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The C.S. Lewis Files - An Introduction to C.S. Lewis and His Writings

The C.S. Lewis Files - An Introduction to C.S. Lewis and His Writings

Introduction to C S Lewis

Almost everyone has heard of C S Lewis.  He is the most influential and widely quoted Christian of the last hundred years.

Early Years and Conversion to Christianity.

C S Lewis (“Jack”) was born in Belfast in November 1898, the son a solicitor and a clergyman’s daughter.  His parents, Albert and Flora, were intelligent people and voracious readers. They attended church but were not especially religious.  He had one sibling, his brother Warnie.  Warnie was three years older than Lewis but the two boys were close friends throughout their lives.

Jack’s mother died of cancer when he was nine years old.  This had an enormous effect on the young lad.  In Surprised by Joy (Lewis’ biography of his early years and coming to Christ) he wrote:

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

Albert Lewis never got over the death of his wife, and, sadly, the loss did not bring him closer to his two sons – it tended to have the opposite effect.  He made many mistakes as a father and Jack’s relationship with him was a troubled one, something he regretted in later years.  However, it seemed to draw Jack and Warnie even closer to each other.

As a young man, Lewis was a staunch atheist, writing to a friend to declare:   

I believe in no religion. There is absolutely no proof for any of them, and from a philosophical standpoint Christianity is not even the best. All religions, that is, all mythologies to give them their proper name are merely man’s own invention.  Now all this you must have heard before: it is the recognised scientific account of the growth of religions.

But God was at work in his life.  Gradually, his unbelief was eroded and he came to faith, step-by-step, over a period of many years.   The influences which led Lewis to Christ included several Christian friends and reading books written by believers.

In Surprised by Joy, Lewis describes the moment he came to believe in God

“You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.

Dramatic experience though this undoubtedly was, it was a two years later before Lewis took the final step of embracing Christ.

“I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought. Nor in great emotion. ‘Emotional’ is perhaps the last word we can apply to some of the most important events. It was more like when a man, after long sleep, still lying motionless in bed, becomes aware that he is now awake."

Though Lewis had described himself as a “most dejected and reluctant convert”, he was anything but a half-hearted one.  Once he accepted Christ, he lived openly and boldly for God in times when it was not fashionable to do so.  His friend and biographer, Walter Hooper, described Jack as the “most thoroughly converted” person he knew.

Lewis the Secular Academic

The lasting impact which Lewis has had on believers, is all the more surprising since he never worked for a church or Christian organization, nor did he have a formal theological education.  He was a layman with a full-time occupation outside the church – teaching English to students, first at Oxford, then Cambridge universities.

Lewis was a brilliant scholar.  His examiner declared that Lewis’s entrance examination paper to Oxford University was the best he had seen.  Note – not the best he saw that year, but the best he had ever seen.   Lewis went to achieve a rare “Triple First” at Oxford and then, in May 1925, he was elected a Fellow and Tutor in English Language at Magdalen College, Oxford – a position he was to hold for 29 years.   

One critic described Lewis as “the best-read man of his generation. One who read everything and remembered everything he read.”   Despite his obvious talents, he was passed over several times for a chair (professorship) at Oxford and friends believed this was because his openly professed faith in Christ was unwelcome.  Eventually, the offer of a professorship did come and in 1954 Lewis was unanimously elected to the Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University, a position he held until his retirement.

Lewis’ Contribution to Christianity
  1. Mind sharp as a scalpel

Lewis was described by the American writer, Clyde Kilby, as having a “mind sharp as a scalpel”.  Kilby felt that “no Christian I had ever read, unless it was G K Chesterton had spoken so clearly or so cogently for Christianity.”  

Jack’s school years were pretty unhappy ones – as described in Surprised by Joy.  But a brighter episode was when he was lived with, and was tutored by, W T Kirkpatrick, a convinced atheist.  Kirkpatrick taught Lewis to think and argue a case clearly and logically.  Little did Kirkpatrick know, or suspect, but his gifted pupil would one day use what he had learned about logical argument  to punch holes in the case for atheism and advance the kingdom of God.

Undoubtedly, part of the joy you get from Lewis’ work, is the sense of a logical mind – concerned with truth, with the sense of how things relate and why one position holds more water than another.  Fascinating too, to get from Screwtape Letters Lewis’ insight that the devil is anxious to stop us from thinking clearly and logically, preferring muddle to argument and clear thinking.

  1. Writing for lay Christians and those outside the church

Another aspect that sets Lewis apart is the width of his appeal – he spoke and wrote with ordinary people in mind, children as well as adults.  And he didn’t just write for Christians. More often than not he was reaching out – presenting, explaining and defending Christianity for a wider audience. 

