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C S Lewis: 50 years after his death

C S Lewis (1898-1963): two perspectives 

Today’s C S Lewis Reading (from HarperCollins’ A Year With C.S. Lewis: Daily Readings from His Classic Works. Copyright © 2003):

Screwtape offers a helpful image:

Think of your man as a series of concentric circles, his will being the innermost, his intellect coming next, and finally his fantasy. You can hardly hope, at once, to exclude from all the circles everything that smells of the Enemy: but you must keep on shoving all the virtues outward till they are finally located in the circle of fantasy, and all the desirable qualities inward into the Will. It is only in so far as they reach the Will and are there embodied in habits that the virtues are really fatal to us. (I don’t, of course, mean what the patient mistakes for his Will, the conscious fume and fret of resolutions and clenched teeth, but the real centre, what the Enemy calls the Heart.) All sorts of virtues painted in the fantasy or approved by the intellect or even, in some measure, loved and admired, will not keep a man from Our Father’s house: indeed they may make him more amusing when he gets there. [1] 


On November 23, 1963, the day President John F Kennedy was assassinated, two other well-known individuals also died: C S Lewis, Medievalist, Christian apologist, fantasist; and Aldous Huxley, the ‘philosopher of meaninglessness’. 

Fifty years later, at noon on November 22, 2013, the name C S Lewis joined those of some of Britain’s greatest writers at the Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey. The ceremony included a reading from ‘The Last Battle’ by his (now) only surviving family-member, step-son Douglas Gresham, and an address by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. 

The inscription on the floor stone reads: 

‘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’. 

To mark the 50th anniversary of Lewis’s passing, prolific writer (and, since 2013, Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford University, where Lewis also taught for 29 years) Alister McGrath produced three books in 2013-4, plus a video series. [2] 

C. S. Lewis: A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet (H&S 431 pages) follows McGrath’s 18 months’ reading every published word C S Lewis wrote, in chronological order, plus voluminous archival materials. (Another man of letters – A N Wilson – should have done that kind of research before writing his Lewis biography). 

McGrath certainly did his homework well, revealing, for example, that Lewis was ‘converted’ up to a year after the dates Lewis seems to suggest: 1930 not 1929. He also tells us Lewis nominated Tolkien – with whom Lewis had a sometimes rocky friendship – for the Nobel Prize in literature. 

McGrath’s second book - The Intellectual World of C. S. Lewis –  is a collection of scholarly essays on various aspects of Lewis’s thought and life. There are chapters on Lewis’s views on myth, his so-called argument from desire, Lewis-as-apologist, his intellectual outlook in the 1920s (prior to his conversion), his Anglicanism, and whether he should be regarded as a “theologian.” 

Both books need to be read together (perhaps McGrath could have used fewer words and combined them into one). 

Did Lewis never intend that the so-called ‘argument from desire’ should be construed as an ‘argument’ at all?  (Roughly: all innate desires have a possible fulfillment; our desire for perfect and unending happiness is innate, so there must be a heaven where such a desire can be fulfilled). 

And was Lewis not primarily a ‘rational’ apologist, as most Lewis fans think? Christianity, Lewis believed, makes sense because it explains better than any alternative worldview the totality of human experience…   

McGrath’s third book – published in 2014 (March 21) is titled If I Had Lunch with C. S. Lewis: Exploring the Ideas of C. S. Lewis on the Meaning of Life – and has the value of introducing us to McGrath’s personal responses to some of C S Lewis’s ideas (a format about which not all the reviewers are happy: but I would have thought a ‘conversation’ ought to be a ‘both ways’ experience). Topics discussed included such perennial questions as: Does life have meaning? Does God exist? Can reason and imagination be reconciled? Why does God allow suffering? 

Back to the biography. McGrath has been criticized in this book for his preoccupation with what Lewis did not include in his writings and published letters. In other words, did Lewis have something to hide? 

At least three aspects of Lewis’ journey are puzzling to McGrath and others:

* Why did Lewis write more about his lonely school-days than his horrific war-experiences, about which he reveals almost nothing?

