Archive for the ‘C. S. Lewis’ Category


Book Recommendation: C.S. Lewis A Grief Observed

May 5, 2014
Written after his wife’s tragic death as a way of surviving the “mad midnight moments,” A Grief Observed is C. S. Lewis’s honest reflection on the fundamental issues of life, death, and faith in the midst of loss. This work contains his concise, genuine reflections on that period: “Nothing will shake a man -- or at any rate a man like me -- out of his merely verbal thinking and his merely notional beliefs. He has to be knocked silly before he comes to his senses. Only torture will bring out the truth. Only under torture does he discover it himself.”

Written after his wife’s tragic death as a way of surviving the “mad midnight moments,” A Grief Observed is C. S. Lewis’s honest reflection on the fundamental issues of life, death, and faith in the midst of loss. This work contains his concise, genuine reflections on that period: “Nothing will shake a man — or at any rate a man like me — out of his merely verbal thinking and his merely notional beliefs. He has to be knocked silly before he comes to his senses. Only torture will bring out the truth. Only under torture does he discover it himself.”

Performing a little Blog House Cleaning here: swapping out some pages for posts and creating a new class of pages that hopefully will show readers of how much “stuff” lurks under their mouse just a click away…


C.S. Lewis published A Grief Observed under the pseudonym N. W. Clerk, (the N. W. is Anglo-Saxon shorthand for nat whilk, “I know not whom”). In fact, the book was never published under Lewis’ name while he lived. First published in 1961, it has been called an unsettling book and the use of a pseudonym seems to indicate that Lewis knew that it would be found so.

Some argue that it is not about Lewis’ anguish over his wife’s, Joy’s, death but instead a fictional account of grief. Mary Borhek summarizes the position of those who hold this view:  “The only reasons I can see for believing the book to be a fictionalized account are a desire to distance oneself from the extreme discomfort of confronting naked agony and an unwillingness to grant a revered spiritual leader and teacher permission to be a real, fallible, intensely real human being.”

Still others object to Lewis’ candid expressions of anger at God, suggesting the book demonstrates Lewis’ loss of faith: John Beversluis in his C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion states that “There is no case for Christianity in this book. Gone are the persuasive arguments and the witty analogies. Gone, too, are the confidence and urbanity evident in The Problem of Pain…The fundamental crisis of the book is a crisis of meaning, a crisis of such paralyzing magnitude that Lewis tries to distance himself from it in every possible way.”

Noelene Kidd in A Grief Observed: Art, Apology, or Autobiography? argues the book “is not simply a record of Lewis’s grief at the loss of his beloved wife…but a dissection of grief itself.  The work is chiefly an apology concealed by art.” Still others find the book, while a deeply moving account of loss, overly introspective and emotional, verging on the maudlin. Yet Lewis avoids bathos in the book at least in part because of a clipped, prose style characterized by short, simple sentences and brief, almost snapshot-like paragraphs. These stylistic devices prevent his wallowing in excessive self-pity; in effect, he becomes a surgeon analyzing a patient’s medical chart. Ironically, of course, he is at the same time both surgeon and patient.” 

Don King has written:

“A close consideration of the prose style of A Grief Observed suggests the book may be read as vers libre or free verse, poetry relying not upon a regular metrical pattern but instead upon pace or cadence. Furthermore, whereas conventional poetry places a premium upon the foot and the line, free verse finds its rhythm in the stanza. Accordingly, the short paragraphs of A Grief Observed function as stanzas linking it with other ostensibly prose works such as Psalms and the Song of Songs. If we read Lewis’ book this way, we may find that while his focus upon traditional poetic conventions in his consciously conceived poetry actually restrains his poetic impulse — that is, his concern with form overshadows his poetic sensibilities — the release he experiences unconsciously in free verse liberates his poetic impulse so that A Grief Observed becomes his greatest poem.”

As I read A Grief Observed I had all this in the back of my mind. Occasionally I would find myself pulling parts of it out and rewriting them in my mind to reflect more of what I saw in a poetic structure. Here are a few of what I did. I found they made the book more memorable for me, rather than saving a few quotations, which is my normal reading practice.

Her Absence

At first I was very afraid of going to places
where H. and I had been happy,
Our favorite pub, our favorite wood.
But I decided to do it at once,
Like sending a pilot up again
as soon as possible
after he’s had a crash.

it makes no difference.
Her absence is no more emphatic
in those places than anywhere else.
It’s not local at all.

I suppose that
if one were forbidden all salt
one wouldn’t notice it much more
in any one food than in another.
Eating in general
would be different,
every day, at every meal.
It is like that.

The act of living
is different all through.
Her absence is like the sky,
spread over everything.

After All Hope Was Gone

It is incredible how much happiness,
even how much gaiety,
we sometimes had together,
After all hope was gone.
How long, how tranquilly,
how nourishingly,
We talked together that last night!
And yet, not quite together.
There’s a limit to the ‘one flesh.’
You can’t really share someone else’s weakness,
or fear or pain.

What you feel may be bad.
It might conceivably be
as bad as what the other felt,
Though I should distrust anyone
who claimed that it was. 
But it would still be quite different.

When I speak of fear,
I mean the merely animal fear,
The recoil of the organism
from its destruction;
The smothery feeling;
the sense of being a rat in a trap.
It can’t be transferred.
The mind can sympathize;
The body, less.

In one way the bodies of lovers
can do it least.
All their love passages
have trained them to have,
not identical,
but complementary,
Even opposite,
feelings about one another.

We both knew this.
I had my miseries, not hers;
She had hers, not mine.
The end of hers would be
the coming-of-age of mine.

We were setting out on different roads.
This cold truth,
this terrible traffic regulation
(‘You, Madam, to the right
– you, Sir, to the left’)
Is just the beginning of the separation
Which is death itself.
Praise Is The Mode Of Love

Praise is the mode of love
which always has some element of joy in it.
Praise in due order;
Of Him as the giver,
Of her as the gift.
Don’t we in praise
somehow enjoy what we praise,
However far we are from it?

I must do more of this.
I have lost the fruition
I once had of H.
And I am far, far away
in the valley of my unlikeness,
From the fruition which,
If His mercies are infinite,
I may some time have of God.

But by praising I can still,
In some degree, enjoy her,
And already, in some degree,
Enjoy Him.
Better than nothing


An Imaginative, Not An Imaginary World – Alister McGrath

December 17, 2013
Clive Staples Lewis (1898–1963) was one of the intellectual giants of the twentieth century and arguably one of the most influential writers of his day. He was a Fellow and Tutor in English Literature at Oxford University until 1954, when he was unanimously elected to the Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University, a position he held until his retirement. Lewis wrote more than thirty books, allowing him to reach a vast audience, and his works continue to attract thousands of new readers every year. C. S. Lewis's most distinguished and popular accomplishments include Mere Christianity, Out of the Silent Planet, The Great Divorce, The Screwtape Letters, and the universally acknowledged classics in The Chronicles of Narnia. To date, the Narnia books have sold over 100 million copies and been transformed into three major motion pictures.

Clive Staples Lewis (1898–1963) was one of the intellectual giants of the twentieth century and arguably one of the most influential writers of his day. He was a Fellow and Tutor in English Literature at Oxford University until 1954, when he was unanimously elected to the Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University, a position he held until his retirement. Lewis wrote more than thirty books, allowing him to reach a vast audience, and his works continue to attract thousands of new readers every year. C. S. Lewis’ most distinguished and popular accomplishments include Mere Christianity, Out of the Silent Planet, The Great Divorce, The Screwtape Letters, and the universally acknowledged classics in The Chronicles of Narnia. To date, the Narnia books have sold over 100 million copies and been transformed into three major motion pictures.

In 2008 the London publishers HarperCollins invited Diane Simpson, a professional graphologist, to examine some specimens of the handwriting of C. S. Lewis. Simpson had no idea whom she was investigating. She found the “small, neat script” suggestive of someone who was “guarded and careful,” with sharp critical faculties.

Simpson also noticed something else:  “I wonder whether he has a garden shed of sorts (or some other sort world) in which to disappear when he chooses.” Simpson was absolutely right. Lewis did indeed have “some other sort of world” into which he would disappear — an imagined world we now know as Narnia.

