The Lewis Survey: Results

20140804_184024Regular readers of this blog know that I’ve been concentrating a lot lately on C. S. Lewis and that I hope to write a book about his influence on Americans. The survey I conducted with the help of the Wade Center at Wheaton College is now complete. In all, eighty-seven Americans responded to that survey, giving me some indication of just why they consider Lewis important to their lives.

I’ve finished analyzing the data, have written a complete report on the data, and will be submitting it to the Wade Center in hopes that it will be published in their journal in the near future. What did I discover? I’ll take the opportunity today to give you an overview, along with some poignant testimonies.

Chronicles of NarniaFirst, I found out that many of the respondents first learned about Lewis as a child, reading The Chronicles of Narnia series. Quite often, it was the parents who served as the instruments of God to ensure their children received this blessing. For those who didn’t have that opportunity as children, quite a few had friends who recommended they read Lewis for personal benefit. I was also surprised how many just happened upon Lewis by “chance” in a bookstore, and started their journey with him in that way.

Mere ChristianityFor those who didn’t begin with Narnia, the two books they picked up on at the outset were usually The Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity. When I asked which of Lewis’s works have had the greatest impact on their thinking and/or their lives overall, Mere Christianity took first place, followed by Narnia, and then the Space Trilogy series (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength). Rounding out the top five were The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce.

ShadowlandsThe survey also shed light on the interesting fact that many of these respondents were involved, one way or another, with either some type of C. S. Lewis society or a Facebook page focusing on him. They were also opinionated on the attempts to put Lewis before the public eye in movies, whether the Shadowlands film with Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger or the three Narnia episodes. While most applauded the attempts, there were many critical comments on how loosely, at times, they followed Lewis’s original writing. In the case of Shadowlands, it was obvious that most felt the movie either downplayed or misrepresented Lewis’s Christianity and didn’t really capture his character.

The survey ended with an invitation for respondents to say anything else they felt was significant about their C. S. Lewis experience. Here are a few of the best comments I received. Often, respondents wrote of their college days:

When I was an arrogant college student who believed only weak and/or stupid people believed in Christ, Lewis showed me beyond question that faith could make sense even to an intellectual. He awakened my spiritual imagination with his fiction and persuaded my reason with his nonfiction. He also gave me a grounding in traditional Christianity that facilitated my later conversion to Orthodoxy.

In one case, Lewis was the conduit who brought a woman back to faith:

When I walked away from my Christian faith during my twenties and early thirties, Lewis was one of the few Christian authors I still trusted and could stand to read. I was grieving, angry, and depressed, and when I reread The Chronicles of Narnia, the hope that shone through them was almost painful. Emotionally, it was as though a frozen and numb part of me began to regain feeling. Some years later, a passage from The Screwtape Letters was instrumental in helping me realize that I’d been angry at the church when, in fact, the church had been my truest friends and best support through very dark days.

I also appreciated the comment that did the best job of summarizing why Lewis is so influential even today:

C. S. Lewis manages to express in many unique and wonderful ways ideas about Christianity that are difficult to describe. Narnia tells of a lion whom you fear, but is good—we should fear God, but love God. Screwtape shows how devious and unrelenting (even in the face of conversion of the subject) Satan can be in the temptations of a person/Christian. In Mere Christianity, Surprised by Joy, “The Weight of Glory,” etc., Lewis expresses truths about Christianity in practical and meaningful ways that are easy to understand and remember. I love the variety of his writings.

Those are simply highlights. If this is published at some point, I’ll let you know, so you can read the entire analysis. And of course, if my book dream comes true, I’ll be more than happy to let you know about that.

C.S. Lewis: Up to the Gate

I’ve now completed my research into the letters of C. S. Lewis to Americans. It was a joy to delve into them. Near the end of his life, Lewis wrote often of his expectation of heaven. He was in bad health for the last couple of years, and held rather loosely to this world. As he explained to Mary Van Deusen, one of his most regular correspondents, who was contemplating a move from one house to another,

C.S. Lewis 9I think I share, to excess, your feeling about a move. By nature I demand from the arrangements of this world just that permanence which God has expressly refused to give them. It is not merely the nuisance and expense of any big change in one’s way of life that I dread. It is also the psychological uprooting and the feeling—to me, as to you, intensely unwelcome—of having ended a chapter. One more portion of oneself slipping away into the past! I would like everything to be immemorial—to have the same old horizons, the same garden, the same smells and sounds, always there, changeless. The old wine is to me always better. That is, I desire the “abiding city” where I well know it is not and ought not to be found. I suppose all these changes shd. prepare us for the far greater change which has drawn nearer even since I began this letter. We must “sit light” not only to life itself but to all its phases. The useless word is “Encore!”

