More than 50 years after his death, C. S. Lewis remains a towering intellectual figure who wrote the most influential religious book of the 20th century – Mere Christianity – along with The Chronicles of Narnia and even helped J. R. R. Tolkien finish The Lord of the Rings trilogy. In a new book, C. S. Lewis – A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet, Oxford scholar Alister McGrath offers the “definitive account” of Lewis’ prodigious literary achievements. During this Thanksgiving and Christmas season, McGrath’s book provides not only a compelling read, but new insights into the incredible life of “God’s Storyteller.”
C.S Lewis life story with a purpose
By Troy Anderson
He penned what is considered the most influential religious book of the 20th century – Mere Christianity.
A towering intellectual figure, he appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1947 in a story that described him as “one of the most influential spokesmen for Christianity in the English-speaking world.”
Displaying a universal literary talent, he also wrote the seven-volume The Chronicles of Narnia fantasy series, which sold more than 100 million copies and inspired a global movie franchise that has generated billions of dollars in ticket sales.
Topping it all, he played a critical role in keeping J. R. R. Tolkien, a fellow “Inkling” at Oxford University, at work on The Lord of the Rings – the epic high fantasy novel (in three volumes) that became the second bestselling novel in history with more than 150 million copies sold and a film series that has generated nearly $3 billion in revenues.
Now, 50 years after his death on Nov. 22, 1963, no Christian writer has emerged to rival this “cultural and religious icon,” says Alister McGrath, the professor of Theology, Ministry, and Education at King’s College London and head of its Center for Theology, Religion and Culture.
In his new book, C. S. Lewis – A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet, McGrath wrote Lewis’s prodigious literary works are far more influential today than a half century ago and the Oxford University lecturer and Cambridge University professor is viewed by many Christians “as their theological and spiritual mentor.”
“Engaging both heart and mind, Lewis opened up the intellectual and imaginative depths of the Christian faith like nobody else,” wrote McGrath, a former professor of historical theology at Oxford and a bestselling author of more than 50 books.
Not long before his death on the same day as the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Lewis remarked that he would be forgotten within five years.
Nonetheless, Lewis – whom U.S. News & World Report once called “God’s Storyteller” – is incalculably better known today.
“Lewis has become that rarest of phenomena – a modern Christian writer regarded with respect and affection by Christians of all traditions,” McGrath wrote. “A generation after his death, Lewis has become a cultural and religious icon for the movement. Some have now even spoken of Lewis as the ‘patron saint’ of American evangelicalism.”
In the 448-page book, McGrath paints a “definitive portrait” of the life of Lewis. After examining thousands of pages of recently published Lewis correspondence, Alister challenges some of the previously held beliefs about Lewis. The Tyndale House book “paints a portrait of an eccentric thinker who became an inspiring, though reluctant, prophet for our times.”
“It’s a teasing subtitle, which tries to make the point that Lewis wrote from outside the centre of both the academy and church,” McGrath told tothesource. “He was an Oxford academic who didn’t quite fit the mold – largely because he wrote popular works that gained him a big audience. And he was a Christian layman, who wrote from the margins, not the center of the churches.
“And he was a reluctant prophet, in that he said things that needed to be said – but made it clear that he did so because those who ought to be doing this had failed to do so! He was doing this not because he wanted to but because it needed to be done.”
The book comes amid a series of events commemorating Lewis’ life. Over his lifetime, Lewis wrote more than 70 titles, including works of fantasy, science fiction, poetry, letters, autobiography and Christian apologetics. His best-known works include The Chronicles of Narnia, Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters.
On Nov. 22, Westminster Abbey officials unveiled a Lewis memorial stone at Poet’s Corner, a section of the South Transept of the abbey where statutes of William Shakespeare, Geoffrey Chaucer, Charles Dickens and other greats of English literature are located.
