C. S. Lewis: Chronicles of an Apologist

C. S. Lewis: Chronicles of an Apologist

Nine-year-old Jack Lewis was devastated. He felt that God had ignored his prayers when cancer claimed the life of his mother. He would later realize that he lost not only his beloved mother but, in a sense, his father as well.

Jack's father, Albert Lewis, was deeply affected by the death of his wife and never recovered from the blow. In his anguish, he spent very little time with his grieving sons, Jack and Warnie. Never again would they experience the happy family life they had once taken for granted.

This event had a profound effect on the boy who would grow up to be one of the best-known Christian authors and teachers of the twentieth century. His mother's death destroyed the security and tranquility of Jack's world. While he would still catch fleeting glimpses of joy, the settled happiness of his universe had disappeared, and it would be many years before it would be regained.

All My Road Before Me
Even before his mother's death, Jack was a reclusive child. When he was seven, his brother and best friend, Warnie, was sent to boarding school in England. Jack had always loved to read, but with Warnie gone, he tried to combat his loneliness with books. Rather than seeking other friends, Jack immersed himself in literature. In his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, Lewis recalled, "There were books in the study, books in the dining room, books in the cloakroom, books (two deep) in the great bookcase on the landing, books in a bedroom, books piled as high as my shoulder in the cistern attic." Nothing he wished to read was denied him, so Jack quickly became a voracious reader. He also wrote and illustrated his own stories, creating a world where animals talked and knights still wore shining armor.

Spirits in Bondage
Jack was clearly an extraordinary child. If his creativity manifested itself at an early age, so did his intellect. But his reasoning skills, combined with a deeply ingrained pessimism, led him away from God. His pessimism increased when his mother died, but Lewis later said that the seeds were sown even before he lost his mother. He viewed the universe as "a rather regrettable institution," and it dissatisfied him to think it could be the work of a loving, all-powerful God. When presented with other options--theosophy, spiritualism and the occult, to name a few--his Christian faith began a slow descent into atheism that would continue for many years.

Present Concerns
In 1916, Jack was granted a scholarship to Oxford's University College, and he began his studies the following spring. However, a few months after his arrival at Oxford, he enlisted in the British army. While in officer's training, Jack shared a room with Edward "Paddy" Moore, and soon the two were fast friends. Before his departure to France with the Third Battalion, Somerset Light Infantry, Jack made a promise that was to have a significant impact upon his life. Paddy Moore was concerned about what the future would hold for his widowed mother and his sister if he was killed in combat. Jack promised that he would look after Paddy's family if Paddy failed to return from France.

Jack spent several months fighting in France before he was wounded in the Battle of Arras on April 5, 1918. Discharged from the army later that year, he returned to Oxford only to discover that his friend Paddy Moore had indeed been killed in combat. Jack took his promise to Paddy so seriously that he found a house to share with Janey and Maureen Moore, Paddy's mother and sister, to better look after them. Several years later, Jack and Mrs. Moore purchased a house near Oxford, which they called "The Kilns." A few years later, Jack's brother Warnie joined them, and Mrs. Moore lived with the Lewis brothers for over thirty years until her death in 1951.

Mere Christianity
After completing his studies with academic honors, Jack was elected a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, where he tutored students in English and literature. While it should have been easy for Jack to maintain his atheistic beliefs in this academic atmosphere, it seemed that God was hot in pursuit of him. Several of Jack's friends were Christians, including J. R. R. Tolkien, Hugo Dyson and Owen Barfield. His materialistic world view was challenged by their Christianity, and his friends refused to allow Jack to remain comfortable in his atheism. Jack was also profoundly influenced by the Christian authors G. K. Chesterton and George MacDonald.

While many conversions are the result of an instantaneous decision to pursue a relationship with God, Lewis' conversion followed a more gradual path. In 1929, intellectual reasoning helped persuade him to embrace theism. His friends Tolkien and Dyson continued to discuss their beliefs with Jack, and on September 28, 1931, it happened. After an important conversation with his friends, Jack returned to the Christian faith. He finally realized that Jesus was the Son of God, and the remaining barriers fell.

