C. S. Lewis: Impact on Americans (Part 4)

In my 2014 survey, conducted with the help of the Wade Center at Wheaton College, I asked respondents to comment on the Shadowlands films, one produced by the BBC, and the other, more prominent one, by Hollywood.  Here’s the question I asked, along with the responses.

Have You Viewed Any of the Shadowlands Productions? If So, What Is Your Opinion of Them?

In asking this question, I knew most people would be familiar with the big-budget Hollywood version starring Anthony Hopkins (Lewis) and Debra Winger (Joy) that came out in 1993. Not as many, I was sure, would be cognizant of the earlier BBC production from 1985 that aired on both CBS and PBS, with Joss Ackland as Lewis and Claire Bloom as Joy.

Yet that BBC offering won more than a dozen prestigious awards, including the International Emmy for Best Drama and two British Academy Awards. My hope was to get comments that might compare the two, and I did get some, although the majority of respondents were, as I expected, more aware of the 1993 version.

ShadowlandsSome respondents were very pleased with the Hollywood production. As one enthused, “Beautiful story. I saw the Winger/Hopkins movie. . . . I laughed, I cried, I wept when they couldn’t. From the leads to the housekeeper, beautiful casting and wonderful execution.” Another explained, “I have only seen part of the Anthony Hopkins film version, but I enjoyed it. I appreciated being able to visualize Lewis as a person rather than a picture.”

Others, though, thought the Hopkins-Winger version was deficient, particularly in its portrayal of Lewis’s faith and the kind of man he was. As one noted, “It is a good movie, but it is absolutely false in its pale and timid portrayal of Lewis’s robust personality.” Another cast aspersions on the director’s decision on how to portray Lewis: “Richard Attenborough’s film. Serious falsification of Lewis. Simplification and belittling, as if he was a pompous idiot until Joy showed up.”

More than one thought Winger did an exceptional job depicting Joy, but their enthusiasm was tempered by the Lewis persona as shown in the film: “While a good movie on its own (I thought Debra Winger nailed what I think Joy was like), there was much left out, especially in relation to Lewis’s faith. This was a disappointment.”

Others did their best to try to appreciate the good while recognizing the shortcomings. Here are two examples: “It missed much of what makes Lewis so impacting but was entertaining and enlightening into his everyday life”; “It was OK. He didn’t seem like C.S. Lewis . . . not jovial enough.”

Shadowlands BBCThose who saw both adaptations seemed clearly to come out in favor of the 1985 BBC TV movie. One respondent definitely preferred Ackland’s Lewis to Hopkins’s version, while simultaneously praising the production values of the latter: “Joss Ackland has made the best Lewis so far. The Anthony Hopkins Shadowlands was the best film overall, best cinematography.”

Another who preferred Ackland to Hopkins still had kind words for Winger’s portrayal: “I think the actor portraying Lewis in the BBC version was great. I think the actress in the Hollywood version who portrayed Joy was great. I did not care for Anthony Hopkins, felt like he didn’t even try to portray Lewis—just a stereotype of an English professor.”

This comment from another respondent was similar: “The first, BBC, version is infinitely superior in almost every regard. Closer to the facts, and more true to the spiritual journey. The only superiority of the later theatrical film is Debra Winger’s performance as Joy.”

One summarized what seems to be the main complaint for those who were less than thrilled with Hollywood’s offering: “The one with Anthony Hopkins had good acting, good production values, but the script was horrible. The one with Joss Ackland was much better.”

In order to represent fairly the consensus of the survey respondents to the two films, one would have to say that, in general, for those who saw both, they acknowledged the excellent production values of Hollywood’s 1993 version, but were far more enamored with the depiction of Lewis in the BBC version, which they felt was closer to the reality of who the man was.

So much for those films, but what about the Narnia movies that have been produced thus far? How did my respondents react to them? That will be the topic next Saturday.

C. S. Lewis: Impact on Americans (Part 3)

This is the third in my series revealing the results of a survey I took of Americans’ debt to C. S. Lewis. Conducted in conjunction with the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College, the goal was to provide testimonies to the influence of Lewis on those who responded to the survey.

Two weeks ago, I shared how the respondents had first become aware of Lewis and his writings. Last week was devoted to which of Lewis’s writings had the most impact. Today’s focus is on the following question:

Are You Now, or Have You Ever Been, Involved with a C. S. Lewis Society/Organization or with Some Other Activity Connected with Lewis? Please Explain.

NY CSL Society MemoriamThis section of the survey showcased just how organizations with some connection to C. S. Lewis have proliferated in America. Starting with just one in 1969, The New York C. S. Lewis Society (two of the respondents currently are connected with this group), such societies are now found in many states and in cities that one would not ordinarily predict.

