The Great Iconoclast

DURING the 1952 Christmas season, C. S. Lewis invited Joy Davidman Gresham—an American with whom he had corresponded for over two years—to spend the holidays at his home, The Kilns. Joy asked Lewis to autograph her copy of his book, The Great Divorce. He wrote, “There are three images in my mind which I must continually forsake and replace by better ones: the false image of God, the false image of my neighbours, and the false image of myself. C. S. Lewis 30 December 1952 (from an unwritten chapter on Iconoclasm).”

Though the planned chapter was never written, this simple inscription captures an idea central to Lewis’s life and work: the idea that reality is iconoclastic—it breaks images or idols. An image of God (or of another person, or oneself) formed after reading a book, hearing a lecture or sermon, or having a conversation with a friend may temporarily give greater clarity of thought. But if it is held too tightly, it becomes an idol that must be broken in order to allow a better image to take its place. One might say that Lewis’s entire relationship with the woman who eventually became his wife was encapsulated in the words he wrote on that December day.

Surprised by Joy

It was a story no one could have predicted. Lewis first came to know Joy through her fan letters. They met in person at Oxford’s East Gate Hotel in September 1952. Lewis was a 55-year-old scholar and confirmed bachelor. Joy was a 37-year-old ex-Communist Jew from Brooklyn, a recent Christian convert, and a poet whose marriage to writer Bill Gresham was foundering on the rocks. As Joy went through a divorce, moved to England with her two sons, and was diagnosed with cancer, the unlikely romance that blossomed between her and Lewis shocked everyone.

Lewis married Joy secretly in the Oxford registry office in 1956 to keep her from being deported back to the U. S. The next year, he married her again “for real” in a religious ceremony at what was thought to be her deathbed. But once more, reality shattered expectations: Joy’s cancer went into remission, and the two enjoyed three very happy years together. Her sharp wit and intelligence matched his own, and she had a deep influence on Lewis’s own favorite of all his books, Till We Have Faces, as well as The Four Loves. Whether she was managing the finances, sharing his love for poetry, or patrolling the woods behind The Kilns with a shotgun to keep away amorous trespassers, Joy turned upside—down the aging scholar’s bachelor existence. Lewis remarked to his friend Neville Coghill, “I never expected to have, in my sixties, the happiness that passed me by in my twenties.”

Such happiness did not last, however. Joy’s cancer returned with a vengeance and took her life on July 13, 1960. Like any bereaved husband, Lewis plunged into grief, even asking whether God was a good God or a “Cosmic Sadist.” He weathered his own dark night of the soul by analyzing his suffering in a poignant little book called A Grief Observed, published under the pseudonym N. W. Clerk in 1961.

Severe Mercy

Over the course of his intellectual pilgrimage, Lewis’s realism had led him to a robust form of Christianity that held up under life’s stormy weather. He had always insisted on facing up to The Way the World Is, rather than settling for the way he thought it was or wanted it to be.

In the book that established his academic reputation, The Allegory of Love, he argued, “The universe is a battlefield in which Change and Permanence contend.” Throughout all of the changes in life, the temporarily real fades, and what we are left with is the eternally real. He wrote in Surprised by Joy that God in his mercy kicks out the walls of the temples we build for him because he wants to give us more of himself-that God “cares only for temples building and not for temples built.” Before Lewis met Joy, he had been corresponding with his former student Sheldon Vanauken after the death of Vanauken’s wife, Davy. In one letter he gently suggested that Vanauken had had a flawed and idealized view of love—and that “you've been given a severe mercy” (from which came the title of Vanauken’s book A Severe Mercy).

With Joy's death, these beliefs went head to head with raw experience. The ideas in A Grief Observed were no different from those expressed in his earlier books, but this time they were accompanied by the “ouch” of profound personal pain as Lewis’s own temples were kicked apart.

Loving Joy (whom he called “H.” in the book) had been a continual exercise in shedding false ideals in favor of a real, unpredictable, flesh-and-blood woman. “All reality is iconoclastic,” he wrote. “The earthly beloved, even in this life, incessantly triumphs over your mere idea of her.” Joy was always pulling him up short “so unexpectedly, by being so thoroughly herself and not me.”

Just as his image of Joy had been incomplete, he realized, so had his image of God: “My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence?”

In words reminiscent of those he had written in Joy’s copy of The Great Divorce years before, he reasserted his desire to reach beyond his changing perceptions and feelings in order to find what was eternally real: “Not my idea of God, but God. Not my idea of H., but H. Yes, and also not my idea of my neighbor, but my neighbor.”

The Journey Continues

Many people who have seen the movie Shadowlands have wondered what happened to Lewis’s faith after the shattering effect of loss. One can already see in A Grief Observed the rebuilding taking place. Pain did not make him bitter or despairing; it caused him to turn up the volume on themes he’d been talking about for decades.

Just before his own death, Lewis wrote Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (published posthumously). It was a practical, conversational outpouring of thoughts on devotional life to an imaginary correspondent—a book marked by the humility of one who knew from hard experience that, while God is absolute and unchanging, his own understanding of God’s ways was not.

Here again, Lewis reminded readers that reality is iconoclastic. But what was earlier an expression of intellectual searching or emotional agony now became a call to worship: “God must continually work as the iconoclast. Every idea of Him we form He must in mercy shatter. The most blessed result of prayer would be to rise thinking, ‘But I never knew before. I never dreamed . . . '” God can offer no gift to his creatures greater than the gift of himself. Whether through the mind’s quest or the heart’s sacrifice, Lewis believed that the Christian journey must always lead “further up and further in.”

By Jerry Root and Jennifer Trafton

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #88 in 2005]

Jerry Root is assistant professor of evangelism and associate director of the Institute of Stategic Evangelism at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. Jennifer Trafton is managing editor of Christian History & Biography.
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