An Experiment in Criticism
Jack's conversion had an immediate impact upon his life. He began writing about his faith at once, and within two years he published The Pilgrim's Regress. This was the first of many books he would publish over the next three decades. His topics included Christian faith, apologetics and discipleship, as well as literary history and criticism.

Jack's intellect and creativity were stimulated by a group of friends who critiqued each other's writing. Calling themselves "The Inklings," they met once or twice each week, for several decades. Members of the Inklings included well-known authors Charles Williams and J. R. R. Tolkien, and many others. Since group members read their works aloud for the others to critique, the Inklings were among the first to hear early drafts of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.

The Chronicles of Narnia
In 1950, Jack published The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Since then, generations of children have joined Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy on their journey through the magical wardrobe into the land of Narnia. Books have grown worn and dog-eared as children of all ages have read and reread his tales of Narnia and the great lion, Aslan. Although Lewis used many spiritual parallels, he resisted calling these books allegories. As he wrote to some Maryland fifth graders in 1954, "I did not say to myself 'Let us represent Jesus as He really is in our world by a Lion in Narnia'; I said 'Let us suppose that there were a land like Narnia and that the Son of God, as he became a Man in our world, became a Lion there, and then imagine what would happen'."

Surprised by Joy
As Jack's popularity and reputation grew, so did the volume of mail that he received. Because he believed that there were no "ordinary people," he answered all his mail personally, responding with equal concern regardless of his correspondent's age or social status. Some letters he wrote to children, interspersing them with drawings and animal references. Others are caring letters, full of sympathy for the sufferings of his friends. In one, he describes his Siamese cat, who "adores me because I lift her up by her tail--an operation which I can't imagine I should like if I were a cat, but she comes back for more and more, purring all the time."

Joy Gresham was one of the many who began corresponding with Jack to ask him questions raised by his writings. As her son Douglas later remembered, "She found for the first time in her life, as also did Jack, someone of the opposite sex with whom she could have a conversation on even terms." Their friendship continued to blossom when Joy visited England. After divorcing her violently abusive husband William, Joy and her sons moved to England in 1953. Then in March of 1956, the British government threatened to revoke Joy's resident visa. Jack and Joy were married in what was at first a "marriage of convenience," which allowed Joy to remain in England. However, less than six months after their marriage, Joy was diagnosed with cancer. After battling her illness for many months, Joy's cancer went into remission. However, she and Jack lived with the reality that it could return at any time and that every moment they had together was precious. Soon after their marriage, Jack wrote to a friend, "It's funny having at 59 the sort of happiness most men have in their twenties..."

A Grief Observed
Alas, this happiness was short lived. In October 1959, Joy's cancer returned, claiming her life within the year. Jack was left to comfort her young sons, who were now going through what he had experienced as a child. His book A Grief Observed was Jack's attempt to process his grief over Joy's death.

But, as his stepson Douglas Gresham observed, "[Jack] was a very humorous man. That is what is missed in most people's impressions of Jack. If Jack was in a room, there was laughter. If he was sitting by the bedside of someone dying of cancer, there was laughter." While he undeniably experienced grief and loss both early and late in life, Jack also experienced joy, which served "as a pointer to something other and outer." In the end, joy was not a commodity to be hoarded and kept to himself, but something to be treasured because it moved him outside himself and pointed him toward God.

"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." --Mere Christianity

In His Own Words: C. S. Lewis talks about…

Love: Love is the plant of peace and the most precious of powers, for heaven could not contain it, it felt so heavy, until it had poured itself out on the earth. --Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature

Marriage: If the old fairy-tale ending "They lived happily ever after" is taken to mean "They felt for the next fifty years exactly as they felt the day before they were married," then it says what probably never was nor ever could be true, and would be highly undesirable if it were. Who could bear to live in that excitement for even five years? --Mere Christianity

Jesus: I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: "I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept His claim to be God." That is the one thing we must not say. 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 a level with the man who says he is a poached egg--or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; 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. --Mere Christianity

Himself: I'm tall, fat, rather bald, red-faced, double-chinned, black-haired, have a deep voice, and wear glasses for reading. --personal correspondence (1954)

Originally published May 03, 2010.