* What kind of relationship did he have with Mrs Moore, who came with her daughter Maureen to live in Lewis’s home after his friend – her son – died in the Great War?

* And was the American divorcee he eventually married (in two separate ceremonies… interesting) really a ‘gold-digger’ out to seduce the bachelor with whom she conducted a tantalizing intellectual correspondence? [3]  

We also learn a lot from McGrath about Lewis’s prolific smoking and drinking habits. He kept a barrel of beer in his Oxford rooms for some time to imbibe with his students, and had a smoking addiction all his life since teenage years. 

Which makes one wonder – in addition to the paucity of biblical quotations in Lewis’s apologetic writings – why he developed such a huge fan-club among American evangelicals. Further, Lewis – especially in Mere Christianity – isn’t interested in squabbles about the Bible or church matters. His concern is more ‘eternally existential’. For example: 

‘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’.  [4] 

McGrath is certainly no hagiographer. This biography is ‘warts and all’. Lewis treated his father poorly. And McGrath writes candidly about Lewis’s defeat in his debate with Elizabeth Anscombe – perhaps the most humiliating professional blow to his pride in his whole life. (Lewis says he was ‘obliterated’). A N Wilson reckons Lewis gave up his preoccupation with apologetics after this event, to concentrate on telling stories. Maybe, opines McGrath. 

I’d put this book in the ‘magisterial’ category. There’s a lot of detail even the most ardent Lewisophiles don’t need to know. But the 50 pages of resources at the back – Timeline, Bibliography, Notes, and Index – are valuable. 


Another commemorative publication: Devin Brown, A Life Observed: A Spiritual Biography of C.S. Lewis (Brazos Press, 2013) 

Douglas Gresham in the Foreword: 

‘I am the only person now living who lived with Jack in his home and grew to know him very well. I am the only person alive who watched as Jack wept with the pain of a crippling illness and yet smiled at me, saying it was just something to be borne with fortitude and “is probably very good for me.” I grew up with Jack as my guide. This real Jack whom I knew walks the pages of this book.’ [5] 

Devin Brown (PhD, University of South Carolina) is a Lilly scholar and professor of English at Asbury University and is a professional C S Lewis aficionado and scholar, having written, taught, and lectured on Lewis extensively for more than ten years. He has authored a number of books related to Lewis, including Inside Narnia and Inside Prince Caspian. In 2008 Brown was invited to serve as scholar-in-residence at the Kilns, Lewis’s home in Oxford. 

We need to note that this is a ‘Spiritual Biography’. Brown concentrated on those aspects of Lewis’s thirty-odd books that shed light on his spiritual journey, and how the events of Jack’s life influenced him as a person and a thinker/writer. For example: he was passed over for a professorship at Oxford not once but twice – in part due to his choice to write publicly about his faith – before Lewis was offered the Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge. 

Brown is not here taking issue with C S Lewis’s ideas, but how the events of his life – especially his reading and friendships – were significant in his spiritual formation. He quotes from the whole range of C S Lewis’s spiritual writing (but not his ‘secular’ publications such as English Literature in the Sixteenth Century: Excluding Drama.) Brown, like McGrath, obviously has a terrific retrieval system. (On at least three occasions he – too – corrects Lewis’ timing about particular events). 

Writers of biographies have a problem: making them readable without repeating the subject’s names too often. Devin Brown oscillates equally between ‘Lewis’ and ‘Jack’ (Lewis’ preferred name ever since he was a small boy). 

So much about Lewis’s spiritual journey is serendipitous: such as his discovery of George MacDonald’s Phantases and of the life and writings of G K Chesterton, quite by accident. From teenage years Lewis inhabited a strange (to most of us) world of fantasy (and wove bits of it into The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and other stories).