Let us pause at this point. Narnia is an imaginative, not an imaginary world. Lewis was quite clear that a distinction had to be drawn between these ideas. The “imaginary” is something that has been falsely imagined, having no counterpart in reality. Lewis regards such an invented reality as opening the way to delusion. The “imaginative” is something produced the human mind as it tries to respond to something greater than itself, struggling to find images adequate to the reality.

The more imaginative a mythology, the greater its ability to “communicate more Reality to us.” For Lewis, the imaginative is to be seen as a legitimate and positive use of the human imagination, challenging the limits of reason and opening  the door to a deeper apprehension of reality.

So how did Lewis invent this imaginative world? And why? Was it a retreat into the security of his childhood at a time of personal and professional stress? Was Lewis like Peter Pan, an emotionally retarded boy who never really grew up, and Narnia his version of “Never Never Land?” There may be a grain of truth in these suggestions.

As we have already seen. Lewis turned to writing when he was stressed, finding relief in the exercise. Yet there is clearly another factor in play here: Lewis’ growing realization that children’s stories offered him a marvelous way of exploring philosophical and theological questions — such as the origins of evil, the nature of faith and the human desire for God. A good story could weave these themes together, using the imagination as the gateway to serious thinking.

The origins of the Narnia stories lay, Lewis tells us, in his imagination. It all began with an image of a faun carrying an umbrella and parcels through a snowy wood. Lewis’ celebrated description of the creative process depicts it as unfolding from mental images, which were consciously connected to form a consistent plot.

There are obvious important parallels with the origins of Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit. In a letter to W. H. Auden (1907-1973), Tolkien recalled being bored to death during the early 1930s marking school certificate exam papers (he needed the extra money), when for some inexplicable reason, an idea came into his head. “On a blank leaf I scrawled: `In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’ I did not and do not know why.”

Yet Lewis did not really see himself as “creating” Narnia. As he commented, “creation” is “an entirely misleading term.” Lewis preferred to think of human thought as “God-kindled,” and the writing process as the rearrangement of elements that God has provided. The writer takes “things that lie to hand,” and puts them to new use.

Like someone who plants a garden, the author is only one aspect of a “causal stream.” As we shall see, Lewis drew extensively on “elements” he found in literature. His skill lay  not in inventing these elements, but in the manner he wove them together to create the literary landmark that we know as the Chronicles of Narnia.


The Tyranny Of Liberal Sincerity – C.S. Lewis

November 2, 2013
To be 'cured' against one's will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals.

To be ‘cured’ against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals.

With the news over the past week that ObamaCare was sold to the American people on the basis of lies (“You can keep your health plan, your doctor, blah-blah-blah or ObamaCare will result in $2500 in savings to families blah-blah-blah, we found this commentary especially telling.


My contention is that good men (not bad men) consistently acting upon that position would act as cruelly and unjustly as the greatest tyrants. They might in some respects act even worse. Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies.

The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. This very kindness stings with intolerable insult.

To be ‘cured’ against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals.
From C.S. Lewis’s essay anthology “God in the Dock” (1948)


Lewis’ Belief in the Divinity Of Christ – Alister McGrath

October 28, 2013

Da Vinci’s figure of Christ in this painting holds a glass globe, symbol of the earth itself.The authenticity of this painting is being hotly debated. It may or may not be a genuine Leonardo da Vinci. The painting does not have the Mona Lisa’s smile, but the figure has a similarly steadfast gaze, and there is the same immediacy and slightly unnerving challenge in the eyes.

As a result of his conversation with Tolkien and Dyson, Lewis was able to grasp the imaginative appeal of Christianity. Yet this did not take the form in understanding of its individual elements — such as the core doctrines of the creeds. Rather, Lewis came to appreciate the comprehensive view of reality that he found in the Christian faith. Yet Lewis’ description of his journey of discovery specifically makes reference to wrestling with core doctrines, including the identity of Jesus of Nazareth. So when did this process of intellectual exploration take place?

Lewis recalled experiencing a process of intellectual clarification and crystallization, during which the more theological aspects of his faith finally fell into place. His account of this development in Surprised by Joy makes clear that it happened during a journey to Whipsnade Park Zoo, yet makes no reference to any specific dates:

I know very well when, but hardly how, the final step was taken. I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought.

We see here the repeated pattern of Lewis’ using a journey to mull over things in his mind, the pieces naturally falling into place without undue mental effort on his part. But when did this “final step” take place?

Lewis biographers have traditionally dated this “final step” to 28 September 1931, when Warnie drove Lewis to Whipsnade Park Zoo in Bedfordshire on a misty morning in the sidecar of his motorbike. It is now the received wisdom of Lewis biographers that this date marks Lewis’ conversion to Christianity.”This is supported by Warnie’s remark that it was during this “outing” in 1931 that Lewis decided to rejoin the church.

If this interpretation is correct, the final stages of Lewis’ from believing in God to commitment to Christianity might be pieced together as follows:

  1. 19 September 1931: A conversation with Tolkien and Dyson leads Lewis to realize that Christianity is a “true myth.”
  2. 28 September 1931: Lewis comes to believe in the divinity of Christ while being driven to Whipsnade Zoo in a motorbike by his brother, Warnie.
  3. 1 October 1931: Lewis tells Arthur Greeves that he has “passed over” from belief in God to belief in Christ.

Following this scenario, Lewis’ process of conversion to Christianity is quite rapid, its critical elements having taken place over a period of ten days (19-28 September 1931). This is the traditional understanding of Lewis’ gradual rediscovery of Christianity, and it fits in well with the evidence of his writings.

Lewis’ conversation with Tolkien and Dyson allowed him to catch a glimpse of the imaginative potential of the Christian story, illuminating questions that had troubled him for some time. Having experienced the “imaginative embrace” of Christianity, Lewis began the rational exploration of its landscape. This rational exploration, expressed in terms of Christianity’s doctrines, follows on from the captivation of the imagination through its images and stories.

As has often been observed, Lewis sees theory as secondary to reality — in effect, as intellectual reflection that arises after something has apprehended or appreciated, primarily through the imagination. Lewis grasped the reality of Christianity through his imagination, and began to try and make rational sense of what his imagination had captured and embraced.

The traditional account of Lewis’ conversion suggests that this process was essentially complete within ten days. Yet Lewis’ correspondence suggests that it may have been a more extended and complex process, taking months rather than days. So how confident can we be that Lewis’ Christological insight took place on the way to Whipsnade Zoo in September 1931?

Lewis’ account of the significant visit to Whipsnade Zoo in Surprised by Joy is traditionally held to refer to 28 September 1931, when he was driven to Whipsnade Zoo by Warnie in the sidecar of his motorbike. There is no doubt that Lewis visited Whipsnade on this occasion. But is this the occasion on which Lewis’ views on Christ were resolved? It is important to note that the narrative of Surprised by Joy makes no reference to Warnie, nor to a motorbike, nor to September, nor to 1931. Furthermore, Lewis wrote a long letter to his brother shortly after that visit, briefly recalling their day at Whipsnade — but making no reference to any religious transformation or significant theological adjustment on his part.

A closer examination of Warnie’s recollections of that day in September 1931 also raises some doubts about the traditional interpretation. Warnie’s reflections on that day are clearly not based on any personal and privileged disclosures from his brother, but from his own corelation of that journey with the narrative in Surprised by Joy. What some have interpreted as Warnie’s memory of a conversation with Lewis is is clearly Warnie’s later interpretation of an event. And, as we shall see, this interpretation of that event is open to question. What if Lewis had been to Whipsnade on another occasion, when Warnie was not present? What if that was the occasion for his theological clarification?

Lewis’ memory of that critical day at Whipsnade Zoo, as set out in Surprised by Joy, includes a lyrical passage recalling “the birds singing overhead and the bluebells underfoot,” commenting that this scene at “Wallaby Wood” had been quite ruined by more recent construction at the zoo. Yet the English bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) blooms from late April into late May (depending on the weather), and its leaves wither and disappear by the late summer.

