Clive Staples ‘Jack’ Lewis was a writer, scholar and theologian who is widely regarded as one of the most influential Christian authors of the 20th century. In addition to his work as an English literature academic at Oxford and Cambridge universities, he wrote a number of popular novels, including the ‘Chronicles of Narnia’ series and ‘The Screwtape Letters’. These deal with Christian themes such as sin, humanity’s fall from grace and its saving through faith in Jesus Christ. His work ‘Mere Christianity’ is a classic piece of apologetics – a defence of the Christian faith – which began life as a series of radio broadcasts.
‘You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling… the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet’.
CS Lewis was raised as a Christian but he rejected faith in his teens. He rediscovered Christianity in a profound, personal way in his 30s while a tutor at Oxford under the guidance of his close friend and fellow academic JRR Tolkien. His influence and popularity continued after his death in 1963: a number of his books have been turned into plays, radio and television dramas and films.
CS Lewis was born in Belfast in 1898. He was a solitary child, although he enjoyed writing stories with his older brother, Warren, often featuring talking animals. He also read prolifically, particularly loving the books of Beatrix Potter. His mother died when he was nine and he passed through a series of boarding schools. In his teens he became an atheist, growing fascinated instead by the myths of the Norse gods. At 15 he went to live with a tutor, WT Kirkpatrick, who taught him an array of languages and their literature. He went to Oxford University in 1917 but joined the Officer Training Corps and before the end of the year was serving on the battlefield in France. He was wounded in April 1918 and sent back to Britain. After he was demobbed, he returned to university and began lecturing there in 1925.
Finding faith at Oxford
The author JRR Tolkien started teaching at Oxford at the same time. Tolkien was a Roman Catholic, and was one of a circle of Christian friends who surrounded Lewis. They shared a great deal in common with him: a love of old literature, the romantic, heroic, fantastic, mythical, and a distaste for modernism. But Lewis found it inexplicable that they believed in God.
But he sensed that he was encountering God more and more. He later wrote: ‘You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling… the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet’. In 1929 he ‘gave in’ to the idea of the existence of God. In 1931 Tolkien and friends persuaded him that the pagan myths they all loved about dying gods were God’s way of preparing the world for ‘the true myth’, when in Jesus, God really did die and rise from the dead. ‘I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning,’ he wrote. ‘When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did.’
Smuggling God into fiction: Screwtape and Narnia
Lewis wrote his first book, ‘The Pilgrim’s Regress’, in 1932. It tells the story, in an allegory like Pilgrim’s Progress, of his journey from atheism to Christianity. He formed a writers’ group called the Inklings, which included Tolkien and his own brother Warren. In 1936, Lewis and Tolkien decided to write science fiction. As a result, Lewis wrote a trilogy of space books. The first, ‘Out of the Silent Planet’, told the story of humans corrupting a perfect planet – a retelling of the Garden of Eden and the fall of humanity from the Bible book, Genesis. Other stories embodied Christian ideas too and he found that many non-Christian readers embraced the ideas without realising that they were biblical.
‘The one thing Christianity can’t be is moderately important: either it’s untrue, in which case it’s of no importance at all, or it’s true, in which case it demands your whole life.’
During the Second World War, Lewis wrote more direct theological books, and became popular. He gave a series of BBC radio talks showing that everyone has moral standards and arguing from that starting point for the truth of Christianity. The talks eventually became the book ‘Mere Christianity’. His impartial approach made him popular across the spectrum of Christian traditions including Roman Catholics, Baptists and Anglicans. Another classic from that era was ‘The Screwtape Letters’. A satire on temptation and how to avoid it, the book is written as letters from a senior demon to his nephew, a junior tempter, who is trying to secure the damnation of a British man.
From 1949 to 1953 Lewis wrote the Chronicle of Narnia stories, which include ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ and ‘Prince Caspian’. These started with a simple idea for a story, but rapidly turned out to be ideal vehicles for putting across Christian ideas. They were instantly successful with children and their popularity has endured for more than half a century.
Surprised by Joy
During the First World War Lewis made a pact with a fellow officer, Paddy Moore: each promised to look after the other’s family if one of them died. Paddy was killed and after the war, Lewis set up home with his mother, Jane King Moore, who was 27 years older. They had a deeply affectionate relationship which some have suggested went beyond that of adopted mother and son. Lewis looked after her until she died in 1951.
Lewis started exchanging letters with Joy Davidman, an American Jewish Christian writer abandoned by her husband. They met in 1952 and married in a civil ceremony in 1956. It was a sham marriage to avoid Joy being repatriated to the United States, but they grew to love each other. However within six months Joy was diagnosed with bone cancer. While she was in hospital they were married by a priest. She was prayed for and had an extraordinary remission.
They enjoyed a few years of married life but the cancer returned and Joy died in 1960. Lewis was devastated. He kept a diary of bereavement, which he published anonymously the following year as the powerful ‘A Grief Observed’. Lewis died from kidney failure on 22 November 1963. He was 64.
Lewis on faith
CS Lewis is often referenced by modern evangelists and Christian apologists. Among the most frequently used is this quotation on the importance of Christianity: ‘The one thing Christianity can’t be is moderately important: either it’s untrue, in which case it’s of no importance at all, or it’s true, in which case it demands your whole life.’
A second popular quote from ‘Mere Christianity’ centres on what Jesus said about himself: ‘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 … or… 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… 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.’