Respondents noted their participation in societies located in the greater southern California area, Washington, D.C., Seattle (at which one of the respondents read a paper), Portland (OR), and Pittsburgh. Others have taken part in societies outside the United States, in Toronto and, for one respondent, at Lewis’s own Oxford.

Universities in America also have C. S. Lewis societies; one, in particular, was noted at Southern Wesleyan University in South Carolina. A Socratic Club at Duke University was modeled after Lewis’s of the same name at Oxford. One respondent was a member of that club prior to its dissolution in 2009.

Others have been involved in organizations that are not necessarily Lewis-centric but have him as one component of their interest: a local Inklings group, in one instance, and the Mythopoeic Society for another. One respondent said, “I have started 3 Lewis Societies and visited/spoken at others in the US and UK.”

20140804_184024Four respondents have, at one time or another, worked at the Wade Center, which has only deepened their appreciation for all things Lewis. As one of those respondents remarked, “In my years as a student at Wheaton College I worked as a student employee for two years at the Wade Center as a book processor. I learned about and handled many Lewis books, letters, and artifacts at that time.”

KilnsAnother notes this connection with the C. S. Lewis Foundation in California, which now owns Lewis’s home, the Kilns: “I visited the Kilns this past February where I met the director of the C.S. Lewis Foundation. It was wonderful to have tea with her, have a tour, walk the grounds, and walk to his old church and gravesite.”

The arrival of the Internet—which was not a factor in the 1986 survey and only in its infant stages in 1996 for the second survey—was mentioned quite often as a way in which these Lewis fans have participated in activities. Six noted their membership in a Facebook page devoted to Lewis, three specifically mentioned working in connection with “NarniaWeb,” and one is a participant in the “Into the Wardrobe” website. Another stated, “I am an administrator on narnia.wikia.com, an online encyclopedia about the Chronicles.”

Overall, thirty-nine of the eighty-seven respondents have had some connection with a Lewis organization, a percentage that probably will only increase in the coming years as more Internet possibilities for participation increase.

Next Saturday’s post will detail the opinions of the respondents on the Shadowlands productions, covering both the BBC television film from the 1980s and the Hollywood version of the 1990s.

C. S. Lewis: Impact on Americans (Part 2)

C. S. Lewis 8Last Saturday, I began sharing some of the results of the survey I conducted in tandem with the Wade Center on how Americans have been influenced by C. S. Lewis. As I noted, I asked a number of questions, the first of which was how they were introduced to Lewis. My second question was a natural follow-up to the first:

Which of his writings have had the greatest impact on your thinking and/or spiritual development?

In all, twenty of Lewis’s writings, counting both books and essays, were mentioned in this category. Respondents were allowed to mention as many books as they wished, since it can be difficult to pick just one that is a favorite.

That number—twenty—would have been expanded if I had treated all Narnia and Space Trilogy books (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength) separately, but I chose to handle them as a unity, particularly because they were so often mentioned as a group. The “race,” so to speak, to find Lewis’s most popular book was a close one.

Mere Christianity 2Mere Christianity came out on top with thirty-nine separate mentions, The Chronicles of Narnia were a close second with thirty-five, and the Space Trilogy received thirty-two votes. Whenever a respondent mentioned one of the Narnia books separately, the surprise is that The Last Battle, not The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, received more votes. For the Space Trilogy, Perelandra squeaked by That Hideous Strength by one vote, twelve to eleven.

Fourth in popularity was The Screwtape Letters with twenty-three tallies, followed by The Great Divorce, which earned nineteen. Another possibly unexpected result is that Lewis’s novel Till We Have Faces came in sixth, with thirteen respondents claiming it as one of their favorites. That would have pleased Lewis considerably since, in his lifetime, it was not as well received as he hoped it would be; he often mentions in his letters that it was his favorite, yet his biggest failure. That assessment, over time, has proven to be wrong.

The Problem of Pain and perhaps Lewis’s most famous sermon, “The Weight of Glory,” took the next two places. After that, there are a number of works clustered together in a tie vote—Miracles, The Abolition of Man, The Four Loves, and A Grief Observed.

What can be said about these results? Apparently, the apologetics presented in Mere Christianity continue to attract people. They are drawn to Lewis’s logical reasoning and his reasonable explanations for the truth of the Christian faith.

After that, they appreciate his ability to bring the faith alive in the imagination through his novels—Narnia and the Space Trilogy—and also by imaginative approaches to conveying Christian beliefs—The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce. Those are the top five.

