The Guardian isn’t exactly renowned for covering the latest news about white, straight, relatively conservative, profoundly Christian men who died more than half-a-century ago. But it made an exception fairly recently in the case of CS Lewis, and for a story that wasn’t even especially important.
A few letters, it was reported, had been found from the Belfast-born author to a US scientist, discussing the tragic early death of the American’s son, and recalling the passing of Lewis’s wife. “You tell a most moving story. I too have lost what I most loved. Indeed unless we die young ourselves, we mostly do”, wrote Lewis. “We must die before them or see them die before us. And when we wish – and how agonizingly we do, o how perpetually! – it is entirely for ourselves, for our sakes not theirs.”
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It was nothing that Lewis hadn’t in essence said before, but it showed yet again how in this age when we fetishise the blackening of whited sepulchers, Lewis seems to escape the purge. He was convinced that within five years of his death he would be forgotten, but since 1963 – he died on the same day as President Kennedy and Aldous Huxley – his influence has instead grown exponentially. His books sell in enormous numbers, films are made of them, and there has even been a play and then a movie, Shadowlands, about his late-life romance.
Lewis, author of the Narnia stories, Miracles, Till We have Faces, Surprised by Joy and so many other implicit and direct defences of Christianity has, up to now at least, largely escaped character attack because there’s just not very much ammunition for the usual assassins to exploit. Some of the female characters in his fiction are hardly champions of liberation, and he was a relatively typical product of his era, but little if anything stands out as a cause for concern. Not, of course, that this always matters to those who cancel therefore they are.
I’m not sure if it’s still there, but some years ago there was a poignant if seldom noticed symbol in The Kilns in Oxford, the long time home of Lewis. It was the outline of a mezuzah: the small container attached to the doorposts of Jewish homes, containing parchment on which is written the Shema. It was there because one of Lewis’s two stepsons had asked to adopt the birth faith of his late mother, Joy Davidman. Lewis, the world-renowned champion of Christianity, had asked Jewish friends how he could best accommodate the boy.
It was a gently noble gesture, and that decency, or goodness if you like, is particularly significant at Easter as Christians, inevitably, face the now standard taunts not only from social media atheists but from television cynics who really should have better and braver things to do.
Lewis was most prominent between the mid 1930s and early 60s and as such inhabited a dramatically different age — good Lord, the BBC couldn’t get enough of him! But a snobbish disdain for faith had already emerged, particularly in the universities where he taught. He addressed this in his 1952 book Mere Christianity, based on a series of highly popular radio broadcasts.
“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 mere 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.”
Those who allegedly couldn’t understand “books written for grown-ups” knew exactly who they were. As a consequence they made Lewis’s life at Oxford progressively more difficult, which is one of the reasons why he moved to a more accepting Cambridge in 1954. But even then, his insistence of defending what he saw as Christian truth to a mass audience as well as within his own circle lost him support and allies.
Rather like Tolkien, a friend and another Easter warrior, he was always far more appreciated by his readers than by his peers. If he hadn’t become a Christian and hadn’t written children’s stories he would have been far more respected within the academy, especially for his remarkable lectures, and for his books The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition, and English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama.
Yet while he may not have been given his proper place in university circles, there is something almost hagiographical in the way he’s regarded in Christian circles, and within the Lewis industry there is, it must be said, a certain dreamy nostalgia. He’s the quintessential caricature of a fantasy don: all tweed and tea and leather armchairs. It’s no accident that he is a virtual cult in the United States, especially and in some ways ironically — he drank and smoked — within the evangelical community. American Protestants may be politically influential but they lack intellectual heroes, and Lewis does very nicely out of fulfilling this role.
There are numerous profound thinkers making the Christian case today, but none of them wrote a children’s story as timeless as The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, or something as deliciously and mischievously clever as The Screwtape Letters – if you’ve never heard John Cleese’s recording of the book about a senior devil writing to his junior, grab hold of it immediately. Or chronicled in a haunting book, A Grief Observed, how it felt to lose a spouse, where he observed that “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid.”
He once wrote, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen. Not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” That’s not always an acceptable sentiment more than 50 years after the man’s death, but Lewis never worried about what was acceptable, only about what he considered to be important. That, at heart, is why old Jack Lewis, father of Aslan and, as he said about his 1929 coming to Christianity, “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England”, simply won’t go away, even for The Guardian.