Today is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. I don’t want to minimize that event, but honestly, I don’t understand it; JFK was shot the year I was born. Similarly, I don’t understand the subcultures and the hype that have built up around two other iconic figures of a previous generation: Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley. I’ve never resonated with these people because I’ve never known them or followed their work.
However, the death of JFK almost certainly eclipsed the passing of someone I do identify with. On that same day, November 22, 1963, C.S. Lewis quietly slipped away from this earth. Contrary to my experience of JFK, Lewis lives on in my imagination because of the great influence he had on me during some very formative years. As an adolescent, he was the first Christian author that challenged my heart and my mind. His ability to craft words in creative, thoughtful and theologically meaningful ways compelled me to broaden my understanding of both faith and literature.
As a teen and young adult, I can remember being asked that old crowd-breaker question, “If you could spend a day with anyone who has died, who would that be?” The answer was easy: C.S. Lewis. I’ve watched the movie Shadowlands again and again. It helps me have a small sense of what his life was like. In the movie, after Lewis (AKA “Jack”) has lost his wife, he struggles with faith and doubt. At one point he decides to rejoin his colleagues at Oxford, resulting in a moment that’s quite uncomfortable and filled with well-meaning platitudes. A kindly priest offers, “Only God knows why these things have to happen,” to which Lewis screams “No! It’s a bloody awful mess and that’s all there is to it.”
I love that honesty before God. The sincerity is evidenced in other scenes as well:
Harry: Christopher can scoff, Jack, but I know how hard you've been praying; and now God is answering your prayers.
C. S. Lewis: That's not why I pray, Harry. I pray because I can't help myself. I pray because I'm helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn't change God, it changes me.
Lewis was the first one to teach me about intense honesty.
I’ve learned far too much to sum it all up in a blog post, but here are five “works” that have shaped me. I give thanks for C.S. Lewis and honor him for his public journey of faith, a journey that has impacted me in more ways than I’ll ever be able to identify.
1. The Chronicles of Narnia. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was the first book I truly read. And then I read it again and again. Everything else was a children’s book compared to this fairy tale marketed as children’s book, but so much richer and deeper than anything I’d ever encountered. It opened a door to a world I could never have dreamed of (but did end up having plenty of dreams about!). In The Chronicles, Lewis showed me a way to think about theology that was much more imaginative and creative than what I’d experienced in church, and that God gets bigger and stranger and wilder with every fresh encounter. I was hooked. I’m grateful to the Sunday school teacher—a gracious and persistent older woman who had great patience with us rambunctious seventh-grade boys—who gave me the copy of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe that I still reread every so often.
“I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realized that girls grow quicker than books. As a result you are already too old for fairy tales, and by the time it is printed and bound you will be older still. But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again. You can then take it down from some upper shelf, dust it, and tell me what you think of it. I shall probably be too deaf to hear, and too old to understand a word you say, but I shall still be your affectionate Godfather, C. S. Lewis.”
“He'll be coming and going" he had said. "One day you'll see him and another you won't. He doesn't like being tied down--and of course he has other countries to attend to. It's quite all right. He'll often drop in. Only you mustn't press him. He's wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.”
“What do they teach them at these schools?”
2. A Grief Observed. Honest, bold and passionate, A Grief Observed reads like a modern day book of Psalms, specifically, Laments. Written after his wife, Joy, died of cancer (a marriage that lasted only three years), Lewis spoke words to God that I didn’t know were acceptable. His admission of doubt and his accusations against God troubled many Christians when it was published in the early 1960s. How is an orthodox believer to deal with horrific pain and grief? The book asks more questions than it gives answers. Lewis taught me to ask the tough questions.
“Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not 'So there's no God after all,' but 'So this is what God's really like. Deceive yourself no longer.”
“The time when there is nothing at all in your soul except a cry for help may be just that 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.”
“My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself.”
3. The Screwtape Letters. I’m grateful to Lewis for introducing me to satire. In playing the devil, he revealed how much of the devil is in me. Often, my enemy’s critique of me is worth listening to. Maybe I’m more of my own worst enemy than I thought possible. It is characters like the Church Lady from SNL, Stephen Colbert and Bono’s MacPhisto that help me to examine the depths of my own pious religiosity. And, as the senior devil Screwtape instructs his apprentice Wormwood, I listen in and learn about myself.
“Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one--the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts,...Your affectionate uncle, Screwtape.”
“Suspicion often creates what it suspects.”
“Be not deceived, Wormwood, our cause is never more in jeopardy than when a human, no longer desiring but still intending to do our Enemy's will, looks round upon a universe in which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”
“A moderated religion is as good for us as no religion at all—and more amusing.”
4. The Space Triology. I can’t even begin to summarize this set of novels in a short paragraph. Don’t read these for the science—they were written in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Rather than offer hard science, Lewis gives us some marvelous moral and ethical dilemmas: first on Mars/Malacandra where God’s Spirit still walks freely with the creation and Earth is referred to as “The Silent Planet,” then to Venus/Perelandra where its own Adam and Eve are tempted by “the Bent One,” and finally back to Earth where an inner-circle of elitists seeking world domination get more than they bargained for when their “Hideous Strength” is unleashed. As a medieval scholar, Lewis was keenly aware that science alone could not save humanity, but will only result in what Charles Taylor calls the “disenchantment” of society. Lewis was way ahead of his time here, accurately forecasting the negative consequences of modernity.
“When you and I met, the meeting was over very shortly, it was nothing. Now it is growing something as we remember it, what will it be when I remember it as I lie down to die, what it makes in me all my days till then - that is the real meeting. The other is only the beginning of it. You say you have poets in your world. Do they not teach you this?” Out of the Silent Planet
“If he [Ransom] now failed, this world also would hereafter be redeemed. If he were not the ransom, another would be. Yet nothing was ever repeated. Not a second crucifixion; perhaps-who knows-not even a second Incarnation... some act of even more appalling love, some glory of yet deeper humility.” Perelandra
“The laws of the universe are never broken. Your mistake is to think that the little regularities we have observed on one planet for a few hundred years are the real unbreakable laws; whereas they are only the remote results which the true laws bring about more often than not; as a kind of accident.” That Hideous Strength
5. Till We Have Faces. Without a doubt, my favorite book by Lewis is Till We Have Faces. I’ve read it many times and always find something new. At the core is a retelling of the Psyche/Cupid myth, but in this story the focus is on Psyche’s sister, Orual. For a number of reasons—one revolving around the love and beauty of Psyche, something that Orual pursues but never attains—Orual is angry with the gods and the goal of her life is to present her accusations to them in person. The story is the journey of a mortal who presumes to know, understand and then question the gods. This myth retold crescendos to a climax in the final chapter as Orual finally learns that she knows very little. I need to read this book again. I need to learn this lesson one or two or three more times.
"Are the gods not just?"
"Oh no, child. What would become us us if they were?"
“Holy places are dark places. It is life and strength, not knowledge and words, that we get in them. Holy wisdom is not clear and thin like water, but thick and dark like blood.”
“The complaint was the answer. To have heard myself making it was to be answered. Lightly men talk of saying what they mean. Often when he was teaching me to write in Greek the Fox would say, 'Child, to say the very thing you really mean, the whole of it, nothing more or less or other than what you really mean; that's the whole art and joy of words.'
A glib saying. When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you'll not talk about the joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?”
Has Lewis influenced you? What are your favorite books/poems/texts?