He liked to be called Jack. Plain Jack.
But Clive Staples Lewis, arguably the greatest communicator of the Christian message in the 20th century, was anything but plain. He died on November 22, 1963, the same day as Aldous Huxley and President Kennedy, and while Lewis never completed the journey from Anglican to Catholic, he was well on the way; according to his last secretary Walter Hooper – whom am I proud to call a good friend – it was inevitably and only a matter of time.
Although evangelicals have adopted him as one of their own, this sacramental, liturgical Christian who smoked and drank was always a Catholic at heart. He wrote Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, Surprised by Joy, and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, among so many other titles. Several of his Narnia books have been made into movies, and commercialism being what it is, there is now a thunderstorm of books and videos. But it is a sweet rain and in this case it is a joy to be made wet. Lewis would have laughed at such antics, always considering himself to be an ordinary teacher and an ordinary Christian.
In fact, Lewis was a most extraordinary teacher. A lecturer at both Oxford and Cambridge, he was considered one of the finest minds of his generation by fellow professors. His English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama and The Allegory of Love are still considered to be academic masterpieces. But it is Lewis the Christian who changed the world. His genius was the ability to convey highly complicated and complex ideas in a straightforward and understandable manner. Like some grand knight of common sense he charged through the ranks of cluttered thinking, double-talk, and atheism, seldom taking any prisoners.
Lewis declared himself a Christian in 1929, “perhaps the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.” It was as though he had tried to avoid the inevitable, considering every argument against Christianity, forcing himself to take on all of the objections his fertile mind could produce. Each one he overcame. By the time his intellect was well and truly won over his emotional being simply fell into place. From this point on everything he wrote was informed and enlivened by his Christianity. But Lewis was too subtle and too clever to knock people over the head with his faith. He knew that talking was far more effective than shouting. This, from The Weight of Glory, first published in 1941: “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
In 1950 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe was published, the first of seven books in the Narnia series. The Christian metaphors and imagery are obvious to most adults, but to children the stories are merely delicious and unforgettable. As such they have sown the seeds of belief in numerous young minds. In 1952 came Mere Christianity. The title reflected the author’s attempt to remove Christianity away from those who would adapt it, alter it, dilute it, and change what is pure and pristine into something that is confused and confusing. He did not pepper his prose with quotes from the scriptures because he knew that would have a limited effect with the majority of his readers.
What he did do was to show that a belief in God was logical, and that from this belief an acceptance of Jesus Christ was unavoidable. He reversed the equation offered by the secular world, that it is the thoughtless who become Christians, the thoughtful who reject Christianity. Simply, he summed up the arguments like an angel: “There is no need to be worried by facetious people who try to make the Christian hope of Heaven ridiculous by saying they do not want to spend eternity playing harps. The answer to such people is that if they cannot understand books written for grown-ups, they should not talk about them. All the scriptural imagery (harps, crowns, gold, etc) is, of course, a merely symbolical attempt to express the inexpressible. People who take these symbols literally might as well think that when Christ told us to be like doves, He meant that we were to lay eggs.”
In the 1950s Lewis met and fell in love with Joy Davidman, an American writer, and convert from Judaism. The marriage was beautiful but brief and Joy died in 1960. The movie Shadowlands chronicled some of the magnificence of the relationship but, sadly, managed to expunge most of the Christianity from the story. What brought them together, what sustained them during the agony of Joy’s cancer and what saved Lewis after the loss was a commitment to Jesus Christ. Just as in Lewis’s day, the entertainment industry is not comfortable with such a notion. After Joy’s death Lewis wrote a short book entitled A Grief Observed, an exploration of his own feelings following his wife’s death. “Grief still feels like fear,” he said. “Up till this time I always had too little time. Now there is nothing but time. Almost pure time, empty successiveness.” He told friends he could no longer remember Joy’s face. Until it came to him that she was there all along, just waiting. Her face shone again in his mind and God’s love and certainty overwhelmed his pain.
Though his remaining years were never as happy as those spent with Joy, Lewis wrote and lectured, becoming a famous man in Europe as well as North America. Because he died on the same day that President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, Lewis’s death was not as noticed as it deserved to be. Yet many people grieved, even though grief was quite unnecessary. Lewis had known that what was to come was far greater than what we have already known. And he was reunited with Joy. As for Aslan, some say they heard him roar all day, from Oxford to the ends of the Earth.