Lewis was not seeking an encore of life in this world; instead, he longed for the next. Nine months after writing that letter, he slipped into a coma from which the doctors thought he would not recover. The Church of England held Last Rites for him and everyone prepared for him to die. Half an hour later, he sat up and asked for some tea.

Two months after that, he wrote to a lifelong friend from Ireland, Arthur Greeves, about that experience:

Tho’ I am by no means unhappy I can’t help feeling it was rather a pity I did revive in July. I mean, having been glided so painlessly up to the Gate it seems hard to have it shut in one’s face and know that the whole process must some day be gone thro’ again, and perhaps far less pleasantly! Poor Lazarus! But God knows best.

Those words reveal a man ready to go at any time—in fact, eager to do so—yet fully submitted to the will of God in the matter. He didn’t have long to wait, and the “going” was quick and painless in the afternoon of November 22, 1963.

While the rest of the world was reeling from the shock of the assassination of an American president, C. S. Lewis received his release from the trials and sorrows of this world and took up residence—permanent residence—in the presence of God.

C.S. Lewis Quote on Heaven

C. S. Lewis on the Death of His Wife

C. S. Lewis & Joy LewisGoing through the letters of C. S. Lewis, I reached, this week, the time in 1960 when his wife, Joy, died. After a two-year cancer hiatus, the disease came back in full force throughout her bones. Lewis always knew this could happen. In 1957, after the laying on of hands and prayer, she made a miraculous recovery (even the doctors admitted as much). Yet both she and Lewis knew this might not be a permanent thing, that perhaps God was giving them more time to develop their new marriage.

In four of his letters from 1960, we see the progression of this thinking and how he tried to work through the bad news of the cancer’s return and, ultimately, Joy’s death.

On April 16, he wrote to one of his former students, Sheldon Vanauken, an American who had studied at Oxford and whom Lewis had helped lead to the faith, and who had suffered the loss of his wife also. Vanauken’s story is found in his autobiographical A Severe Mercy, a book I highly recommend. In this letter, Lewis says,

You must pray for me now. Joy’s cancer has returned and the doctors hold out no hope. Of course this is irrelevant to the question whether the previous recovery was miraculous. There can be miraculous reprieve as well as miraculous pardon, and Lazarus was raised from the dead to die again.

The return of the cancer did not, in Lewis’s mind, negate the wonderful recovery of the previous two years. His use of Lazarus as an example, I think, is quite appropriate. How many of us have every thought about Lazarus’s later life and the fact that he had to go through death once more? All physical healing is temporary anyway. Our true life lies in eternity.

Joy died on July 13. Two days later, Lewis wrote a short note to Vera Gebbert, one of his long-time American correspondents:

Alas, you will never send anything “for the three of us” again, for my dear Joy is dead. Until within ten days of the end we hoped, although noticing her increasing weakness, that she was going to hold her own, but it was not to be. . . .

I could not wish that she had lived, for the cancer had attacked the spine, which might have meant several days of suffering, and that she was mercifully spared. You will understand that I have no heart to write more, but I hope when next I send a letter it will be a less depressing one.

Caught up in the numbness of her recent death, he still can be thankful that she was spared even greater suffering.

Two months later, he tried to describe his journey to Mary Willis Shelburne, another of his American friends:

As to how I take sorrow, the answer is “In nearly all the possible ways.” Because, as you probably know, it isn’t a state but a process. It keeps on changing—like a winding road with quite a new landscape at each bend. Two curious discoveries I have made. The moments at which you call most desperately and clamorously to God for help are precisely those when you seem to get none. And the moments at which I feel nearest to Joy are precisely those when I mourn her least. Very queer. In both cases a clamorous need seems to shut one off from the thing needed. No one ever told me this. It is almost like ‘Don’t knock and it shall be opened to you.’ I must think it over.

