Lewis: Delighting in God

Lewis’s exuberance in the faith shines through in many of his writings, whether they be apologetic or fiction. One of his later books, Reflections on the Psalms, contains nuggets like these:

The most valuable thing the Psalms do for me is to express that same delight in God which made David dance.

There . . . I find an experience fully God-centered, asking of God no gift more urgently than His presence, the gift of Himself, joyous to the highest degree, and unmistakably real.

My study of Lewis during my sabbatical helped me see his character more clearly then ever. Reading his letters to Americans provided insights into who he really was and what moved him.

What I love most about Lewis, I think, is that even though he was one of the most astute minds of the twentieth century, able to be classed with the best and the brightest, he understood that a rigorous intellect could be coupled with devotion and humility without any cognitive dissonance.

He was a man who realized that all talents and abilities, intellectual or otherwise, were gifts from God and should be treated as such. He was not embarrassed to show pure joy in contemplation of the nature of the One who gives all good things.

Pride and arrogance, be gone!

Thank You, Walter Hooper

One of the most rewarding periods in my life as an academic was the sabbatical I received for 2014-2015. What made that sabbatical so rewarding was the almost-daily routine I had of researching letters C. S. Lewis wrote to Americans while simultaneously re-reading every Lewis book I could.

As most of you already know, the result of that sabbatical was my book, America Discovers C. S. Lewis: His Profound Impact. I wrote it because I believed God had shown me a niche in Lewis scholarship that hadn’t been fully investigated. Yet even with that faith, I was wondering how much confirmation of God’s leading I might receive from others after publication.

I’ve mentioned before that Walter Hooper, Lewis’s friend in the summer before his death and the eventual agent for Lewis’s literary estate, was very helpful to me in the research. Last month, I posted a blog highlighting his gracious visit to the Kilns to speak with my student group.

Recently, I received an e-mail from Walter that I would like to share.

Dear Alan, I’ve finished a close reading of America Discovers C.S.Lewis, and at the risk of being considered a mere flatterer, I think it Perfect.

For instance, you handle the chapter on Sheldon Vanauken better than I would have thought possible. I knew him over many years, and the man kept me wondering what  he believed, and how much of it was represented by A Severe Mercy. He changed his mind several times about almost everything, including his loss of interest in C.S.Lewis. At one point he was tremendously enthusiastic about the ordination of women in the Anglican Church, but when he became a Catholic all that changed.

But the important thing is that – by sticking to A Severe Mercy and his letters to and from Lewis, you represented the man as he almost certainly was. It would have ruined your book had you got in all Sheldon’s tergiversations. And I think you’ve told his story as in a better world he would have wanted it told. That was a very fine victory over half-truths and shoddy representation.

My guess is that you’ve dealt as fairly as you can with all the people you mention, and that partly because you are not interested in anything that diminished anyone. As a result I think you’ve achieved an almost perfect history of the story you set out to tell. I’ve always loved Chad’s Apostle to the Skeptics, and now you’ve produced a sequel, and I love it too. Congratulations! Your friend, Walter Hooper.

As I read that e-mail the first time, I was stunned by the praise (initial response), followed by a deep sense of gratitude and humility. I don’t need praise to know I’ve accomplished something God wanted me to do, but it is welcome nevertheless.

I will always treasure Walter’s response. More than that, though, I will treasure any and all testimonies that what I’ve written has helped people see the Lord’s work in Lewis’s life and how He used a man to illuminate Biblical truth.

Thank you, Walter. Thank you, Lord.

Lewis’s Abhorrence of Intrusive Government

As I noted in an earlier post, C. S. Lewis didn’t like politics, but he did have strong ideas about what the limits of civil government ought to be. He was interested in proper governing. After WWII, when he saw the Labour government in Britain carrying out its more socialist policies, he was not at all pleased. 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.”

This brings to mind Lewis’s famous comment in “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment,” where he warns,

Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. . . . Those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.

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. 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!” Again to Gebbert, this time in 1959: “We live under the constant threat of a Socialist government, which would finish us off completely.”

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.

So, while Lewis avoided public displays of political affiliation, one is on solid ground to say that he was not a fan of nanny government.

Lewis on Politics & Culture

C. S. Lewis’s “Meditation on the Third Commandment” is one of his essays I’ve used in my Lewis class because I include in the class some of his commentary on politics and government. He gives the essay this title because of his concern that Christians not take the name of the Lord in vain when we are involved in politics.

Although Lewis repeatedly said he wasn’t interested in politics, his writings belie that to some degree. He was definitely concerned about good government (his letters to Americans testify to that) and about how Christians should conduct themselves in the public sphere.

He wrote this essay to an Anglican newspaper called The Guardian in response to letters written to the paper by Christians who were advocating for the establishment of a Christian political party.

