Two weeks with C. S. Lewis: An invitation to the 50th Anniversary Commemoration (+photos)

By James Conlee

Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 1 2014 6:00 a.m. MST

C.S. Lewis Memorial in Poets' Corner at Westminster Abbey.

James Conlee

More than four years ago, I created the CSLewisDaily account on Twitter. It now has more than 1 million followers across multiple social media sites.

I was invited to take part in the commemoration celebration in London and Oxford and I tweeted all the proceedings during the subsequent two weeks in November, but this is my opportunity to use more than 140 characters to tell of this amazing adventure.

On Nov. 22, 1963, C.S. Lewis died. The media coverage of his death was minimal owing to the fact that he died the same day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. All subsequent anniversaries of this day would inevitably have more attention paid to JFK than to Lewis, and 2013 would be no exception. But the 50th anniversary brought a bit more attention Lewis’ way.

Fifty years later, through the efforts of many Lewis scholars and foundations, and to the delight of his ever-growing legion of fans, Lewis was accorded the rare honor of being commemorated with a memorial in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. In the South Transept of the Abbey, Lewis would join more than 100 other memorials to famous writers such as Chaucer (the first recipient of this honor), Shakespeare (who was not honored until 124 years after his death), Dickens (who was given a secret early morning burial there because he did not want a grand funeral) and Jane Austen (the first female author to be honored there).

Surrounding the commemoration and celebration was a series of lectures, worship services, new biographies, and media profiles about his life and legacy.

Thursday, Nov. 21, the day before the commemoration, there were lectures from Alister McGrath and Malcom Guite on Lewis' philosophical and fictional approaches to communicating the Christian faith. These lectures were given in St. Margaret’s Church, which is right next to Westminster Abbey.

McGrath’s enthralling lecture was full of insights that he gathered while doing the monumental amount of research that went into his latest book, “C.S. Lewis - A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet (2013).” After his lecture, he had a short audience Q-and-A session, and I was able to ask about McGrath’s favorite quote of Lewis:

“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” ("Is Theology Poetry" 1945).

This quote was chosen to be on the Memorial in Poets’ Corner, and my question to McGrath cited my research showing that this is his most popular quote on social media. I asked McGrath why he thought this was so.

McGrath lit up while describing how this quote encapsulated Lewis’ appeal, explaining that by using language that led the audience to visualize a brightly shining sun, Lewis enabled them to connect their imaginations to their faith, much the same way he would with his fictional writings in the “The Chronicles of Narnia."

It was a powerful answer that helped me understand why I have always been drawn to the writings of Lewis, whether fiction or nonfiction. His use of language had the ability to explain faith simply, and yet also left room for the infinite to be pondered and visualized.

A panel discussion was held later that night with novelist Jeanette Sears, theologian Judith Wolfe, and apologists William Lane Craig, Peter S. Williams and Michael Ramsden. It was presided over by Dr. Michael Ward, who was instrumental in getting the memorial from just a spark of an idea to a reality. This was a marvelous opportunity to hear five Christian voices answer questions about Lewis’ legacy and his influence on their own faiths.

The next morning the dedicatory service was held in Westminster Abbey. It was a formal yet moving ceremony complete with songs from the choir, readings from Lewis’ writings, sermons from Lewis luminaries, and the dedication prayer of the memorial.

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