The event is one of several that have taken place this year. More are planned between now and the summer of 2014. This includes the C. S. Lewis Summer Institute (“Oxbridge 2014″) – “Reclaiming the Virtues: Human Flourishing in the 21st Century” – in Oxford and Cambridge, England from July 21-31, 2014; and the C. S. Lewis Tour – “In the Footsteps of C. S. Lewis” – in England and Ireland in August 2014. The conferences and tours are sponsored by the C. S. Lewis Foundation (www.cslewis.org).
Clive Staples Lewis was born on Nov. 29, 1898 in Belfast, Northern Ireland, the son of a solicitor and a clergyman’s daughter – Albert and Florence Lewis.
In a letter of 1915, Lewis fondly recalls growing up in Belfast and in a culture “marked by a passion for storytelling.”
“The physical landscape of Ireland was unquestionably one of the influences that shaped Lewis’ fertile imagination,” McGrath wrote. “Yet there is another source which did much to inspire his youthful outlook – literature itself. One of Lewis’ most persistent memories of his youth is that of a home packed with books.”
In April 1905, Lewis, his brother Warren and the rest of the family moved to a new and more spacious home on the outskirts of Belfast – the “Leeborough House” or “Little Lea.”
“The Lewis brothers were free to roam this vast house, and allowed their imaginations to transform it into mysterious kingdoms and strange lands,” McGrath wrote. “Both brothers inhabited imaginary worlds, and committed something of these to writing. Lewis wrote about talking animals in ‘Animal-Land,’ while Warnie wrote about ‘India’ (later combined into the equally imaginary land of Boxen).”
But this happy life of stories ended with the death of his mother in 1908. Afterwards, he attended various boarding schools that he hated more than “the front line trenches in World War I.”
In 1916, Lewis read a pivotal book, George MacDonald’s fantasy novel Phantastes – and “everything changed for him as a result of reading this book.”
“He had discovered a ‘new quality,’ a ‘bright shadow,’ which seemed to him like a voice calling him from the ends of the earth,” McGrath wrote.
The next year, Lewis won admission to Oxford, but before he could begin his studies World War I broke out and he enlisted in the military – serving as a lieutenant.
During the war, he promised comrade-in-arms Paddy Moore that he would take care of Moore’s mother if anything happened to him. After Moore’s death, Lewis kept his promise – living with Jane King Moore, who was 45 at the time, for the rest of her life.
In terms of this unusual domestic arrangement, McGrath wrote there is some circumstantial evidence to suggest their relationship was romantic in nature – at least for a time. But McGrath wrote it is arguable that “Mrs. Moore created an environment of relative structure and stability for him on his return from combat, easing his transition into academic life.”
“Lewis, it must be remembered, was separated from his mother by death, and from his family through his father’s ill-considered (if well-intentioned) decision to send him away to boarding school in England,” McGrath wrote.
During the war while under fire near the French town of Arras, Lewis revealed his atheistic sentiments in a poem entitled, “Ode for New Year’s Day.” In the poem, Lewis declared the death of God.
“These lines are important, as they express two themes that were clearly deeply impressed upon Lewis’ mind at this time: his contempt for a God he did not believe to exist, yet wished to blame for the carnage and destruction that lay around him; and his deep longing for the safety and security of the past – a past he clearly believed to have been destroyed forever. This note of wistfulness over the irretrievability of a loved past is a recurrent theme in Lewis’ later writings.”
After the war, Lewis returned to Oxford and completed two degrees in the classics and English. Once he completed his education, he obtained a job as a tutor in English at Magdalen College, Oxford where he worked for nearly three decades.
In 1930, Lewis bought The Kilns, his home for the rest of his life. It was during this time that he befriended Tolkien who challenged his atheism, helped him realize Christianity is a “true myth” and helped lead him to faith.
Lewis slowly converted from his early atheism to a firm intellectual belief in God by the summer of 1930, and finally to an explicit and informed commitment to Christianity by the summer of 1932, McGrath wrote.
