The lecturer, a short, thickset man with a ruddy face and a big voice, was coming to the end of his talk. Gathering up his notes and books, he tucked his hornrimmed spectacles into the pocket of his tweed jacket and picked up his mortarboard. Still talking—to the accompaniment of occasional appreciative laughs and squeals from his audience—he leaned over to return the watch he had borrowed from a student in the front row. As he ended his final sentence, he stepped off the platform.
The maneuver gained him a head start on the rush of students down the center aisle. Once in the street, he strode rapidly—his black gown billowing behind his grey flannel trousers—to the nearest pub for a pint of ale.
Clive Staples Lewis was engaged in his full-time and favorite job—the job of being an Oxford don in the Honour School of English Language & Literature, a Fellow and tutor of Magdalen College and the most popular lecturer in the University. To watch him downing his pint at the Eastgate (his favorite pub), or striding, pipe in mouth, across the deer park, a stranger would not be likely to guess that C. S. Lewis is also a best-selling author and one of the most influential spokesmen for Christianity in the English-speaking world.
Since 1941, when Lewis published a witty collection of infernal correspondence called The Screwtape Letters, this middle-aged (49) bachelor professor who lives a mildly humdrum life (“I like monotony”) has sold something over a million copies of his 15 books. He has made 29 radio broadcasts on religious subjects, each to an average of 600,000 listeners. Any fully ordained minister or priest might envy this Christian layman his audience.
Something like Hell
That audience is the result of Lewis’ special gift for dramatizing Christian dogma. He would be the last to claim that what he says is new; but, like another eloquent and witty popularizer of Christianity, the late G. K. Chesterton, he has a talent for putting old-fashioned truths into a modern idiom.
With erudition, good humor and skill, Lewis is writing about religion for a generation of religion-hungry readers brought up on a diet of “scientific” jargon and Freudian cliches. His readers are a part of the new surge of curiosity about Christianity which in Britain has floated, besides Lewis, a whole school of literary evangelists (T. S. Eliot, Graham Greene, Dorothy Sayers, et al.). Detective Story Writer Sayers has explained this new interest in Christianity as “spontaneous . . . and not a sort of “Let’s-get-together-and-pep-up-Christianity” stunt by excited missioners, than which nothing could be more detestable. . . . People have discovered by bitter experience that when man starts out on his own to build a society by his own power and knowledge, he succeeds in building something uncommonly like Hell; and they have seriously begun to ask why.”
Something like a Father
C. S. Lewis’ new book, to be published in the U.S. this month, is called Miracles, A Preliminary Study (Macmillan; $2.50). Its tightly constructed theological argument: that the miraculous (“interference with Nature by supernatural power”) not only can exist but has existed in human history. “Naturalists,” who see nature as “the whole show,” with no room for a creative God in the picture, will be baffled or repelled. But those who accept the basic Christian concept of a Creator-God will be rewarded with a full measure of the quality Lewis’ devotees have come to expect—a strictly unorthodox presentation of strict orthodoxy.
Lewis (like T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, et al.) is one of a growing band of heretics among modern intellectuals: an intellectual who believes in God. It is not a mild and vague belief, for he accepts “all the articles of the Christian faith”—which means that he also believes in sin and in the Devil. After sneezing, he was once heard to murmur that it was “because of the Fall.” He was referring, not to the season, but to the Fall of Man, which Christian theology holds responsible for the major disorders of mankind. Lewis is scornful of many modern intellectual and moral fashions: he thinks a Christian can do worse than imagine God as a fatherly ancient with a white beard. He writes:
“. . . When [people] try to get rid of manlike, or, as they are called, “anthropomorphic,” images, they merely succeed in substituting images of some other kinds. “I don’t believe in a personal God,” says one, “but I do believe in a great spiritual force.” What he has not noticed is that the word “force” has let in all sorts of images about winds and tides and electricity and gravitation. “I don’t believe in a personal God,” says another, “but I do believe we are all parts of one great Being which moves and works through us all”—not noticing that he has merely exchanged the image of a fatherly and royal-looking man for the image of some widely extended gas or fluid.