Bluebells flower later than usual at Whipsnade, due to the slightly colder climate on the elevated downs on which the zoo is located. There would have been no sign of “bluebells underfoot” at Whipsnade in September. But they would have been blooming in profusion there in May and early June. Perhaps the significance of this fact has been overlooked by some, or the English bluebell has been confused with its Scottish counterpart (Campanula rotundifolia, known as the “harebell” in England), which continues to flower into September. Lewis’ “Edenic” recollection of the birds and bluebells at Whipsnade Zoo recorded in Surprised by Joy is clearly a memory of a late spring or early summer day, not a day in early autumn.

Lewis’ heightened attention to the bluebells may well reflect their symbolic association with this moment of insight — after all, Lewis tell us that he had long been a self-confessed “votary of the Blue Flower” (page 16). The “Blue Flower” motif in German Romanticism has complex historical roots. It was first stated in Novalis’s posthumously published fragment of a novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen (1802), and came to symbolize a longing for the elusive reconciliation of reason and imagination, the observed world outside the mind and the subjective world within. The bright blue European cornflower is often cited as the inspiration of this symbol. It is easily extended to  bluebells.

Upon reflection, it is quite clear that this “Blue Flower” passage in Surprised by Joy refers not to the autumn of 1931, but to a second visit to Whipsnade, made in the first week of June 1932, when Lewis was again driven to the zoo — but this time in a car on a “fine day” by Edward Foord-Kelcey (1859-1934). On 14June, shortly after this trip, Lewis wrote to his brother, specifically noting the “masses of bluebells” he had seen t his visit to Whipsnade, and commenting on the state of “Wallaby Wood.”

The phrasing of this section of the letter is very similar to that critical passage in Surprised by Joy. Might this later date mark the occasion when Lewis finally came to believe in the Incarnation, perhaps as the apex of his exploration of the Christian faith? If so, it would clearly represent a deepened understanding of his faith from within, as Lewis had identified himself as a Christian by this time. This would require a revision of the traditional chronology of events, as follows:

  1. 19 September 1931: A conversation with Tolkien and Dyson leads Lewis to realize that Christianity is a “true myth.”
  2. 1 October 1931: Lewis tells Arthur Greeves that he has “passed over” from belief in God to belief in Christ.
  3. 7 (?) June 1932: Lewis comes to believe in the divinity of Christ while being driven to Whipsnade Zoo in a car by Edward Foord-Kelcey.

So did Lewis’ restless, questing mind finally bring everything together in a journey to Whipsnade Zoo in September 1931, a week or so after his conversation with Tolkien? Or was the process of reflection and crystallization more extended, only being completed during a later journey to Whipsnade in June 1932? Lewis’ letter of 1 October 1931 to Greeves, in which he speaks of now “definitely believing in Christ,” could certainly be interpreted as an embryonic realization of the significance of Christ that needed extended exploration and formulation, culminating in June 1932. Yet his correspondence of this later period — including a letter of 14 June 1932 to Warnie — makes no explicit reference to such a development.

Nor can we eliminate the possibility that Lewis may have confused individual aspects of these two visits to Whipsnade in writing Surprised by Joy. He may even have fused them in his memory, bringing together the imagery and themes of two different visits, and telescoping them into one. So which of these two visits marks the true moment of illumination noted earlier how Lewis was not totally reliable concerning dates, and it is possible that the narrative in Surprised by Joy involves blurring of the boundaries between similar events.

We are left here, as so often in relation to this most tantalizing of Lewis’ works, wishing for more, yet forced to work with what we have. The best solution at present is to allow the traditional date of Lewis’ conversion to Christianity — September 1931 — to stand, while noting ambiguities and uncertainties that surround it. Lewis’ letter to Greeves of 1 October 1931 makes most sense if a decisive Christological step has already been taken, even if the full unfolding and exploration of insight continued into the following year.

Yet whenever Lewis’ insight is to be dated, it is to be seen as bringing to a conclusion an extended process of reflection and commitment, which proceeded in a series of stages. We cannot seize on a single moment — such as this one — as defining or dating Lewis’ “conversion” to Christianity instead, we can trace an ascending arc of reflection, of which the conversation with Tolkien represents a critical imaginative transition, and the trip to Whipsnade Zoo its logical outworking.

One point on this ascending arc of Christian commitment merits special comment. Lewis attended a service of Holy Communion for the first time since his childhood at Holy Trinity Church, Headington Quarry, on Christmas Day 1931. In a long letter to his brother, Lewis briefly yet explicitly mentions attending the “early celebration” on that day at Holy Trinity, Headington Quarry — in other words, a service of Holy Communion. Lewis would have no doubt that his brother would have understood the significance of this development, given the tradition of the Church of England at this time.

What Lewis did not know was that Warnie had made a similar journey of faith, and had received communion for the first time since his childhood at the Bubbling Well Chapel in Shanghaialso on Christmas Day 1931. The two brothers, unknown to each other, had made a public expression of commitment to Christianity on exactly the same day.

In the end, it is not so much the precise date of Lewis’ conversion to Christianity as its implications for his future writings that is of ultimate importance. His conversion might, after all, have been an inner event of importance to Lewis, but without any obvious impact on his literary work. For example, T. S. Eliot converted to Christianity in 1927, generating much publicity in doing so. Yet many would suggest that Eliot’s subsequent writings were less shaped by this conversion than talk expected.Lewis is different. From the outset, Lewis seems to have realized if Christianity was true, it resolved the intellectual and imaginative riddles that had puzzled him since his youth. His youthful “treaty with reality” had been his own attempt to impose an arbitrary (yet convenient) order on a chaotic world.

Now he began to realize that there was a deeper order grounded in the nature of God, which could be discerned — and which once grasped, made sense of culture, history, science, and above all the acts of literary creation that he valued so highly and made his life’s study.Lewis’ coming to faith brought not simply understanding to his reading of literature; it brought both motivation and theoretical underpinning to his own literary creations — best seen in his late work Till We Have Faces (1956), but also evident in the Chronicles of Narnia.

It is simply not possible to make sense of Lewis’ work as a scholar and author without grasping the ordering principles of his inner world which — after a period of incubation and reflection — finally began to fall into place in the early autumn of 1931, and reached their final synthesis by the summer of 1932. When Lewis went to spend a holiday with Arthur Greeves between 15 and 29 August 1932, he was ready to map out his new and essentially complete vision of the Christian faith in the work that became The Pilgrim’s Regress. Although Lewis would continue to explore the relation of reason and imagination in the domain of faith, the fundamental features of his settled understanding of Christianity were now in place.


Lewis’ Conversion: A Reconsideration – Alister McGrath

October 25, 2013
Magdalen College,1925.

Magdalen College,1925.

In Surprised by Joy, as we have just seen, Lewis dates the moment of his conversion to the Trinity Term of 1929. Lewis here refers to Oxford’s eight week teaching term, which is to be dated from 28 April to 22 June 1929 This date is accepted and repeated in every major biography of Lewis to date. The traditional chronology of Lewis’ conversion to Christianity is usually stated in terms of five landmarks:

  1. 28 April-22 June 1929: Lewis comes to believe in God.
  2. 19 September 1931: A conversation with Tolkien leads to realize that Christianity is a “true myth.”
  3. 28 September 1931: Lewis comes to believe in the divinity of Christ while being driven to Whipsnade Zoo.
  4. 1 October 1931: Lewis tells Arthur Greeves that he has “passed over” from belief in God to belief in Christ.
  5. 15-29 August 1932: Lewis describes his intellectual journey to God in The Pilgrim’s Regress, written at this time in Belfast

I do not believe that this chronology is the best explanation of the evidence contained in the primary sources, and propose a significant revision. Lewis’s spiritual journey, by my account, is a year shorter that traditionally been believed. The chronology which I propose, based on a close reading of the primary sources, is as follows:

  1. March June 1930: Lewis comes to believe in God.
  2. 19 September 1931: A conversation with Tolkien leads Lewis to realize that Christianity is a “true myth.”
  3. 28 September 1931: Lewis comes to believe in the divinity of Christ while being driven to Whipsnade Zoo.
  4. 1 October 1931: Lewis tells Arthur Greeves that he has “passed over” from belief in God to belief in Christ.
  5. 15-29 August 1932: Lewis describes his intellectual journey to God in The Pilgrim’s Regress, written at this time in Belfast.

