The Many Faces of C.S. Lewis
By Ray Waddle
With the film premier of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the world has rediscovered C.S. Lewis. But which Lewis?
There seem to be several, all flourishing in parallel universes. Such was the prolific output of this irrepressible Christian writer.
There was the C.S. Lewis who wrote the science fiction trilogy between 1936-1945 (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength) and later the children’s fantasy novel series, The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-56).
But C.S. Lewis also happened to be something else—a modern “Protestant saint” and Christian knight, the premier defender of Christianity in the last century as a wartime radio broadcaster and author of Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, Miracles and others.
All the while, C.S. Lewis had another career, too—as a respected scholar of Renaissance and medieval literature in England, first at Oxford, then at Cambridge University. During his Oxford years, he was part of the literary circle “the Inklings,” which included J.R.R. Tolkein and Charles Williams and which pulled him into Christian faith in the 1930s.
Finally, moviegoers might remember C.S. Lewis as the hero in Shadowlands, the autobiographical tale of his rich, but brief, marriage to American writer Joy Gresham, before her death in 1960. (The 1993 film starred Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger.)
Clive Staples (“Jack”) Lewis managed to be all of the above. He brought together a unique blend of talents—teacher, communicator, convert—that gave the world a passionate witness to Christian morality, clarity and imagination.
Today, Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters are unofficial handbooks for tender-aged believers heading off to college. The Four Loves, an examination of the different facets of love, and A Grief Observed, an exploration of the grief and doubt he experienced after the death of his wife, Joy Gresham, find their way into the hands of tough-minded veterans of life.
Lewis was born in Belfast in 1898. Early on, he immersed himself in reading and storytelling. He became fascinated with mythology yet was fiercely atheistic during young adulthood, struggling to find a place for rationalism, imagination and joy. Only when he converted to Christianity in 1931 did he achieve the sense of homecoming he was looking for.
As a new believer, Lewis applied his rigorous intellectual training to the Christian cause. The result was a series of books that valued logic, flashes of humor and uncluttered syntax. He gave audiences a new genre for encountering the gospel—the radio talk. It conveyed theology in a conversational tone, using vivid analogies to express his belief in the majesty of God, the existence of heaven and hell and the human need for divinity.
“God made us: invented us as a man invents an engine,” Lewis says in Mere Christianity. “A car is made to run on petrol, and it would not run properly on anything else. Now God designed the human machine to run on Himself. He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other. That is why it is just no good asking God to make us happy in our own way without bothering about religion. God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.”
His best known works—The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce and Mere Christianity—were forged during the anxious, catastrophic years of World War II. The war framed his view that religious faith is a matter of fierce urgency, pursued in the battle conditions of incessant spiritual warfare.
Critics complained that Lewis, the cloistered career English professor, was too confident and glib in his schoolmasterly use of analogies to explain religion.
Yet Lewis’ stature and appeal have only surged since his death, at age 64, in 1963. (Few noted his death that day—Nov. 22—when the world was preoccupied with an assassination of a president in Dallas.)
Lewis remains popular because he refused to get hung up on religious doctrines that divide people; he advocated “mere” Christianity. He was impatient with theological disputes that distracted from the big spiritual drama of life. And life is a drama, he believed. The Christian gospel is the ultimate cosmic story. It is a “myth” that is true, he said, a story that has the poetic power of pagan myths but really happened.
Lewis insisted that Christianity is ultimately a matter of action, not talk. The cosmos is a place of great beauty and danger and decision, and all have a role in the grand plot conceived by the ultimate Author.
Nashville-based writer Ray Waddle is author of Against the Grain: Unconventional Wisdom from Ecclesiastes, published by Upper Room Books.
This feature was jointly developed by Interpreter Magazine (www.interpretermagazine.org) and UMC.org.