English tutor. I did not know that he was the best lecturer in the department, nor had I read the only book that he had published under his own name (hardly anyone had). Even after I had been taught by him for three years, it never entered my mind that he could one day become an author whose books would sell at the rate of about two million copies a year. Since he never spoke of religion while I was his pupil, or until we had become friends 15 years later, it would have seemed incredible that he would become the means of bringing many back to the Christian faith.”
Even to his best biographer and longtime friend George Sayer, Clive Staples Lewis was a surprise and a mystery.
As J. R. R. Tolkien advised Sayer, “You'll never get to the bottom of him.” But understanding or even fully agreeing with Lewis have never been prerequisites to enjoying and admiring him.
His books continue to sell extremely well (the Chronicles of Narnia set, for example, is among Amazon.com’s top 200 titles), and many readers rate him as the most influential writer in their lives. Quite a feat for a man who long disparaged “the Christian mythology” and regarded God as “My Enemy.”
Lewis was born into a bookish family of Protestants in Belfast, Ireland.
“There were books in the study, books in the dining room, books in the cloakroom, books (two deep) in the great bookcase on the landing, books in a bedroom, books piled as high as my shoulder in the cistern attic, books of all kinds,” Lewis remembered, and none were off limits to him. On rainy days—and there were many in northern Ireland—he pulled volumes off the shelves and entered into worlds created by authors such as Conan Doyle, E. Nesbit, Mark Twain, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
After his only brother, Warren, was sent off to English boarding school in 1905, Jack became reclusive. He spent more time in books and an imaginary world of “dressed animals” and “knights in armor.”
His mother’s death from cancer in 1908 made him even more withdrawn. Mrs. Lewis’s death came just three months before Jack’s tenth birthday, and the young man was hurt deeply by her passing. On top of that, his father never fully recovered from her death, and both boys felt increasingly estranged from him; home life was never warm and satisfying again.
His mother’s death convinced young Jack that the God he encountered in the Bible his mother gave him didn’t always answer prayers. This early doubt, coupled with an unduly harsh, self-directed spiritual regimen and the influence of a mildly occultist boarding school matron a few years later, caused Lewis to reject Christianity and become an avowed atheist.
Lewis entered Oxford in 1917 as a student and never really left. “The place has surpassed my wildest dreams,” he wrote to his father after spending his first day there. “I never saw anything so beautiful.” Despite an interruption to fight in World War I (in which he was wounded by a bursting shell), he always maintained his home and friends in Oxford. His attachment to Oxford was so strong that when he taught at Cambridge from 1955 to 1963, he commuted back to Oxford on weekends so he could be close to familiar places and beloved friends.
Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and, if true, of infinite importance. The one thing it cannot be is moderately important.”
In 1919 Lewis published his first book, a cycle of lyrics titled Spirits in Bondage, which he wrote under the pseudonym Clive Hamilton. In 1924 he became a philosophy tutor at University College, and the following year he was elected a Fellow of Magdalen College, where he tutored in English language and literature. His second volume of poetry, Dymer, was also published pseudonymously.
As Lewis continued to read, he especially enjoyed Christian author George MacDonald. One volume, Phantastes, powerfully challenged his atheism. “What it actually did to me,” wrote Lewis, “was to convert, even to baptize ... my imagination.” G. K. Chesterton’s books worked much the same way, especially The Everlasting Man, which raised serious questions about the young intellectual’s materialism.
“A young man who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful of his reading,” Lewis later wrote in the autobiographical Surprised by Joy. “God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.”
While MacDonald and Chesterton were stirring Lewis’s thoughts, close friend Owen Barfield pounced on the logic of Lewis’s atheism. Barfield had converted from atheism to theism, then finally to Christianity, and he frequently badgered Lewis about his materialism. So did Nevill Coghill, a brilliant fellow student and lifelong friend who, to Lewis’s amazement, was “a Christian and a thoroughgoing supernaturalist.”