What is the evidence for this proposed revision of the traditional view of the development of Lewis’ religious beliefs and commitments? To begin with, let us consider the date of Lewis’s conversion to theism – that is to say, when he began to believe in God. There is no evidence for any change of heart on this matter in any of Lewis’ writings dating from 1929, the time of his father’s death. But then things change in 1930. And only two people are allowed to know about it.

In a 1931 letter to Arthur Greeves, Lewis remarked on how he divided his acquaintances into “first class” and “second class” friends. In the former category, he placed Owen Barfield and Greeves himself; in the latter, Tolkien. If Lewis was to tell any of his circle about this new development in his life, it would have been his “first class” friends, Barfield and Greeves. Yet there is nothing in Lewis’s correspondence of 1929 with these two individuals which suggests that something significant had happened to him at any point during that year.

Yet things look very different in 1930. Lewis’ correspondence with Barfield and Greeves now points to a significant development, corresponding to the transition Lewis describes in Surprised by Joy, having taken place in (or perhaps slightly before) Trinity Term 1930 — about a year later that Lewis’ own account. In what follows, we shall examine one crucial letter from Lewis to each of these two “first class” friends. Both date from 1930, not 1929.

First, consider his very short, deeply introspective letter to Owen Barfield, dated 3 February 1930. In this letter, following a brief introduction, Lewis writes as follows:

Terrible things are happening to me. The “Spirit” or “Real I” is showing an alarming tendency to become much more personal and is taking the offensive, and behaving just like God. You’d better come on Monday at the latest or I may have entered a monastery.

At this point, Professor Henry Wyld came to visit Lewis and interrupted his flow of thought. Like Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “person from Porlock,” who disrupted the composition of his great poem “Kubla Khan” in 1797, Wyld prevented Lewis from saying anything more on this matter to Barfield. But what he says is enough. This is precisely the ,development that Lewis later described in Surprised by Joy, though he located it in Trinity Term 1929. God was becoming real to him, and taking the offensive. Lewis felt he was about to be overwhelmed by a greater force. As he put it in Surprised by Joy, he was being “dragged through the doorway.”

Lewis’ comments to Barfield must prefigure his conversion; they make no sense if they took place a year later, referring to an experience Lewis had already undergone. Barfield himself was clear about the importance of this letter in a 1998 interview regarding its significance it marked “the beginning of his conversion.” Yet Barfield’s interviewer at this point (Kim Gilnett) mistakenly assigned this letter to accommodating it within the framework proposed by Lewis in Surprised by Joy — despite the fact that the letter dates from the following year. This letter anticipates exactly the themes that Lewis described as converging on the devastating, imminent moment of conversion, which clearly lay ahead of, not behind, him.

The second significant letter was written to Arthur Greeves on 29 October 1930. As we noted earlier, Lewis explicitly states that he began to attend chapel at Magdalen College following his conversion. There is no hint of Lewis’ attending college chapel on a regular basis in his correspondence with anyone in 1929, or in the first half of 1930. Yet significant section of this 1930 letter to Greeves, Lewis mentions that he has now “started going to morning Chapel at 8:00am.” which meant that he had to go to bed much earlier than he had used to. This is clearly presented as a new development, a significant change in his routine, affecting his personal working habits, dating from the beginning of the academic year 1930-1931.

If Lewis’s own chronology for his conversion is correct, he would have begun attending college chapel in October 1929. There is no reference in his correspondence of that period to any such change of habit. Furthermore, the reference to attending college chapel in the letter of October 1930 clearly implies that Lewis was now doing something that was not part of his regular routine up to this point. If Lewis really was converted during the Trinity Term of 1929, why did he wait over a year before starting to attend college chapel? It makes little sense.

The traditional date of Lewis’ conversion would seem to require review. The evidence is best understood if Lewis’s subjective location of the event in his inner world is accepted, but his chronological location of the event is seen to have been misplaced. The nature or reality of Lewis’s conversion experience is not being called into question. The problem is that Lewis’s location of this event in the external world of space and time appears to be inaccurate. Lewis’s conversion is best understood as having taken place in the Trinity Term of 1930, not 1929. In 1930, Trinity Term fell between 27 April and 21 June.

Yet in rediscovering God in this way, Lewis had reached only a resting place, not his final destination. There was another milestone which had to be passed, which Lewis regarded as significant – a shift from a generic belief in God (often referred to as “theism”) to a specific commitment to Christianity. This appears to have been an extended and complex process, to which others were midwives. Some — such as George Herbert — spoke to Lewis as living voices from the past. Yet one person in particular spoke to Lewis in the present. In what follows, we shall tell the story of a nighttime conversation between Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, which totally changed Lewis’s outlook Christianity.

A Nighttime Conversation With Tolkien: September 1931
The final chapter of Surprised by Joy speaks briefly and tantalizingly of Lewis’s transition from “pure and simple” theism to Christianity. Lewis takes pains to make it clear that this conversion had nothing to do with desire or longing. The God to whom he surrendered in Trinity Term 1930 was “sheerly nonhuman.” He had no idea that “there ever had been ever would be any connection between God and Joy.” Lewis’s conversion was essentially rational, unrelated to his long-standing fascination with “Joy.” “No kind of desire was present at all.” His conversion to theism was, in one way, a purely rational matter.

Lewis’ rhetoric at this point can be understood as preempting a long standing atheist caricature of faith as “wish-fulfillment.” This idea, given expression in the writings of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), has an intellectual pedigree going back into the mists of time.

In this view, God is a consoling dream for life’s losers, a spiritual crutch for the inadequate and needy.” Lewis distances himself from any such idea. The existence of God, Lewis insists, was not something that he wished to be true; he valued his independence far too much for that. “I had always wanted, above all things, not to be `interfered with.” In effect, Lewis was confronted with something that he did not wish to be true, but was forced to concede was true.

The rational God bore little, if any, relation to Lewis’ world of imagination and longing on the one hand, and to the person of Jesus of Nazareth on the other. So how and when did Lewis make these deeper connections, so characteristic of his mature writing? The simple answer is that Surprised by Joy does not really tell us. Lewis pleads that he is now “the least informed” on this final stage of his spiritual journey from “mere Theism to Christianity,” and that he may not fully be relied upon to provide a complete or accurate account.

What we find instead is a paper trail of disconnected ideas and memories, leaving the reader with the task of trying to link these thoughts and episodes into a coherent whole. Yet it is clear from Lewis’ correspondence that one extended conversation was of critical importance in enabling him to transition from belief in God to acceptance of Christianity. In view of its importance, we shall consider it in detail.

On Saturday, 19 September 1931, Lewis hosted Hugo Dyson (1896-1975), a lecturer in English at nearby Reading University, and J. R. R. Tolkien for dinner at Magdalen College.” Dyson and Tolkien already knew each other, having been exact contemporaries at Exeter College, where they studied English together. It was a still, warm evening. After dinner, they went for an extended stroll along Addison’s Walk, a circular footpath following the River Cherwell within the college grounds, discussing the nature of metaphor and myth.

After a wind came up, causing leaves to fall to the ground with a noise like pattering rain, the three men retired to Lewis’ rooms and continued the discussion, which had now shifted to Christianity. Tolkien eventually made his excuses at 3.00 a.m., and headed home. Lewis and Dyson going for another hour. This evening of conversation with these two colleagues played a critical role in Lewis’ development. The imagery of wind seemed to him to hint at the mysterious presence and action of God.

Although Lewis now kept no diary, he wrote two letters to Greeves shortly afterwards, explaining the events of that night and their significance or his reflections on religious faith. In his first letter, dated 1 October, Lewis informed Greeves of the outcome of the evening’s discussion, but not its substance:

I have just passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ — in Christianity. I will try to explain this another time. My long night talk with Dyson and Tolkien had a good deal to do with it.

Greeves naturally wanted to know more about this intriguing development. Lewis provided a more extended account of the evening’s events in his next letter, dated 18 October. Lewis explained that his difficulty had been he could not see “how the life and death of Someone Else (whoever he was) 2000 years ago could help us here and now.” An inability to make sense of this had been holding Lewis back “for the last year or so.”

Lewis could admit that Christ might provide us with a good example, but that was about as far as it went. He realized that the New Testament took a very different view, using terms such as propitiation or sacrifice to refer to the true meaning of this event. But these expressions, Lewis declared, seemed to him to be “either silly or shocking.”

