Lewis & America: A Conclusion

Yesterday was the final class for my C. S. Lewis course at SEU. This is the third time I’ve taught the course, and probably the best, as I’ve grown more comfortable sharing what I’ve learned about Lewis and his writings.

The students read a lot of Lewis, from autobiography to apologetics to fantasy. Some have testified that taking the course at this time was a great help to their faith, as they were struggling in different ways. That kind of testimony is what I love to hear the most. If a course doesn’t aid in solidifying one’s faith, what is the reason for even offering it?

In the last few weeks, I’ve had them read my own book on Lewis that focuses on his relationship with Americans and his impact on this country. I summarized both the book and the course with the following words:

Lewis has developed a true fan following in America. This book has shown his many interactions with Americans of his day. He became good friends with many of them, whether in person or via mail. His correspondence is overflowing with responses to Americans on the full panoply of issues, and he was quite willing to share the progress of his personal life and faith with them as well.

He married an American. The man he thought would serve best as his personal secretary was an American. Thousands of Americans he never communicated with or met, both during his lifetime and after, have testified to their lives being changed by his words. Societies bearing his name have cropped up all over the United States. One institute has developed a discipleship program inspired by him. An American foundation named after him bought his home in Oxford and uses it as a study center. That same foundation is now working to establish a college named after him.

While it is impossible to quantify his impact on America and Americans, the documentary evidence is plentiful that American Christians look to him in a way that is unique among all the Christian writers and teachers, both past and present, available to them as mentors.

In one of Lewis’s essays, “Is Theology Poetry?” we see a shining example of all the features of his writing that appeal, not only to Americans, but to all who thrill at hearing words of truth communicated elegantly. In this essay, he says,

The Pagan stories are all about somebody dying and rising, either every year, or else nobody knows where and nobody knows when. The Christian story is about a historical personage, whose execution can be dated pretty accurately, under a named Roman magistrate, and with whom the society that He founded is in a continuous relation down to the present day. It is not the difference between falsehood and truth. It is the difference between a real event on the one hand and dim dreams or premonitions of that same event on the other.

That essay then concludes with the words that can be found on Lewis’s commemorative stone in Westminster Abbey’s Poets Corner: “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.

Through C. S. Lewis, a multitude of Americans have learned to believe in Christianity because they have seen it come to life in his writings, and by those writings he has shown them how to see everything through the lens of the Christian faith. That is his legacy. That is what a man who never saw America has given to Americans—an illumined Christianity that lights up all of life.

The “Rumour” Is True: We Shall Get In

The reading assignment I gave my C. S. Lewis class for yesterday was his magnificent sermon, “The Weight of Glory.” As always, I went through with them some of Lewis’s key passages, marveling at the way he chose to express the almost-inexpressible.

Looking it over again this morning, I thought I would highlight a section that didn’t stand out to me as much yesterday but most certainly did this morning. Isn’t that the way it is, whether reading someone like Lewis or or the Bible, that no matter how often you may have read it before, something new seems to come to the forefront?

I did mention to the class that there is a strong connection between what Lewis said about longings in this sermon and what he eventually wrote in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy.

For instance, when commenting on those longings and how we tend to refer to them as beauty, Lewis reminds us that “the books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing.”

Lewis warns that we can turn even good things into “dumb idols.”

For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.

Men, he says, have been laboring under a false concept for many decades—“the evil enchantment of worldliness” brought to us through faulty education that “has been directed to silencing this shy, persistent, inner voice; almost all our modern philosophies have been devised to convince us that the good of man is to be found on this earth.”

Everything I’ve mentioned thus far I did bring out in class. The next part I didn’t, and wish I had. Lewis says that men invent philosophies that try to fill in the vacuum in our lives, and that each one actually, without even realizing it, points back to the void that our longings seek to fill. They attempt to give earthly solutions to something eternal that is above and beyond the earth.

When they want to convince you that earth is your home, notice how they set about it. They begin by trying to persuade you that earth can be made into heaven, thus giving a sop to your sense of exile in earth as it is.

Next, they tell you that this fortunate event is still a good way off in the future, thus giving a sop to your knowledge that the fatherland is not here and now.

Finally, lest your longing for the transtemporal should awake and spoil the whole affair, they use any rhetoric that comes to hand to keep out of your mind the recollection that even if all the happiness they promised could come to man on earth, yet still each generation would lose it by death, including the last generation of all, and the whole story would be nothing, not even a story, for ever and ever. [emphasis added]

Later on, Lewis returns to this theme and notes that whenever we have experiences of beauty, they are fleeting, and never truly satisfy: “Beauty has smiled, but not to welcome us; her face was turned in our direction, but not to see us. We have not been accepted, welcomed, or taken into the dance.”

