I am obliged to Steuart Henderson for the following essay on the Christian life and works of C S Lewis:
Clive Staples Lewis – known to his friends as ‘Jack’ – was born in Belfast in 1898 and died in Oxford on 22 November 1963. On the 50th anniversary of his death there are numerous events around the world celebrat-ing ways in which this remarkable Christian has enriched the lives of so many. His death was largely overlooked at the time because of the assassination of President Kennedy that same day.
C S Lewis is best known to Kiwis today as a writer of fiction, most notably the seven short novels that make up The Chronicles of Narnia. The Narnia books been translated into over 40 languages, sold over100 million copies, and been adapted for radio, TV, stage, and cinema.
Lewis is a wonderful story teller, and like all great children’s literature these books are read with much pleasure by the childlike of all ages. The author was not trying to create an allegory of the gospel, or to pre-sent arguments for its truth, but to give us a sense of what it is like to re-spond in faith to Christ, and to have our whole view of life and the world shaped by that faith. The stories are about loyalty and betrayal, victory and defeat, and are full of wit and humour. Most of all, in the figure of Aslan the lion, they are about the mysterious awareness that there is an awesome loving presence who mostly we cannot see, but who is always there breathing over our shoulder, and reminding us of the deep joy to be found when we accept our responsibilities to something much more wonderful than the fleeting pleasures of the moment. A repeated theme in the Narnia stories is learning to recognise how dishonest we can be with ourselves, so that we can become more the true humans God made us to be.
Lewis had a bleak motherless childhood and experienced much suffering in his life, particularly in the trenches during the battle of the Somme, but a recurring theme throughout the Narnia books and much of his other writing is joy. The title of his early autobiography in which he describes his Christian conversion is Surprised by Joy. In The Screwtape Letters, the old experienced devil Screwtape advises a younger devil in the art of temptation. Screwtape tells him that God has a great secret that people must never be allowed to understand – that God is a great pleasure lover at heart.
Also widely read and well worth exploring is the ‘Space Trilogy’, which addresses what Lewis saw as a dehumanising perspective in much science fiction. My personal favourite of his fiction is his final novel Till We Have Faces, a radical retelling of the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche.
Lewis was a key member of the Inklings, an informal group of literary friends including J R R Tolkein, which for years met every Tuesday morn-ing at an Oxford pub, The Eagle and Child, to read and discuss each of their work and enjoy lunch together. That is where Narnia, The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings were first aired.
Lewis is also well known for Mere Christianity, which arose out of a se-ries of talks broadcast by the BBC during World War 2, and became probably the most widely read work of Christian apologetics in the 20th century, and one which has greatly influenced the thinking of many. Other apologetic classics are The Problem of Pain (How can a good God allow pain to exist?) and Miracles. His sermons, theological essays, and theological books such as The Four Loves also remain widely read.
He had been baptised as an infant in the Church of Ireland, but became an avowed atheist at the age of 15. His Christian conversion in 1931 was long resisted, and eventually came following an extended night walk and talk with his friend Tolkein – in Lewis’s own words ‘kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance to escape’. He then became what he describes as ‘a very ordinary layman of the Church of England’.
His education and main professional publications were in the Greek and Latin classics and in English literature. Some of these works remain texts in university English courses, especially A Preface to Paradise Lost, The Allegory of Love and The Discarded Image. He had been a brilliant undergraduate student at Oxford, graduating with a ‘triple first’, the highest possible academic achievement. Incredibly however he undertook no postgraduate study for a doctorate, and was elected as an Oxford don in 1925, simply on the strength of his published work! Having taught at Oxford for nearly 30 years, in 1954, still with no postgraduate qualifica-tion, he was awarded the Chair of Mediaeval and Renaissance Literature in Cambridge. He held no qualification whatsoever in theology or biblical studies.
The remarkable story of his marriage in 1957 to the Jewish American Joy Davidman, who had already developed widespread bone cancer and was dying, has been explored in a play and several movies. Following her death he wrote A Grief Observed, which many regard as the most extraordinary and challenging of all his works. Due to the raw personal content it was published under the pseudonym N W Clerk, and this had the unexpected consequence that several of his friends recommended the book to him as one that he should read and that might help him to deal with his own grief!!
Lewis was very conservative on some issues such as women’s ordination, but this reflected the overwhelming consensus of the times, and his fiction introduces us to a number of very strong and independent women. Joy Davidman was divorced, and marrying a divorcee in the Church of England in the 1950s was difficult and very rare, and resulted in much painful criticism.
In 2008 The Times ranked him as eleventh on their list of the fifty greatest British writers since 1945. His influence on other writers has been huge, including more recently J K Rowling and the Harry Potter books.
C S Lewis humbly offered his many gifts unashamedly in the service of Christ, and offered them to all those from any denomination or belief who wanted to receive what he could contribute. It is good that we can now celebrate his life and work in a special way.
Recommended new books written to mark the 50th anniversary of Lewis’s death:
The Lion’s World: A Journey into the Heart of Narnia
Rowan Williams Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet C S Lewis: A Life Alister E McGrath The Intellectual World of C S Lewis Alister E McGrath
Great and gracious heavenly Father, you made this vast universe in which we live, and you made each one of us, and you call and equip us all with so many different gifts so that we might together love and serve you and our neighbours, exploring and sharing with one another the endless riches of your creation. We thank you especially for your servant C S Lewis, for the gifts you gave him, and for his willingness to use them in your service. We thank you for the amazing way in which so many lives have been enriched and helped through his work. Help us too to follow the servant way with your Son, Jesus the Messiah, our forgiving Saviour and Servant Lord.