Although Lewis’s “long night talk” involved both Dyson and Tolkien, it is Tolkien’s approach that seems to have opened a door for Lewis to a new way of looking at the Christian faith. To understand how Lewis passed from theism to Christianity, we need to reflect further on the ideas of J. R. R. Tolkien. For it was he, more than anyone else, who helped Lewis along in the final stage of what the medieval writer Bonaventure of Bagnoregio (1221-1274) describes as the “journey of the mind to God.”

Tolkien helped Lewis to realize that the problem lay not in Lewis’s rational failure to understand the theory, but in his imaginative failure to grasp its significance. The issue was not primarily about truth, but about meaning. When engaging the Christian narrative, Lewis was limiting himself to his reason when he ought to be opening himself to the deepest intuitions of his imagination.

Tolkien argued that Lewis ought to approach the New Testament with the same sense of imaginative openness and expectation that he brought to the reading of pagan myths in his professional studies. But, as Tolkien emphasized, there was a decisive difference. As Lewis expressed in his second letter to Greeves, “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.”

The reader must appreciate that the word myth is not being used here in the loose sense of a “fairy tale” or the pejorative sense of a “deliberate lie told in order to deceive.” This is certainly how Lewis once understood myths — as “lies breathed through silver.” As used in the conversation between Lewis and Tolkien, the term myth must be understood in its technical literary sense if the significance of this exchange is to be appreciated.

For Tolkien, a myth is a story that conveys “fundamental things” other words, that tries to tell us about the deeper structure of things. The best myths, he argues, are not deliberately constructed falsehoods, but are rather tales woven by people to capture the echoes of deeper truths. Myths offer a fragment of that truth, not its totality. They are like splintered fragments of the true light.

Yet when the full and true story is told, it is able to bring to fulfillment all that was right and wise in those fragmentary visions of things. For Tolkien, grasping Christianity’s meaningfulness took precedence over its truth. It provided the total picture, unifying and transcending these fragmentary and imperfect insights.

It is not difficult to see how Tolkien’s way of thinking brought clarity and coherence to the jumble of thoughts that so excited Lewis’s mind at this time. For Tolkien, a myth awakens in its readers a longing for so thing that lies beyond their grasp. Myths possess an innate capacity expand the consciousness of their readers, allowing them to transcend themselves. At their best, myths offer what Lewis later termed “a real though unfocused gleam of divine truth falling on human imagination, Christianity, rather than being one myth alongside many others, is thus the fulfillment of all previous mythological religions. Christianity to a true story about humanity, which makes sense of all the stories that humanity tells about itself.

Tolkien’s way of thinking clearly spoke deeply to Lewis. It answered a question that had troubled Lewis since his teenage years: how could Christianity alone be true, and everything else be false? Lewis now realized that he did not have to declare that the great myths of the pagan age were totally false; they were echoes or anticipations of the full truth, which was made known only in and through the Christian faith.

Christianity brings to fulfillment and completion imperfect and partial insights about reality, scattered abroad in human culture. Tolkien gave Lewis a lens, a way seeing things which allowed him to see Christianity as bringing to fulfillment such echoes and shadows of the truth that arose from human questing and yearning. If Tolkien was right, similarities between Christianity and pagan religions “ought to be there.” There would be a problem only if such similarities did not exist.

Perhaps more important, Tolkien allowed Lewis to reconnect the worlds of’ reason and imagination. No longer was the realm of longing to be sidelined or suppressed, as the “New Look” demanded, and as Lewis feared belief in God might imply. It could be woven — naturally .and convincingly — into the greater narrative of reality that Tolkien had presented. As Tolkien later put it, God had willed that “the hearts of Men should seek beyond the world and should find no rest therein.”

Christianity Lewis realized, allowed him to affirm the importance of longing and yearning within a reasonable account of reality. God was the true “source from which those arrows of Joy had been shot … ever since childhood.” Reason and imagination alike were thus affirmed and reconciled by the Christian vision of reality.

Tolkien thus helped Lewis realize that a “rational” faith was not necessarily imaginatively and emotionally barren. When rightly understood, the Christian faith could ‘integrate reason, longing, and imagination.


C.S. Lewis’ Rediscovery Of God – Alister McGrath

October 24, 2013
“One of the first results of my Theistic conversion was a marked decrease, the fussy attentiveness which I had so long paid to the progress of my own opinions and the states of my own mind." One practical outcome of this decision to break with this narcissistic introspection was inevitably having failed to keep up his diary since March 1927

“One of the first results of my Theistic conversion was a marked decrease of the fussy attentiveness which I had so long paid to the progress of my own opinions and the states of my own mind.” One practical outcome of this decision to break with this narcissistic introspection was inevitably having failed to keep up his diary since March 1927.


Lewis’ writings of the early 1930s show him to have been searching for a fundamental principle of order in life – what ancient Greek philosophers might have termed an archē — that was not a human invention but was grounded in a deeper order of things. Where could such a unifying vision of reality be found? [For a discussion of the concept of archē, [read Anthony Esolen here.]

One of the reasons Lewis was drawn to study the literature of the Middle Ages was his sense that it witnessed to an understanding of the scheme of things that had been lost in the West through the trauma of the recent Great War. For Lewis, medieval culture offered an imaginative vision of a unified cosmic and world order, expressed in poems such as Dante’s Divine Comedy. There was a “big picture” of reality which was able to embrace its fine detail. Works such as the Divine Comedy, Lewis argued, demonstrate that “medieval art attains a unity of the highest order, because it embraces the greatest diversity of subordinated detail.”

We see here the literary expression of a fundamentally theological idea — namely, that there is a certain way of seeing reality that brings it into the sharpest focus, illuminating the shadows and allowing its inner unity to be seen. This, for Lewis, is a “realizing imagination”  of seeing or “picturing” reality that is faithful to the way things actually are.’°

Lewis’ literary reflections here resonate with his own inner personal quest for truth and meaning. In part, Lewis’s deep love for the best literature of the Middle Ages reflects his belief that it had found something that modernity had lost — and that he himself yearned to recover. Could the disruption of unity and continuity revealed by the Great War be healed? Might there be a way of bringing things back together again? Was there a way of reconciling his reason and imagination?

Gradually, the pieces of this jigsaw puzzle began to fall into place, eventually to come into sharp focus in a devastating moment of illumination. In Surprised by Joy, Lewis sets out the series of moves which led him to faith in God, using a chessboard analogy.” None of these is logically or philosophically decisive; all are at best suggestive. Yet their force not in their individual importance, but in their cumulative weight. Lewis portrays these, not as moves which he made, but moves which were against him. The narrative of Surprised by Joy is not that of Lewis’s discovery of God, but of God’s patient approach to Lewis.

What Lewis describes in Surprised by Joy is not a process of logical deduction: A, therefore B, therefore C. It is much more like a process of crystallization, by which things that were hitherto disconnected and unrelated are suddenly seen to fit into a greater scheme of things, which both affirms their validity and indicates their interconnectedness. Things fall into place. A fundamental harmony between theory and observation emerges, once things are seen in the right way.

It is like a scientist who, confronted with many seemingly unconnected observations, wakes up in the middle of the night having discovered a theory which accounts for them. (The great French physicist H Poincare once remarked, “It is by logic that we prove, but by intuition we discover.” It is like a literary detective, confronted with a series of  clues, who realizes how things must have happened, allowing every clue to be positioned within a greater narrative. In every case, we find the saner pattern — a realization that, if this was true, everything else falls into place naturally, without being forced or strained. And by its nature, it demands assent from the lover of truth. Lewis found himself compelled to accept a vision of reality that he did not really wish to be true, and certainly not cause to be true.

Any attempt to tell the story of Lewis’s conversion has to try and relate the events of his outer and inner worlds. Lewis presents himself as doing this in Surprised by Joy, telling the story of two quite different yet interconnected — worlds: his external worlds of English schools and Oxford University, and his internal world of yearning for `Joy,” racked for so long by a tension between the rational and the imaginative.

On the one side a many-islanded sea of poetry and myth; on the other a glib and shallow “rationalism.” Nearly all that I loved I believed to be imaginary; nearly all that I believed to be real I thought grim and meaningless.