“A girl I knew was brought up by “higher thinking” parents to regard God as perfect “substance.” In later life she realized that this had actually led her to think of Him as something like a vast tapioca pudding. (To make matters worse, she disliked tapioca.) We may feel ourselves quite safe from this degree of absurdity, but we are mistaken. If a man watches his own mind, I believe he will find that what profess to be specially advanced or philosophic conceptions of God are, in his thinking, always accompanied by vague images which, if inspected, would turn out to be even more absurd than the manlike images aroused by Christian theology. For man, after all, is the highest of the things we meet in sensuous experience.”
Heaven & Boiled Fish
Lewis sees no good reason to accept the modern dictum that “scientific” explanations are more authoritative than theological ones: “The old atomic theory is in physics what Pantheism is in religion—the normal, instinctive guess of the human mind, not utterly wrong, but needing correction. Christian theology, and quantum physics, are both, by comparison with the first guess, hard, complex, dry and repellent. The first shock of the object’s real nature, breaking in on our spontaneous dreams of what that object ought to be, always has these characteristics. You must not expect Shrödinger to be as plausible as Democritus; he knows too much. You must not expect St. Athanasius to be as plausible as Mr. Bernard Shaw: he also knows too much.”
Lewis’ idea of Heaven is not the 20th Century’s watered-down version of ineffable, gaseous ecstasy, but a state as real as Sunday morning breakfast. It’s right there in the New Testament, says Lewis, referring to the resurrected Christ taking food with His disciples: “If the truth is that after death there comes a negatively spiritual life, an eternity of mystical experience, what more misleading way of communicating it could possibly be found than the appearance of a human form which eats boiled fish?”
Sex in Heaven? Bachelor Lewis is no man to be afraid of that one either: “The letter and spirit of Scripture, and of all Christianity, forbid us to suppose that life in the New Creation will be a sexual life; and this reduces our imagination to the withering alternative either of bodies which are hardly recognizable as human bodies at all or else of a perpetual fast. As regards the fast, I think our present outlook might be like that of a small boy who, on being told that the sexual act was the highest bodily pleasure, should immediately ask whether you ate chocolates at the same time. On receiving the answer no, he might regard absence of chocolates as the chief characteristic of sexuality. In vain would you tell him that the reason why lovers in their carnal raptures don’t bother about chocolates is that they have something better to think of. The boy knows chocolate: he does not know the positive thing that excludes it. We are in the same position. We know the sexual life; we do not know, except in glimpses, the other thing which, in Heaven, will leave no room for it.”
The man who can put medieval scholasticism into such comfortable modern dress was born in Belfast, Ireland, where his grandfather, an itinerant Welsh boilermaker-turned-shipbuilder, had settled. At the age of twelve, young Clive deserted the Church of Ireland (affiliated with the Anglican Church) for atheism. After a brief World War I career as a 2nd lieutenant in France, where he was wounded in the back by a British shell that fell short, Lewis graduated from Oxford with honors, tried a few years as a starveling poet, and in 1925 happily accepted his present post.
When he was about 18, Lewis bought a book called Phantasies, by George Macdonald, a Scottish Presbyterian best known for his Princess & Curdie and other children’s fairy tales. In the introduction to his recent anthology of Macdonald’s work (TIME, June 2), Lewis confesses the importance of that day’s purchase: “I had already been waist-deep in Romanticism; and likely enough, at any moment, to flounder into its darker and more evil forms, slithering down the steep descent that leads from the love of strangeness to that of eccentricity and thence to that of perversity. Now Phantasies was romantic enough in all conscience; but there was a difference. . . . What it actually did to me was to convert, even to baptise . . . my imagination. It did nothing to my intellect nor (at that time) to my conscience. Their turn came far later and with the help of many other books and men.”
These books and men effected in him what he considers an entirely intellectual conversion. Without any sudden awakening or “rebirth,” Lewis found himself approaching the unexpected conclusion that Christianity is the simple truth. While groping for answers, he wrote to a friend: “The Absolute is beginning to look more and more like God.” A short time later, his return to the Anglican Church was complete.
