If you’ve read my list of Six Christian Classics it probably won’t surprise you to learn that I’m quite a fan of the work of Clive Staples (‘Jack’) Lewis, who is regarded by many Christians as the pre-eminent apologist of the twentieth century.
This great ‘man of letters’, who taught at both Oxford and Cambridge, was born in Belfast and raised in the (Anglican) Church of Ireland, but a series of events, which included the death of his mother from cancer in 1908, the influence of early twentieth century intellectualism, and his experiences as a Second Lieutenant in the trenches in World War One (beginning on his nineteenth birthday), led him to reject the faith of his childhood.
During their army training Lewis and his good friend Edward ‘Paddy’ Moore promised to take care of one another’s families should anything happen to either of them. After Paddy was killed on the Somme Lewis made good on his promise, living with Paddy’s mother, Anne, until she was hospitalised in the late 1940s. There has always been speculation of a sexual relationship between the two, but those who knew Lewis during that time were sceptical of such claims, as they were of later claims that Lewis had homosexual tendencies.
What does appear certain is that the post-war years were psychologically difficult for Lewis, as they were for all those who lived through WWI, and Lewis would later admit somewhat ruefully that his atheism was based in part on a deep anger with God. Influenced by the works of George MacDonald and G. K. Chesterton, and by his friendship with J. R. R. Tolkien, a Roman Catholic, Lewis renewed his Christian faith in 1931, later describing himself as being at the time ‘the most reluctant convert in Christendom’. He would remain a devout Anglican for the rest of his life, although in his apologetic works he was scrupulous in his efforts to avoid sectarianism.
Lewis was a Fellow at Oxford’s Magdalene College when the Second World War broke out, and was commissioned by the BBC to produce a series of radio talks on the subject of Christianity, intended to bolster the faith and provide comfort to a population enduring, for the second time in as many decades, the horror of war. These talks would later become the basis of his apologetic work Mere Christianity, and WWII also formed the background for a number of his other works – in The Screwtape Letters, the ‘patient’ is an air-raid warden, while the Pevensie children in The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe are evacuees from London.
It is for his seven book children’s series The Chronicles of Narnia that Lewis is best remembered, and loved, today. After a childhood and academic career steeped in European myth and legend it is perhaps no wonder that Lewis would create such a world, embedding in his fantasy crucial elements of Christian belief (although I do find it amusing that a man who objected to the ordination of women in part on the grounds that the priest represents Jesus and seeing a woman in that role would confuse believers also wrote books in which Jesus is portrayed as a magical talking lion).
If we discount the unconfirmed rumours about Mrs. Moore there was only one great romantic love in Lewis’ life: Joy Davidman, a brilliant American Christian intellectual and former atheist and communist, whom he met for the first time in 1946 and corresponded with for several years before she moved in England with her two sons following her divorce in 1953. Unable to legally work in England or remain there indefinitely, Davidman sought Lewis’ assistance and the pair came up with what seemed to them both to be a perfectly reasonably course of action: a marriage of convenience. This marriage took place in a civil ceremony in 1956. Most of Lewis’ friends and family only found out about it afterwards, and were horrified, seeing Davidman as nothing more than a grasping, manipulative gold-digger (and surprisingly foolish: Lewis was comfortably-off but hardly wealthy).
Then a few months later Davidman was diagnosed with cancer. Lewis, who until then appears to have largely gone on with life as usual, was deeply affected by the news and resolved to care for his wife. What had started as a marriage of convenience soon became a deep and abiding love, and the following year the two were married ‘properly’ in a Christian service at Joy’s hospital bed. They enjoyed three years together, for part of which Davidman was in remission, before she finally succumbed to the cancer in 1960.
By then Lewis was an old man, and the loss hit him hard. He withdrew from public life and penned the deeply personal A Grief Observed as he wrestled with his faith in God in the face of his pain. He held on to that faith until the very end, and died on the 22nd of November 1963.
Starting-points with C. S. Lewis:
It’s hard to know exactly where to recommend starting with this talented author. The seven books in ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ retain their timeless charm and are well worth a read for adults as well as children (remember: Aslan=Jesus)
For those seeking an introduction to the Christian faith, or for Christians wishing to explore the underpinnings of their faith, ‘Mere Christianity’ is a book I would highly recommend, along with Lewis’ autobiography, ‘Surprised by Joy’.
For those who wish to explore various aspects of Christian life and belief in more depth through fiction there’s ‘The Screwtape Letters’ and the ‘Space Trilogy’, which begins with ‘Out of the Silent Planet’, while for those inclined towards non-fiction there’s a slew of books including ‘The Four Loves’, ‘The Problem of Pain’, and ‘Miracles’.
Finally, for those struggling with grief and loss there’s the short and poignant ‘A Grief Observed’, a deeply personal account of Lewis’ grief following the death of his beloved Joy.
Have you read anything by C. S. Lewis?