It is not, however, always easy to correlate events in Lewis’s inner world with the historical events in the world outside. For example, in the external world, Lewis travelled on a bus up Headington Hill, on his way from Magdalen College to his home in the former village of Headington (recently incorporated into the city of Oxford); in his internal world, he experienced the collapse of his mental defenses against the approach of a God whom he never wanted to acknowledge, let alone meet. Two quite different journeys thus converged on that single bus trip.

One of the chief difficulties in reading Surprised by Joy lies in attempting construct a map of Lewis’ development which adequately and accurately links the events in his inner and outer worlds. Lewis’ own account of the relationship between these worlds, to the extent that it can be verified, is not always accurate. As we shall argue in this chapter, rediscovery of God is almost certainly not to be dated from the sum-r of 1929, as Lewis himself suggests in Surprised by Joy, but from the late spring or early summer of 1930.

Yet the subjective reality of Lewis’ memories is not to be doubted. Lewis is quite clear about the rearrange-it of the furniture of his mind, and the factors which led to this; the difficulty lies in the historical timing of that rearrangement

The process of crystallization around belief in God appears to have taken place over an extended period of time, culminating in a dramatic moment of decision. His resistance to what he increasingly realized to be true could not be sustained. This was not something he sought, but something that seemed to seek him.

Lewis’ prose here recalls Blaise Pascal’s famous distinction between the anodyne, disinterested “God of the philosophers,” and the fiery, living “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” What Lewis had thought to be at best an abstract philosophical idea proved to have a life and will of its own:

As the dry bones shook and came together in that dreadful valley of Ezekiel’s, so now a philosophical theorem, cerebrally entertained, began to stir and heave and throw off its gravecloths and stood upright and became a living presence. I was to be allowed to play at philosophy no longer.

A close reading of Lewis’ correspondence confirms what this passage in Surprised by Joy suggests — a previous dabbling with divinity that has not been fully acknowledged. In a 1920 letter to his Oxford friend Leo Baker, Lewis remarked that, while reflecting on the philosophical question of the existence of matter, he had come to the conclusion that the least objectionable theory” was to “postulate some sort of God.” Perhaps, he mused, this was a “sign of grace.” He had “stopped defying heaven.” Was this the “playing at philosophy” that Lewis had in mind?

The key point about this passage in Surprised by Joy is that Lewis now describes an assertive, active, and questing God, not simply a mental construct or philosophical game. God was pounding on the door of Lewis’ mind and life. Reality was imposing itself upon him, vigorously and aggressively demanding a response. `Amiable agnostics will talk cheerfully about `man’s search for God.’ To me, as I then was, they might as well have talked about the mouse’s search for the cat.”

One of the most powerful visual images in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is the melting of snow, signifying the breaking of the power and the imminent return of Aslan. Lewis applied this potent image to describe his own diminishing resistance to the divine advent in Surprised by Joy, as he reflected on his own conversion: “I felt as if I were a man of snow at long last beginning to melt. The melting was starting in melt. The melting was starting in my back drip-drip and presently trickle-trickle. I rather disliked the feeling.

Lewis’ 1916 “treaty with reality” was now in the process of collapsing around him, as he realized he could no longer maintain his old mental frontiers in the light of the superior forces mustered against him. “The reality which no treaty can be made was upon me.” The point that Lewis is making here is too easily overlooked. The image of a “treaty with reality” conveys a radical and comprehensive compartmentalization of thought that enables troubling and disturbing thoughts to be locked away so that they do not disturb everyday life.

We saw Lewis using precisely this strategy to deal with the horror of the Great War. Reality was subjugated to thought which was like a net thrown over reality, taming it and robbing its ability to take by surprise and overcome. What Lewis discovered was that he could no longer domesticate reality. Like a tiger, it refused to be constrained by its artificial cage. It broke free, and overwhelmed its former captor.

Lewis finally bowed to what he now recognized as inevitable. “In the Trinity term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.” Lewis now believed in God; he was not yet a Christian. Nevertheless, Lewis tells us that as a public manifestation of this theistic belief, he then began to attend college chapel, and became a regular worshipper at his local parish church of Holy Trinity, Headington Quarry, not far from his home.

This change in behavior, which Lewis dates to Oxford’s Trinity Term of 1929  (that is, between 28 April and 22 June 1929), is of enormous importance, as it allows the correlation of Lewis’s inner and outer worlds. A change in the way Lewis thought led to a change in his public behavior – a something which marked a change in his habits and could be seen by others.

Lewis’ new and unexpected interest in chapel was the subject of much discussion and intrigue among other Magdalen dons in the early 1930s. The American philosopher Paul Elmer More, who visited Magdalen in 1933, later wrote of intense college gossip about Lewis’ new habit of attending chapel. Yet Lewis insists that, at this stage, this was “a merely symbolical and provisional practice,” which neither indicated nor enabled a specific commitment to Christianity” Yet it is a marker for the date of his conversion to theism. If we can identify  when Lewis began to attend chapel, we have a clue to when he started to believe in God.

More important, Lewis began to see himself in a new way. “One of the first results of my Theistic conversion was a marked decrease, the fussy attentiveness which I had so long paid to the progress of my own opinions and the states of my own mind.” One practical outcome of this decision to break with this narcissistic introspection was inevitably having failed to keep up his diary since March 1927, Lewis abandoned any thought of taking it up again. “If Theism had done nothing else for me, I should still be thankful that it cured me of the time-wasting and foolish practice of keeping a diary.”

Having ceased to keep a diary since 1927, Lewis’ recollection of events after that date turns out to be somewhat unreliable. As he himself remarked in 1957, he could now “never remember dates.” His brother was more emphatic: Lewis had a “life-long inability to track of dates.” Surprised by Joy is primarily an account of changes in Lewis’ internal world, which are correlated — at times a little loosely and uncertainly — with events in the external world. It is “suffocatingly subjective,” an introspective piece of writing dealing primarily with the rearrangement of Lewis’ interior world of thought and experience.

The traditional dating of Lewis’ transition to belief in God, set out by Lewis himself, locates this shift in the early summer of 1929. Yet this dating raises some puzzling questions. For example, if Lewis really came to faith in God around then, why did his correspondence around the time of the death of his father, several months later, contain no hint whatsoever of a belief in God, however emergent, on his part? Might his father’s death instead have acted as a stimulus for Lewis to reflect more deeply on the question of God in the midst of the emotional turmoil that he experienced around this time?

In preparing for this biography, I read all of Lewis’s published works in their order of composition. At no point in Lewis’s writings of 1929 did I discern any signs of the dramatic developments that he describes as having taken place in his inner life that year. There is no hint of change in tone or tempo in any works written up to January 1930.

Furthermore, Lewis makes it clear that, as a result of his conversion, he began to attend church and college chapel. There is trace of such a significant — and publicly observable — change of habit, either as a topic of observation or discussion, in his correspondence of 1929. Even allowing for Lewis’s reluctance to self-disclose, his writings of this period do not point to any kind of conversion experience in 1929.  As we shall see, however, his writings of 1930 tell a very different story.

So is Lewis right about the date of his own conversion as stated in Surprised by Joy? Might Lewis’s memory be faulty at this point? There is no doubt that Lewis recalled a conversion experience in his inner world, and describes its shape with some care. But how does this relate to the events of his outer world of years and months? Might Lewis have made a mistake? After all, there are other historical errors in the narrative of Surprised by Joy. (For example, Lewis recalls his first reading of George MacDonald’s Phantastes as taking place in August 1915, but this should actually be dated to March 1916.)

Given the importance of this question, it needs to be considered in greater depth. More on this in our next post…


A Most Reluctant Convert – Alister McGrath

October 23, 2013
C. S. Lewis is today remembered as a Christian writer. Yet the tone of his writings of the early 1920s is unquestionably atheistic, severely critical if not totally dismissive of religion in general and Christianity in particular. So how and why did he change his mind?

C. S. Lewis is today remembered as a Christian writer. Yet the tone of his writings of the early 1920s is unquestionably atheistic, severely critical if not totally dismissive of religion in general and Christianity in particular. So how and why did he change his mind?

