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.

Holding to the Faith

I have a rather large tome called The Timeless Writings of C. S. Lewis, which consists of The Pilgrim’s Regress and two of his essay collections: Christian Reflections and God in the Dock. Prior to my sabbatical back in 2014-15, I had read, over time, all of those essays.

I’m the kind of person who marks up his books, putting stars next to key passages and underlining the most significant sentences, in the hope that I can go back when needed and find the best parts more readily.

As I’ve pored over those essays again, I’m actually quite surprised by how detailed my earlier markings were. I’m also grateful I did that if, for no other reason, I cannot even recall now that I’d ever read some of those essays—they all seem so new to me. I trust that’s not Alzheimer’s.

For instance, one of Lewis’s essays in Christian Reflections, “Religion: Reality or Substitute?” caught my attention this morning as he explains the necessity of holding fast to the faith. Sometimes we question—we waver—but that is the nature of life itself. Lewis experienced that phenomenon not only as a Christian, but even when he had been an atheist.

Just as the Christian has his moments when the clamour of this visible and audible world is so persistent and the whisper of the spiritual world so faint that faith and reason can hardly stick to their guns, so, as I well remember, the atheist too has his moments of shuddering misgiving, of an all but irresistible suspicion that old tales may after all be true, that something or someone from outside may at any moment break into his neat, explicable, mechanical universe.

Believe in God and you will have to face hours when it seems obvious that this material world is the only reality: disbelieve in Him and you must face hours when this material world seems to shout at you that it is not all.

No conviction, religious or irreligious, will, of itself, end once and for all this fifth-columnist in the soul. Only the practice of Faith resulting in the habit of Faith will gradually do that.

Even though Lewis was quite strong in his apologetic writings, he acknowledges that pure reason and/or argument is not what normally leads a person into or out of faith. “It is always assumed,” he opines, “that the difficulties of faith are intellectual difficulties, that a man who has once accepted a certain proposition will automatically go on believing it till real grounds for disbelief occurs. Nothing,” he counters, “could be more superficial.” Then he offers an example from his own environment.

How many of the freshmen who come up to Oxford from religious homes and lose their Christianity in the first year have been honestly argued out of it? How many of our own sudden temporary losses of faith have a rational basis which would stand examination for a moment?

I don’t know how it is with others, but I find that mere change of scene always has a tendency to decrease my faith at first—God is less credible when I pray in a hotel bedroom than when I am in college.

It isn’t, at bottom, a conflict between faith and reason, Lewis concludes. It’s more of a conflict between faith and sight—what we see around us at a particular moment. Reason may be divine, he reasons, but “human reasoners are not.”

The sort of arguments against Christianity which our reason can be persuaded to accept at the moment of yielding to temptation are often preposterous. Reason may win truths; without Faith she will retain them just so long as Satan pleases.

We need to pray for that gift of continuing faith, Lewis urges, “for the power to go on believing not in the teeth of reason but in the teeth of lust and terror and jealousy and boredom and indifference.”

He ends the essay with a question/warning about what might really be going on inside us when we waver in faith:

And the answer to that prayer will, perhaps, surprise us when it comes. For I am not sure, after all, whether one of the causes of our weak faith is not a secret wish that our faith should not be very strong. Is there some reservation in our minds? Some fear of what it might be like if our religion became quite real?

I hope not. God help us all, and forgive us.

Platitudes vs. Reality in Home & Family

I love delving into C. S. Lewis’s many essays—mostly unknown even to those who appreciate his books—and finding pearls. This morning I came across one in God in the Dock that I had read long ago (I know that only because it is marked up) and had forgotten. It’s called “The Sermon and the Lunch.”

Lewis relates what appears to be a true story about listening to a certain vicar give a sermon on the home, a talk filled with platitudes about how dear home life is to everyone. Yet Lewis noticed that the vicar lost the attention of many in the congregation, especially those under thirty, as the  sermon became more unrealistic about the incessant joys of life in the home.

What followed was lunch at the vicar’s house. Even before arriving there, the vicar’s daughter whispered to Lewis that she was hoping he would come because “it’s always a little less frightful when there’s a visitor.”

What Lewis observed during lunch was a man—the vicar already mentioned—constantly interrupting both of his children with his own views that they must not contradict, and a mother going on about how badly a neighbor has treated her. When the daughter attempted to correct the impression given of that neighbor, she was quickly and forcefully silenced by her father.

