On Nov. 22, much of the world will remember and celebrate President John F. Kennedy on the 50th anniversary of his assassination. Little noticed in 1963 was the death that same day of another extraordinary man, C.S. Lewis. His writings on Christianity and his Chronicles of Narnia novels have had a profound effect on Mormons as well as on large numbers of Christians, especially in the United States. Because of this, it is worth remembering his life, his faith and the remarkably enduring gift of his writings.
At his death, Lewis was perhaps the most influential Christian apologist of his time. He appeared on the cover of Time magazine in September 1947, with the headline “Oxford’s C.S. Lewis — His heresy: Christianity.” And since his death, his influence and popularity have only increased, especially in the United States. He was featured on the cover of U.S. News & World Report in December 2005, with the headline “God’s Storyteller.” Estimates are that nearly 200 million copies of his books have been sold, half of which are books in The Chronicles of Narnia, with annual sales still at 2 million per year.
Lewis wrote about “mere Christianity,” focusing on what he saw as its core teachings and saving principles, and largely ignored doctrinal differences among Christian faiths. As a result, Catholics, Protestants, Evangelicals and Mormons all find inspiration and insight in his writings. Since 1971, Lewis has been the most quoted non-Mormon in LDS general conference talks, with 31 references, compared to 20 for Shakespeare.
Among the most notable instances was President Ezra Taft Benson’s quote from Lewis’ chapter on “Pride” from "Mere Christianity" in his memorable conference address in April 1989. In other settings, Lewis was frequently quoted in the books and talks of Elder Neal A. Maxwell, beginning with his first book in 1967.
In 1972, BYU Studies published an article by Tony Kimball on Lewis, and noted Mormon author S. Michael Wilcox wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on Lewis. In his seminal work, "The Infinite Atonement," Elder Tad R. Callister quotes Lewis more than a dozen times for various insights on that doctrine.
Perhaps more importantly, Lewis’ description of his Christian faith — clear and compelling — has enriched the faith of many young Latter-day Saints as their education intersected with and sometimes challenged their beliefs. Numerous Mormon testimonies have been magnified by reading Lewis. This I know from personal experience.
In short, for decades, Mormons have found inspiration and special kinship with Lewis. This experience is not exclusive to Latter-day Saints — Christians of all faiths find similar inspiration in Lewis’ writings. This year, for example, former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams published "The Lion’s World," a book on the Narnia stories and what we may learn from them.
Lewis, born Clive Staples Lewis, known to his friends as “Jack,” was an esteemed professor of medieval and Renaissance literature, first at Oxford University and later at Cambridge University, two of the world’s leading universities. In his early years in Northern Ireland, Lewis developed an imaginary world of anthropomorphic animals, a preview of his love of fantasy.
After his mother died, his father sent him to boarding schools, where he lost his faith but developed his love of reading and his extraordinary analytical skills. In a way we can hardly imagine today, Lewis had read most of the classics in Greek, Latin and English by the end of his teenage years.
Lewis then attended Oxford, where he excelled in his studies in English, political science and philosophy. He then joined the faculty at Oxford, where he first taught philosophy and then English literature. He began to develop a distinguished professional career, with an emphasis on medieval and Renaissance literature. It was at this time that he rediscovered his Christian faith.
Lewis’ conversion from atheism back to Christianity, described in his autobiography "Surprised by Joy," was by a different path than most. That process was influenced by his own reading, especially of George MacDonald and G.K. Chesterton. His biweekly interaction with a group of friends, who called themselves “The Inklings,” which included J.R.R. Tolkien, became crucial.
Lewis said it was primarily his imagination that laid the foundation of his faith. It was through his imaginative life that he first recognized what he came to understand was “goodness” or righteousness. When he read George MacDonald’s fantasy work "Phantastes," he described it in "Surprised by Joy" as “baptizing his imagination,” though he didn’t know it at the time. He eventually gave in to what he had come to recognize as the reality of a personal God: “That which I feared had at last come upon me. In 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," he wrote.
Although a new convert, Lewis immediately became a defender of the faith. His first effort at apologetics, "A Pilgrim’s Regress," was a redoing of "The Pilgrim’s Progress," which had limited popular success. In 1938, Lewis published "Out of the Silent Planet," the first volume of his science-fiction trilogy, and an expression of his love of fantasy.
In 1940, he wrote "The Problem of Pain," addressing the issue in Christian theology of how a loving God could allow suffering in his created world. In 1942, "The Screwtape Letters" was published after appearing as a series of letters to a British newspaper. The letters are an imagined correspondence between Screwtape, a junior administrator in Satan’s bureaucracy, and his nephew, Wormwood, a junior devil on Earth, on how to tempt his assigned mortal. The insights into human frailty and sin are remarkable. The book was a success in Great Britain, but even more popular in America and established a permanent legion of devoted readers here. The book was dedicated to Tolkien.
Thereafter followed nearly a book a year and Lewis, the Oxford academic, developed a wide audience of eager readers and listeners to his insightful and inspiring discussions of the case for Christianity and the duties of leading a Christian life.
During World War II, the BBC invited him to deliver lectures on the Christian faith, which later were collected into one of his seminal works, "Mere Christianity." It is a discussion of the reasons for God, and of the key doctrines of the faith. Lewis went on to write and publish books (such as "Miracles") and collected essays (such as "God in the Dock") on theology. Several collections of his letters were published after his death.