But we’re not left with this dismal ending, not if we find our life in Christ. We will not be separated perpetually from what we long for. Lewis’s words resonate within my soul:

At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see.

But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in.

This is what awaits us: the very presence and essence of God and His heaven. The “rumour” is true.

Faith or a House of Cards?

I’m down to the last couple of weeks now for my Southeastern University course on C. S. Lewis. I’ve had the students read many of his most revered books and essays. They’ve worked through—with love, I trust—Surprised by Joy, Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, That Hideous Strength, and The Last Battle.

This past week, they read A Grief Observed, Lewis’s most personal little book, a heart cry for the presence of God after suffering the loss of Joy, his wife. I wondered how they would receive it, seeing as how it offers a different side of Lewis—one that’s questioning God’s character and His love before ultimately coming to a resolution that shows how his faith holds in the midst of trial.

They appreciated it deeply, from what I could discern in our discussion of the book.

One might be shaken somewhat by Lewis’s doubts at this time in his life. After all, near the beginning, he complains that when you go to God in desperate need, you find “a door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence.”

He then questions the reality of his own faith. The man who has spent his life strengthening the faith of others seems to fall apart in his distress:

You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you. It is easy to say you believe a rope to be strong and sound as long as you are merely using it to cord a box. But suppose you had to hang by that rope over a precipice. Wouldn’t you then first discover how much you really trusted it?

As a Christian, Lewis admits that he already knew that death comes to all and that sufferings were part of life. “I would have said that I had taken them into account. I had been warned—I had warned myself—not to reckon on worldly happiness. We were even promised sufferings. They were part of the program.”

Yet when hit by the loss of his wife, he was sent reeling and wondering about his faith:

It is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not in imagination. Yes; but should it, for a sane man, make quite such a difference as this? No. . . .

The case is too plain. If my house has collapsed at one blow, that is because it was a house of cards. The faith which “took these things into account” was not faith but imagination.

As Lewis stumbles toward understanding, he sees God as a surgeon with good intentions. Yet those good intentions don’t spare the patient the pain he must endure. “The kinder and more conscientious he is, the more inexorably he will go on cutting. If he yielded to your entreaties, if he stopped before the operation was complete, all the pain up to that point would have been useless.”

Lewis then revisits that bolted door, the one he blamed God for bolting against him.

I have gradually been coming to feel that the door is no longer shut and bolted. Was it my own frantic need that slammed it in my face? The time when there is nothing at all in your soul except a cry for help may be just the time when God can’t give it: you are like the drowning man who can’t be helped because he clutches and grabs. Perhaps your own reiterated cries deafen you to the voice you hoped to hear.

I believe the turning point for Lewis came when he realized that he had been focusing on himself—allowing his hurts, his internal angst, his needs—to drive his thinking. The order was him first, Joy second, and God last. “The order and the proportions exactly what they ought not to have been.”

It’s only when we get out of ourselves that we can see clearly once more. As his thoughts turn back to God first, he questions his motives: is he coming back to Him only as a way to reconnect with his wife eventually? Clarity returns with these words:

I know perfectly well that He can’t be used as a road. If you’re approaching Him not as the goal but as a road, not as the end but as a means, you’re not really approaching Him at all.

That’s what was really wrong with all those popular pictures of happy reunions “on the further shore”; not the simple-minded and very earthly images, but the fact that they make an End of what we can get only as a by-product of the true End.

So Lewis returned, and his letters in those final three years of his life attest to his vibrant faith. He walked through the valley of the shadow of death and emerged not with a house of cards, but with that proverbial house built on the Rock.

Onward to a Mature Faith

Elwin Ransom, C. S. Lewis’s protagonist in his Space Trilogy, tells the fictional Lewis in the novel Perelandra that he [Ranson] is about to be transported in a rather mysterious fashion to another planet. The Lewis character asks Ransom if he has any idea what to expect. Is it safe? Will he be able to breathe? What will he eat? Does he have any confidence that he will return?

“If you mean, Does my reason accept the view that he will . . . deliver me safe on the surface of Perelandra?—the answer is Yes,” said Ransom. “If you mean, Do my nerves and my imagination respond to this view?—I’m afraid the answer is No. One can believe in anaesthetics and yet feel in a panic when they actually put the mask over your face. I think I feel as a man who believes in the future life feels when he is taken out to face a firing party. Perhaps it’s good practice.”

We all probably can identify with that feeling. Our minds will tell us one thing—a thing that we believe deeply is true—while our emotions may be screaming at us, urging us not to step out onto that limb of faith. What if we fall?