“Tolkien’s way of thinking clearly spoke deeply to Lewis,” McGrath wrote. “It answered a question that had troubled Lewis since his teenage years: how could Christianity alone be true, and everything else be false? Lewis now realized that he did not have to declare that the great myths of the pagan age were totally false; they were echoes or anticipations of the full truth, which was made known only in and through the Christian faith. Christianity brings to fulfillment and completion imperfect and partial insights about reality, scattered abroad in human culture.”
During this time, Lewis, Tolkien and others founded the Inklings, a writing community that met weekly.
“Lewis could not have known it, but at this point Tolkien needed a ‘critical friend,’ a mentor who would encourage and criticize, affirm and improve, his writing – above all, someone who would force him to bring it to completion,” McGrath wrote.
It is no exaggeration to say that Lewis would become the “chief midwife to one of the great works of twentieth-century literature – Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, McGrath wrote.
Lewis began to enjoy his own literary success with The Problem of Pain in 1940 – his first published work of Christian apologetics. He also took up the role of defending the Christian faith in a series of talks on the BBC that were eventually compiled as Mere Christianity.
“Lewis became the ‘voice of faith’ for the nation, and his broadcast talks achieved classic status,” McGrath wrote.
In the book, Lewis contended that everyone is aware of something “higher” than themselves – an objective norm to which people appeal, and which they expect others to observe: a “real law which we did not invent and which we know we ought to obey.”
“Although everyone knows about this law, everyone still fails to live up to it,” McGrath wrote. “Lewis thus suggests that ‘the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in’ consists in our knowledge of a moral law, and an awareness of our failure to observe it. This awareness ought to ‘arouse our suspicions’ that there “is a Something which is directing the universe and which appears in me as a law urging me to do right and making me feel responsible and uncomfortable when I do wrong.’ Lewis suggests that this points to an ordering mind governing the universe.”
In 1942, Lewis’ satanic parody, The Screwtape Letters, was published. The book involves a series of letters from a retired devil, Screwtape, to a young devil who had just started work on his first “patient.”
“Screwtape consolidated Lewis’ reputation as a popular Christian theologian – someone who was able to communicate the themes of the Christian faith in an intelligent and accessible way,” McGrath wrote.
In 1951, Moore died. It was during this time, 1950-1956, that Lewis wrote his literary landmark, The Chronicles of Narnia.
The series demonstrated Lewis’ growing realization that “children’s stories offered him a marvelous way of exploring philosophical and theological questions – such as the origin of evil, the nature of faith, and the human desire for God.”
“A good story would weave these themes together, using the imagination as the gateway to serious thinking,” McGrath wrote.
The books met with tremendous success. Then, in 1954, Cambridge offered Lewis a professorship in Medieval and Renaissance Literature.
About this time, Lewis met Joy Davidman Gresham, an American Jewish poet and a former atheist who had come to faith in part through Lewis’ books. They began a correspondence in 1950 and met in 1952. They entered into a civil marriage in 1956 for the purpose of conferring upon her British citizenship to give her and her two sons the legal right to remain in Great Britain.
In 1956, she fell ill with cancer, prompting Lewis to realize that he had fallen in love with her. In 1957, the cancer went into remission. The next year, they flew to Ireland for a 10-day belated honeymoon.
On July 13, 1960, Lewis’ wife died at the age of 45.
“Lewis was devastated,” McGrath wrote. “Not only had he lost his wife, whom he had nursed through her illness, and had come to love; he had also lost a personal Muse, a source of literary encouragement and inspiration.”
In the last few years of his life, Lewis wrote a number of other books, including A Grief Observed about his grief over losing his wife.
In July 1963, Lewis had a heart attack and slipped into a coma, but recovered. On Nov. 22, he passed away due to kidney failure and a weakened heart.
Now, a generation after his death, people have found in Lewis a “vision of the Christian faith that they found to be intellectually robust, imaginatively compelling, and ethically fertile.”