Brown Girl to Mother Kirk
Lewis has provided a lively and dramatic account of his spiritual safari “from popular realism to Philosophical Idealism; from Idealism to Pantheism; from Pantheism to Theism and from Theism to Christianity.” In his first—and not initially successful—fantasy, The Pilgrim’s Regress, he used Bunyan’s device of a naive wayfarer beset by symbolic men and monsters.
Lewis records “John’s” journey in quest of the beautiful island he glimpsed mysteriously in the stern, unfriendly land of Puritania, where he was born. Puritania was strictly administered by Stewards who issued complex rules of behavior and clapped forbidding masks over their faces whenever they mentioned the Landlord. Searching for his island vision, John one day found “in the grass beside him … a laughing brown girl of about his own age, and she had no clothes on. “It was me you wanted,” said the brown girl. “I am better than your silly Islands.” And John rose and caught her, all in haste, and committed fornication with her in the wood.”
But John soon found that the brown girl was not what he was looking for, and journeyed on. At last, after many adventures, John confronted the “aged, appalling . . . crumbling and chaotic” face of Death itself.
Said Death: “Do not think you can call me Nothing. . . . The Landlord’s Son who feared nothing, feared me. . . . Give in or struggle.”
“I would sooner do the first if I could.”
“Then I am your servant and no more your master…. He who lays down his liberty in that act receives it back. Go down to Mother Kirk. . . .”
“You must dive into this water,” said Mother Kirk. “You have only to let yourself go.”
After he had let himself go and plunged into the Church of England, Lewis found himself part of a small circle of Christian Oxonians who met informally each week or so to drink and talk.
Lewis’ new-found Christianity also introduced him to Charles Williams, the author he says has influenced his writing more than any other, living or dead. Williams was a scholarly, self-educated, Cockney-accented Londoner who died last year, leaving an astonishing assortment of essays, poetry and fiction that delighted a small circle of Christian intellectuals. His first novel, War in Heaven, told of a cops-&-robbers chase through modern England which followed when somebody turned up with the Holy Grail. The Williams books inspired Lewis to write a trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength) dealing with the forces of Good and Evil at war on the planets of the solar system. One element common to all these stories: the villain of the piece is always a scientist.
The consistent identification of scientists with the forces of evil is characteristic of Lewis. To him, scientists seem, most nearly to embody the Christian sin of Pride—setting up the human will against the Divine. For this sin, Adam & Eve were expelled from the Garden and the heroes of Greek tragedy were punished by the gods. Lewis is a bitter academic opponent of Oxford’s “progressive element” of scientists and “practical” faculty members who would lay more stress on “useful” courses than on Oxford’s traditional concern with the humanities.
The Gentle Slope
Lewis wrote The Screwtape Letters largely as “a kind of penance,” which his friends claim is his attitude toward all his Christian writings. He says he found it the easiest work he has ever done, but that it grew to be “a terrible bore.” It was an immediate and phenomenal success on both sides of the Atlantic. Innumerable ministers quoted Screwtape in sermons and urged it on their congregations. Catholics enjoy it as much as Protestants. One clergyman makes a practice of presenting copies to his parishioners with passages marked for their special attention. To date, Screwtape has gone through 20 British and 14 U.S. printings.
The book is a series of admonitory letters from Screwtape, a fiendishly knowing member of Hell’s “Lowerarchy,” to his nephew Wormwood, a novice tempter who is grappling with the Enemy for one of his first souls. The irony with which Lewis catalogues all the trivia most likely to keep man from God has made Screwtape a modern classic. Samples:
“It does not matter how small the sins are, provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”
“The thing to do is to get a man at first to value social justice . . . and then work him on to the stage at which he values Christianity because it may produce social justice. . . . Only today I have found a passage in a Christian writer where he recommends his own version of Christianity on the ground that “only such a faith can outlast the death of old cultures and the birth of new civilizations.” You see the little rift? “Believe this, not because it is true, but for some other reason.” That’s the game.”
