Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling
As we begin a new academic year, this month I am featuring C.S. Lewis, a 20th-century world-changer who profoundly influenced Christian thought within academia and far beyond its borders.
Born in Belfast, Ireland in 1898, the young Jacksie (his self-declared nickname in honor of his dog of the same name who died when Lewis was age four) developed a fondness for books due in part to his wonderful imagination and to the incessant rain that often grounded him indoors. During this first half of his childhood, Jacksie was tutored at home by his mother, Florence, a scholastic-minded domesticator who had obtain a college degree in mathematics (a rarity for that time period). His father, Albert, was a career-oriented attorney who was emotionally distant to his sons and to God. For Albert, the most important element of a proper upbringing was a public school education that would develop social awareness of class status and conduct. (Public schools are the equivalent to private preparatory schools in the USA.) Hence, when Florence passed away at age 46, Albert sent Jacksie (just ten years of age) on his own to an English boarding school.
It was during these formative years of adolescence that the socially and athletically awkward Jack (his revised nickname) would encounter much abuse from his peers and from his headmaster (who was later declared insane). As the pains of life (including the loss of a dear friend that Jack fought alongside during WW1) pressed in on him, Jack turned to a materialistic worldview that provided some measure of certainty and control. Having declared himself a reluctant atheist, Jack focused on his education and academic career—both of which were rising at a stellar pace. At age 27, Jack was elected a Fellow Tutor in English Literature at Magdalen College, Oxford University (where he served for the next 29 years). He then spent the remainder of his academic career and life as the newly founded chair of Mediaeval and Renaissance Literature at Magdalene College, Cambridge University. Committed to the loved-ones he had left behind, Jack would regularly commute back to Oxford on the weekends to see his older brother, Warnie, and his longstanding friends while developing an unexpected love relationship to American divorcee, Joy Davidman (which led to a civil marriage in 1956 and a Christian marriage one year later). Sadly, Joy would die of bone cancer in 1960, while Jack (himself a smoker) would pass away from renal failure in 1963.
Thirty-four years earlier and four years new to his career as a don, the pain of past losses caught up with Jack. His materialistic mindset was failing him as he sought answers to the larger questions of life. Thankfully, Jack found who he was looking for in the writings of George MacDonald and G.K. Chesterton and, most importantly, in his ongoing dialogue with Inklings friends, J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson. It was MacDonald’s books, however, that ignited the process. Lewis offers a semi-autobiographical glimpse of MacDonald’s influence in Lewis’ book, The Great Divorce:
… I tried, trembling, to tell this man all that his writings had done for me. I tried to tell how a certain frosty afternoon at Leatherhead Station when I had first bought a copy of Phantastes (being then about sixteen years old) had been to me what the first sight of Beatrice had been to Dante: Here begins the new life. I started to confess how long that Life had delayed in the region of imagination merely: how slowly and reluctantly I had come to admit that his Christendom had more than an accidental connexion with it, how hard I had tried not to see the true name of the quality which first met me in his books is Holiness. — The Great Divorce, chapter 9, page 65 (Kindle edition)
Inspired by MacDonald, in 1929, Jack encountered Holiness, which in his mind was incapable of further definition. Hence, he declared himself a theist (believing in a monotheistic supreme Creator). Two years later, through the patient and persistent guidance of Tolkien and Dyson, Jack took the second step. His resistance to the Gospel dissolved when his friends acknowledged that Christianity possesses common elements to the culture-shaping myths of Norse and Greek mythology (which Jack treasured). They countered, however, that the biblical narrative records the greatest single “historic” event in the unique death and resurrection of the Son of God. Pondering their argument, just a few days later while on the way to Whipsnade Zoo with Warnie, Jack surrendered his remaining doubts to Christ and became a follower at age 33. Over the remainder of his life, Lewis would pen timeless fiction, philosophy, and Christian apologetic works that would guide a nation seeking solace and healing from the ravishes of two world wars. In particular, from 1941 to 1943, Lewis spoke on a BBC radio program from London while the city was under periodic air raids. His broadcasts were welcomed by a wide range of listeners who were trying to make sense of the unconscionable suffering in their midst. As Air Chief Marshal Sir Donald Hardman noted:
“The war, the whole of life, everything tended to seem pointless. We needed, many of us, a key to the meaning of the universe. Lewis provided just that.” — C. S. Lewis: The Story Teller. p. 93
Inspired with a mind surrendered to Christ, Lewis felt the pulse of the culture and was able to speak to its fears and shortcomings with gentle correction. He was one of the first to identify the ramifications of exulting the boyish figure as a prized look for women—resulting in the demise of a healthy body image (Screwtape Letters). Lewis’ greatest work in terms of influencing the individual would be his book, Mere Christianity (most of which was complied by his radio talks). This apologetic masterpiece influenced the next generation of twentieth-century authors and poets including William Dembski and John Betjeman, as well as Christian leaders Charles Colson, Francis Collins, and Jonathan Aitken, and the renowned philosopher, C.E.M. Joad. And reaching into the twenty-first century, his children’s fictions inspired the likes of J.K. Rowling and Daniel Handler. The list goes on and on, which was why on the 50th anniversary of his death in 2013, Lewis was memorialized at Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abby—an honor bestowed on Britain’s greatest poets and authors.
C.S. Lewis, an extraordinary and articulate scholar and author who was surprised by joy, consequently blessed future generations with a lasting legacy of thought-provoking books and letters that point us to our Savior and the weight of his glory. This is why C.S. Lewis is a world-changer!