The Next Page / The eternal C.S. Lewis: now, more than ever
In this muddled, manic world of ours, which so often seems on the verge of a nervous breakdown, what possible relevance and comfort can be found in the words of a rumpled Oxford academic best known as an author of children's literature?
Plenty, apparently, for the stature and mystique that surround the life of Clive Staples Lewis has grown to a proportion that would likely perplex even his legendary mind.
Nearly a half century after his death on the same day J.F.K. was assassinated in 1963, Lewis' books have sold 100 million copies in 50 languages; another 2 million copies sell each year. Three movies made from the Chronicles of Narnia series have grossed $500 million.
My own interest began not with Narnia but after reading his classic explanation of the Christian faith, "Mere Christianity." That was 30 years ago and I was instantly charmed by the power of his prose and the clarity of his logic.
Recently, as I learned more, I found the storyline of his faith progression from atheist to advocate even more compelling than the canon of his literature. It's a story not widely known and quite improbable; it's as if the leading atheist of our age, say Richard Dawkins, also of Oxford, suddenly reversed himself to become a Christian evangelist.
Lewis' change of heart was so dramatic as to suggest (to me at least) a providential hand -- that God had a plan for C.S. Lewis that until the midpoint of his life had not yet been revealed.
Simply put, this may have been the plan: "I will put your considerable intellect and inquiring mind to great use as a defender of the faith rather than as the doubting skeptic you have been."
His conversion set in motion significant events for world literature and for his new career in the second half of his life as arguably the leading explainer of Christianity in the 20th century.
As a former journalist, I found this extraordinary story too compelling to ignore. Desperate to know more, I persuaded my wife Louise to join me on a summer jaunt to England. The venue was a wonderful event held every third year in Oxford and Cambridge, the "C.S. Lewis Summer Institute." That is where our search for C.S. Lewis begins.
Our first stop in his footsteps came hours after arriving in Oxford, when we attended the institute's opening service in the University Church of St. Mary, an 800-year-old cathedral in the city center.
It's a church whose history is as prominent as its steeples. Oxford University began from there in the 13th century. Three centuries later, it was the site of the heresy trial that sent three Reformation clerics to a fiery death for refusal to accept Catholic doctrine. And two centuries after that, John Wesley commenced another Protestant movement -- Methodism -- from the pulpit there.
The church was a significant landmark for Lewis, too. On June 8, 1941, while Britain was furiously defending itself against Nazi aggression, he preached his best known sermon, "The Weight of Glory," to one of the largest congregations assembled there in modern times. Students in attendance were packed so deep, observers later recalled, that space could only be found perched in the windows or standing along walls.
What a miraculous turn of events, he must have thought, as he stood in the pulpit that day. Only a decade before, he wasn't even a Christian, let alone a believer whose views on theology mattered to a large crowd of listeners.
Years later, Lewis would explain his dramatic about-face in "Surprised by Joy," his spiritual autobiography. His transformation climaxed on a warm September night in 1931 when three companions took an after-dinner walk on the grounds of Magdalen College at Oxford. They strolled on Addison's Walk, a beautiful tree-shaded path along the River Cherwell, and got into an argument that lasted until early morning.
His companions on that fateful night were fellow Oxford dons Hugo Dyson and J.R.R. Tolkien (yes, that Tolkien). Dyson, an Anglican, and Tolkien, a devout Roman Catholic, had tried for years to convert their "lost" friend, who was in the midst of a fretful return to religious faith. As the trio marched along Addison's Walk, Tolkien argued for the literal and mythological truth of the Resurrection of Christ. It lasted until 3 a.m., with no obvious victor declared.
Then, eight days later, while riding in the motorcycle sidecar of his brother, Warnie, Lewis capitulated. He described his conversion thusly: "When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, and when we reached [our destination] I did."
The effect of this conversion was explosive. Before it, Lewis' ambition to be a great writer had been hampered by the fact that he hadn't found anything worthwhile to say. The ledger of pre- vs. post-conversion literary output is hard to fathom. Pre: two slim volumes of verse; post: a torrent of books, essays, novels and radio talks -- more than 30 published titles -- all works with obvious Christian themes.
After conversion, he also prodded Tolkien to pull together and complete his tales about the private universe that had preoccupied him ... Middle-earth.
In his sermon, Lewis said the desire for immortality was poor justification for turning to Christ. The essence of Christianity was an uprooting of self-regard, so that Heaven turns out to be the consummation of earthly discipleship. He concluded with these words -- a picture of redeemed Man which redefined our idea of what Man is and should be.