With Screwtape’s success, Lewis became a celebrity. A man who could talk theology without pulling a long face or being dull was just what a lot of people in war-beleaguered Britain wanted. The BBC put Lewis on the air and for three years his short, plain-spoken broadcasts on what Christians believe made him, for his listeners, almost as synonymous with religion as the Archbishop of Canterbury. The R.A.F. even chose him as a kind of Christian-at-large to visit air bases and discuss theology.
Lewis hated the work. Heavy theological argument with topflight minds is his greatest pleasure, but he is too much of an intellectual snob to enjoy answering not-very-bright questions. He doggedly stuck to this chore as part of his duty to Church and country, but he once wryly blamed his unpleasant war work on the “unscrupulousness of God.” Said he: “I certainly never intended being a hot gospeler. If I had only known this when I became a Christian!”
Down the Garden Path
Outside his own Christian circle, Lewis is not particularly popular with his Oxford colleagues. Some resent his large student following. Others criticize his “cheap” performances on the BBC and sneer at him as a “popularizer.” There are complaints about his rudeness (he is inclined to bellow “Nonsense !” in the heat of an argument when a conventionally polite 25-word circumlocution would be better form). But their most serious charge is that Lewis’ theological pamphleteering is a kind of academic heresy.
On this score, one of Lewis’ severest critics insists that his works of scholarship, The Allegory of Love (on Spenser), and A Preface to Paradise Lost, are “miles ahead” of any other literary criticism in England. But Lewis’ Christianity, says his critic, has brought him more money than it ever brought Joan of Arc, and a lot more publicity than she enjoyed in her lifetime. In contrast to his tight scholarly writing (says this critic), Lewis’ Christian propaganda is cheap sophism: having lured his reader onto the straight highway of logic, Lewis then inveigles him down the garden path of orthodox theology.
Perhaps some of those who would like Scholar Lewis to be quieter about his Christianity would be surprised to learn how quiet about it he really is. So rigidly private does he keep his private life that virtually none of his best friends have been invited even to tea at his twelve-room house in suburban Headington (as a Fellow of Magdalen, he has rooms in the college as well). Lewis sometimes refers vaguely to living with his “old mother,” though his friends know that she has been dead since his childhood. One persistent rumor identifies the “mother” as a Mrs. Moore, mother of a friend killed in World War I, whom Lewis invited to keep house for him and who is pictured as an aged, bad-tempered old party. And there are said to be other dependents in the house, in addition to Mrs. Moore.
Wet Weather Ahead
Postwar Oxford’s swollen enrollment is now giving Lewis too much to do to spare him time for extracurricular writing. During the “long vac” this summer he has been hard at work on his volume for “Oh-Hell,” which is Oxford’s name for the Oxford History of English Literature (still in preparation). During the college year ahead, in addition to his crowded lectures, he will also be busy “tooting” his 18-odd tutorial pupils. At regular intervals they will come, singly or in pairs, to read him their essays in his handsome, white-paneled college room overlooking the deer park, or (when there is not enough coal or wood to keep it warm) in his tiny, book-crammed inner study. Lewis has informed the BBC that he is through with radiorat-ing, for an indefinite period. He has no immediate plans for further “popular” books, fantastic or theological. But Lewis admirers may not have too long to wait.
Recently in Oxford’s lively undergraduate magazine, Cherwell, he wrote: “Perhaps no one would deny that Christianity is now “on the map” among the younger intelligentsia, as it was not, say, in 1920. Only freshmen now talk as if the anti-Christian position were self-evident. . . . [Yet] we must remember that widespread and lively interest in the subject is precisely what we call a fashion. . . . Whatever . . . mere fashion has given us, mere fashion will presently withdraw. The real conversions will remain, but nothing else will. In that sense we may be on the brink of a real, permanent Christian revival: but it will work slowly and obscurely in small groups. The present sunshine . . . is certainly temporary. The grain must be got into the barn before the wet weather comes.”
You might also like: "One Grand Miracle," Reflections from The C. S. Lewis Institute.