The disconnect between the vicar’s sermon and his actual home life was disconcerting. “What worries me,” Lewis reflected, “is the fact that the Vicar is not telling us at all that home life is difficult and has, like every form of life, its own proper temptations and corruptions.” Home is not a “panacea, a magic charm” that automatically produces great happiness. As for the vicar himself, Lewis is rather blunt: “The trouble is not that he is insincere but that he is a fool.”

The remedy, Lewis asserts, is to be realistic.

Since the Fall no organization or way of life whatever has a natural tendency to go right. . . .

The family, like the nation, can be offered to God, can be converted and redeemed, and will then become the channel of particular blessings and graces. But, like everything else that is human, it needs redemption.

Where there are people, there are problems.

Lewis also notes that the natural affection common in a home is not the same as genuine love. In fact, affection, left to itself, has a tendency to become “greedy, naggingly solicitous, jealous, exacting, timorous. It suffers agony when its object is absent—but is not repaid by any long enjoyment when the object is present.” Sadly, Lewis laments that “the greed to be loved is a fearful thing. Some of those who say (and almost with pride) that they live only for love come, at last, to live in incessant resentment.”

But isn’t one of the principal attractions of home that it’s the place where we can set aside the disguises we use in public and can be truly ourselves? Lewis comes down hard on that sentiment:

What chiefly distinguishes domestic from public conversation is surely very often simply its downright rudeness. What distinguishes domestic behaviour is often selfishness, slovenliness, incivility—even brutality.

And it will often happen that those who praise home life most loudly are the worst offenders in this respect: they praise it–they are always glad to get home, hate the outer world, can’t stand visitors, can’t be bothered meeting people, etc.—because the freedoms in which they indulge themselves at home have ended by making them unfit for civilized society. If they practised elsewhere the only behaviour they now find “natural” they would simply be knocked down.

Lewis is not, of course, trying to belittle the home; he’s merely saying that all areas of human life—even in the home—have to be submitted to the Lordship of Christ. “It will never be lawful simply to ‘be ourselves’ until ‘ourselves’ have become sons of God,” he reminds us.

Home life has its own rule of courtesy—a code more intimate, more subtle, more sensitive, and, therefore, in some ways more difficult, than that of the outer world. . . .

In a word, must we not either cease to preach domesticity or else begin to preach it seriously? Must we not abandon sentimental eulogies and begin to give practical advice on the high, hard, lovely, and adventurous art of really creating the Christian family?

Only by being realistic about the challenges of life in a home can we ever hope to model what a Christian family should be.

The Greater Context of a Quintessential Lewis Quote

Nearly everyone conversant with the writings of C. S. Lewis has heard this famous quote:

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.

It’s such a striking comment that it has found a permanent place on Lewis’s commemorative stone in Westminster’s Poets Corner.

That wonderful insight is the very last sentence of Lewis’s essay called “Is Theology Poetry?” found in the collection The Weight of Glory. For me, the insights leading up to that final great insight are just as striking.

In that essay, Lewis is carefully debunking the concept of what he calls “universal evolutionism,” which imagines that all things proceed “from small beginnings to great endings, from the rudimentary to the elaborate.”

It seems to be natural in our modern world, Lewis opines, to believe that “morality springs from savage taboos, adult sentiment from infantile sexual maladjustments, thought from instinct, mind from matter, organic from inorganic, cosmos from chaos.” Lewis refers to this as “perhaps the deepest habit of mind in the contemporary world.”

Habits, however, are not necessarily right. They are merely habits. Lewis offers a counter-argument in this manner:

It seems to me immensely unplausible, because it makes the general course of nature so very unlike those parts of nature we can observe. You remember the old puzzle as to whether the owl came from the egg or the egg from the owl. The modern acquiescence in universal evolutionism is a kind of optical illusion, produced by attending exclusively to the owl’s emergence from the egg.

Well, most people might say, what’s wrong with that? Didn’t the owl emerge from that egg? Lewis continues:

We are taught from childhood to notice how the perfect oak grows from the acorn and to forget that the acorn itself was dropped by a perfect oak.

We are reminded constantly that the adult human being was an embryo, never that the life of the embryo came from two adult human beings.

We love to notice that the express engine of today is the descendant of the “Rocket”; we do not equally remember that the “Rocket” springs not from some even more rudimentary engine, but from something much more perfect and complicated than itself—namely, a man of genius.

Conclusion? “The obviousness or naturalness which most people seem to find in the idea of emergent evolution thus seems to be a pure hallucination.”