"It may be asked what practical use there is in the speculations which I have been indulging. I can think of at least one such use. It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbor. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor's glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. ...
"It is in light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations -- these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit. ... Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses."
The sermon was a milestone for Lewis, both personally and in his emerging role as the explainer of Christianity to the average bloke in wartime Britain. Just two months later, he started live radio talks over the BBC which he continued throughout the war.
As a former skeptic and towering intellect, Lewis' appeal then is what it remains today. He explained Christianity with such simplicity and eloquence that the average person could not only grasp it but long for it, advocating for a faith that is a fusion of spirit and reason. He explained it in a way that united different perspectives and faith persuasions.
And he explained it in the context of the times in which we live, faith in an age of skepticism when books espousing an atheistic worldview are bestsellers and compete in the public arena against less well reasoned, and sometimes wild-eyed, purveyors of Christianity.
Moreover, his declaration that "there are no ordinary people" was the standard for how he lived his post-conversion life. His treatment of neighbors and friends as the "holiest object presented to [his] senses" came into clearer view at my next stop the following day.
That's when I visited the Kilns, Lewis' residence on the outskirts of Oxford for the last 33 years of his life.
To any seeker of C.S. Lewis, the Kilns is Mecca. It's the place where he lived and died, rejoiced and cried. It's the place where during World War II many visitors lived to be away from London during the air raids (as the Pevensie children did in "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe"). The Kilns is also where his late-life romance with wife Joy Davidman played out (celebrated in the movies and play, "Shadowlands").
On the day our group visited the Kilns, our host was Kim Gilnett, of Seattle Pacific University, whose seminar showcased Lewis' amazing generosity. One prime example: When he died, his estate was valued at 37,772 British pounds, not much for a person of his achievement and income. The reason is he'd given away most of his literary earnings, two-thirds of which went to charity through his "Agape Fund."
Lewis later explained: "God, I felt, was so good in having me that the least I could do was give away most of what I made in his name." (The fund terminated upon his death.)
He hadn't always been so altruistic. People who knew him as a young man say he was irritatingly smug -- a "prig," in the British parlance. His arrogance was not without reason. Even at a place notable for academic achievement, he was noteworthy. As a student at Oxford's University College in the early 1920s, Lewis achieved a rare feat -- a "triple first," meaning he was first in his graduating class in all three major subjects, English, philosophy and classics. In 1926, a year after joining the Oxford faculty, Lewis met Tolkien. "No harm in him," Lewis wrote in his diary. "Only needs a smack or so."
But conversion changed C.S. Lewis. The haughtiness was gone; pride was the deadliest of sins. "When he becomes a Christian, it changes his view of human beings," explained Mr. Gilnett, who read from letters attesting to this change. Lewis was determined to live a life of Christian humility and charity, in which his neighbor was indeed the holiest object presented to his senses.
One discipline he kept as a result was replying to the 20-30 letters he received each day from fans on the day of receipt. It's estimated he wrote as many as 20,000 letters during his lifetime. Maintaining this practice consumed hours every day and was especially taxing as his health began to fail.
But there were rewards -- it brought Walter Hooper into his life, whom we met at the Kilns the next day. No person living or dead has done more to preserve the legacy of C.S. Lewis than Walter Hooper. Now 80 years old but 32 when he first met Lewis, Mr. Hooper belongs to a club whose membership shrinks each year, as the people who knew Lewis pass away.
Their relationship commenced in letters they exchanged, leading to an extended visit in the summer of 1963. A soft-spoken, genial man whose accent reveals his North Carolina roots, Mr. Hooper acted as his confidant and personal secretary that summer. He returned to Oxford permanently in January 1964, two months after Lewis had died, to help the estate in its literary endeavors. He's been at it ever since, authoring and editing more than a dozen books.
Needless to say, he is a treasure trove of all things related to the life and works of C.S. Lewis. Mr. Hooper mesmerized his listeners for hours, in two separate sessions. There were stories about Lewis' personal and spiritual habits; his kindness to people and pets; his relationships with other authors; his generosity; and his quirky sense of humor and love of word play.
But above all, what impressed Mr. Hooper most about the man was his abiding faith and absolute confidence in Christ as his personal savior. Listening to him was "like hearing one of the apostles," he said. "You just knew he believed in a way that others didn't."
First Published August 28, 2011 12:00 am