This coming Wednesday evening, in my class on Mere Christianity, we’ll be covering the chapters that deal with faith. Lewis, from his own personal experience, shares how our moods are so very changeable—yet we cannot allow those moods/emotional episodes to dictate truth. He explains it in his typical relatable style:

Faith, in the sense in which I am here using the word, is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods. For moods will change, whatever view your reason takes. I know that by experience.

Now that I am a Christian I do have moods in which the whole thing looks improbable: but when I was an atheist I had moods in which Christianity looked terribly probable.

It’s particularly interesting to me that Lewis confesses even atheists have doubts about their atheism. Don’t we sometimes think that it’s only those of us who have professed the faith who have those doubts? No, doubting is common to all. What is the solution?

This rebellion of your moods against your real self is going to come anyway. That is why Faith is such a necessary virtue: unless you teach your moods “where they get off,” you can never be either a sound Christian or even a sound atheist, but just a creature dithering to and fro, with its beliefs really dependent on the weather and the state of its digestion.

When we allow our moods—our emotional ups and downs—to determine what we believe, we are, in effect, telling God we really don’t trust His character: His love for us through Christ; the ultimate Sacrifice He paid; the forgiveness He has offered; the new life He has granted us.

The apostle James tells us,

Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.

I want to persevere. I want to be mature. I seek the kind of faith that sets aside all doubts about God’s goodness and trusts Him implicitly. May that faith grow in us all.

Beginning Chapter One of the Great Story

It’s been a great C. S. Lewis semester for me: teaching my Lewis course at Southeastern University; enjoying the opportunity to teach his Mere Christianity along with my book, America Discovers C. S. Lewis, at my church every Wednesday evening; and having the privilege of sharing about my book at the Wade Center at Wheaton College.

I don’t take any of this for granted, and I appreciate all the doors the Lord has opened in the last four years since He inspired me to research and write about Lewis during the sabbatical I received from Southeastern.

Yesterday in the SEU class, we finished reading and discussing The Last Battle, Lewis’s climax to the Narnia series. I chose this one for the students to read because most had already read or were at least familiar with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

Yet there was another reason: the ending of The Last Battle contains one of the most wonderful depictions of the New Earth (even if it is in the fictional world of Narnia) that I have ever encountered. When God wraps up this tragi-comedy that we call “reality,” what will it be like? Lewis gives us a hint.

As all the characters that populated the seven Narnia books (except Susan, sadly) find themselves transported into Life after this life, they are trying to make sense of it all. The Lord Digory explains what has happened:

Listen, Peter. When Aslan said you could never go back to Narnia, he meant the Narnia you were thinking of. But that was not the real Narnia. That had a beginning and an end. It was only a shadow or a copy of the real Narnia which has always been here and always will be here: just as our own world, England and all, is only a shadow or copy of something in Aslan’s real world.

You need not mourn over Narnia, Lucy. All of the old Narnia that mattered, all the dear creatures, have been drawn into the real Narnia through the Door. And of course it is different; as different as a real thing is from a shadow or as waking life is from a dream.

Jewel the Unicorn captured it as well when he realized that he had “come home at last. This is my real country,” he proclaimed. “This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now.”

There’s a reason why we can see beauty around us on this earth, yet long for more. As Jewel concludes, “The reason why we loved the old Narnia is that is sometimes looked a little like this.” And our tired old earth, regardless of being marred by man’s sin, nevertheless retains hints of the Reality that awaits us.

The final page of The Last Battle offers us a revolution in our thinking about death that is worth quoting in full:

Lucy said, “We’re so afraid of being sent away, Aslan. And you have sent us back into our own world so often.”

“No fear of that,” said Aslan. “Have you not guessed?”

Their hearts leaped and a wild hope rose within them.

“There was a real railway accident,” said Aslan softly. “Your father and mother and all of you are—as you used to call it in the Shadowlands—dead. The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning.”

And as He spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them.

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 the 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.

If that doesn’t send a thrill up your spine, you’re not paying attention to the words. I look forward to getting past the title page and entering into the Great Story that goes on forever, and I am convinced, as Lewis says, that every chapter will be better than the one before.

From Atheism to Christianity: Lewis’s Winding Path

C. S. Lewis’s winding path from atheism to Christian faith is a fascinating journey. We can take that journey with him in Surprised by Joy, his step-by-step account of how God led this proud young intellectual to the point of surrender—to becoming, in his own words, “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”

Lewis, the avidly voracious reader, found, at a certain point in his life, all of his books beginning to turn against him. They kept leading him to Christ. “I must have been blind as a bat,” he wrote, “not to have seen, long before, the ludicrous contradiction between my theory of life and my actual experiences as a reader.”

He then offered a litany of those experiences:

George MacDonald had done more to me than any other writer; of course it was a pity he had that bee in his bonnet about Christianity. He was good in spite of it.