Soon after joining the English faculty at Oxford’s Magdalen College, Lewis met two more Christians, Hugo Dyson and J. R. R. Tolkien. These men became close friends of Lewis. He admired their brilliance and their logic. Soon Lewis recognized that most of his friends, like his favorite authors—MacDonald, Chesterton, Johnson, Spenser, and Milton—held to this Christianity.
In 1929 these roads met, and Lewis surrendered, admitting “God was God, and knelt and prayed.” Within two years the reluctant convert also moved from theism to Christianity and joined the Church of England.
Almost immediately, Lewis set out in a new direction, most demonstrably in his writing. Earlier efforts to become a poet were laid to rest. The new Christian devoted his talent and energy to writing prose that reflected his recently found faith. Within two years of his conversion, Lewis published The Pilgrim’s Regress: An Allegorical Apology for Christianity, Reason and Romanticism (1933). This little volume opened a 30-year stream of books on Christian apologetics and discipleship that became a lifelong avocation.
Not everyone approved of his new interest in apologetics. Lewis frequently received criticism from members of his closest circle of friends, the Inklings (the nickname for the group of intellectuals and writers who met regularly to exchange ideas). Even close Christian friends like Tolkien and Owen Barfield openly disapproved of Lewis’s evangelistic speaking and writing.
In fact, Lewis’s “Christian” books caused so much disapproval that he was more than once passed over for a professorship at Oxford, with the honors going to men of lesser reputation. It was Magdalene College at Cambridge University that finally honored Lewis with a chair in 1955.
Regardless of their reception close to home, Lewis’s 25 Christian books, including The Screwtape Letters (1942), Mere Christianity (1952), the Chronicles of Narnia (1950-56), The Great Divorce (1946), and the Abolition of Man (1943), which Encyclopedia Britannica included in its collection of Great Books of the World, have sold millions of copies.
Though his books gained him worldwide fame, Lewis was always first a scholar. He continued to write literary history and criticism such asThe Allegory of Love(1936), considered a classic in its field, and English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (1954).
In spite of his many intellectual accomplishments, he refused to be arrogant: “The intellectual life is not the only road to God, nor the safest, but we find it to be a road, and it may be the appointed road for us. Of course, it will be so only so long as we keep the impulse pure and disinterested.”
Lewis did hit at least one jarring bump in his intellectual road: a 1948 debate with British philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe. Anscombe read a paper before the Oxford Socratic Club (a forum Lewis led for many years) in which she attacked Lewis’s recently published Miracles and his whole argument against naturalism. Anscombe won the day, and Lewis was reportedly “deeply disturbed” and “in very low spirits.” He never wrote straight apologetics again, though he continued to communicate his faith through fiction and other literary forms.
Books were not the only means Lewis found for sharing his message. In 1941, the director of religious broadcasting at the BBC (who had found personal comfort through reading The Problem of Pain) asked if Lewis would be willing to speak on the radio. Though the author hated radio, he recognized the opportunity to reach a wider audience. The outcome was seven sets of talks, broadcast between 1941 and 1944, with titles like “Right and Wrong: A Clue to the Meaning of the Universe?” and “What Christians Believe.”
The weekly broadcasts were very popular—just what weary, discouraged Brits were looking for in the gloom of World War II. Sayer recounts, “I remember being at a pub filled with soldiers on one Wednesday evening. At a quarter to eight, the bartender turned the radio up for Lewis. 'You listen to this bloke,’ he shouted. 'He’s really worth listening to.’ And those soldiers did listen attentively for the entire fifteen minutes.”
In addition to spreading Lewis’s fame as an apologist and speaker, the BBC talks produced at least two major results. One was the book Mere Christianity (1952), a collection of all the talks that is now Lewis’s second-bestselling work. The other was a deluge of correspondence, including many letters from spiritual seekers to whom he wished to make a detailed, personal reply. The sheer volume of letters led him to seek his brother Warren’s secretarial assistance but did not prevent him from crafting responses that showed the same clarity of thought and literary grace possessed by all his writing.
