Sunday, November 24, 2013

Apostle to the Skeptics

On Friday November 22, 1963, a great man died. 50 years later, he is still an inspirational figure. His words are still quoted; his writings still read; his principles are still relevant. That man...was C.S. Lewis. But because President Kennedy was assassinated the very same day, many people did not know of Lewis' death until later. And while people argue about whether Kennedy was a great president or not, few dispute Lewis' place as the foremost Christian apologist of the 20th century and one who has yet to be surpassed a half century later.

Clive Staples Lewis, understandably, hated his first name. At age 4, he declared his name “Jacksie” and refused to answer to any other. From then on, his friends and family called him Jack.

He was born in Northern Ireland. His grandfather was a very political Protestant preacher. His father was a wildly emotional man and a lawyer. His mother was the opposite, cool and rational. His childhood was a happy one, his closest friend his older brother Warren. Together the boys created an imaginary land of talking animals. Jack wrote its history and illustrated it. At age 8, Lewis' mother died of cancer and he was sent away to boarding school in England. In his teens he lost his childhood faith and became, as a schoolmate later wrote, “a riotously amusing atheist.” Lewis discovered Norse mythology and the pleasure of a sharp longing he called joy. He was mentored by his father's old tutor, a ruthlessly logical atheist named Kirkpatrick.

He fought in the First World War alongside a fellow Irishman named Paddy Moore. They made a vow that if either survived, he would take care of the other's family. Paddy was killed and Lewis was wounded in 3 places. Lewis' father did not visit him in the military hospital in England but Paddy's divorced mother did. When he returned to Oxford, Lewis fulfilled his vow, helping Mrs. Moore and her young daughter move near him. She lived with him and his brother until her final illness. He called her Mother.

Lewis became a lecturer and tutor in English and also taught philosophy at Magdalen College of Oxford University. Among his colleagues was J.R.R. Tolkien. It was through Tolkien and another colleague and friend Hugo Dyson, as well as through his explorations of philosophy, that Lewis eventually returned to Christianity. Lewis read the gospels in the original Greek and as a professor of literature and reader of the classics, he realized they were too artlessly and unimaginatively written to be myths. They struck him as reporting. In an all-night conversation with Tolkien and Dyson, Lewis became convinced that in Jesus, myth had become fact. A few days later, on September 22, 1931, Lewis came to believe that Jesus was the Son of God.

Lewis had wanted to be a poet but two books of his poetry, published under a pen name, did not generate much excitement. He went on to write both scholarly works on medieval literature and books defending Christianity as well as science fiction and fantasy novels based on Christian ideas. His breakthrough hit was the Screwtape Letters, a shrewd examination of the psychology and theology of temptation in the form of letters from a senior devil to his nephew, a junior tempter. Coming on the heels of this bestseller was Broadcast Talks, based on a series of BBC radio addresses on the basics of the faith. Today, combined with its sequels, Christian Behavior and Beyond Personality, it is better known as Mere Christianity.

Lewis' popularity is due to his ability to not only explain theological ideas in a witty and conversational prose that was also understandable to the average person but also his use of clear and incisive logic, taught to him, ironically enough, by his atheist tutor. One of his most famous arguments, borrowed from G.K. Chesterton, has been called the Trilemma: that in claiming to be God, Jesus forces us to decide if he was either a lunatic, a liar or the Lord. As Lewis put it, “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 a 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.”

Lewis was equally good with giving the reasons behind Christian ethics and in helping the normal person understand the Trinity. In the Problem of Pain, Lewis deals with suffering. In Miracles, he explores the problems modern people have with acts of God that seem to defy scientific explanation. In The Four Loves, he takes advantage of the fact that the Greeks have separate words for various loves—erotic, familial, friendship and divine love—to explain the similarities and differences between the ways we love and are loved.

Due to the series of screen adaptions of his children's books, Lewis is primarily known to the general public as a storyteller. His works, both fiction and nonfiction, were originally read aloud to and critiqued by a group of writers who met in his college rooms and called themselves the Inklings. Here Lewis and friends heard each chapter of the Lord of the Rings, read by Tolkien. Here they also heard the supernatural thrillers of Charles Williams, such as War In Heaven, in which the Archdeacon of Fardles, a small English village, realizes that his church's communion chalice is in fact the Holy Grail and is caught up in a madcap chase to keep it out of the hands of satanists. Lewis also knew Dorothy L. Sayers, the lay theologian, dramatist, translator of Dante and writer of the much loved Lord Peter Wimsey mystery novels.