If I had been asked the question, it would have been difficult for me to provide a listing in order of my “favorites.” Why? They are all my favorites to some degree, although emotionally, I’m naturally most drawn to The Great Divorce and That Hideous Strength, as well as some very poignant paragraphs in “The Weight of Glory.”

I think I have to come to the same conclusion as one of the respondents who said that his favorite Lewis book happens to be whichever one he is reading at the moment.

Next Saturday, I’ll share information on how active those respondents are in organizations dedicated to promoting Lewis and his works.

C. S. Lewis: Impact on Americans (Part 1)

On a visit to Wheaton College’s Marion E. Wade Center in August 2014, I read through the results from two surveys (conducted in 1986 and 1996, respectively) on how C. S. Lewis had impacted the lives of Americans. Since nearly two decades had passed since anyone had tried to document such testimonies, I thought the time might be right to do so again.


Consequently, in concert with the Wade Center, which posted a notice on its website and on its Facebook page, I collected a new round of personal reflections from Americans on how Lewis’s writings had affected their Christian worldview. Whereas the earlier surveys asked only for letters or e-mails with an open-ended request for testimonies, I decided to ask some more specific questions:

• When and how were you introduced to C. S. Lewis?
• Which of his writings have had the greatest impact on your thinking and/or spiritual development?
• Are you now, or have you ever been, involved with a C. S. Lewis society/organization or with some other activity connected with Lewis? Please explain.
• Have you viewed any of the Shadowlands productions? If so, what is your opinion of them?
• Have you viewed any of the Narnia productions, whether the ones created for television or the three Narnia films? If so, what is your opinion of them?

Then, at the end of the survey, I also gave an opportunity to add anything else about Lewis and his influence that the responders wanted to share. In all, the survey received eighty-seven responses, some quite detailed. I’ve attempted to analyze those responses.

When and How Were You Introduced to C. S. Lewis?
The responses to this question seemed to fall into four categories, with some overlap, of course. Most were introduced to Lewis’s works either on the recommendation of someone, through their family, in a class and/or lecture, or—more surprisingly perhaps than the other three—just by “chance” in a bookstore or library.

Chronicles of NarniaIt is no surprise that the family is the source for many individuals’ first exposure to Lewis, and that the Narnia books would be the vehicle. One respondent reported:

I think that my first introduction to C.S. Lewis was when I was in fourth or fifth grade. Since my mom is a teacher, we always had summer reading assignments that we had to complete. One of the required books she had me read was The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

Another respondent noted, rather amusingly, “My dad read the Chronicles of Narnia all aloud to me before I was three weeks old (literally), I read them all myself before I turned 7, and I have been a bit obsessed with them ever since.”

Mere Christianity 2Some had a Lewis book as part of a college course: Mere Christianity and The Abolition of Man were mentioned specifically. One man, who is now a professor of history at a Christian university, also was first drawn to Lewis while in college, but indirectly:

I was introduced to Lewis, his thinking, and his works when I was in college. I was a new Christian and was reading Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict. In that book, McDowell references Lewis’s ‘Lord, Liar, or Lunatic’ argument, and I was swept away by the clear, unassailable logic in that argument. So I got a copy of Mere Christianity and read it.

One respondent was captured by the Lewis mystique when he participated in a study on Lewis by his pastor. Another was part of a youth group where the leader conducted a study on Mere Christianity, and another finally decided to read Lewis simply because the pastor kept quoting The Screwtape Letters so often.

Other respondents began their C. S. Lewis adventure by coming across the Narnia series in a library or by some other chance encounter. Three picked up their first Lewis book by browsing in a bookstore. One of those purchased Surprised by Joy because it was shelved next to the book she had intended to buy.

The most likely “first” Lewis book for those who didn’t begin with Narnia was either Mere Christianity or The Screwtape Letters. Probably the most unusual response in this category was the man who discovered Narnia on the cusp of his wedding, and who then commented, “I first read the 7 Narnia stories while on my honeymoon (!)” The exclamation point is his.

I’ll share more of the results of this survey in my next Lewis post next Saturday.

C. S. Lewis’s Joy

Joy LewisJoy Davidman Lewis, American wife of C. S. Lewis for the last few years of her short life, has been a subject of both great interest and great controversy for those who love Lewis and his writings. Born a New York Jew, Joy early decided she was an atheist and then completed that portion of her journey as a committed communist. She was fairly well known as a poet in her own right, particularly in the circles in which she ran.

Only after a troubling marriage and the birth of two boys did she begin to question her communism and atheism, and Lewis’s works were instrumental in her Christian conversion. Her marriage fell apart and she moved to Britain primarily to pursue a relationship with her favorite author.