One correspondent in particular would play a major role in Lewis’s life. In 1950 he received a letter from Joy Davidman Gresham, a New Yorker who had become a Christian through reading The Great Divorce and The Screwtape Letters. Lewis was impressed by the writing and the mind behind it, and a lively, intense correspondence followed.
Two years later, Joy crossed the Atlantic to visit her spiritual mentor in England. Soon thereafter her alcoholic husband abandoned her for another woman, and she moved to London with her two adolescent boys, David and Douglas.
Joy gradually fell into financial trouble. Lewis helped out by underwriting the boys’ boarding school education and paying the rent on a house not far from his own. The two developed a deep friendship, much to the dismay of many of Lewis’s friends. Joy had many strikes against her: she was an American, of Jewish descent, a former communist, 16 years younger than Lewis, divorced, and personally abrasive. However, she stimulated Lewis’s writing, and he enjoyed her company.
Even so, it wasn’t love that primarily motivated the couple to marry in 1956—Joy couldn’t renew her permit to live and work in England, so her only chance to stay in the country was to marry an Englishman. Lewis gallantly offered his services.
A few months after the civil wedding ceremony, something happened that did rouse Lewis’s emotions. After a bad fall in her house, Joy was diagnosed with bone cancer. “Never have I loved her more than since she was struck down,” Lewis wrote to a friend. The two were married in an ecclesiastical ceremony at Joy’s bedside, and she moved in with Lewis, presumably to die.
In a seeming miracle, Joy’s condition improved, and she and Lewis enjoyed three happy years together. As he wrote to one friend soon after their marriage, “It’s funny having at 59 the sort of happiness most men have in their twenties ... 'Thou hast kept the good wine till now.’ “ A writer in her own right, her influence on what Jack considered his best book, Till We Have Faces (1956), was so profound that he told one close friend she was actually its co-author.
Joy’s death in 1960, like the death of his mother, dealt Lewis a severe blow. The best way he knew to grapple with his feelings of grief, anger, and doubt was to write a book. A Grief Observed appeared in 1961 under a pseudonym, because it was so intimate and personal Lewis couldn’t bear for it to be published with his own name. Few copies were sold until it was reissued under the author’s true name after his death.
In the summer and fall of 1963, Lewis’s health deteriorated. He died in his sleep on November 22, the same day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Perhaps because of the worldwide shock regarding the president’s death, Lewis barely made headlines, and his funeral was attended mostly by family and close friends, including the Inklings.
Lewis may have been buried without fanfare, but his impact on hearts and lives has never stopped growing. In the words of evangelical leader John Stott, “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.”
You Are There
The tutorial was a formal occasion. Wearing a gown, a pupil would stand outside the tutor’s door and wait until the clock struck to before knocking. Jack’s door, like all the doors in New Buildings, was thick, but, through it, one could easily hear the strong, booming voice say, “Come in.” The room was adequately, but rather shabbily, furnished. On one side of the lovely eighteenth-century fireplace in which a coal fire would be burning during cold weather, there was a sofa upon which he sat; on the other side, there was an armchair for the student.
The tutorial always began the same way: The pupil would read the essay that he had been told to write the week before. Jack, who would have spent some time that week reading the books with which the essay was concerned, would sit listening, very often lighting, smoking, and relighting his pipe, and perhaps making a few notes. Afterward, he would make wide-ranging criticisms, some of them semantic or philological, for he always hated the inexact use of words.
“What exactly do you mean by the word ‘sentimental,’ Mr. Sayer?” he might begin. Then he would present a summary of the ways in which the word had been used in the past, perhaps adding, “Well, Mr. Sayer, if you are not sure what the word means or what you mean by it, wouldn’t it be very much better if you ceased to use it at all?” ...
Everyone recognized the breadth of his knowledge. He was widely read and had a remarkable memory that enabled him to quote at length from any author who interested him and even from some who did not. No pupil of his will ever forget the way he quoted the poetry he enjoyed.
—George Sayer, Lewis’s pupil and, later, biographer, in Jack: C.S. Lewis and His Times
By Ted Olsen
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #65 in 2000]Ted Olsen, former assistant editor of Christian History, and editor of Christianity Today.
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