He was grappling with the loss, and trying to understand the ways of God in its wake. For a fuller account of how Lewis ultimately came to an understanding, read his poignant and searing little book A Grief Observed.

Three months after losing Joy, he wrote to Chad Walsh and his wife. Walsh was an American professor who had written the first analytical book about Lewis back in the 1940s—C. S. Lewis: Apostle to the Skeptics. Here we see the balance:

Joy LewisI knew without being told how you would both feel about Joy’s death. What I did not know was the touching fact that our joint happiness had added something to your own. It was a wonderful marriage. Even after all hope was gone, even on the last night before her death, there were “patins of bright gold.” Two of the last things she said were “You have made me happy” and “I am at peace with God.”

Wouldn’t we all like to end our lives that way, with two sterling testimonies? To look at a loved one and say “You have made me happy” is a wonderful testimony for this earthly life; to say “I am at peace with God” is the entrance to an eternal joy.

Lewis: On Honorable Wrinkles

C. S. Lewis 5C. S. Lewis’s letters to his American correspondents cover the gamut of topics. Sometimes, he goes into deeply Biblical issues, offering advice from his well of knowledge. Other times, he is more whimsical, but also with an air of wisdom that is hard to miss.

To one of his regular correspondents going through some physical trials, he ruminates on the process of getting older. Maybe I’m drawn to this because of my own advancing years, but, for whatever reason, I think his insights are worth sharing today.

Here’s what he had to say (cobbled together from two separate letters):

I also have been in the hands of the dentist but much less unpleasantly than you: I know a “dry socket” after an extraction can be the very devil and all. We must both, I’m afraid, recognise that, as we grow older, we become like old cars—more and more repairs and replacements are necessary. We must just look forward to the fine new machines (latest Resurrection model) which are waiting for us, we hope, in the Divine garage! . . .

I suppose living from day to day (“take no thought for the morrow”) is precisely what we have to learn—though the Old Adam in me sometimes murmurs that if God wanted me to live like the lilies of the field, I wonder He didn’t give me the same lack of nerves and imagination as they enjoy! Or is that just the point, the precise purpose of this Divine paradox and audacity called Man—to do with a mind what other organisms do without it?

As for wrinkles—pshaw! Why shouldn’t we have wrinkles? Honorable insignia of long service in this warfare.

So don’t mind the increasing wrinkles–they speak of the long road one has traveled. If it is traveled well, those wrinkles are simply signs of having had the honor of serving the Lord for many years.

And keep looking forward to the Day when we lay aside this earthly frame and take up the latest Resurrection model to be found in the Divine Garage.

This world is passing; the New World awaits.

Writing Tips from C. S. Lewis

Lewis Letters Volume 3My intensive reading of C. S. Lewis letters is part of another of my sabbatical projects, with a book as the end goal. This has been no drudgery; rather, it has been fascinating to delve into them and see how Lewis responds to his American correspondents.

Often, he writes to children who have read his Narnia books. One of his regular child correspondents was Joan Lancaster, who, for her age, was quite mature and thoughtful. Lewis seemed to take an extra interest in her advancement as a writer. One of his letters to her could easily have been written to an adult writer trying to hone his/her craft. I like the advice he gives:

1. Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure yr. sentence couldn’t mean anything else.

2. Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.

3. Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean “more people died” don’t say “mortality rose.”

4. In writing. Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”: make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words, (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers “Please will you do my job for me.”

5. Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”: otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.

We all could use some timely advice like that—it would be “infinitely” helpful.

Screwtape’s “Advice”

Over Christmas, I re-read C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce, both favorites of mine, although it has been quite some time since I sat down to read them through again. I marvel at how much one can always draw from them, no matter how often they are read.

Screwtape LettersOne of my favorite passages from Screwtape is found in Letter VII, where Screwtape instructs his junior devil, Wormwood, in the ways of deception, especially with respect to hiding the tempters’ existence. Here is his “advice”:

I wonder you should ask me whether it is essential to keep the patient in ignorance of your own existence. That question, at least for the present phase of the struggle, has been answered for us by the High Command. Our policy, for the moment, is to conceal ourselves.

