This year is the 60th anniversary of the death of C. S. Lewis, author of the Narnia stories, Miracles, Till We have Faces, Surprised by Joy, and so many other implicit and direct defences of Christianity. A writer who has shaped my life perhaps more than any other.
I’m not sure if it’s still there, but some years ago there was a poignant, if seldom noticed, symbol in The Kilns in Oxford, the long-time home of the Belfast-born author. It was the outline of a mezuzah: the small container attached to the doorposts of Jewish homes, containing parchment on which the Shema is written. It was there because one of Lewis’s two stepsons had asked to adopt the birth faith of his late mother, Joy Davidman. Lewis, the world-renowned champion of Christianity, had asked Jewish friends how he could best accommodate the boy.
It was a gently noble gesture, and that decency seems typical of the man. He was most prominent between the mid 1930s and early 60s and as such inhabited a dramatically different age—even the BBC couldn’t get enough of him! But a disdain for faith had already emerged, particularly in the universities where he taught. He addressed this in his 1952 book Mere Christianity, based on a series of highly popular radio broadcasts.
“There is no need to be worried by facetious people who try to make the Christian hope of Heaven ridiculous by saying they do not want to spend eternity playing harps. The answer to such people is that if they cannot understand books written for grown-ups, they should not talk about them. All the Scriptural imagery (harps, crowns, gold, etc.) is, of course, a mere symbolical attempt to express the inexpressible. People who take these symbols literally might as well think that when Christ told us to be like doves, He meant that we were to lay eggs.”
Those who allegedly couldn’t understand “books written for grown-ups” knew exactly who they were. As a consequence, they made Lewis’s life at Oxford progressively more difficult, which is one of the reasons why he moved to a more accepting Cambridge in 1954. But even then, his insistence of defending Christian truth to a mass audience as well as within his own circle lost him support and allies.
Rather like his friend Tolkien, he was always far more appreciated by readers than peers. If he hadn’t become a Christian and hadn’t written children’s stories he would have been far more respected within the academy, especially for his remarkable books The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition, and English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama.
Yet while he may not have been given his proper place in university circles, there is something almost hagiographical in the way he’s regarded in Christian circles, and within the Lewis industry there is, it must be said, a certain dreamy nostalgia. He’s the quintessential caricature of a fantasy don—all tweed, tea, and leather armchairs. It’s no accident that he is a virtual cult in the United States, especially and in some ways ironically—he drank and smoked—within the evangelical community. American Evangelicals may be politically influential but they lack intellectual heroes, and Lewis does very nicely out of fulfilling this role.
There are numerous profound thinkers making the Christian case today, but none of them wrote a children’s story as timeless as The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, or something as deliciously and mischievously clever as The Screwtape Letters— if you’ve never heard John Cleese’s recording of the book about a senior devil writing to his junior, grab hold of it immediately. Or chronicled in a haunting book, A Grief Observed, how it felt to lose a spouse, where he observed that “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid.”
He once wrote, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen. Not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” That’s not always an acceptable sentiment 60 years after the man’s death, but Lewis never worried about what was acceptable, only about what he considered to be important. That, at heart, is why Jack (his chosen name) Lewis, father of Aslan and, as he said about his 1929 coming to Christianity, “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England”, simply won’t go away, even for the hardest of cynics.