In 1950, Lewis published the first volume of The Chronicles of Narnia, a seven-volume series written about an imaginary world saved (redeemed) by a lion figure named Aslan. These are often described as “children’s books,” although Lewis would see that label as confining.
A collection of his essays, "Of Other Worlds," includes Lewis’ explanation for why he wrote such books (“Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s To Be Said”) and how the stories of Narnia began (“It All Began With a Picture ”). These essays clarify two issues about the Narnia stories.
First, while written for children, their audience did not exclude adults. Lewis said about himself: “When I was 10 I read fairy stories in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am 50 I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up,” he wrote in “On Three Ways of Writing for Children" in "Of Other Worlds").
Lewis further explains that authors “must meet children as equals in that area of our nature where we are their equals,” and that “(t)he child as reader is neither to be patronized nor idolized: we talk to him as man to man.” Any parent who has read these books with a child and shared a moment of knowing joy at some passage or phrase knows of this meeting.
Second, Lewis explained that the Narnia stories did not start out to be Christian stories for children. Rather, they “began with a picture of a Faun holding an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood” and “then suddenly Aslan came bounding into it,” Lewis wrote. “At first there wasn’t even anything Christian about them, that element pushed itself in of its own accord.”
Two other events in Lewis’ life are worth noting.
First, in the early 1950s, Lewis was passed over at Oxford for two prestigious chairs, which appointments many expected him to receive. Some of his friends believed this happened because his colleagues at Oxford “disliked the thought of a professor of English literature winning fame as amateur theologian.” So there was a price to pay for his faith. Shortly thereafter in January 1955, Cambridge University created a new chair in Medieval and Renaissance Literature and offered it to Lewis, and he accepted. Lewis taught at Cambridge until 1961, when he was too ill to continue, but kept his home — the Kilns — in Oxford.
The second event involves Joy Davidman Gresham. Lewis was a lifelong bachelor, and occasionally celebrated the fact in his writing. Gresham was a Jewish American, married with two children, who had become an atheist and communist in the 1930s, later converting to Christianity. A few years after the war, she began a correspondence with Lewis and eventually met him on a trip to London in 1952 and, after her divorce, moved there with her two sons in late 1953. A friendship ensued between them.
At some point, the British government informed her that she could not live or work in England. To solve the problem, Lewis agreed to marry her and did so in a civil ceremony in 1956, though as an act of kindness rather than of romantic love. Subsequently, Joy contracted cancer and over the course of his caring for her in their formal marriage, Lewis fell in love and ultimately married her again in a religious ceremony while she was in the hospital.
Joy made a remarkable recovery, and they had three more happy years together until her death in 1960. Their story is told in the play and movie "Shadowlands." After her death, Lewis kept a notebook of his feelings that was initially published as "A Grief Observed" under a pseudonym that speaks powerfully to the faith issues experienced by someone going through that grief and resolution.
In one specific insight to Lewis’ faith, he described in a letter that during Joy’s illness he had prayed that God would allow him to take on her pain, and that had happened: “I was losing calcium just about as fast as Joy was gaining it, and a bargain (if it were one) for which I’m very thankful.”
As we consider his amazing influence over these past 50 years, what is it that has made Lewis so appealing to so many?
In "C.S. Lewis: A Complete Guide to His Life and Works," Walter Hooper, Lewis’ private secretary, identified four qualities: his vivid and luminous imagination; his clarity combined with his powerful reason; his moral toughness; and his love of God.
That is an accurate description, but there is more. There is a shared joyfulness in the profession of his Christian faith that we feel. He is unequivocal in his defense of the literal doctrines of the gospel, on which strength we draw. He is open about his own struggles, so there is an authenticity from the fact that he preaches what he practices. Although his erudition and logic are formidable, he makes things easy for the reader. He is always practical about the daily discipleship. There is an infectious relish for the ideas he shares with his readers. When asked why he had written what he did, he responded: “I wrote the books I should have liked to read. No rot about self-expression.” Reading his books, we feel like Lewis is having a conversation with us, talking to us as equals on the same path.
When reading Lewis, one is struck by the extraordinary breadth and depth of his erudition and, simultaneously, with the absolute absence of any self-absorption. His dear friend, Owen Barfield, described this quality: “What I think is true is, that at a certain stage in his life he deliberately ceased to take any interest in himself except as a kind of spiritual alumnus taking his moral finals and I suggest that what began as deliberate choice became at length (as he had no doubt always intended it should) an ingrained and effortless habit of soul. Self-knowledge, for him, had come to mean recognition of his own weaknesses and shortcomings and nothing more. At best, there was so much else, in letters and in life, that he found much more interesting,” as written in "Owen Barfield on C.S. Lewis."
Lewis shines the light of his extraordinary insight and vision and his submissive spirit on the issues of our daily, mortal existence and helps us appreciate the profound truths of the gospel as they apply to us.
He perhaps explained best the source of his vision: “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.”
On this anniversary, like so many others, I am grateful to Lewis for helping me see life and eternity through the lens of Christianity with an increased brightness of clarity and hope.
James Jardine is a lawyer who has taught classes at the University of Utah honors program on C.S. Lewis.