Friendship with J. R. R. Tolkien
Lewis’ teaching responsibilities extended beyond Magdalen College at Oxford. He was member of Oxford University’s Faculty of English Language and  Literature, and delivered intercollegiate lectures on aspects of English literature — such as “Some Eighteenth-Century Precursors of the Romantic Movement.” He also attended meetings of the faculty which largely consisted of discussing teaching and administrative arrangements. These meetings were held at 4.00 p.m., following afternoon tea at Merton College, the home base of Oxford’s two Merton Professors of English, and were often referred to as the “English Tea.”

It was at an English Tea on 11 May 1926 that Lewis first met J. R. R. Tolkien — a “smooth, pale, fluent little chap,” who had joined Oxford’s English faculty as Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo- Saxon the previous year. Lewis and Tolkien would quickly find themselves embattled over the shape of the Oxford English curriculum. Tolkien argued for a curriculum closely focused on ancient and medieval English texts, requiring the mastery of Old and Middle English; Lewis believed English was best taught by focusing on English literature after Geoffrey Chaucer (ca. 1343-1400).

Tolkien was prepared to defend his corner, and worked hard to promote the study of forgotten languages. To advance his agenda, founded a study group he named the Kolbitar, aimed at fostering an appreciation of Old Norse and its associated literature. Lewis became a member. The curious term Kolbitar was adopted from Icelandic; it literally means “coal-biters,” and was a derisive term for Norsemen who refused to join the hunt or fight battles, preferring instead to stay indoors and enjoy the protective warmth of the fire.

As Lewis put it, the term (which he insisted is to be pronounced “Coal-beet-are”) refers to “old cronies who sit around the fire so close that they look as if they were biting the -coals ” Lewis found this “little Icelandic club” a massive stimulus to his imagination, throwing him back into “a wild dream of northern skies and Valkrie music.”

The relationship between Lewis and Tolkien is one of the most important of his personal and professional life. They had much in common — in terms of both literary interests and shared experiences of the battlefields of the Great War. Yet Lewis’ correspondence and diary make little save incidental reference to Tolkien until late in 1929. Then evidence of a deepening relationship begins to emerge. “One week I was up till 2.30 on Monday (talking to the Anglo Saxon Professor Tolkien),” Lewis wrote Arthur Greeves, “(who came back with me to College from a society and sat discoursing of the gods & giants & Asgard for three hours).”

Something that Lewis said that evening must have persuaded Tolkien to take the younger man into his confidence. Tolkien asked Lewis to read a long narrative poem he had been composing since his arrival in Oxford, titled The Lay of Leithian.

Tolkien was a senior Oxford academic with a public reputation in the field of philology, but with a personal and intensely private passion for mythology. Tolkien had drawn the curtains aside from his private inner self and invited Lewis into his sanctum. It was a personal and professional risk for the older man.

Lewis could not have known it, but at this point Tolkien needed a “critical friend,” a mentor who would encourage and criticize, affirm and approve his writing — above all, someone who would force him to bring it to completion. He had had such “critical friends” in the past, in the form of two of his old school friends — Geoffrey Bache Smith (1894-1916) and Christopher Luke Wiseman (1893-1987). However, Smith had joined the Lancashire Fusiliers, and died of wounds inflicted in the Battle of the Somme and Wiseman had drifted from Tolkien after his appointment in 1926 as headmaster of the Queen’s College, Taunton, in England’s West Country.

Tolkien was a niggling perfectionist, and he knew it. In. late story Leaf by Niggle — which deals with a painter who can never finish his painting of a tree because of his constant desire to expand and improve it — can be seen as a self-parodying critique of Tolkien’s difficulties in writing. Someone had to help him conquer his perfectionism. And what Tolkien needed he found in Lewis.

We may safely assume that Tolkien breathed a deep sigh when Lewis responded enthusiastically to the poem. “I can quite I say,” he wrote to Tolkien, “that it is ages since I have had an evening of such delight.” While we must pause the telling of this particular story as we move on to focus on other matters, it is no exaggeration to Lewis would become the chief midwife to one of the great works of twentieth-century literature — Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

Yet in a sense, Tolkien would also be a midwife for Lewis. It is arguable that Tolkien removed the final obstacle that stood in Lewis’s his rediscovery of the Christian faith — a complex and important story which I will present now…

Lewis is today remembered as a Christian writer. Yet the tone of his writings of the early 1920s is unquestionably atheistic, severely critical if not totally dismissive of religion in general and Christianity in particular. So how and why did he change his mind? In this chapter, we shall consider the slow conversion of Lewis from his early atheism, initially to a firm intellectual belief in God by the summer of 1930, and finally to an explicit and informed commitment to Christianity by the summer of 1932. It is a complex story, worth telling in detail both on account of its intrinsic interest and as a means of allowing us to understand Lewis’s rise to fame as a Christian voice in the quite different worlds of literary scholarship and popular culture.

The English Literary Religious Renaissance Of The 1920s
In 1930, the celebrity author Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966) — whose novel Vile Bodies had been hailed earlier that year as “the ultramodern novel” dropped a bombshell in literary circles. He announced that he had become Catholic. This development was so unexpected and significant that it immediately made the front pages of one of Britain’s leading newspapers, the Daily Express. How, its editor wondered, could an author best known for his “almost passionate adherence to the ultramodern” have embraced the Catholic faith? For the next week, the paper’s columns were filled with comment and reflection on this unexpected and baffling development.

Yet the cultural attention given to Waugh’s conversion was only partly due to his celebrity status as a fashionable young author of bestselling satirical novels. Waugh was the latest in a long line of literary figures to embrace Catholicism — such as G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936), who converted  in 1922, and Graham Greene (1904-1991), who converted in 1926. Some began to wonder if a Christian literary renaissance was under way.

Not all of the literary figures to convert to Christianity in this brief yet intense period of Christian revival adopted Catholicism. In 19, T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) — then best known for his poem “The Waste Land” (1922), still widely acknowledged as one of the finest and most discussed poems of the twentieth century — converted to Anglicanism. Although Eliot’s conversion did not make quite the same newspaper headlines as Waugh’s, Eliot’s huge reputation as a poet and literary critic ensured that his conversion was widely discussed and debated. Eliot found in Christianity a principle of order and stability located outside the human self, which allowed him a secure vantage point from which to engage with the world.

Some four or five years later, Lewis became a Christian. Like Eliot he chose to become a member of the Church of England. Yet nobody had ever heard of Lewis, and nobody paid any attention to this development — if they noticed it at all. Lewis, it must be appreciated, was almost totally unknown in 1931. He had published two cycles of poems under the pseudonym Clive Hamilton. Neither had been a critical or commercial success. Lewis’s rise to popular fame would not begin until 1940, with the publication of The Problem of Pain, which can now be seen to have set in motion a series of developments leading to his celebrity status as wartime apologist.

Where Evelyn Waugh drew attention to his religious faith on account of his fame as a novelist, Lewis’s faith would be the basis for the works that would eventually secure him popular acclaim. Nevertheless, Lewis fits into a broader pattern at this time — the conversion of literary scholars and writers through and because of their literary interests. Lewis’s love of literature is not a backdrop to his conversion; it is integral to his discovery of the rational and imaginative appeal of Christianity.

Lewis hints at this throughout Surprised by Joy. “A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere.” Lewis’ reading of the classics of English literature forced him to encounter and evaluate the ideas and attitudes that they embodied and expressed. And to his chagrin, Lewis began to realize that those who were grounded on a Christian outlook seemed to offer the most resilient and persuasive “treaty with reality.”

Many leading writers came to faith around the same time through reflecting on literary issues. For example, Graham Greene criticized modernist writers such as Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) and E. M. Forster (1879-1970) for creating characters who “wandered like cardboard symbols through a world that was paper-thin.” There was, Greene argued, no sense of reality in their writings. To lose sight of “the religious sense,” as they had so clearly done, was also to lose any “sense of the importance of human act.” Great literature depends upon a passionate commitment to the real world — which, for Greene, demanded a foundation in a deeper order of things, grounded in the nature and will of God.

Evelyn Waugh made much the same point. Without God, an author could not give his characters reality and depth. “You can only leave God out by making your characters pure abstractions.” Good novels rested it plausible account of human nature, which, for Waugh, in turn rested on the remarkable capacity of the Christian faith to make sense of the world in general and human nature in particular. It provided a lens which brought the distorted world around him into sharp focus, allowing him to understand it properly for the first time.

