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In the summer of 1948 while a student at Oxford, Kenneth Tynan, who would distinguish himself as Britain's most influential theater critic in the next decade, was in despair. Jilted by his fiancĂ© on the eve of their wedding, he visited his tutor, C. S. Lewis, to request that his final exams be postponed until he recovered from his heartbreak. Lewis kindly agreed, then went to work consoling his student. Lewis reminded Tynan how he had told him of narrowly escaping death eight years earlier when a German plane dropped a bomb only six houses from his own. The years since, Lewis told him, were a "tremendous free gift, a present that only the blackest ingratitude could refuse. As I listened to him," Tynan wrote, "my problems began to dwindle to their proper proportions. I had entered his room suicidal, and I left it exhilarated. 

Without having met him personally, millions of people have had similarly exhilarating encounters with C. S. Lewis through the pages of his books.  The seven titles in The Chronicles of Narnia series, begun in 1950, continue to capture the imagination of readers of all ages, and his writings on Christianity have been life changing experiences for many. He is an icon of the faith, so much so that in a 2005 cover story in Christianity Today, he was compared to Elvis Presley.

"Both men came to fame on the radio," the magazine noted. "Both men's homes (Graceland and the Kilns) have become pilgrimage sites. Both left behind estates now valued in the millions." In short, Lewis is a superstar whose impact continues to be felt beyond the grave.

Evangelicals generally revere Lewis above all Christian thinkers, despite his personal habits which included smoking (pipes and cigarettes) and drinking with his friends, most of them fellow authors like his pal, J.R.R. Tolkien, at a pub where they frequently read each other their works in progress. The group came to be known as the Inklings.         

He was born Clive Staples Lewis in Belfast, Ireland on November 29, 1898 to a solicitor father and a mother who was the daughter of an Anglican priest. Lewis loved nature and books, and with his older brother Warren, imagined a world named Boxen in which only animals lived. A devotee of the works of Beatrix Potter, Lewis began writing his own stories. Later, he wrote poetry.

He despised the name Clive, and following the death of his dog, Jacksie, announced to his family that he was taking his beloved pet's name. Eventually, this would be modified to Jack. Raised as a Christian, Lewis acknowledged losing his faith when his mother became ill and his prayers for her recovery went unanswered. She lost her battle with cancer when Lewis was 9 years old.

"With my mother's death, all settled happiness, all that was tranquil and reliable disappeared from my life," he said. "There was to be much fun, many pleasures, great stabs of Joy, but no more of the old security. It was sea and islands now, the great continent had sunk into Atlantis." 

He came to associate religious faith with "ugly architecture, ugly music, and bad poetry." In a letter to a friend, he would dismiss all religion, including Christianity, as myth. "There is absolutely no proof for any of them ...All religions, that is all mythologies, are merely man's own invention."

In a sense, he lost his father at this time, too. Unable to raise two boys while also dealing with his grief, the father sent Warren and Jack to a boarding school in Watford, England. It was not a happy experience. His brother observed that their father had delivered his children "into the hands of a madman." Warren was not exaggerating. The headmaster would later be declared insane.

At 16, he was relieved when his father let him leave school and continue his education with a private tutor, William Kirkpatrick, who would have a profound impact on Lewis's thinking. Kirkpatrick was the kind of man who would make Lewis prove every statement he made. "He was the very man who taught me to think," he said. "My debt to him is very great. My reverence to this day undiminished."

The next year, Lewis won a scholarship to Oxford University, but with World War I in progress, he enlisted in the British Army, as did classmate Paddy Moore with whom he made a pact: if either of the men died in battle, the survivor would agree to take care of the dead soldier's family.

Lewis survived, Moore did not, and upon returning home and pursuing his education at Oxford, he kept his promise to his fallen friend. He moved in with Moore's mother and sister. Half her age, Lewis enjoyed Mrs. Moore's company, performed household chores, and would later refer to her as his "mother." He would continue to live with her until 1950, the year she entered a nursing home where she died the following year. Their final years together were a burden to Lewis, who described himself at the time as "a man in chains."

Meanwhile, Lewis remained an atheist, but continued to struggle with the question of God. He began to feel "the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I earnestly desired not to meet." He experienced intense longings for ... something that could not be satisfied in this world. From where did such longings originate?

"Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists," he wrote in Mere Christianity. "A baby feels hunger, well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim, well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire, well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing."

His slow realization that "God was God" began when he read the works of such Christian authors as G.K. Chesterton and George MacDonald.

"I did not know what I was letting myself in for," he wrote in Surprised by Joy. "A young man who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful in his reading. There are traps everywhere - 'Bibles laid open, millions of surprises ...fine nets and stratagems.' God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous."        

His friends were also affecting his beliefs. An atheist friend whom Lewis regarded as "the cynic of cynics" came to accept that Jesus lived, died, and was resurrected, just as the New Testament reported, and Lewis began to read the Bible himself. His friend and fellow author, J.R.R. Tolkien, also helped push Lewis toward the light.

