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.

The Un-Christening of the Western World

c-s-lewis-15When C. S. Lewis moved from Oxford University to Cambridge University after nearly three decades at Oxford, it was a major event. Oxford never really appreciated what it had in Lewis, whereas Cambridge created a special Chair designed for him.

His inaugural lecture at Cambridge was a major event as well. In it, he outlined how Europe had become post-Christian, which was a fairly accurate description of Oxford. Lewis noted that nearly everyone thought the switch from pre-Christian to Christian was irreversible. Not so, he explained:

cambridge-inaugural-lectureThe un-christening of Europe in our time is not quite complete; neither was her christening in the Dark Ages. But roughly speaking we may say that whereas all history was for our ancestors divided into two periods, the pre-Christian and the Christian, and two only, for us it falls into three—the pre-Christian, the Christian, and what may reasonably be called the post-Christian.

This surely must make a momentous difference. . . . It appears to me that the second change is even more radical than the first.

Christians and Pagans had much more in common with each other than either has with a post-Christian. The gap between those who worship different gods is not so wide as that between those who worship and those who do not.

It was in that same lecture that he famously referred to himself as a dinosaur, and that since not many dinosaurs existed anymore, the world should learn from them while they are still around.

Joy Gresham, who would of course become his wife a couple of years later, was present at the lecture. She had a rather whimsical reaction to it, writing in a letter, “How that man loves being in a minority, even a lost-cause minority! Athanasius contra mundum, or Don Quixote against the windmills. . . . I sometimes wonder what he would do if Christianity really did triumph everywhere; I suppose he would have to invent a new heresy.”

Yet, as I survey the Western world sixty years after that inaugural lecture, I have to say that Lewis, as usual, was delivering truth.

Lewis and God’s Severe Mercy

In a post a couple weeks ago, I referenced a new book about C. S. Lewis I was reading. Alister McGrath’s C. S. Lewis, a Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet, while not a full biography, nevertheless provides a satisfying interpretation of what motivated Lewis at various stages of his life. Its primary value, though, is his analysis of the significance of the variety of Lewis’s writings, noting how he shifted his emphases throughout his literary career. He began as an apologist and science fiction author, then altered his focus toward the imaginative world we all know as Narnia, as well as the engaging novel Till We Have Faces and commentaries on Biblical themes.

Beyond that, I appreciated the insight into his academic world—the rigors of daily tutorials, the struggle to research and write the kinds of works required in academia, and the dismay of university politics, which, in his case at Oxford, led to one disappointment after another, as he was always turned down for promotion. This was in spite of his fame and popularity in the wider world. McGrath explains that it was that very popularity that grated on his colleagues. They felt his popular writings were “beneath” him. Ah, the elegant snobbery that emanates from prideful hearts.

After completing this book, I had a great desire to return to another book I hadn’t read for over thirty years. I had often thought I wanted to reread it, but it took the Lewis biography to inspire me to do so. A bestseller in the late 1970s, A Severe Mercy relates a tale that involves Lewis directly. The author, Sheldon Vanauken, shares the true story of his relationship and marriage to Jean, better known as “Davy.” They began as pagans—Vanauken’s own term for them—who sought to selfishly guard their love against all distractions or threats. Gradually, their pagan love is transformed into love for God, which opens the door for a new understanding of godly love for one another.

One of the catalysts for this change is the time they spend in Oxford as graduate students. It is there they come under the influence of a number of Christian authors, the chief of which is Lewis. He befriends the Vanaukens and aids in the regeneration of their minds, helping them see the world through Christian eyes. The book includes a generous sampling of letters from Lewis to Vanauken that were newly revealed at the time of its publication.

The greatest lessons learned, though, come through Davy’s illness and death. Vanauken has a way with words, as befits a disciple of Lewis, and the poignancy of his experience with his wife’s death, the manner in which it teaches him the difference between selfishness and genuine love, and Lewis’s role in helping him to see the death as one of God’s severe mercies, is riveting. There are tears as Vanauken tells the tale, but also joy and the revelation of a closer walk with the God who is mercifully severe with us, for our own good.

I highly recommend these two reads. They engage both the mind and the heart.