One of the most influential and most-read Christian authors and apologists of the 20th century, Clive Staples Lewis was slow to come to salvation, but the spiritual conversion of his brilliant mind and heart has borne lasting fruit.
CS Lewis is a name recognised by Christians and non-Christians alike. He is best known for writing the highly acclaimed and best-selling children’s fantasy series, The Chronicles Of Narnia. This series of seven books first published between 1950 and 1956 has sold over 120 million copies worldwide, been translated into 47 languages and is remains in continuous print even today.
His Christian writings are equally revered and treasured by the Christian community. His works of apologetics, like Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters remain bestsellers and feature as seminal textbooks in Christian universities and theological colleges throughout the world.
Lewis even wrote Christian science fiction—his Space Trilogy or Ransom Trilogy feature concepts like time travel and parallel universes, but always with a God element, just like his Narnia novels.
In fact, his wit and expansive imagination has and continues to captivate readers from decade to decade. Movies have been made about him, as have plays. He is one of very few Christian authors—another is his good friend JRR Tolkein who wrote Lord Of The Rings—that could have boasted such lasting appeal on both believers and non-believers alike.
Despite the overwhelming fame and fanfare he experienced, Lewis lived a simple life, giving most of his book royalties away to charity, and continuing on as an academic at Oxford University, and later, Cambridge.
Lewis described himself as “a very ordinary layman of the Church of England”. That same humility and love for God and His house can be found in Lewis’ inspired books, essays and commentaries, helping many, giving comfort, hope and understanding to his fellow believers as they face the trials of the Christian life.
With his every man, easy-going writing style, and his ability to bring clarity to the complexities of the Christian faith and doctrine, Lewis brought the timeless message of Jesus Christ into the popular culture of his day, and long after his death on 22 November 1963, nearly 60 years ago, that message continues to touch the church and society.
Yet, it may surprise some that Lewis’ own journey to Christ was a long and winding road.
HIS SEARCH FOR THE TRUTH
Born into a Protestant family in Belfast, Ireland in 1898, Lewis grew up in affluence as the second son of a successful solicitor. Schooled in French and Latin at a young age by his mother, a university graduate and gifted mathematician from Queen’s College Belfast, Lewis developed a passion for reading and a deep appreciation of the great British poets of the romantic era: Keats, Shelley, and Coleridge.
Tragedy struck the family when Lewis was nine: his mother was diagnosed with cancer and died soon after. Not especially religious in his upbringing, and now searching for answers to his mother’s illness, Lewis sought God in his prayer life, first praying for his mother’s recovery and then after her passing, praying for a miracle that she would be brought back to life. Mystified and somewhat apathetic towards the outcome of his failed prayers, Lewis later recognised his flawed understanding of God.
He wrote in his biography Surprised By Joy: The Shape Of My Early Life, “I had approached God, or my idea of God, without love, without awe, even without fear. He was, in my mental picture of this miracle, to appear neither as Savior nor as Judge, but merely as a magician; and when He had done what was required of Him I supposed He would simply—well, go away.”
With his father unable to cope with the sudden loss of his wife, Lewis was sent to a boarding school in Watford, England, and for the next six years of his life was educated at a variety of private schools throughout England and Ireland.
While at Wynyard College, Lewis attended St John’s Church in Watford where he heard for the first time the doctrines of Christianity. Impressed by the conviction of the clergyman, Lewis took the first steps towards his belief in Christianity, but being flawed in his understanding of the gospel message and chiefly motivated by his newfound fear of God, Lewis willed himself to pray, read the Bible, and follow his own personal conscience. Over time his willpower waned, as his faith turned into duty.
Unable to find any spiritual guidance or support at school, Lewis turned to examining his own faith and what he believed in. Lewis questioned why the gods in his Classic texts were treated as myths whereas the stories in the Bible were treated as fact. Lewis became influenced by a boarding school matron who led him to study the occult and other unorthodox beliefs, further untethering his belief in Christianity.
After enduring a year at Malvern College where he was mercilessly bullied, Lewis was removed from the college and sent to be privately tutored where he lived with his semi-retired tutor and his wife. Now freed from his boarding school tormentors, Lewis’ academic life flourished and he emerged as a young scholar astounding his tutor with his ability to translate Greek plays and read and understand Classic texts. But his spiritual journey stagnated further because his tutor, a former Presbyterian scholar turned humanist, set about fortifying his student as an atheist.