It was during a visit to the zoo with his brother that he had an epiphany, notable for its lack of drama. "When we set out I did not believe Jesus Christ was the Son of God," he recalled, "and when we reached the zoo, I did."

By then, Lewis was teaching at Oxford, specializing in medieval and early modern literature. His scholarly works on literature, including 1936's The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition, remain in print. "His literary judgments are full of discovery," Adam Gopnik wrote in The New Yorker, "his allegiance to a dry, historical approach in the university didn't keep him from having bracingly clear critical opinions about modern books, all of them independent and most of them right."

In 1930, he moved, along with his brother, Mrs. Moore and her daughter, to the house known as the Kilns on the outskirts of Oxford where he would remain for the rest of his life. Three years later, he published Pilgrim's Regress, his first work of prose in which he detailed his conversion to Christianity in a style based on that of Paul Bunyon's Pilgrim's Progress. In 1938, Out of the Silent Planet, the first in a science-fiction trilogy, appeared, and it, too, communicated his beliefs in a highly imaginative style while also earning praise from Arthur C. Clarke who called it one of the "few works of space fiction that can be classed as literature." But his more overt Christian writings were his most popular.

"If God is good, why does he allow so much suffering in the world?"

This question was the inspiration behind Lewis's 1940 book, The Problem of Pain. Its admirers included the Director for Religious Broadcasting at the BBC. In 1941, he invited Lewis to deliver a series of fifteen minute talks titled Right and Wrong: A Clue to the Meaning of the Universe. The radio broadcasts were a sensation, and Lewis delivered more talks that provided both insight into Christianity and comfort during the dark days of World War II. These radio broadcasts would eventually comprise much of his 1952 classic Mere Christianity, which Christianity Today named the best book of the 20th century in 2000.

One of the book's most famous, and oft-quoted passages challenged those who praised Jesus Christ as a great man, but did not acknowledge his divinity: 

"A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic - on the level with a man who says he is a poached egg - or he would be the devil of hell. You must take your choice. Either this was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to." 

 
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Lewis also addressed atheism, simply but powerfully:

"Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be without meaning."

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Lewis's radio talks were so popular that his voice became almost as recognizable in Britain as that of Winston Churchill. The Royal Air Force also sought his services, and Lewis agreed to speak to servicemen about God. In 1942, the year after he became a radio star, The Screwtape Letters were published and became an immediate bestseller. Written as a series of letters in which a demon named Screwtape guides a junior devil named Wormwood in his attempts to keep a human soul from escaping eternal hellfire, the slim volume was as wickedly witty as it was infinitely wise.  When first published in The Guardian, there were some complaints. A clergyman cancelled his subscription to the paper in protest, complaining that the advice offered in the series was "not only erroneous, but positively diabolical." That reaction was the exception rather than the rule, and Lewis observed that the reviews "were either laudatory or filled with that sort of anger which tells an author that he has hit his target."

By 1947, Lewis's fame was such that he became the subject of a cover story in Time magazine in which he was described as "one of a growing band of heretics among modern intellectuals: an intellectual who believes in God."

When he decided to write a children's book, his friend, J.R.R. Tolkien was not impressed. "It really won't do, you know," the author of The Lord of the Rings told a mutual friend who had read the manuscript. "Doesn't he know what he's talking about?" The book was The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Published in 1950, it was the first in a series of seven books known as The Chronicles of Narnia about a group of children who enter a magical world where animals talk and good, as represented by Aslan the lion, battles evil in the form of a White Witch. For some readers, Aslan was a stand-in for Jesus in the tales, but Lewis claimed that the books were not written to promote his Christian beliefs.

"This is all pure moonshine. I couldn't write in that way at all," he wrote in The New York Times. "Everything began with images; a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge; a magnificent lion. At first there wasn't even anything Christian about them; that element pushed itself in of its own accord."

Not only did Lewis insist that he did not write the Narnia stories with the intention of sharing his faith through allegory, he did not really set out to write a book strictly for children. With the publication of the final Narnia tale, The Last Battle, in 1956, Lewis explained that he was "writing for children only in the sense that I excluded what I thought they would not understand," and stated the opinion that "a book worth reading only in childhood is not worth reading even then."

Although his books were selling in the millions (and the profits from his Christian writings donated to charity), Lewis lived a life that Time described as "mildly humdrum." A bachelor who shared his home with his brother, he enjoyed walking, reading, and "sitting up till the small hours in someone's college rooms talking nonsense, poetry, theology, metaphysics over beer, tea, and pipes."

He admitted that "I like monotony."

In the early 1950s, Lewis began corresponding with an admirer from the United States. Joy Davidman Gresham was a poet who had flirted with Communism and other philosophies before converting to Christianity. Her faith proved the final straw in her troubled marriage to author William Lindsay Gresham, whose novel of carnival life, Nightmare Alley, is a noir classic that inspired a 1947 film starring Tyrone Power. Reading Lewis strengthened her belief, and in 1952 she traveled to England with her two sons to meet him.