So Lewis was in good company when he began to write his science fiction novels. In Out of the Silent Planet, a professor of philology named Ransom (based on Tolkien) is kidnapped and taken to Mars to help scientists communicate with the native life forms, including a being of light who is the archangel of that world. Lewis' vision of what an unfallen world could be like, with its 3 forms of sentient life and their different cultures, is eyeopening. He followed that up with Perelandra, where Ransom is brought to a hauntingly re-imagined Venus, with floating islands and tame dragons. Ransom must counter a demon-possessed acquaintance, who is trying to tempt the Eve of that world to disobey its one command and bring evil to that planet. In That Hideous Strength, Ransom enlists an awakened Merlin to save the earth from a thoroughly evil scientific group, the National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments, or N.I.C.E. The tone of this novel is satirical as Lewis shows the dangers of disregarding morality in pursuit of knowledge.

Lewis is best known of course for his delightful series of modern fairytales called the Chronicles of Narnia. They started, as much of his fiction did, as images in Lewis' dreams. In this case, Lewis saw a faun, that is, a mythological half-goat, half-man, standing in a snowy woods. Lewis created a story to explain the picture. He based his heroine, Lucy, on the daughter of a friend and the situation he and his brother, now retired from the military and living with him, had found themselves in during the Second World War. They had invited a group of children evacuated from London to stay with them. He even incorporated an old wardrobe his grandfather had built into the story.

In the first Chronicle, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the 4 Pevensey children find, during games of Hide and Seek, that an old wardrobe opens onto another world, one where it is always winter but never Christmas. The animals can talk and a cruel witch rules over the country of Narnia. But the children's entry into the world fulfills a prophesy that tells of how the true king of Narnia, Aslan the lion, will return. The problem is that one of the children, driven by jealousy and tempted by enchanted Turkish taffy, goes over to the witch. How will their brother be saved and the tyranny of the witch be overthrown?

The answer comes in the person of Aslan. It turns out that according to the rules governing this world, all traitors belong to the witch. Aslan volunteers to take the place of the errant brother. The children do not know this but the sisters catch Aslan slipping out of the camp and accompany him to the way to the place where he will be sacrificed. Here Lewis' power as a storyteller excel. Aslan's Via Dolorosa is moving; his mocking and death are horrific though not graphic; and his resurrection is a real “jump up and cheer” moment. It becomes obvious for anyone paying the slightest attention that Aslan is Christ in this world. And we know this from Lewis. A mother wrote him that her little boy was distraught because he realized he loved Aslan more than Jesus. Lewis wrote back that that was not possible. Aslan is Jesus. The boy just loved the lion body more than the human body and because God made little boys, he understands that.

The first book was followed by 6 others. As we read through them we see the creation of Narnia and its end, followed by an afterlife in a much more real Narnia. Through these books C.S. Lewis managed to do to many others what his favorite children's author, George McDonald, did to Lewis: he baptized their imaginations. Many authors of books for both adults and children testify to the way that the Narnia Chronicles changed their lives and inspired their own writings.

Mrs. Moore died in 1951, just as the Chronicles were being published. Lewis also wrote a memoir of his early life and conversion called Surprised by Joy. As evidence of God's love of wordplay (it's all throughout the Bible, if you read the original languages) a woman by the name of Joy Davidman Gresham made plans to meet her favorite author.

Joy was an American Jew, who was married to William Lindsey Gresham, a fellow writer, who had a book made into a film starring Tyrone Powers. Both Joy and William had been atheists and Communists. But when William had a nervous breakdown and disappeared, leaving Joy stranded at home with their 2 boys, she had, after trying and failing to locate him, an uncanny experience. As she described it, “All my defenses—the walls of arrogance and cocksureness and self-love behind which I had hid from God—went down momentarily. And God came in.” The presence of God in the room with her was palpable and she knew he loved her. When the vision ended, she was on her knees, praying.

William returned home, was moved by Joy's experience and they began to study theology. Through prayer, William was able to stop drinking for 3 years. While Joy became a committed Christian, William got involved with Dianetics, the precursor to Scientology, dabbled in Zen Buddhism, used tarot cards and the I Ching to make decisions, including financial ones. Worse, he remained a womanizer. Joy began writing to C.S. Lewis whose writings began influencing hers. Lewis wrote back to every person who wrote him but he and his brother especially like Joy's fierce intelligence. Finally she went to England to stay with a friend and meet Lewis. Jack and Joy became fast friends.