At 18, Lewis sat for the Oxford University scholarship exams and was awarded an open scholarship in the Classics. Not long after, he was called up and joined the British Army to fight in World War One. Serving only briefly after being injured by an exploding shell in France, Lewis returned to Oxford University and earned a first class degree in Philosophy. (He later attained another first class degree in English Literature and taught it.)
During his time as an undergraduate, Lewis befriended a fellow gifted scholar, Nevill Coghill who, to Lewis’ surprise, was a fervent believer in Christianity. Impressed by what he saw in his new acquaintance’s conduct and the way he defended his faith, Lewis began to read books by Scottish author and Christian congregational minister, George MacDonald and Christian apologist GK Chesterton.
Lewis took to the notion of an Absolute (God) as in Pantheistic thinking, attributing this God to being part of the universe. His next step of reasoning was that this Absolute (God) was separate to the universe and there he arrived in his belief of Theism.
As Lewis wrestled with the progression of his philosophical stance, he described the spiritual journey he had taken as one where his Adversary (God) was drawing him closer to the truth: “Realism had been abandoned; the New Look was somewhat damaged; and chronological snobbery was seriously shaken. All over the board my pieces were in the most disadvantaged positions. Soon I could no longer cherish even the illusion that the initiative lay with me. My Adversary began to make His final moves.” (Source: Surprised By Joy: The Shape Of My Early Life)
With Lewis’ arrival at the belief that there was a God, his last major obstacle to overcome was his unbelief in that one could have a personal relationship with this God.
SAVED BY HIS GRACE
“There was, I explained, no possibility of being in a personal relation with Him. For I thought He projected us as a dramatist projects his characters, and I could no more ‘meet’ Him, than Hamlet could meet Shakespeare. I didn’t call Him ‘God’ either; I called Him ‘Spirit’. One fights for one’s remaining comforts,” he wrote in the same book.
With Lewis trying to make sense of this God-Man relationship, a turning point came in his thinking when he was engaged in a deep philosophical conversation with one of his colleagues at Magdalen College. Talking into the early hours of the morning, his colleague, whom Lewis describes as a devout atheist and deeply skeptical of Christianity, admitted to Lewis that through his own investigation there was clear evidence to prove that the Gospels were true. Shocked by his colleague’s confession, Lewis knew that it was only a matter of time before his own thinking would be changed, too.
He wrote of his colleague’s witness to him, “To understand the shattering impact of it, you would need to know the man (who has certainly never since shown any interest in Christianity). If he, the cynic of cynics, the toughest of the toughs, were not—as I would still have put it—“safe,” where could I turn? Was there then no escape?”
With the various threads of Christian truth hovering over his life, Lewis made a conscious choice to remove the roadblocks in his mind, and in his own words decided to “loosen the reins” of his own intellectual thinking, and let the (God’s) truth lead him where it wanted him to go. Now open to the possibility of a personal God, Lewis realised he needed to reconcile his personal philosophy to his actions knowing that a belief is only a belief unless it is lived.
Caught in the headwinds of his new understanding in a personal God, Lewis was further convinced in his new belief when he discussed the matter with his Christian colleagues Hugo Dyson and JRR Tolkien, while walking around the Oxford grounds one night.
In the conversation that progressed between the three men, both Dyson and Tolkien married the historical and spiritual side of the Gospel truths, and then balanced their arguments using their deep understanding of Pagan myths, a topic that Lewis was well versed in. Hearing the men’s arguments, Lewis experienced a significant revelation in his reasoning: “Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened,” he wrote.
Lewis’ final steps to becoming a Christian came about in the most unusual and unassuming of circumstances: while being a passenger in his brother’s motorcycle side car as he was being driven to his local zoo. Somewhere along that journey, Lewis felt an unknown calmness in his heart and then accepted that Jesus Christ was the Son of God.
In Lewis’ final interview, two years before his death, Lewis commented on the circumstances behind his unlikely conversation to Christianity: “I feel my decision was not so important. I was the object rather than the subject in this affair. I was decided upon. I was glad afterwards at the way it came out, but at the moment what I heard was God saying: ‘Put down your gun and we’ll talk.’”
Books, films and plays about CS Lewis abound. To find out more about this great man of God, read his autobiography Surprised By Joy. You can also watch/read plays written about him: Wardrobes & Rings, CS Lewis On Stage: The Most Reluctant Convert and CS Lewis On Stage: Further Up And Further In. Apart from the Chronicles Of Narnia films, Shadowlands is a beautiful and moving 1993 movie made about the love story of CS Lewis and American poet Joy Davidman—her death from cancer led him to experience a faith crisis.