“Those who initially valued Lewis for his rational defense of the Christian faith now found themselves appreciating his appeal to the imagination and emotions,” McGrath wrote. “Lewis’s multilayered conception of Christianity enabled evangelicals to realize that they could enrich their faith without diluting it, and engage secular culture in ways other than through reasoned argument.”
An interview with Alister McGrath
1. How would you describe the impact C.S. Lewis has had on literature, Christianity and the world as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of his death?
“Massive! “Narnia” has embedded itself in popular culture, helped along by the movies. Christians across all denominations have come to see him as a resource for developing their faith, and helping them to answer the questions our culture is asking. Few apologists have found such wide and warm acceptance.”
2. Why do you believe that even 50 years after his death he remains one of the most influential and popular writers of our age?
“First, because he is such a good writer. He says some very good things, and says them very well. He’s not aggressive or defensive, but presents the Christian faith in winsome and engaging way. And second, because nobody has really emerged to rival him. After all, what other modern apologist writes bestselling children’s stories, which have been turned into big movies?”
3. What is it about The Chronicles of Narnia that has so captured the public’s imagination?
Especially with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Lewis tells stories that are both engaging and interesting, which open up much deeper questions. Lewis realized that the imagination was the gateway to the soul, and was able to use a well-told story to explore and commend Christian ideas. The character of Aslan is one of his greatest creations. Aslan allows us to appreciate the deep personal transformative impact of Jesus Christ on individuals.”
4. How would you describe your new book, C. S. Lewis: A Life – Eccentric Genius. Reluctant Prophet.
“It’s a biography of Lewis written for people who, like me, have read Lewis’s books – especially Narnia – and want to know more about their author. That’s why there is so much about Narnia in the biography. It helps you understand Lewis far better, and gives you a great background to allow you to go on and get more out of your reading of Lewis.”
5. In terms of Christian apologetics, why are Lewis’ writings so important and influential?
“First, they are very well written. But perhaps more importantly, Lewis engages both the imagination and reason in his presentation of the Christian faith. He makes us wish that Christianity were true, and then shows us that it is. His approach is gracious, winsome and engaging, making it easy for his readers to take him seriously as he opens up the Christian faith.”
6. What impact has Lewis’ apologetic literature had on your faith in Jesus Christ? How about the larger body of Christ? In what ways did his arguments supporting the validity of the Christian faith influence the world – especially during the scientific age?
“Lewis has been a big influence on me after my conversion back in 1971. He didn’t bring me to faith, but he helped my faith grow, and gave me a vision of its richness and profundity. He also gave me a vision of the importance of apologetics, as well as providing a great role model. I think many other Christians could tell a similar story. Lewis has helped many sort out their faith, and encouraged them to talk about it with their friends. And while Lewis was no scientist, his argument against naturalism remains one of the best, and has been repeated and developed by many recent writers, including the philosopher Alvin Plantinga.”
7. What impact did C. S. Lewis have on J. R. R. Tolkien and The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy?
“On The Hobbit – not all that much. But on The Lord of the Rings, a lot. Tolkien himself made it clear that Lewis gave him the encouragement he needed to finish off this massive work. And it was discussed regularly at the meetings of the Inklings, which undoubtedly helped Tolkien polish its prose and plotline.”
8. In the book, you cite some controversial aspects of Lewis’ life, especially during his younger years. Many people may have carried an idealized version of his life in their minds, but your book shows he’s human like everyone else. What would you like to say about this?
“Yes, Lewis is flawed. But so is everyone else! As I researched this biography, I came to realize that God was able to take a flawed person, and do some really great things in and through him. Lewis is, if you like, a trophy of grace – an abiding testimony of God’s ability to use weak and flawed people wonderfully and powerfully. Sure, Lewis had lots of faults. But he somehow seemed to rise above them! He is an encouragement to us all.”