While she was in England, Joy received a letter from her husband asking for a divorce. He wanted to marry her married cousin, who had come to stay with her kids while she was away. She returned to the States to find him drinking again and eventually they divorced. She saved and returned to England with her sons. The Lewis brothers bonded with the boys over Christmas. Lewis gave the boys a typescript of his next Narnia book. Joy got a place in London and she and Jack visited each other occasionally for the next year and a half.

This being the 1950s the fact that Joy used to be a Communist was grounds to have her leave England. Lewis offered to marry her in a purely civil service so his citizenship would allow her to continue to live and work in England. It was not love, he said.

Then one day she fell. Her hip was riddled with cancer. And Lewis realized he did love Joy. They were married at her hospital bed by a clergy friend, who also laid hands on Joy and prayed for her. Lewis said he was afraid he would be both groom and widower in the same day.

Joy recovered. They had a belated honeymoon and even traveled to Greece, a lifelong dream of Joy's. But 4 years later the cancer returned. Lewis did find himself a widower as well as stepfather to 2 boys. He had a crisis of faith. He later published his diary entries about it in A Grief Observed, one of the most profound books on mourning ever written. Ironically, because he wrote it under a pseudonym, friends gave him copies of the book to help him through his grief.

Joy's oldest son, David, decided to return to his Jewish roots. Lewis paid for him to study Judaism and be bar mitzahed and worked to get him kosher food. He eventually became a rabbi. The younger son, Douglas, is not only a Christian but co-produced the Narnia films.

Lewis himself died of renal failure 3 years later at 5:30 pm Greenwich time on a Friday in November. An hour later in Dallas, President John Kennedy was shot.

C.S. Lewis is not so much responsible for me being a Christian so much as he is for the way I see Christianity: as both a logically and psychologically sound way to approach the world. Through Aslan, who is described as good but not tame, he helped me see the difference between goodness and mere niceness. He taught me that truth is not merely the opposite of some error but often is found between two opposite errors. He taught me that evil has no independent existence but is the parody of goodness or spoiled goodness, an inferior knock-off that masquerades as goodness. He taught me that rather than asking if something is modern or old-fashioned, popular or unpopular, I should ask if something is true or false, right or wrong. He taught me to look past the facade and incidentals of things and look at the essentials, at what is at the heart of an idea or behavior or person. As Lewis said, “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.”

Everyone speaks of Lewis' effortless prose and clear reasoning but I think there is an additional quality that makes his work so loved and so necessary today. Unlike a lot of writers, Lewis was able to make goodness attractive. The reason you read his fiction is not just for the stories but because of the worlds and characters he created. You want to go to Perelandra and eat the bubble fruit and explore the floating islands. You want to enter Narnia and befriend its creatures. You want to meet Aslan and bury your face in his mane and be licked by his tongue and ride on his back. You totally understand the little boy who loved the lion body and you totally love Lewis for enabling us to see anew the person of Jesus, who is good but not tame, who is scary and lovable all at once.

As Lewis said, “The Value of myth is that it takes all the things you know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by the veil of familiarity.” Lewis was able to take the truths that we have heard and read over and over again since childhood until they seem boring and present them in vivid and stirring forms that awaken us to their beauty and timelessness. Again Lewis said, “For me, reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old, is not the cause of truth but its condition.” And so his books, free of religious jargon, and infused with imagination, produced new parables illuminating life on earth and life eternal. 

Like Jesus, Lewis often turned our way of looking at things upside down to show us what we should have seen all along. Like death. At the end of the last Narnia book, we find that the characters have in fact died. But they notice that the old Narnia, now gone, was merely a shadow or copy of the new Narnia, the real more wonderful Narnia in which they found themselves. “The new one was a deeper country: every rock and flower and blade of grass looked as if it meant more...It was the Unicorn who summed up what everyone was feeling. He stamped his right fore-hoof on the ground and neighed and, and then cried, 'I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason why we loved the old Narnia is that it sometimes looked a little like this....Come further up, come further in!” Why we love this earth is that it sometimes looks like our real home, our true country, the new creation. It is this life that is the pale imitation of eternal life, this world that is a tattered, worn copy of the world to come. The longing we are feeling which this life cannot satisfy is the longing for God and his paradise. As Lewis concluded his Narnia series, “And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”  

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