Lewis then distinguishes science, which tells us a lot about the universe in which we live, from a scientific cosmology that tries to explain everything, even Christianity. That just doesn’t work for Lewis.

If . . . I swallow the scientific cosmology as a whole, then not only can I not fit in Christianity, but I cannot even fit in science. If minds are wholly dependent on brains, and brains on biochemistry, and biochemistry (in the long run) on the meaningless flux of the atoms, I cannot understand how the thought of those minds should have any more significance than the sound of the wind in the trees.

How does one trust one’s own thoughts if they are simply the result of that “meaningless flux of the atoms”?

Lewis then draws his essay to a close by comparing the dreaming world from the waking world.

The waking world is judged more real because it can thus contain the dreaming world; the dreaming world is judged less real because it cannot contain the waking one.

For the same reason I am certain that in passing from the scientific points of view to the theological, I have passed from dream to waking. Christian theology can fit in science, art, morality, and the sub-Christian religions. The scientific point of view cannot fit in any of these things, not even science itself.

And this then brings us back to where we started.

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.

Yes, those wonderful words can stand by themselves, but they take on even greater significance when we understand the greater context in which Lewis writes them.

Evil Is a Parasite, Not an Original Thing

One could argue, quite convincingly, I think, that every sin is simply something good being misused. Food is for our good and we are to eat; gluttony is the misuse of what was meant to be good. Sex is a gift of God provided as both a means to create unity between husband and wife as well as for procreation. Yet we see what it has become—a complete perversion of God’s intent.

As I’ve been going through Mere Christianity with my university class on C. S. Lewis, we recently came upon the passage that emphasizes what I’m trying to say here. Lewis, in the chapter titled “invasion,” attempts to make sense of the wickedness of man and the motivation for doing that which is evil.

He begins by saying essentially what I have just written, only in his much better and more lucid style: “Wickedness, when you examine it, turns out to be the pursuit of some good in the wrong way.”

He elaborates:

You can be good for the mere sake of goodness: you cannot be bad for the mere sake of badness. You can do a kind action when you are not feeling kind and when it gives you no pleasure, simply because kindness is right; but no one ever did a cruel action simply because cruelty is wrong–only because cruelty was pleasant or useful to him.

In other words badness cannot succeed even in being bad in the same way in which goodness is good. Goodness is, so to speak, itself: badness is only spoiled goodness.

“Evil,” he concludes, “is a parasite [emphasis mine], not an original thing.” The directness of that statement can be startling, but it most certainly nails down the nature of evilness.

Lewis highlights this contrast between good and evil also in his Reflections on the Psalms when he notes,

If the Divine call does not make us better, it will make us very much worse. Of all bad men religious bad men are the worst. Of all created beings the wickedest is one who originally stood in the immediate presence of God.

Satan is not the opposite of God in his nature. He is not the evil god but merely a created being who once belonged to the heavenly realm. He threw away that glory and attempted to become glorious himself. He failed most miserably, thereby transforming himself into the most wicked of all created beings.

The calling of God on our lives and His expectation for how we are to live can be summarized in Galatians, chapter 5:

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh. . . .

So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. . . .

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.

The Only Question That Really Matters: Lewis’s Final Interview

The final interview C. S. Lewis gave was with Sherwood Wirt of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Wirt spoke with him at Cambridge University in May of 1963, just six months before Lewis died. I was re-reading that interview this morning and found it enlightening as to Lewis’s thoughts during that final stage of his life—although, of course, he didn’t realize he was in the final stage.

At first, Wirt was interested in drawing out Lewis on the type of writing Christians should do. When asked his opinion of the kind of Christian writing being done at that time, Lewis was blunt:

A great deal of what is being published by writers in the religious tradition is a scandal and is actually turning people away from the church. The liberal writers who are continually accommodating and whittling down the truth of the Gospel are responsible.

I cannot understand how a man can appear in print claiming to disbelieve everything that he presupposes when he puts on the surplice. I feel it is a form of prostitution.

Strong words.

As the interview proceeded, Wirt asked Lewis how Christians can help foster an encounter of people with Christ. “You can’t lay down any pattern for God,” Lewis replied, but added that he had learned to be cautious in passing judgment on different approaches to delivering the Gospel. Above all, he urged commitment to the message:

As Christians we are tempted to make unnecessary concessions to those outside the Faith. We give in too much. Now, I don’t mean that we should run the risk of making a nuisance of ourselves by witnessing at improper times, but there comes a time when we must show that we disagree. We must show our Christian colours, if we are to be true to Jesus Christ. We cannot remain silent or concede everything away.