Lewis’s first point is that Christians disagree on some matters of public policy, so no one party could possibly incorporate all Christians’ views on government policy. It would turn into merely a subset of Christians who presume to speak for all, a group he called “schismatics blasphemously claiming to represent” Christianity.

Instead, Lewis promotes the tactic of Christians using their influence by exerting pressure on the various parties. He suggests setting up an interdenominational Christian Voters’ Society that could agree “on ends and means which every member was expected to exact from any political party as the price of his support.”

Far from taking a hands-off approach, Lewis says,

“So all it comes down to is pestering M.P.’s with letters?” Yes: just that. I think such pestering combines the dove and the serpent. I think it means a world where parties have to take care not to alienate Christians, instead of a world where Christians have to be “loyal” to infidel parties.

I agree. My “loyalty,” as such, is not to a party but to Biblical principles. Those principles lead me to support one party over another, but they also constrain me: I cannot place all confidence in a political party. Neither can I blindly proclaim loyalty when that party does things that blatantly contradict those principles.

Lewis concludes his thoughts with this:

But I had forgotten. There is a third way—by becoming a majority. He who converts his neighbour has performed the most practical Christian-political act of all.

Again, I agree. Our primary calling from God is the Great Commission. Yet I’m concerned that some Christians hide behind this, believing that they therefore don’t have to care much about politics and government. They also might think they have no obligation to change the culture but should concentrate solely on individual salvation.

We need to keep in mind, though, that when enough individuals are touched by God’s grace, the culture is touched also. I think it’s incumbent upon Christians to do whatever we can to challenge anti-Christian trends in the culture.

There’s no valid reason that I can see in Scripture for neglecting the culture as a whole. After all, didn’t Jesus tell us we are salt and light? We can do both: seek the salvation of individuals while simultaneously persuading others of the need for a more Biblical culture.

Indeed, we ought to do both. That, I think, is what Lewis was saying.

Literary England II: The Wordsworth-Lewis Link

Prior to my recent England trip with students, the only time I can recall reading English poet William Wordsworth was in one of our sessions in preparation for the trip.

For today’s blog post, I was simply going to include Wordsworth as one of three authors whose homes we visited.

Then, just yesterday, as I was doing more research on him, I discovered a stronger connection with C. S. Lewis than I had imagined. I decided Wordsworth needed a post of his own, especially as I wanted to put a spotlight on that connection.

For eight of Wordsworth’s most productive years, he lived in Dove Cottage in the picturesque village of Grasmere, located in the Lakes District, an area of England I’d never seen before.

Wordsworth’s poems, especially those from his early years, are quite focused on nature. In fact, for the first thirty-plus years of his life, one could say that nature was his religion. That’s why he’s considered one of the originators of Romantic poetry. The beauty of the Lakes District certainly can help engender such feelings. The back yard of his home is a garden with a hill from which one can see the nearby village and mountains.

I knew Lewis called himself a Romantic and that he had referenced Wordsworth occasionally, but until yesterday’s research, I didn’t know how strong that link was.

I don’t know how I missed it, but Lewis’s autobiography, Surprised by Joy, takes its title from a Wordsworth poem, “Surprised by Joy–Impatient as the Wind.” You can even find that quote on Lewis’s title page. Wordsworth’s poem is about memory and an intense longing for a love who was lost to death. Lewis’s memoir also focuses on that intense longing for joy that Wordsworth enunciated. Lewis even attempted, at first, to write his autobiography as a long poem in the Wordsworth style in his classic, The Prelude.

Romanticism was one of Lewis’s philosophical stops on his journey to Christianity. I also read that when he wrote The Pilgrim’s Regress, the fictional tale of his roundabout path to Christian faith, it not only took that form with John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress as a model, but also with Wordsworth’s The Prelude in mind.

Lewis couldn’t stop at Romanticism; it didn’t fulfill that longing ultimately. He mentions Wordsworth in Surprised by Joy, and in chapter XI, “Check,” he describes how a walk he took (Wordsworth loved walks also) gave him a sense of tasting heaven, and how he longed to find that experience again. He realized, though, that he couldn’t replicate the exact experience, but that it wasn’t the experience itself that was the issue—instead it was the stab of joy that he could still remember.

What Lewis eventually learned was that you cannot recapture that very moment; that would be idolatry. Then he said,

Wordsworth, I believe, made this mistake all his life. I am sure that all that sense of loss of vanished vision which fills The Prelude was itself vision of the same kind, if only he could have believed it.

Lewis says Wordsworth made this mistake all his life, but in my research I saw that he finally came to orthodox Christian faith and was known as a strong Anglican. I would need to research more to see how that influenced his later writings, but at least one source noted that he moderated his nature worship and brought it into submission to Christianity. I sincerely hope that is true.

