On This Day 50 Years Ago, a Great Man of God Fell Asleep


…in the Lord. His name was Clive Staples Lewis, and his influence has been such that no one who wishes to defend the Christian faith against its detractors can help but tread at least partly in the paths carved out by this man. His gift for the apt analogy, the memorable metaphor, for wedding the transcendent and the familiar, the homely and the strange, has yet to be equaled.

I cannot overestimate the effect Lewis’s work had on me in my twenties. I was introduced to his work sideways. I was at NYU and considered myself a confirmed atheist. I was a dramatic writing major (one of several majors I would have) and had this spark of an idea for a play. It was inspired by a physics prof, or, rather, the way he closed his very first class. As the syllabi were being distributed and most of my classmates were getting their gear together to head out, he began reading from this strange, haunting text. It was Pascal’s Pensées, something about What is a man in the Infinite? Now, to this day, I have no idea if this professor was a Christian or even a theist. But he did give me my premise: a world-renowned physicist and sci-fi author has a crisis, a collapse of sorts, and disappears. For years. When he reemerges into the public eye, he does so as a serious, vocal Christian — to the horror of his former colleagues and fans.

My problem was that I didn’t know what such a conversion looked like or sounded like. I had 12 years of parochial school. I was steeped in Luther’s Small Catechism and verses from the New Testament that buttressed Lutheran doctrinal distinctives. But that’s all Christianity was to me: curt answers to catechism questions. There didn’t appear to be a nexus between those answers and my life, or the life I was hoping to build. Christianity was a series of dead typographical symbols on a page. Any kind of experiential Christianity was suspect as inauthentic and dangerous (although I wonder now why more emphasis was not placed on the aesthetic, not merely art, architecture, and music, but also, as David Bentley Hart alludes, the Beauty of the Infinite).* And so I had a certain rudimentary knowledge but no living faith. I had never had a “conversion” experience (I’m not talking about baptism now), nor did I understand what real “repentance” was (as opposed to just feeling guilty). I knew the words, if we’re talking dictionary entries. But as far as a personal application, a personal relationship, if you will, the syllables were void of content.

So how could I go about crafting my main character? There had to be a book or books I could read that would give me some foundation to build on — at the very least, a vocabulary. I visited the B. Dalton’s on Fifth Avenue (of blessed memory) and downstairs, on a special display table, were gift sets of books from this Oxbridge professor who had not only been an atheist but who became both a Christian but a great Christian (new word) apologist.

The set included Mere Christianity, The Abolition of Man, Miracles, The Problem of Pain, and The Screwtape Letters. I read them. And re-read them. And underlined them. And bought copies for my mother. And bought other titles for myself: Surprised by Joy, The Weight of Glory, The Great Divorce, The Pilgrim’s Regress, Christian Reflections, A Grief Observed, Reflections on the Psalms, his Latin letters to Fr. Giovanni Calabria, his science-fiction trilogy, even books that influenced him (The Everlasting Man, the works of George MacDonald), and books influenced by him (A Severe Mercy).

(To this day, I have never read the Narnia Chronicles and have no intention of doing so, because I hate talking animals.)

And that faith became coming to life, taking shape, grabbing hold. Of me.

What clicked from reading Lewis that did not click for so many years during a conventional Christian education? Age had something to do with it. I had emerged from movie theaters long enough to begin asking the Big Questions about life, death, and — more important — fear of failure. Of failing life. I had dropped in and out of college so many times, NYU finally just gave me the keys and told me to lock up when I was through. I had gone through successive stages of intellectual rebellion, looking for larger-than-life inspiration. I went through a Randian phase but discerned a derivative quality, a certain “thinness,” to her worldview, which is not surprising, seeing as I had read both Alfred Adler and a considerable amount of Nietzsche (which was interesting, but his philosophy may as well have been the secrets of a comic book superhero from Planet Bongo).

You see, growing up, Christianity seemed so small, constricting, even petty, and my dreams were so big. But Lewis made Christianity bigger than anything I could imagine. I was looking for the Will to Power. Lewis pointed to the Way of Powerlessness, which, in his construal of the Faith, offered so much more in this life and the next. It was a Faith that could not only produce great art but was Art—God re-creating a new humanity in his son. It was a Faith that could integrate the latest scientific pronouncements into its great narrative without flinching, because the Earth and its history were also God’s work. It was a Faith that could not only make sense of my life’s story but that was the story behind all stories. It was both fantastic and the ground of all reality.

C.S. Lewis was the first Christian to convince me that Christianity was too good to be false.

I am obviously not alone in my admiration. His books continue to sell at such rates as to promise public-domain editions only at the Eschaton. And, of course, books about Lewis are churned out year after year, decade after decade, digging deeper into his work, his conversion, his marriage, even his friendships. Plays are even written in which Lewis figures as a character.

Speaking of which, below are a few clips from such productions, with actors donning the Oxford don’s mantle and entering the lists as the reluctant convert doing battle against the merely material. As I’m sure you’ll note, some of these performances ring true to Lewis’s voice — both that which we encounter on the printed page and that which has survived in radio recordings — while others seem somewhat overwrought (although perhaps that Lewis is the one we would have encountered over a pint at the Eagle and Child).

I leave you with my favorite Lewis quote, from The Weight of Glory:

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would strongly be tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.

*I must also admit, in the interest of fairness, that these various dimensions may have been touched on and I was simply not paying attention or sufficiently engaged, being a typically too-easily-distracted teen.


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