Lewis put it this way, when commenting on an invitation from the BBC to broadcast some talks on the radio during the Second World War (talks which later became Mere Christianity):

I gave these talks, not because I am anyone in particular, but because I was asked to do so.  I think they asked me chiefly because I am a layman, not a clergyman; and, secondly, because I had been a non-Christian for many years.  I was thought that both these facts might enable me to understand the difficulties that ordinary people felt about the subject. 

  1. The importance of the central message of Christianity, shared by believers of different persuasions.

Some Christian thinkers become known for particular emphases in their teachings, or for a doctrinal position which is highly valued within their own denomination or persuasion.  Their books appear on the shelves of those who share that viewpoint but are not necessarily widely read by outsiders.  But Lewis was different.  His aim all along was to not to be drawn into debate on the points where one which one tradition disagreed with another, but rather to focus on the mainstream of Christian belief.  In 1934 he wrote to his friend Bede Griffiths saying:

“When all is said (and truly said) about the divisions of Christendom, there remains, by God’s mercy, an enormous common ground.”

It was this “common ground” which interested Lewis and which he developed further in his best-known non-fiction work, Mere Christianity.  

But, although Lewis has wide appeal – to protestant, Roman Catholic and Orthodox believers, but he was definitely no liberal.  He believed firmly in the God of the Bible, a God at work in the lives of men and women today.  His work contained many, occasionally amusing, put downs to liberal theology.  For example, in 1940 he mentioned with pleasure an incident he had found refreshing:

"Canon R... is sharply told in a review in Theology that ‘it is high time persons of this sort learned that the enjoyment of a chair of theology at Cambridge does not carry with it a right to criticise the Word of God’ - that’s the kind of rap on the knuckles which has not been delivered for a hundred years!"

  1. The baptised imagination

From early childhood, Jack was blessed with a vivid imagination, a love of good stories and a sense of how real truth and beauty can be communicated through imagery.

He was a great story-teller – we can see that in the Narnia Chronicles but also in a number of other highly individual and imaginative works such as his Space Trilogy, Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce.  Lewis once talked about using the world of the imagination to smuggle truth “past sleeping dragons” – presenting truth in an imaginative context so that it becomes meaningful.  He understood the power of stories, illustrations and what he called “supposals” to teach us to appreciate and absorb truth.   Take for example, this snatch of conversation, between Susan and Mr Beaver, in the Lion, the Witch and Wardrobe:

"Ooh" said Susan. "I'd thought he was a man. Is he - quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion..."

"Safe?" said Mr Beaver ..."Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you.”

Somehow that piece says something really important about Jesus Christ in just 44 words.  And they are words (because they are woven into a story and an image) which we will probably remember and ponder long after some worthy, though dry, sermon on the nature of the second person of the Trinity has vanished without leaving any discernible trace in our memory. 

  1. A clear voice.

C S Lewis is possibly the most quoted Christian writer of the last one hundred years.  And there is a good reason for that.  He had a way with words; a habit of “nailing” Christian truth clearly and concisely without resorting to theological language.  You read Lewis, and sometimes something jumps out of the page which captures some truth and leaves you thinking that this couldn’t be better put. Lewis himself said:

Any fool can write learned language.  The vernacular (plain English) is the real test.  If you can’t turn your faith into it, then either you don’t understand it or you don’t believe it.

Lewis would have hated to hear himself described as “modern”, but there is a sense in which his way of communicating – using images as well as words, avoiding theological jargon and capturing a thought in a sentence or two, seems ideally suited to the modern world, even, dare I say it, to Twitter.  Some may not appreciate the comparison, but when I read, say, Martyn Lloyd-Jones (a contemporary of Lewis’) I am very taken with the content, but find the language and style dated and, one suspects, almost impenetrable to modern ears not grounded in evangelical theology.  In contrast, Lewis is much easier going for the 21st century reader and those with little, if any, church background.

But I mustn’t press this too far.  Not everything Lewis wrote is easy to grasp – he was an intellectual giant and an exceptionally well-educated man who was happy to tackle difficult subjects.  Sometimes keeping up with him can be hard work.  But when that happens there is still Narnia!

Fun, Friends and Food

People who have seen the film Shadowlands may get entirely the wrong idea about Lewis’ personality.  In the film he comes across as an austere, serious, introverted Christian - nervous of relationship and commitment.  Nothing was less like the real Lewis.  He was, in fact, a fun-loving man with a lively sense of humour and many close and long-lasting friendships (female as well as male).  He enjoyed nothing better than a night out at the pub with friends talking about books and Christianity.  On one occasion he wrote:

“(friendship is) to me the chief happiness of life. If I had to give a piece of advice to a young man about a place to live, I think I should say, ‘sacrifice almost everything to live where you can be near your friends.’"