Lewis also decried the increasing use of obscenity in literature in order to create what some called a more “realistic atmosphere.” He viewed that development with dismay, seeing it as “a symptom, a sign of a culture that has lost its faith.” There is a progression, Lewis warned: “Moral collapse follows upon spiritual collapse. I look upon the immediate future with great apprehension.”

Modern culture, he felt, was in the throes of de-Christianization. While he refrained from commenting on the political aspects of this development, he did have “definite views” on what was happening within the church:

I believe there are many accommodating preachers, and too many practitioners in the church who are not believers. Jesus Christ did not say, “Go into all the world and tell the world that it is quite right.” The Gospel is something completely different. In fact, it is directly opposed to the world.

The interview concluded with Wirt asking Lewis what he thought would be occurring “in the next few years of history.” Lewis’s response was quite practical—and Biblically based:

I have no way of knowing. . . . The world might stop in ten minutes; meanwhile, we are to go on doing our duty. The great thing is to be found at one’s post as a child of God, living each day as though it were our last, but planning as though our world might last a hundred years.

He then echoed words he had written in more than one of his earlier writings:

We have, of course, the assurance of the New Testament regarding events to come. I find it difficult to keep from laughing when I find people worrying about future destruction of some kind or other. Didn’t they know they were going to die anyway? Apparently not.

My wife once asked a young woman friend whether she had ever thought of death, and she replied, “By the time I reach that age science will have done something about it!”

Unlimited faith in man’s science is a fantasy. We all will die. The only question that really matters is whether we have remained at our post as a child of God, continuing to do His will until the end comes. Lewis did exactly that in the six months he had left. We need to follow his example.

Lewis the Translator of Christian Truth

C. S. Lewis’s writings have been credited with leading many to the Christian faith and with strengthening the faith of countless others. He assumed the mantle of apologist and evangelist primarily because he saw a decided lack of intelligent explainers of Christian truths.

Yet he was criticized by some. Oxford colleagues were miffed that he was stepping out of his academic field to write about Christianity, which is one reason why he was denied promotion during his tenure there.

Another critic, who surfaced in 1958, was Norman Pittenger, an American Anglican priest and theologican, who wrote that Lewis was too simplistic in his presentation of Christian faith. At the time he criticized Lewis, Pittenger was Chairman of the Theological Commission of the World Council of Churches.

The critique appeared in the theologically liberal magazine The Christian Century. Due to Pittenger’s prominence, Lewis felt he had to pen a defense of his reason for being an apologist and of his particular approach in presenting what Christianity was all about—a defense that The Christian Century published and which now appears in the essay collection God in the Dock and titled “A Rejoinder to Dr. Pittenger.”

Why did Lewis undertake the work of apologist/evangelist?

When I began, Christianity came before the great mass of my unbelieving fellow-countrymen either in the highly emotional form offered by revivalists or in the unintelligible language of highly cultured clergymen. Most men were reached by neither.

My task was therefore simply that of a translator—one turning Christian doctrine, or what he believed to be such, into the vernacular, into language that unscholarly people would attend to and could understand.

First and foremost, Lewis wanted people to be drawn to the truth; for that to happen, they had to grasp it and why it was important. The Pittenger approach, he argued, was so rich in “ambiguities” that it was “worse than useless.” It was so nuanced, so “sitting on the fence,” that people would suspect they were being tricked.

Lewis, in genuine humility, was willing to concede he might not be perfect in his own explanations and style:

I may have made theological errors. My manner may have been defective. Others may do better hereafter. I am ready, if I am young enough, to learn.

Dr. Pittenger would be a more helpful critic if he advised a cure as well as asserting many diseases. How does he himself do such work? What methods, and with what success, does he employ when he is trying to convert the great mass of storekeepers, lawyers, realtors, morticians, policemen and artisans who surround him in his own city?

Lewis undoubtedly suspected that Pittenger wasn’t truly engaged in trying to interact with those types of people at all. And what of the “gospel” of Pittenger? He became one of the first “Christian” leaders who argued for the acceptance of homosexual relations among Christians. Later, he admitted to his own homosexuality.

This is a defender of the faith?

Lewis concludes his rejoinder to Pittenger with these pointed words:

One thing at least is sure. If the real theologians had tackled this laborious work of translation about a hundred years ago, when they began to lose touch with the people (for whom Christ died), there would have been no place for me.

But because they did lose touch, Lewis stepped into the gap. Many thousands are eternally grateful that he did.