The intelligent layperson

WHEN WORLD WAR II BROKE OUT in September 1939, hardly anyone had heard of C. S. Lewis. By the end of the war, he was one of England’s best-known spokesmen for the Christian faith. 

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 In May 1941 letters from “an elderly retired devil to a young devil who has just started work” began appearing in the Guardian. The Screwtape Letters reflected wartime themes with God as “the Enemy” and fictional devils as fierce as the German bombs falling on Britain. It established Lewis as a Christian who could write about spiritual truth with wit and imagination. 

When Maurice Edwards, chief chaplain of the RAF (Royal Air Force), asked Lewis to speak to the troops about spiritual matters, he readily agreed. Unfortunately Lewis, who had taught philosophy and literature as a tutor at Oxford University since 1924, had no idea how to speak to nonscholarly audiences. In an April 1941 lecture to RAF chaplains, he discussed linguistic analysis in Pauline soteriology. The chaplains fidgeted. One openly did a crossword. Afterward Lewis wrote to a friend that his talk was “a complete failure,” taking comfort in the fact that “God used an ass to convert the prophet.” 

Lewis learned from his initial failures as a speaker. Reminded that the RAF chaplains were “probing life in the raw and trying to do something about it,” he began choosing more down-to-earth topics. He would soon have a broader audience.

Champion of religion

In wartime the BBC (British Broadcasting Company) reduced its multiple radio channels to one to give the nation a unified source of information, entertainment, and inspiration. Sunday hours previously dedicated to rebroadcasting church services were now taken over by entertainment. The religion department, led by James Welch, scrambled to create new programming that addressed serious questions of wartime. 

Welch, intrigued by Lewis’s first book of Christian apologetics, The Problem of Pain (1940), wondered if Lewis could become his on-air champion of religion, just as other BBC departments employed voices on wartime gardening, cooking, and health. In February 1941 Welch wrote Lewis to propose a series of talks on either modern literature or Christian belief.

Modern literature held no interest for Lewis, but he had another idea: talks on the objective nature of right and wrong. When the New Testament preaches repentance, Lewis wrote, it presupposes that its hearers have a sense of the moral law and their failure to live by it. Not so in today’s Britain, he said.

Welch had promised Lewis “more than a million” “fairly intelligent” listeners, but the 7:45 p.m. time slot was not favorable: Lewis went on right after a news broadcast in Norwegian and just before a folklore festival in Welsh. Nevertheless, everything went off without a hitch. 

Letters from listeners began to arrive. The day after the first series concluded, Welch’s colleague Eric Fenn asked Lewis for another on specifically Christian beliefs. Soon publisher Geoffrey Bles also contacted him, asking to publish the first set of talks—and any yet unwritten—in book form. To both men Lewis said yes.

The second set of talks outlined central Christian beliefs using the language of war. We live in “enemy-occupied territory,” Lewis said; “Christianity is the story of how a rightful King has landed” in disguise. In these broadcasts Lewis made his most famous apologetic point: you can’t accept Jesus as a great moral teacher without accepting his claim to be God. A mere mortal who “said the sort of things Jesus said” would “either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he’s a poached egg—or else he’d be the Devil of Hell.” 

Eventually Lewis agreed to a third series on Christian behavior; when a fourth was requested, he produced talks about the Trinity, Resurrection, and Ascension among other doctrines.

Lewis and Fenn worked together well until Fenn told him that Lewis’s time slot had been moved to 10:20 p.m. Lewis was furious. He would have to catch the midnight train from London back home to Oxford and not get to bed until 3 a.m. “Who the devil is going to listen at 10:20?,” he wrote. “If you know the address of any reliable firm of assassins, nose-slitters, garrotters and poisoners I should be grateful to have it!” The fourth series aired in 1944 and once again received enthusiastic response. The BBC came back asking for more. No, said Lewis. Repeatedly. Broadcasting had lost its allure, and key Allied victories meant more young people were returning to Oxford as students. Lewis’s radio career was over.

Life-changing book

What is the legacy of Lewis’s broadcasts? First, Mere Christianity itself—“mere” not in the contemporary connotation of “lowest common denominator,” but in older meanings: “genuine,” “pure,” “nothing less than.” To avoid any hint of denominationalism, Lewis asked four prominent clergymen—Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Roman Catholic—to vet the talks. He got four thumbs up. Bles published the book in 1952. It went on to sell over 200,000,000 copies in 30 languages. It also changed lives. 

Second, Lewis helped to create a genre of Christian publishing marked by informed simplicity, clarity, and imagination. Eric Fenn guided Lewis not only in writing to a specific length, but also in speaking in short, unadorned sentences for radio, addressing the experiences of common folk.

Third, Lewis’s broadcast talks proved that an intelligent, informed layperson could expound historic Christian orthodoxy without kowtowing to ecclesiastical or academic gatekeepers.

Finally, Lewis demonstrated the power of the imagination combined with rational analysis. Either one without the other creates lopsided Christians. Together they prepared Lewis’s contemporaries to cope during wartime. Today, more than 70 years after Lewis’s last radio broadcast, his unique blend of imagination and analysis continues to speak. CH

This article is from Christian History magazine #116 Twenty-Five Writings that Changed the Church and the World. Read it in context here!

By David Neff

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #116 in 2015]

David Neff is retired editor in chief of Christianity Today.
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