During my year-long sabbatical, as I researched for my book on Lewis’s influence on Americans (still in search of a publisher, for those interested), I read a lot by and about Joy—the short biography written by Lyle Dorsett, the newly released volume of her letters, and her only book written as a result of her conversion, Smoke on the Mountain.

Why was she so controversial? Many of Lewis’s friends were put off by her brashness and apparent arrogance. She also had a tendency to be rather judgmental of others, and her pursuit of Lewis came across as unseemly.

JoyWhen I was attending the Lewis retreat last fall, I sat in on a breakout session with Abigail Santamaria, author of a new book titled Joy: Poet, Seeker, and the Woman Who Captivated C. S. Lewis. It was a most illuminating session as she talked about the struggles of her research and the conclusions she reached about the subject of that research.

Santamaria wanted to find a true heroine, someone she could admire. Instead, she was disappointed by the woman she found who didn’t live up to her expectations. That didn’t mean there weren’t positives about Joy, but Santamaria admitted to some disillusionment as her research progressed.

Her book provides the most complete picture of Joy Lewis ever put into print—the good, the bad, and, yes, sometimes the ugly. I will acknowledge that as I was reading Joy’s letters last year, I also found myself at times wondering if a real conversion had actually taken place, as she was sometimes rather harsh on others. Yet C. S. Lewis knew her better than I, and I doubt he could have been “captivated” by anyone less than Christian.

C. S. Lewis & Joy LewisDuring the question-and-answer session after Santamaria’s presentation, I asked her why Lewis would have been drawn to someone like Joy. She answered without hesitation—he liked someone with whom he could spar intellectually, who would challenge him and test his own arguments and thinking. Lewis scholars acknowledge that Joy was practically his co-author for his novel Till We Have Faces, and that without her influence on his life, another book, The Four Loves, would not have attained the depth it has.

Abigail SantamariaSantamaria also read a portion of her introduction to those of us in attendance. She told of how she had been given a wealth of heretofore unknown primary materials in Joy’s handwriting that she had to pore through. One night she couldn’t sleep. She writes, “The heat had stopped working, and I shivered under my blankets, tossing and turning for hours.”

She gave up trying to sleep and started to look at some of the materials.

And then, huddled under my blankets, I came across a prediction Joy made: “I have wrenched sonnets out of great pain . . . / For unknown followers to find . . . / Some woman who is cold / In bed may use my words to keep her warm / Some future night, and so recall my name.”

Santamaria then writes, “I was no longer freezing, but I shivered.” A providential find? An assurance that God wanted her to complete this work? She concludes,

I had not set out to unearth the particular realities I discovered behind the Shadowlands tale; they were imparted to me, first in the memories of those I interviewed, and finally in Joy’s own words. She left them to be found: she was giving me her blessing.

Santamaria’s book is one of those that is hard to put down if you have an avid interest in Lewis and his life. She writes well, tells a good story, and offers a narrative that flows. It’s clearly the most comprehensive treatment of the life of Joy Davidman Lewis that exists. Interest in Lewis has not ebbed after all these years; Abigail Santamaria’s Joy is a substantive addition to Lewis scholarship.

Women & C. S. Lewis

Clyde Kilby, the man largely responsible for the largest C. S. Lewis repository in America—the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College—wrote an article in December 1953 detailing his personal meeting with Lewis at Oxford.

Before he got to Lewis’s rooms, he wrote, someone led him astray about the nature of the man he was going to meet. Kilby’s wife was accompanying him, and he asked at the college gate “whether there was anything to the report that Mr. Lewis disliked women.” Whoever he spoke with made it seem that there was some truth in the report, so his wife went shopping instead, and he met Lewis by himself.

Rumors of Lewis being antagonistic toward, disdainful of, and/or frightened by women have been bandied about for years. How those rumors got started, why there is no truth behind them, and how Lewis actually did view women and the way he treated them is the subject of a fairly new book that I can heartily recommend.

Women & LewisWhen I attended the C. S. Lewis Foundation fall retreat, Women and C. S. Lewis was a gift for each attendee. It is comprised of short essays by a variety of people, both men and women, well known within the current Lewis academic world.

Edited ably by Carolyn Curtis and Mary Pomroy Key, this volume deals systematically with all pertinent questions about Lewis’s relationships with women.

The first section covers the women who crossed paths with him personally, beginning with his mother who died of cancer when he was just nine years old. Then there is a treatment of the somewhat fuzzy relationship with Mrs. Moore, whom he called his mother for the rest of her life. Joy Davidman naturally is included since she had the greatest impact on his final decade as his wife. His interactions with writer Dorothy Sayers and poet Ruth Pitter are also examined.