Chesterton had more sense than all the other moderns put together; bating, of course, his Christianity. Johnson was one of the few authors whom I felt I could trust utterly; curiously enough, he had the same kink. Spencer and Milton by a strange coincidence had it too.

The ancient authors like Plato, Aeschylus, and Virgil, Lewis complained, were the kind he could best admire, and they were the ones who were the most religious, even if not Christian. He knew, as a modern intellectual, he was supposed to like others better, but found them wanting:

Those writers who did not suffer from religion and with whom in theory my sympathy ought to have been complete—Shaw and Wells and Mill and Gibbon and Voltaire—all seemed a little thin; what as boys we called “tinny.” . . . There seemed to be no depth in them. They were too simple. The roughness and density of life did not appear in their books.

It was at this point in his life that Lewis became so uncomfortable with God’s infringement on his proud self that he began to refer to the Deity as “My Adversary.” Lewis famously noted that “a young Atheist cannot guard his faith too carefully. Dangers lie in wait for him on every side.”

A self-examination led him to a most depressing realization. What he found inside himself was appalling: “a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds. My name was legion.”

Out of all of Lewis’s poignant comments in Surprised by Joy, this one stands out to me:

People who are naturally religious find difficulty in understanding the horror of such a revelation. Amiable agnostics will talk cheerfully about “man’s search for God.” To me, as I then was, they might as well have talked about the mouse’s search for the cat [emphasis mine].

All his life, Lewis had been on this relentless search for an undefined sense of “joy.” He thought if only he could recapture those fleeting moments of joy he had experienced off and on, he could find the meaning in life. Yet he finally came to the understanding that those experiences were not the reality, “for all the images and sensations, if idolatrously mistaken for Joy itself, soon honestly confessed themselves inadequate.”

All said, in the last resort, “It is not I. I am only a reminder. Look! Look! What do I remind you of?”

Lewis concludes his autobiography with the perspective that those moments of Joy are merely signposts telling us where the right road lies. They are not the destination; rather, they point us to the destination: “We would be at Jerusalem.”

I’m thankful that God is the Great Interferer in our lives. I’m grateful that He continues to beat down our defenses and make the proud humble. For only the humble will see Him.

But He gives us more grace. This is why it says: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” James 4:6

America Discovers Lewis at the Wade Center

Last night I spoke at the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College. Topic: my book, America Discovers C. S. Lewis: His Profound Impact. The Wheaton campus was quite active last night, what with a Michael W. Smith concert and approximately six other events. Parking was at a premium, I was told, which made some of my audience a little late in arriving. Overall, though, there were about forty very interested people who wanted to know more about one of their favorite authors—that would be Lewis, of course, not me.

I offered a short history of how my interest in Lewis began and how I felt the Lord was guiding me into a niche in Lewis studies that had not yet been fully explored—his relationships with Americans and how Americans have received his writings.

From Chad Walsh (who wrote the first book on Lewis and became his close friend), to Joy Davidman Gresham (Lewis’s American wife), to Walter Hooper (the American who served briefly as Lewis’s helper/secretary and then became the executor of the Lewis literary estate), to Clyde Kilby (the Wheaton professor who had the vision to begin collecting not only all of Lewis’s papers and writings, but then extended that collection to six other famous British authors), it was a joy to share their stories.

Yet those are the ones people are most likely to know about anyway, so I was able to broaden the field of knowledge about other, lesser-known Lewis acquaintances and/or regular correspondents, and how his interaction with them provided spiritual guidance over many years.

Finally, I shared some (not as much as I wanted because I was running out of time) of the responses I got from a survey I sent out during the research for the book. How did you first come into contact with Lewis’s writings? Which ones have impacted you the most? What personal testimonies can you share? Those were some of the questions I asked in that survey, and the responses ranged from very interesting to poignant. I was not surprised that Lewis has truly made a “profound impact.”

I always love being at the Wade Center. Today and tomorrow I will do more research. My new interest in is Dorothy Sayers (one of those famous British authors that the Wade collected information on), her relationship with Lewis and how her Christian writings have had their respective impact.

Many thanks to David and Crystal Downing, the new co-directors of the Wade, for having me come to speak. They are Lewis scholars, and have been for many more years than I. Their appreciation of my first foray into Lewis scholarship has been an encouragement to me personally.

On Sunday, I’ll be speaking at a local church, one where I’ve spoken before. I’ve been asked to provide a solid overview of why Lewis has been one of the Lord’s most effective spokesmen. It will be a joy to do so.

On Monday, it will be back to my students, whom I love, and all that grading, with which I don’t have quite the same loving relationship. God’s calling isn’t all glory, you know.