"For Jack, the attraction was at first undoubtedly intellectual," his brother Warren wrote. Lewis would describe her as "my daughter and my mother, my pupil and my teacher, my subject and my sovereign; and always, holding all these in solution, my trusty comrade, friend, shipmate, fellow soldier."

When Lewis married Gresham in April 1956, it was in response to the British government's decision to deport her. But love soon followed, as did heartbreak. Gresham had already been diagnosed with cancer, but underwent a brief recovery that both believed to be a miracle of God.

The relationship became the basis for William Nicholson's play Shadowlands, which was dramatized by the BBC and, in 1993, became a memorable film directed by Richard Attenborough, and starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger.

Of course, the love story ended tragically with Gresham's death in 1960. Lewis's despair was profound. In A Grief Observed, a journal he began one month later and originally published under a pseudonym, he chronicles his pain and confusion, and questions the character of a God who allows his flock to endure such suffering: "The conclusion I dread is not 'So there's no God after all,' but 'So this is what God's really like. Deceive yourself no longer.'"

In Shadowlands, one of Lewis's students tells him, "We read to know we're not alone," and A Grief Observed is a powerful record of one man's mourning that has a healing effect on anyone who has suffered a loss. 

Lewis recovered from his grief, and reconciled with God, but his own health was beginning to fail. He was plagued with kidney and heart problems, and in October 1963 he left his post at Cambridge University and resigned his fellowship at Magdalen College. One week before his 65th birthday, Lewis awoke to have breakfast with his brother and to answer correspondence. Tired, he returned to bed shortly after lunch. Hearing a crash, his brother went to Lewis's room to find him slumped on the floor beside the bed. Several minutes later, he was dead. The date, Friday November 22, 1963, was one in which man's fall was more horrifically apparent than usual. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in the United States within the same hour. With the world transfixed by the tragic events in Dallas, Texas, there was scarcely enough newspaper space to acknowledge Lewis's passing (or the death that same day of Aldous Huxley, the author of Brave New World), and his obituary did not appear in The New York Times until three days later. But Lewis would live on through his body of work, and reach an even greater audience in the decades to come.

In 1977, Time magazine reported that "Sales of Lewis's works in Britain and the U.S. have increased sixfold since his death, and this year readers in both countries will take home more than 2 million Lewis volumes. Says Lady Priscilla Collins, one of Lewis's publishers in Britain: 'The trend is up and up and up.'"

The trend would only escalate, and Lewis's works would also inspire playwrights and filmmakers. In 1993, Richard Attenborough's Shadowlands movingly depicted Lewis's heartbreaking relationship with Joy Gresham.

"Why love if losing hurts so much?" Lewis, as played by Anthony Hopkins, asks at the conclusion. "I have no answers anymore. Only the life I have lived. Twice in that life I've been given the choice: as a boy and as a man. The boy chose safety, the man chooses suffering. The pain now is part of the happiness then. That's the deal."

In 2005, Lewis may have reached his biggest audience yet with the Christmas release of Walden Media's film version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. That year, Lewis was the subject of cover stories in both Christianity Today and U.S. News and World Report.

It is less a comment on Lewis's book than on the hostile "culture wars" being waged in the U.S. that a film based on such an innocent and charming fable was controversial. Philip Pullman, the author of The Golden Compass, and an acknowledged atheist, was one figure who objected to the film's Christian allegory, although he claimed to be less offended by the doctrine in Lewis's story than what he called "the absence of Christian virtue." He also claimed the books were a "peevish blend of racist, misogynistic and reactionary prejudice." Shortly before the film's release, Florida governor Jeb Bush came under fire from Americans United for Separation of Church and State when he chose The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe for the state's "Just Read" program. As blogger Michael Schaub observed, "Some are concerned that the selection is an attempt to Christianize the students of Florida."

Such foolish protests fell on deaf ears, and audiences flocked to the film in such numbers that it emerged as the biggest hit of the holiday season, even outperforming Peter Jackson's highly anticipated remake of King Kong. The success of the film propelled the books, which had already sold 95 million copies worldwide, back onto the bestseller lists. A second film, Prince Caspian, was released in 2008, and the third, Voyage of the Dawn Treader, is due in 2010, with adaptations of the remaining four Narnia stories to follow in years to come.

In 1947, Time hailed Lewis as "one of the most influential spokesmen for Christianity in the English-speaking world." And now, almost five decades after his death, he remains unchallenged. To Kenneth Tynan, Lewis's "mind was Johnsonian without the bullying and Chestertonian without the fecetiousness. If I were ever to stray into the Christian camp, it would be because of Lewis's arguments as expressed in books like Miracles." For Debra Winger, who played Joy Gresham in the film version of Shadowlands, "he has an incredibly wry wit ...When I read The Screwtape Letters my jaw dropped."

In Corinthians 13:12, Paul said that we look through a glass darkly. Lewis found the light, and passed it on to the rest of us. "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."

--by Brian W. Fairbanks

 

 

 



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