We have become so accustomed to authors and researchers being highly specialised in niche fields, that we are tempted to be skeptical of works they produce outside of their accepted field of expertise. It seems bizarre, therefore, that an author of children’s literature could also be a professor at Oxford and Cambridge and an expert on the medieval era.
Even more unusual is an author of scientific-fictional literature who proposes a rational and logical exposition of the core doctrines of Christianity. And when all this and much more—poetry, literary criticism, essays, radio shows, lectures, letters—are the creation of the same author, then our astonishment and admiration is amplified. The object of this admiration is none other than C.S. Lewis.
Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963) was born in Belfast, Ireland. He taught English, medieval and renaissance literature at Oxford and Cambridge. His best known works are The Chronicles of Narnia, Mere Christianity, The Allegory of Love, The Screwtape Letters, and Surprised by Joy.
Today, the Internet provides a wealth of information about the life and work of C.S. Lewis, but even during his lifetime his fame could be measured by the sale of millions of copies of his books, which were translated into 30 languages, by the screenings and radio dramatisations of his novels, but also through the echo of Christian-themed radio broadcasts during the war. These broadcasts were collected in 1943 into a volume called Mere Christianity.
In my country, Romania, the book was first translated in 1987, two years before the fall of the communist regime. I still remember my adolescent wonder at the discovery of this book; it had been published by the Romanian Missionary Society, during the height of the official atheist regime. It was as if a small window had opened up to a living world, full of light, warmth and colour, a window that until then seemed opaque or even locked. I think it was the first premonition that something was going to change in the world beyond my window. Because, as we know, light cannot be put under a bowl, it penetrates and illuminates.
As some scholars describe his intellectual gifts, the humble C.S. Lewis writes with “subtle intelligence, bold curiosity, amazing spiritual acuity, and exceptional dialectic.” His most admirable performance, however, is that he manages, in all the writings of a Christian apologist, to remain only in the realm of the common denominator, “where the thread is the thinnest”, consolidating it with clarity and reasonableness. He argues: “The H.C.F. (highest common factor) turns out to be something not only positive but pungent, divided from all non-Christian beliefs by a chasm to which the worst divisions inside Christendom are not really comparable at all.”
C.S. Lewis’s world fascinates not only with the clarity and argumentation of apologetic writings, but also with the fantasy and emotional richness of writing for children. The fascination goes so far as to make the adult reader feel caressed as a child, to rediscover their imaginative, good and innocent side. Aslan the Lion is the divine character of The Chronicles of Narnia. In the extension of the meaning of the victorious biblical Lion, from the tribe of Judah, the same as the sacrificial Lamb of God (Revelation 5:5-6), the author gives children a symbol for both the Creator and the Saviour, who sacrifices Himself out of love and care. As the scholars explain, for C.S. Lewis, God is like a lion who goes in search of man, hunting him to embrace him.
The miracle of faith
Until the age of 32, Lewis considered himself an atheist, after having lost his faith during childhood, when his mother passed away after a period of great suffering. The way in which his lucid, deliberate conversion to Christianity took place in adulthood has a mysterious and miraculous aspect. In the description of his younger years, Surprised by Joy, he recalls the steps by which he drew near to God: first, discovering that all his favourite authors were Christians, that their personalities and creativity had this common source of inspiration; then in his moments of respite, looking up from the books he read in the library at Magdalen College and feeling that the One he did not want to meet was always around him, calling on him; later, adopting theism as an intellectual, logical, emotionless choice, while reflecting on the existence of God, in a ride in the sidecar of his brother’s motorcycle; finally, harvesting the discussions he had with his friend J.R.R. Tolkien, during their long walks or in the literary group of university friends called “the Inklings”. He described himself as “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”
But the joy he felt then, for the first time, was so miraculous that it completely transformed him. He talks about it by sharing with others what many Christians and many converts have felt. Thus all of them can resonate with him; but in the absence of the feeling described in one’s own life, empathy does not seem possible. Joy is “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from happiness and from Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again. (…) I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and pleasure often is.”
Lewis’s book called The Screwtape Letters is a profound work; a lucid and visionary series of speeches on the dangers and sources of temptation for people both in historical times and today, covering all fields. From the French Revolution to utopian socialism, from the two world wars to the media, from civic life to education and culture—the epistles of a tempting chief demon (Screwtape) to his nephew (Wormwood), a junior tempter, display their skilled virulence.
We can learn a lot from the way the author manages to analyse a number of social movements, exploring the psychological depths of people from various backgrounds and times, but also universal weaknesses of human nature. The pursuit of the new, says Scewtape, brings with it several advantages. “In the first place it diminishes pleasure while increasing desire. (…) And continued novelty costs money, so that the desire for it spells avarice or unhappiness or both. And again, the more rapacious this desire, the sooner it must eat up all the innocent sources of pleasure and pass on to those the Enemy forbids.” Then the book exemplifies the course that the often dark messages of art can follow.
Here is what the author foreshadows for the twentieth century, from the mouth of the villain Screwtape, in a mobilising speech for his fellow devils: “As the great sinners grow fewer, and the majority lose all individuality, the great sinners become far more effective agents for us. Every dictator or even demagogue—almost every film-star or crooner—can now draw tens of thousands of the human sheep with him. They give themselves (what there is of them) to him; in him, to us. There may come a time when we shall have no need to bother about individual temptation at all, except for the few. Catch the bellwether and his whole flock comes after him.”
At the end of this great book, we see how refined the traps of evil are and how far the reality of the tempter and the “team” of darkness is from the traditional literary image—a devil that’s little, close to the animal kingdom, a black creature with hooves and horns, easily identifiable and avoidable. On the contrary, the organisation of evil becomes clearer, and the self-examination of any reader will reveal experiences similar to those of the “patient” in Lewis’s book. Here is how the range of evil is described: “We are allowed to work only on a selected minority of the race, for what humans call a ‘normal life’ is the exception. Apparently He wants some—but only a very few—of the human animals with which He is peopling Heaven to have had the experience of resisting us through an earthly life of sixty or seventy years. Well, there is our opportunity.”
Knowing something of the atheistic youth of C.S. Lewis, as well as of these edifying, inspiring works that are useful for any reader, we cannot help but imagine how great the loss would have been for literature and Christian culture if he hadn’t changed the beliefs he held at 31 years of age. Not only would the world of the twentieth century have been poorer, but a multitude of souls would have been left without the comfort and joy of his stories, without the gentleness and pacifist spirit of his apologetic works. C.S. Lewis’s biography is a plea to never stop spiritual growth, to strive for a lifetime of development, to give something to the world, to surpass ourselves, the old ones, to be reborn as new people. His exhortation to new people is this: “Give up yourself, and you will find your real self.”
Corina Matei, PhD, is an associate professor at the Faculty of Communication Sciences and International Relations at Titu Maiorescu University.