A Most Converted Man
On Friday, November 22, 1963, three lives ended within hours of each other. John F. Kennedy, 35th President of the United States; Aldous Huxley, noted English novelist and critic; and a man known by his friends simply as “Jack.”
But it was this third and final life that has arguably shaped the most lives and who, in the words of the London Times, “in his own lifetime became a legend.”
Clive Staples Lewis was born in Belfast, Ireland. Following World War I, where Lewis fought in France and was wounded in 1917, he went to University College, Oxford, where he achieved a rare Double First in Classics, an additional First in English, and the Chancellor’s Prize for academics. He was soon offered a teaching position at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he was a fellow and tutor from 1925-1954, and then later at the University of Cambridge as professor of medieval and Renaissance English (1954-1963).
In 1931, Lewis came out of atheism into the Christian faith, aided significantly through his friendship with J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings. The intellectual questions that plagued him during his spiritual journey – why God allows pain and suffering, how Christianity can be the one and only way to God, the existence of miracles – became the very questions he helped others navigate with such skill as a Christian.
His first work, The Pilgrim’s Regress: An Allegorical Apology for Christianity, Reason and Romanticism came out in 1933. Then came a torrent of works, eventually reaching 40 titles, the vast majority attempting to put forward Christianity in a very non-Christian world. Among the more widely known being The Screwtape Letters, a trilogy of science fiction novels (when the genre was hardly known), and the Chronicles of Narnia, a series of seven children’s books that are widely heralded as classics of fantasy literature.
Lewis’ passion was thoughtfully translating the Christian faith into language that anyone could understand. He was driven to have people know what Christianity was about.
It was a series of radio addresses, given over the BBC during the Second World War but later published in three separate parts, where his conversational style, wit, intellect, and rough charm revealed Christianity to millions.
The first invitation was for four fifteen-minute talks. The response was so overwhelming that they gave him a fifth fifteen-minute segment to answer listener’s questions. A second round of talks were requested and given. The clarity of thought, his ability to gather together a wide range of information and make it plain, led one listener to remark that the talks “were magnificent, unforgettable. Nobody, before or since, has made such an ‘impact’ in straight talks of this kind.” The BBC asked for a third round of talks, this time stretching out for eight consecutive weeks. Lewis consented, but made it clear it would be his last.
His goal throughout was simple: “I was...writing to expound...‘mere’ Christianity, which is what it is and was what it was long before I was born.”
Eventually the talks were gathered together in a single work titled Mere Christianity, which continues to make Christianity known to millions to this day.
But Lewis himself did not come to faith until late in life.
On Saturday, September 19, 1931, Lewis invited two friends to dine with him in his rooms at Magdalen, where he also taught. One was a man by the name of Hugo Dyson, a lecturer in English Literature at Reading University.
The other was J.R.R. Tolkien.
On that fall evening, after they had dined, Lewis took his guests on a walk through the Magdalen grounds, ending with a stroll down Addison's Walk. It was there they began to discuss the idea of metaphor and myth. Lewis had long appreciated myth. As a boy he had loved the great Norse stories of the dying god Balder, and as a man, grew to love and appreciate the power of myth throughout the history of language and literature. But he didn't believe in them. Beautiful and moving though they might be, they were, he concluded, ultimately untrue. As he expressed to Tolkien, myths are "lies and therefore worthless, even though breathed through silver."
"No," said Tolkien. "They are not lies."
Later, Lewis recalled that at the moment Tolkien uttered those words, "a rush of wind...came so suddenly on the still, warm evening and sent so many leaves pattering down that we thought it was raining. We held our breath."
Tolkien's point was that the great myths might just reflect a splintered fragment of the true light. Within the myth, there was something of eternal truth. They talked on, and Lewis became convinced by the force of Tolkien's argument. They returned to Lewis' rooms on Staircase III of New Buildings. Once there, they turned their conversation to Christianity. Here, Tolkien argued, the poet who invented the story was none other than God Himself, and the images He used were real men and women and actual history.
Lewis was floored.
"Do you mean," he asked, "that the death and resurrection of Christ is the old 'dying God' story all over again?"
Yes, Tolkien answered, except that here is a real Dying God, with a precise location in history and definite historical consequences. The old myth has become fact. Such joining of faith and intellect had never occurred to Lewis.
It was now 3 a.m., and Tolkien had to go home. Lewis and Dyson escorted him down the stairs. They crossed the quadrangle and let him out by the little postern gate on Magdalen Bridge. Lewis remembered that "Dyson and I found more to say to one another, strolling up and down the cloister of New Building, so that we did not get to bed till 4."
Twelve days later Lewis wrote to his close boyhood friend, Arthur Greeves: "I have just passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ - in Christianity. I will try to explain this another time. My long night talk with Dyson and Tolkien had a good deal to do with it.”
And pass on to believing he did.
Indeed, Walter Hooper - a longtime friend and personal secretary to Lewis - once commented that Lewis struck him “as the most thoroughly converted man” he had ever met.
A converted man who is still impacting millions fifty years after his death.
James Emery White
This blog is in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of the death of C.S. Lewis, and is adapted from James Emery White’s Serious Times: Making Your Life Matter In An Urgent Day (InterVarsity Press) as well as A Traveler’s Guide to the Kingdom (InterVarsity Press).
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is The Church in an Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log-on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.