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C.S. Lewis, From Atheist To Hot Christian Author


Posted 09/13/2013 02:17 PM ET

C.S. Lewis, wrote biographer Alister McGrath, "celebrated the classic art of good writing as a way of communicating ideas and expanding minds."

C.S. Lewis, wrote biographer Alister McGrath, “celebrated the classic art of good writing as a way of communicating ideas and expanding minds.” View Enlarged Image

A confirmed atheist when he was 15, C.S. Lewis came around to believing in God when he was 31.

“I knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England,” he wrote in his autobiography, “Surprised by Joy.”

Soon he embraced Christianity.

A lecturer at English universities, Lewis became a superstar author by explaining his faith and weaving it creatively into novels. Books including “Mere Christianity,” “The Screwtape Letters,” “That Hideous Strength” and the series “The Chronicles of Narnia” have sold a total of 200 million copies, but he wasn’t always popular.

“Lewis was on the wrong side of the cultural watershed in the 1960s, and many commentators believed that his decline into obscurity was just a matter of time,” wrote Alister McGrath in a new biography, “C.S. Lewis: A Life.””They didn’t anticipate his resurrection.”

Lewis (1898-1963) grew up in Belfast, Northern Ireland. His mother was the daughter of a Church of Ireland priest, his father a lawyer.

Young Clive loved to read and was tutored until being sent to a private school at 10. At 17, he began to study privately with William Kirkpatrick, his father’s old tutor.

Gaining Depth

Lewis’ Keys

  • Author of best-sellers such as “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” and “Mere Christianity.”
  • Overcame: Literary establishment’s disdain for Christian apologetics and fantasy.
  • Lesson: You can make a good living at something you believe in.
  • “You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.”

“Kirkpatrick had him study Latin and Greek single-mindedly,” said Christine Perrin, a professor of English at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pa. “As he learned to read in them, he also learned their culture, history, literature and a certain discipline of mind aided by his hyperlogical teacher, who required Lewis to support and demonstrate any statement he made. This first taste of mastery became the foundation for learning many things, including Icelandic, medieval literature and theology.”

Lewis’ earliest lesson is that focus turns knowledge into deep understanding.

In 1916 he was awarded a scholarship to University College, Oxford. A year later he volunteered for the British army and arrived in the trenches of the Somme Valley in France on his 19th birthday. He was promptly wounded and landed in an English hospital.

After recovering and resuming his studies, Lewis received a rare Triple First of top marks in three fields from 1920 to 1923.

In 1925 he was elected a fellow and tutor in English literature at Oxford, where he became world-famous over the next three decades.

Lewis’ decision to return to God came after a long process of reading, thinking and talking with friends, the most important being J.R.R. Tolkien, a professor of Anglo-Saxon and a devout Catholic.

Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it’s thinking of yourself less.

Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.

Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil.

Aim at heaven, and you get thrown in; Aim at earth, and you get neither.

They met several times a week to discuss wide-ranging issues and critique each other’s work. One of these conversations in 1931 lasted all night, focusing on myth, metaphor and meaning.

“For Tolkien, a myth was a story that conveyed the deeper structure of things, a fragment of truth, not its totality,” wrote McGrath. “He argued that Lewis was limiting himself to reason when he ought to be opening himself to the deepest intuitions of his imagination.”

Soon Lewis accepted Christianity and became an active Anglican, disappointing Tolkien.

Lewis explained to a friend: “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.”

Lewis and Tolkien soon brought others into their discussions, forming the Inklings, a group that included top novelists such as Owen Barfield and Charles Williams.

Tolkien shared the manuscript of “The Lord of the Rings” with the Inklings; Lewis read aloud from “Out of the Silent Planet,” the first volume of his Christian science-fiction trilogy.

At Oxford, Lewis kept his students awake with a lively delivery after memorizing texts.

In private, he read books several times to grasp them. That gave him an expertise of complex matters, helping him lay the foundation for his best-selling nonfiction.

“Throughout his career, Lewis devoted much thought and ink to the place and purpose of literature, whether in relation to the enriching of human culture, the cultivation of religious sensibilities, or the forging of personal wisdom and character,” wrote McGrath.

Lewis assumed his place as a spokesman for the values of Western civilization at the outbreak of World War II. In October 1939 an audience packed an Oxford church to hear him preach that the Free World had to abandon its optimistic illusions in order to face down ultimate evil. He further pushed his message via BBC radio lectures throughout the war.

Lewis’ first book of Christian apologetics, “The Problem of Pain,” came out in 1940. It answered why God would allow World War II’s suffering.

His next book, “The Screwtape Letters” of 1942, had the opposite tone, with advice of a devil to his nephew, an apprentice tempter. The message, presented humorously, was that it wasn’t necessary to try to seduce mortals to commit dramatic sins, since simply getting them to obsess on the wrong priorities would lead them astray: “Why adultery when golf will do?”

In 1950, “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” came out. It was the first of Lewis’ seven novels in “The Chronicles of Narnia” series. The story concerns children who find a magic wardrobe through which they can enter a world where there is a conflict between an evil witch and a good lion, Aslan, who is killed and resurrected.

The book was translated into 41 languages, sold 85 million copies and influenced authors such as J.K. Rowling.

Lewis’ lesson is that sometimes humor, fiction or poetry is more effective in presenting a message than a head-on argument.

More Than A Mere Book

Lewis’ “Mere Christianity,” published in 1952, explained what he felt was the core of his faith. At the time, critics on the left thought it superstitious and simplistic, while evangelicals were upset at the lack of fire and brimstone.

The book’s popularity with the public, however, has endured, and the popular monthly magazine Christianity Today ranked it the best book of the 20th century.

All the while, Lewis was at odds with his colleagues. Many resented his promotion of religion, looked down on his popular fiction, were jealous of his large classes and thought literature courses should focus on more modern books. So in 1955 he bolted, accepting a professorship of medieval and Renaissance literature at Oxford’s great rival, the University of Cambridge.

“Lewis was not only a scholar of Renaissance English literature; he was a Renaissance man with wide interests and numerous talents,” said Norman Chaney, professor of English at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio. “He deployed the entire list of Leadership & Success traits in putting forth his ideas in lectures, articles and books, including continuous learning, persistence, analyzing details and communicating effectively.”

Lewis finally got hitched in 1957, marrying the American writer Joy Davidman, a former communist and atheist who credited him with sparking her faith. She worked with him on what many critics regard as his most important novel, “Till We Have Faces,” before she died of bone cancer in 1960.

On Nov. 22, 1963, a week before his 65th birthday, Lewis died of kidney failure. His death received little attention, overshadowed by the assassination of President Kennedy.

This fall, on the 50th anniversary of his death, Lewis will join some of Britain’s greatest writers when a memorial honoring him will be placed in the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey in London.


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