Cafe Gold: CS Lewis and tough questions

Posted on 03 June 2009
This is a short introduction to the life of CS Lewis which was presented at 'Cafe Gold', Ferndale's club for the over 50s. Lewis is perhaps best known today for The Chronicles of Narnia a series of seven fantasy novels for children that is considered a classic of children's literature. Written between 1949 and 1954, the series is Lewis's most popular work having sold over 100 million copies in forty-one languages.

The Early Years

CS Lewis was born in Belfast in 1898. At the age of four, shortly after his dog Jacksie sadly died when run over by a car, Lewis announced that his name was now Jacksie. At first he would answer to no other name, but later accepted Jack, the name by which he was known to friends and family for the rest of his life. When he was only ten years old, his beloved mother died and In September 1913, he started school at Malvern College, where he would remain until the following June. It was during this time that 15-year-old Lewis abandoned his childhood Christian faith and became an atheist but also interested in mythology and the occult.

The Trenches of World War One

Having won a scholarship to go to Oxford, in 1916, Lewis volunteered the following year in the British Army as World War I raged on. He arrived at the front line in the Somme Valley in France on his nineteenth birthday, and experienced horrors of trench warfare. The battle of the Somme was the most bloody in British military history. On 15 April 1918 Lewis was wounded during the German spring offensive. On his recovery in October, he returned to England. He was then discharged in December 1918 before returning to his studies.

Lewis finds a new Mother

While being trained for the army Lewis shared a room with another cadet, “Paddy” Moore (1898-1918). Maureen Moore, Paddy’s sister, claimed that the two made a mutual pact that if either died during the war, the survivor would take care of both their families. Sadly, Paddy was killed in action in 1918 and Lewis kept his promise. Paddy had earlier introduced Lewis to his mother, Jane King Moore. At that time Lewis was 18 while Jane was 45.

The friendship with Mrs. Moore was particularly important to Lewis while he was recovering from his wounds in hospital. After the war, Lewis lived with and cared for Mrs. Moore until she was hospitalized in the late 1940s. He routinely introduced her as his “mother”, and referred to her as such in letters. Lewis, whose own biological mother had died when he was a child and his relationship with his distant father was difficult. Moore suffered from dementia in her later years and was eventually moved into a nursing home, where she died in 1951. Lewis visited her every day in this home until her death.
Conversion to Christianity

As previously noted, Lewis became an atheist at the age of 15, though he later paradoxically described his young self as being “very angry with God for not existing”. He distanced himself from Christianity when he started to view his religion as a chore and as a duty.

However, influenced by arguments with his Oxford colleague and friend J. R. R. Tolkien (author of Lord of the Rings), and by the book The Everlasting Man by Roman Catholic convert G. K. Chesterton, he slowly rediscovered Christianity noted that he was brought into Christianity “kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance to escape.“ He described the moment when he first decided to believe in God in Surprised by Joy:

“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.”

After his belief in God in 1929, Lewis converted to Christianity in 1931. Following a long discussion and late-night walk with his close friends including JRR Tolkien, Lewis recorded making a specific commitment to Christian belief while on his way to the zoo with his brother.

In defence of Christianity

In addition to his career as an English professor and an author of fiction, Lewis was an important defender of Christianity. His book Mere Christianity was voted best book of the twentieth century by Christianity Today in 2000. Because Lewis’s previous scepticism about the truth of Christianity, following conversion, he has been called “The Apostle to the Skeptics.“

Lewis was very much interested in presenting a reasonable case for the truth of Christianity. Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain, and Miracles were all concerned, to one degree or another, with refuting popular objections to Christianity, such as “How could a good God allow pain to exist in the world?“.
When defending Christianity, he once wrote that:

“I do not think there is a demonstrative proof ... of Christianity, nor of the existence of matter, nor of the good will and honesty of my best and oldest friends. I think all three (except perhaps the second) far more probable than the alternatives.”

Mad, bad or God?

In the book Mere Christianity, Lewis challenged the increasingly popular view that Jesus, although a great moral teacher, was not God. He argued that Jesus made several claims to divinity, which would logically exclude this:

“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 patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

This appeared at a time when scholars such as Albert Schweitzer and Rudolf Bultmann had portrayed Jesus’ miracles and resurrection as myths. The concept that Jesus was not God but a wise man had gained ground in academic circles.

Faith in difficult times

In Lewis’s later life, he met Joy Davidman Gresham, an American writer of Jewish background and also a convert from atheism to Christianity. She was separated from her alcoholic and abusive husband, the novelist William Gresham, and came to England with her two sons, David and Douglas. Lewis at first regarded her as an agreeable intellectual companion and personal friend and it was because of this that he agreed to enter into a civil marriage contract with her so that she could continue to live in the UK. However, they later fell deeply in love. Sadly, after complaining of a painful hip, Joy was diagnosed with terminal bone cancer, and the relationship developed to the point that they sought a Christian marriage. Since she was divorced, this was not straightforward in the Church of England at the time, but a friend, the Rev. Peter Bide, performed the ceremony at her hospital bed in 1956.

Gresham’s cancer soon went into a brief remission, and the couple lived as a family (together with Warren Lewis) until her eventual relapse and death in 1960. Lewis’s book A Grief Observed describes his experience of bereavement in such a raw and personal fashion that Lewis originally released it under the pseudonym N.W. Clerk to keep readers from associating the book with him. However, so many friends recommended the book to Lewis as a method for dealing with his own grief that he made his authorship public!

In the book Lewis did not flinch from recording the times when his faith was tested:

“‘Where is God? Go to him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double-bolting on the inside. After that, silence.‘”

However, by the end of the book he had made his peace with God. For instance, he wrote that:

“God has not been trying an experiment on my faith or love in order to find out their quality. He knew it already. It was I who didn’t. In this trial He makes us occupy the dock, the witness box, and the bench all at once. He always knew that my temple was a house of cards. The only way of making me realizes that fact was to knock it down.”


John Dray pic

I havent read any of the Space Trilogy but they were recommended to me by someone else just a couple of weeks ago. I’ll have to give them a go! Which is your favourite chapter?

Comment by John Dray on 03 June 2009 at 09:50 PM
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