Of course this has not always been so. We are really faced with a cruel dilemma. When the humans disbelieve in our existence we lose all the pleasing results of direct terrorism, and we make no magicians. On the other hand, when they believe in us, we cannot make them materialists and sceptics. At least, not yet.

I have great hopes that we shall learn in due time how to emotionalise and mythologise their science to such an extent that what is, in effect, a belief in us (though not under that name) will creep in while the human mind remains closed to belief in the Enemy.

The “Life Force,” the worship of sex, and some aspects of Psychoanalysis may here prove useful. If once we can produce our perfect work—the Materialist Magician, the man, not using, but veritably worshipping, what he vaguely calls “Forces” while denying the existence of “spirits”–then the end of the war will be in sight.

But in the meantime we must obey our orders. I do not think you will have much difficulty in keeping the patient in the dark. The fact that “devils” are predominantly comic figures in the modern imagination will help you. If any faint suspicion of your existence begins to arise in the mind, suggest to him a picture of something in red tights, and persuade him that since he cannot believe in that (it is an old textbook method of confusing them) he therefore cannot believe in you.

This fits in nicely with what Lewis wrote in the preface to the book, where he said,

There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors, and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.

Are you looking for some insight into how you need to avoid the traps set for you by satanic forces? Check out The Screwtape Letters; I don’t think you will be disappointed.

Jesus, Aslan, & a Worried Child

What has impressed me tremendously as I read through the letters of C. S. Lewis to Americans is his genuineness. He takes time to respond even to those most of us would consider a bother. I’m now into 1955 in these letters, and at this point Lewis is getting a steady stream of them from children who are reading his Narnia books.

AslanOne letter stands out. It’s actually written to the boy’s mother, who has informed Lewis that her son is worried because he thinks he loves Aslan more than Jesus. Lewis wrote back to the mother what she should say to her son, Laurence. I find this letter fascinating. Lewis begins this way:

Even if he was loving Aslan more than Jesus (I’ll explain in a moment why he can’t really be doing this) he would not be an idol-worshipper. If he was an idol-worshipper he’d be doing it on purpose, whereas he’s now doing it because he can’t help doing it, and trying hard not to do it.

Lewis then gets tot he crux of the matter and explains why Laurence needn’t worry at all:

But Laurence can’t really love Aslan more than Jesus, even if he feel that’s what he is doing. For the things he loves Aslan for doing or saying are simply the things Jesus really did and said. So that when Laurence thinks he is loving Aslan, he is really loving Jesus: and perhaps loving Him more than he ever did before.

Lewis & AslanEven though Lewis was still a bachelor at this time, and he never had any children of his own, he remembered his childhood and how a child thinks. How else to account for the astounding success of the Narnia books? He realizes that Laurence, as a small boy, is naturally attracted to certain things, and he helps ease both the mother’s and the boy’s concerns when he delves even further into the matter:

Now if Laurence is bothered because he finds the lion-body seems nicer to him than the man-body, I don’t think he need be bothered at all. God knows all about the way a little boy’s imagination works (He made it, after all) and knows that at a certain age the idea of talking and friendly animals is very attractive. So I don’t think He minds if Laurence likes the Lion-body. And anyway, Laurence will find as he grows older, that feeling (liking the lion-body better) will die away of itself, without his taking any trouble about it. So he needn’t bother.

He then suggests a prayer that Laurence can offer to God, which I find quite appropriate for a young boy:

If I were Laurence I’d just say in my prayers something like this:”Dear God, if the things I’ve been thinking and feeling about those books are things You don’t like and are bad for me, please take away those feelings and thoughts. But if they are not bad, then please stop me from worrying about them. And help me every day to love you more in the way that really matters far more than any feelings or imaginations, by doing what you want and growing more like you.”

What’s even more touching, from my perspective, is what Lewis adds after that:

That is the sort of thing I think Laurence should say for himself; but it would be kind and Christian-like if he then added, “And if Mr. Lewis has worried any other children by his books or done them any harm, then please forgive him and help him never to do it again.”

This sort of humility shines through many of Lewis’s letters, but probably no more so than in the ones he wrote to children. He was a massive intellect, but he knew how to connect to his audience, be it at the university or in a personal letter to a child who needs reassurance that his faith is not misplaced.