It is no surprise to find that C S Lewis was a bit overweight – not when you consider his obvious delight in food which shines through in his books and letters.  For example, in this excerpt from the Silver Chair, Lewis writes lyrically about sausages:

She had a vague impression of Dwarfs crowding round the fire with frying pans rather bigger than themselves, and the hissing, and delicious smell of sausages, and more, and more, and more sausages.  And not wretched sausages half full of bread and soya bean either, but real meaty, spicy ones, fat and piping hot and burst and just the tiniest bit burnt...

Only someone who loved food could write like that.   Feeling peckish anyone?  

The Chronicles of Narnia

The Chronicles of Narnia is a classic of children’s literature which has sold over 100 million copies in 47 languages.

Of course, at one level, the Narnia books are simply good stories to be enjoyed and savoured by children and adults.   But there is clearly more going on.  Lewis intended the books to be a medium for faith, a way of smuggling truth past the “sleeping dragons” of the world, the flesh and the devil.  Towards the end of the Dawn Treader, Lewis has Aslan tell the children:

This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.”

And that does indeed reflect the experience of many Christians (old as well as young) – that some fresh insight comes to us through Narnia stories which enlivens our understanding of the true Christ who lived, died and rose again in our world.

The seven titles which make up the Narnia Chronicles are as follows (listed in the order in which they were published):

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950)

Prince Caspian: The Return to Narnia (1951)

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952)

The Silver Chair (1953)

The Horse and His Boy (1954)

The Magician's Nephew (1955)

The Last Battle (1956)

Critics and publishers have disagreed over the right order in which to read the series.  Should it be in the order in which they were published?  In which case the Magician’s Nephew would be second to last.  Or the order suggested by the internal chronology?  In that case the Magician’s nephew would come first, since it deals with the creation of Narnia.  

Lewis didn’t think this important.  Writing to child in 1957 he said:

“The series was not planned beforehand.... When I wrote The Lion I did not know I was going to write any more. Then I wrote P. Caspian as a sequel and still didn't think there would be any more, and when I had done The Voyage I felt quite sure it would be the last, but I found I was wrong. So perhaps it does not matter very much in which order anyone read them. I’m not even sure that all the others were written in the same order in which they were published.”

Mere Christianity

If you are going to read only one non-fiction book by Lewis, Mere Christianity is definitely the one to go for.  It is, justifiably, one the most popular Christian books works ever written and has played a role in several famous conversions to Christianity including those of Charles Colson and Jonathan Aitken, to name just two.

The book was adapted from a series of radio broadcasts which Lewis gave on the BBC between 1941 and 1944 and sets out many of the fundamentals of the faith, in succinct and pithy language, for the ordinary person.  But there is no “dumbing down” – it is still a profound and thought-provoking read.

Beyond Narnia and Mere Christianity.

Perhaps you have read the Narnia Chronicles and Mere Christianity – and you are wondering what to try next?  Well there’s a lot to choose from, including the seven books which make up Lewis’ Signature Classics (which CLC sell individually and as a box set).  

Other titles worth considering include Reflections on the Psalms; Letters to Malcolm (on prayer); Weight of Glory (a collection of wartime sermons - recommended); Space Trilogy (Remarkable… a rare power of inventive imagination” Times Literary Supplement); and A Grief Observed (a candid exploration of Lewis’ grief following his wife’s death from cancer).

Lewis fans and avid readers will not quickly run out of material as he wrote more than 30 books which have been translated into more than 30 languages.

Books about C S Lewis

Lewis was a firm believer that if you want to find out more about some famous writer, the best way to do that is to read the person’s own works.   So, he criticised his students who, when studying Plato, would “rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long” in preference to reading Plato’s own writings.  Lewis said that it was one of his main aims as a teacher to “persuade the young that first-hand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than second-hand knowledge but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.”  Now I tend to agree with Lewis on this – for me there is often more pleasure and gain in reading the Narnia Chronicles, even for the umpteenth time, compared with some, no doubt well-intentioned, books about the Narnia Chronicles.   But that may be personal preference – readers may disagree with me.

That said, if you want to know more about Lewis’ own life and times then you will need the help of a good biography such as:

Or perhaps you want to try another author who Lewis recommended or was close to him:

 

 

 

Christopher Simpson

Chris Simpson lives in Sheffield, UK, with his wife where they are members of Meadowhead Christian Fellowship. Chris is well-known for his interest in C S Lewis.

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