Brown offers some key spiritual markers, ideas and appraisals-by-others in Lewis’s journey: 

* ‘One way Jack’s theism differed from his later faith was that it initially included no belief in an after-life – no hope of eternal reward, no fear of eternal punishment… At this point he believed that God was to be obeyed simply because he was God’

* Rewards in the after-life? Is this idea just too mercenary? ‘There are different kinds of rewards… Money is not the natural reward of love… but marriage is the proper reward for a real lover, and [one] is not mercenary for desiring it.’ [6] 

* On Christian Apologetics: ‘Christianity is a statement which, if false, is of no importance, and, if true, of infinite importance. The one thing it cannot be is moderately important’ 

* Walter Hooper: ‘Lewis struck me as the most thoroughly converted man I ever met’ 

* A quote which has helped many thousands come to faith in the divinity of Christ (but is often severely critiqued by professional Christian apologists): 

“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 the 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 up 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.” [7] 

* In the preface of Mere Christianity Lewis describes himself as “a very ordinary layman of the Church of England – not especially high or low – or ‘especially anything else’.  

* On hymns: ‘Many [are] fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music’. 

* ‘He loved his walks in the country, his cup of tea and pint of beer, his ancient myths, and, most of all, his times of talking and laughing with friends’. 

Re The Problem of Pain: Brown offers no serious critique of its obvious flaws. Lewis writes somewhere that any real theologian would quickly see that The Problem of Pain was the work of a layman and an amateur. His famous summary of the ‘problem’ is classical intellectual (but not affective) Lewis:

‘If God were good, He would wish to make His creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty He would be able to do what He wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore God lacks either goodness, or power, or both.’ 

As many writers and apologists have noted, Lewis wrote about pain before he really experienced it, when Joy died. [8] A Grief Observed: ‘No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear’. Brown: ‘Jack did not lose his faith after Joy’s death, but neither did he get all his questions answered’. 

Overall Lewis had a unique way of integrating his thoughts, emotions and imagination. As someone put it: he had a well-developed ‘feeling intellect’ and ‘intellectual imagination’. My issue with The Problem of Pain is that it’s just too-clever-by-half: his intellect was mostly divorced from his emotions. [9] 

When Lewis was nearing death Owen Barfield, serving as his legal advisor, asked him about allocating future royalties. Lewis’s response: ‘After I’ve been dead five years, no one will read anything I’ve written’. But over 200 million of his books have been sold. The Weight of Glory is often listed among the best sermons of all time. The Screwtape Letters – his first truly popular book – eventually landed him on the cover of Time magazine on September 8, 1947. 

Brown’s summary-appraisal: ‘His efforts to rediscover the Christian imagination, to reclaim Christian reason, and to restore a Christian vision of humanity live on in the minds and hearts of countless readers everywhere’. 

Two other good (commemorative) reads: Brian Sibley, Shadowlands: the true story of C S Lewis and Joy Davidman, 1985/2013. And Colin Duriez, C S Lewis: A Biography of Friendship (2013).


[1] From The Screwtape Letters Compiled in A Year with C.S. Lewis The Screwtape Letters. Copyright © 1942, C. S. Lewis Pte. Ltd. Copyright restored © 1996 C. S. Lewis Pte. Ltd. 

[2] alistermcgrath.weebly.com 

[3] See ‘Does C. S. Lewis Have Something to Hide? Jerry Root, christianitytoday.com, November 22, 2013

[4] Mere Christianity, book 3, chapter 10 

[5] I count Douglas as a friend: he recommended this particular biography about ‘Jack’ over all the others – including Alister McGrath’s 

[6] ‘The Weight of Glory’, 17-18 

[7] Mere Christianity 

[8] Lewis’s relationship with Joy is the subject of at least three books (by Brian Sibley, Lyle Dorsett and Douglas Gresham), a BBC TV film (Shadowlands), a stage play. And a major motion picture with Anthony Hopkins playing Lewis and Debra Winger starring as Joy.

[9] My summary-review of The Problem of Pain, written as a student in the late 1960s: jmm.org.au/articles/1174.htm 

Rowland Croucher    jmm.org.au

December 2014



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