Section two then delves into how Lewis depicts women in his novels: Lucy and others in the Narnia series; the Green Lady of Perelandra and Jane Studdock in That Hideous Strength; the highly acclaimed (in heaven, at least) Sarah Smith of The Great Divorce; the positive portrayals in The Pilgrim’s Regress; and of course his fascinating approach to Till We Have Faces, where he writes the entire novel from a woman’s perspective.

A shorter section looks at his poetry and how women are treated (favorably) and section four highlights how Lewis has influenced our current generation’s discussion about the role of women in society and church. Finally, there are essays on how Lewis’s views on women impacted some who speak out publicly today on the issue.

One cannot read this book without dismissing the old canard that Lewis had a problem with women. The arrival of this volume is both timely and welcome. Get it. You will enjoy it.

Lewis & the Omnicompetent State (Part 4)

This will be the final installment of my paper on “That Hideous Strength’s Omnicompetent State.” In this segment, Lewis points to developments in the Britain of his day that showed a drift toward the belief that government can solve all things.

Lewis Letters Volume 3Lewis’s concern about societal planners reveals itself in letters he wrote to Americans. After WWII, Britain ousted the Conservatives and installed the Labour party in power. Rationing continued unabated despite the war’s end. The national government began to insert itself into everyday life in a manner that Lewis abhorred.

In one of his first letters to longtime American correspondent Vera Mathews (Gebbert), he referred to the Labour government as “Mr. Atlee’s Iron Curtain.” Writing to Mathews again two years later, he explained the situation in Britain: “Try living in ‘free’ England for a bit, and you would realize what government interference can mean! And not only interference, but interference in a ‘school marm’ form which is maddening.”

He had an example: “For instance, one of our rulers the other day defended rationing, not on the only possible grounds, i.e. the economic, but on the ground that in the old days housewives bought the food which they knew their husbands and families liked: whereas now, thanks to rationing, they are forced to provide their households with ‘a properly balanced diet.’”

Then he added this quip: “There are times when one feels that a minister or two dangling from a lamp post in Whitehall would be an attraction that would draw a hard worked man up to London!”

Lewis tells Mary Van Deusen, another of his regular correspondents, “Where benevolent planning, armed with political or economic power, can become wicked is when it tramples on people’s rights for the sake of their good.”

By 1954, the new Conservative government had ended rationing and Lewis informed his American friends that they didn’t have to send any more food or other supplies to help out. But he offered this bit of sarcastic “hopeful” advice to Vera Gebbert: “But cheer up, if our friends the Socialists get back into power, you will be able to exercise your unfailing kindness once more by supplying us, not with little luxuries, but with the necessities of life!”

SocialismAgain to Gebbert, this time in 1959: “We live under the constant threat of a Socialist government, which would finish us off completely.” And to Mrs. Frank Jones, just one week before his death, Lewis sounds the same note: “Our papers at the moment are filled with nothing but politics, a subject in which I cannot take any great interest. My brother tells me gloomily that it is an absolute certainty that we shall have a Labour government within a few months, with all the regimentation, austerity, and meddling which they so enjoy.”

Lewis’s 1958 essay, “Is Progress Possible? Willing Slaves of the Welfare State,” may be his final formal denunciation of the omnicompetent state. In it, he reiterates his earlier warnings from The Abolition of Man and That Hideous Strength. “If society can mend, remake, and unmake men at its pleasure, its pleasure may, of course, be humane or homicidal. The difference is important. But, either way, rulers have become owners.”

He complains that two wars led to “vast curtailments of liberty” and that his fellow countrymen “have grown, though grumblingly, accustomed to our chains.” Government, he notes, has now taken over “many spheres of activity once left to choice or chance.”

Natural law, the rights of man, and the inherent value of the individual, he asserts, have died. “The modern State exists not to protect our rights but to do us good or make us good—anyway, to do something to us or to make us something. . . . We are less their subjects than their wards, pupils, or domestic animals. There is nothing left of which we can say to them, ‘Mind your own business.’ Our whole lives are their business.”

Then he offers this poignant commentary:

Again, the new oligarchy must more and more base its claim to plan us on its claim to knowledge. If we are to be mothered, mother must know best. This means they must increasingly rely on the advice of scientists, till in the end the politicians proper become merely the scientists’ puppets. Technocracy is the form to which a planned society must tend.

Lewis was more than a Christian apologist and a writer of surpassing fiction. He also understood the times he lived in and offered us very specific warnings about our future. So much of what he feared has come to pass.