The Wordsworth-Lewis link is most interesting. I’m glad I could add this to my ever-increasing boatload of knowledge about English literature.

At the Kilns

If I had an official bucket list, what transpired on Thursday, May 11, would have been at the top of that list. That’s the day I arrived at C. S. Lewis’s home, the Kilns.

Lewis lived in this house for the final thirty-three years of his life. It was here where he wrote most of his books and essays, here where he took care of the cantankerous Mrs. Janie Moore for twenty of those years, and here where Joy Gresham eventually resided as Mrs. C. S. Lewis.

Prior to the tour, we had time to walk through the wooded area that Lewis used to be able to see through his study window. Now there’s a house in the way of that view, but that’s fine—the owner of that house has a plaque with Narnia inscribed on it. I’m sure Lewis wouldn’t mind that.

I have read often of the pond and woods around the house but never realized how extensive the area is. And beautiful. Very beautiful.

I think the students would have appreciated more time to explore. I know I would have. Next time, I’ll have to take that into account when we return.

The home and grounds are well maintained. I don’t remember who took this photo of me outside, but it gives the sense of the peaceful atmosphere.

As I took the tour, images of where Lewis would have been sitting and of other events I’ve read about at the home came to mind. Upstairs we were ushered into Lewis’s bedroom.

Lewis sometimes used the room right next to it for his work. Yes, I had to sit there for a few moments.

We did more than the typical tour, though. Walter Hooper, who knew Lewis personally and helped him with correspondence during his final summer when he suffered a coma, and whom Lewis wanted to make his permanent secretary (Lewis died before that could happen), arrived to speak with us.

Mr. Hooper had communicated with me via e-mail as I was writing my book, America Discovers C. S. Lewis, and was a great encouragement to me as I progressed through my research and writing. He graciously accepted my invitation to share with our group at the Kilns.

There were other people in our little tour group, so I invited them to stay and take part in the session with Mr. Hooper. They were delighted. I then had the honor of introducing him.

He spent an hour relating his personal experiences with Lewis and answered questions. Then he conversed with the attendees afterward one-on-one. I can say emphatically that this interaction was the highlight of the day—and for me, the highlight of the entire two weeks in England.

After this experience, there was one more that was obligatory—going to Lewis’s grave to pay my respects.

Someone had recently placed flowers on the grave. It’s hard to see in this photo, but there also was an envelope there with “Jack” written on it (the name Lewis’s friends used for him). Yes, it was tempting to open that envelope and read the contents, but I refrained from doing so.

In the survey I conducted with the Wade Center when I was amassing research information for my book, there was one response that I think fits nicely here. The respondent commented,

I long to go with others on a walking tour in heaven with Jack (as he used to do with Warnie and others) and have a good lengthy chat with this man who for years now has seemed like a good, dear friend.

I can relate to that. I also hope to do the same.

Lewis’s Oxford

Twenty years ago, I had a whirlwind tour of a very small section of Oxford. This time, with my university students, I was able to spend a little more time—not enough, but more directed, more significant, more focused on the sites with which C. S. Lewis was familiar.

Lewis taught at Magdalen College for approximately thirty years. For the first time in my sixty-six years, I was on the same grounds.

Lewis’s rooms were in the New Building (“new” because it wasn’t built until the eighteenth century), top floor, the two windows to the right of the protruding section in the middle.

I neglected to take a picture of the sign that told students to keep off the grass. It would have been humorous.

Next to the New Building was the entrance to Addison’s Walk, a lovely wooded path by the winding river. It was here that Lewis had a long conversation with Tolkien and another Inkling, Hugo Dyson, that convinced him to believe in God.

We also stopped by the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin. It was from this pulpit that Lewis delivered one of the most powerful sermons I’ve ever read: “The Weight of Glory.”

My favorite passage from that sermon is a poignant reminder of how we should view other people:

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. . . .

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.

What visit to Lewis’s Oxford would be complete without a stop here?

We had our evening meal at the “Bird and Baby.” I was particularly interested in seeing the section where Lewis and his Inklings friends had their weekly get-together. At first, it was filled with diners, so I waited until after we had finished our meal (the Shepherd’s Pie was very good, by the way) and then I was able to get this photo without bothering too many people.

You can’t read the plaque above my head in this picture, but here’s what it says:

What could be better than this for someone who has studied Lewis as much as I have?

How about time spent at C. S. Lewis’s home with Walter Hooper, the American who became Lewis’s close friend and who then has spent the rest of his life as the agent for his literary estate?

That’s what we did on the next day. That’s also what I’ll be posting about tomorrow.