Waugh spoke of his delight in discovering this new way of engaging reality in a letter Conversion is like stepping across the chimney piece out of a Looking-Glass world, where everything is an absurd caricature, into the real world God made; and then begins the delicious process of exploring it limitlessly.’

Similar concerns seem to have played a role in catalyzing Lewis’ growing interest in the Christian faith. In Surprised by Joy, Lewis comments on his discovery in the early 1920s of the surprising depth of the literature shaped by and grounded in the Christian faith. Modernist writers such as Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) and H. G. Wells (1866-1946) “seemed a little thin”; there was “no depth in them”; they were “too simple.” “The roughness and density of life” was not adequately represented in their works

The Christian poet George Herbert (1593-1633), in marked contrast seemed to Lewis to “excel … in conveying the very quality of life as we actually live it”; yet instead of “doing it all directly,” he “insisted on mediating it” through what Lewis then termed “the Christian mythology.”

By the early 1920s, Lewis had yet to conclude that Christianity was true, he was, however, gradually coming to grasp its potential impact for an understanding of the world and the self. But he failed at that stage to appreciate the implications of “the ludicrous contradiction between my theory of life and my actual experiences as a reader.”‘

Are we to see here a classic approach to the discovery of the divine so memorably described by Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) in the seventeenth century? For Pascal, there was little point in trying to persuade anyone of the truth of religious belief. The important thing, he argued, was to make people wish that it were true, having caught sight of the rich and satisfying  vision of reality it offered. Once such a desire was implanted within the human heart, the human mind would eventually catch up with its deeper intuitions.

The poets George Herbert and Thomas Traherne (1636-1674) did not persuade Lewis to believe in God; rather, they led him to think that such a belief offered a rich and robust vision of human life, making; him wonder whether there might, after all, be something to be said for their way of thinking.

To piece together the story of Lewis’s conversion is primarily to explore the development of an internal world, which is unfortunately not available for public inspection. Clues to these developments abound, but they need to be woven together into a coherent whole. We will continue this in our next posts.


Augustine on the Appetites 3 – G. Meilaender

July 11, 2013

We should not grasp for the pleasure of eating apart from the good purpose to which it is divinely ordered, so we should also not seek the pleasure of the sexual act apart from the good to which it is divinely ordered.

We should not grasp for the pleasure of eating apart from the good purpose to which it is divinely ordered, so we should also not seek the pleasure of the sexual act apart from the good to which it is divinely ordered.

Saint Augustine formulated the classic Christian understanding of desire, that “our hearts are restless until they rest in God.” Gilbert Meilaender maintains that this frustrated desire lies at the heart of our existence. In The Way That Leads There he takes Augustine as a “conversation partner” for exploring subjects that human beings have wrestled with for centuries — desire, duty, politics, sex, and grief. Meilaender’s carefully reasoned insightful work rescues Augustine from many of our misperceptions and interacts meaningfully with both C. S. Lewis and Catholic moral theology, generating insights on difficult topics. The picture of life that emerges in these pages is one of incompleteness, of our inability to perfect and unify our moral lives. Yet this inability is not a cause for despair; it is rather a call to look, with Augustine, to God as the source and object of our greatest desire.


Having analyzed one appetite, food [previous post], Meilaender examines Augustine’s thoughts on sex:

Describing Augustine’s vision of God’s plan to sustain the human race through procreation, Donald X. Burt, O.S.A., writes:

“In order to implement this plan, God made human beings with a strong desire for coitus. Just as hunger and thirst were given so that humans could maintain their health, so the impulse towards physical intercourse was given to insure the health of the race. And just as the pleasure from satisfied hunger and thirst is made noble by the good end that it accomplishes, so too the passion that accompanies intercourse is made holy by the great good that the act can accomplish, the formation of new human beings in a crucible of love.”
[Donald X. Burt, O.S.A., Friendship and Society: An Introduction to Augustine's Practical Philosophy (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), p. 82]

This is too sympathetic a reading of Augustine, but the connection Burt discerns is really there in Augustine’s thinking. He treats sexual desire almost exactly as he treats the desire for food. Even as one should come to the table to eat when one’s body needs nourishment, so also would our first parents have come to the marriage bed when children were needed. “I do not see,” Augustine writes, “what could have prohibited them from honorable nuptial union and the bed undefiled even in Paradise. God could have granted them this if they had lived in a faithful and just manner in obedience and holy service to Him, so that without the tumultuous ardor of passion…offspring would be born from their seed.”

[Saint Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, Volume II, Ancient Christian Writers, no. 42 (New York and Ramsey, N.J.: Newman, 1982), 9.3. Similarly, in City of God (14.24) Augustine writes: "Then (had there been no sin) the man would have sowed the seed and the woman would have conceived the child when their sexual organs had been aroused by the will, at the appropriate time and in the necessary degree, and had not been excited by lust."]

Before we consider how this understanding of the purpose of sex — like Augustine’s understanding of the purpose of food — may be incomplete and inadequate, we should try to take it seriously. To that end we can consider an image of sexuality that depicts it in something like Augustine’s way — as having a particular good or purpose, which good we might easily separate from the pleasure it gives, and come to seek the pleasure alone.

In Out of the Silent Planet, the first of C. S. Lewis’s space fantasies, the protagonist Ransom finds himself on the planet Malacandra, where three species of hnausorns, pfifltriggi, and hrossa — live together in peace under the rule of Maleldil. To learn more about Malacandra, Ransom spends time talking with Hyoi, one of the hrossa. Their conversation turns at one point to continuation of the species. Is there ever danger on Malacandra that the population of hossra might outstrip food production? The question is almost unintelligible to Hyoi. He cannot understand why they might produce that many offspring.

“Ransom found this difficult. At last he said:

‘Is the begetting of young not a pleasure among the hrossa?’

‘A very great one, Hmān. This is what we call love.’

‘If a thing is a pleasure, a Hmān wants it again. He might want the pleasure more often than the number of young that could be fed.’

It took Hyoi a long time to get the point.

‘You mean,’ he said slowly, ‘that he might do it not only in one or two years of his life but again?’


‘But why? Would he want his dinner all day or want to sleep after he had slept? I do not understand.’

‘But a dinner comes every day. This love, you say, comes only once while the hross lives?’

‘But it takes his whole life. When he is young he has to look for his mate; and then he has to court her; then he begets young; then he rears them; then he remembers all this, and boils it inside him and makes it into poems and wisdom.’

‘But the pleasure he must be content only to remember?’

‘That is like saying, `My food I must be content to eat.’” [C. S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet (New York: Macmillan, 1965), pp. 72-73]

This is of course Augustine’s “food as medicine” approach to sex; yet, I have to say that in Hyoi’s mouth it does not seem all that strange. On Malacandra it makes sense. Malacandra is an unfallen world, and we are prepared to consider the possibility that rightly ordered sexual desire in such a world might be quite different from our own experience.

Why would someone want to keep grasping at this pleasure forever when the good of offspring had been satisfied? Indeed, pondering his discovery of “a species naturally continent, naturally monogamous,” Ransom is led to doubt the usefulness of our fallen sexuality as a guide to right order: “At last it dawned upon him that it was not they, but his own species, that were the puzzle.” [Lewis, Silent Planet, p. 74]

In Mere Christianity Lewis applied such thinking not to an unfallen world but to our own, the “silent planet:”

“You can get a large audience together for a strip-tease act — that is, to watch a girl undress on the stage. Now suppose you came to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on to the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let everyone see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food?”
[C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1960), p 75]

Likewise, Lewis suggests, pressing the analogy, might not a visitor from a different world think that something had gone wrong with sexual desire in our world? Thus, whether we begin with an imaginative unfallen world or with the clear disorder of our own world, we may learn to be cautious about supposing that we can take our own sexual experience as a guide to right order. That is what taking Augustine seriously can do for us. “There are.., men at the present time who are evidently unaware of the bliss that existed in paradise. They suppose that children could not have been begotten except by the means with which they are familiar, namely, by means of lust.” [City of God 14.21. Cf. Cavadini, p. 204: ,[I]f it is accepted that lust is a pathologized desire, trying to imagine sex without lust is not the same thing as trying to imagine sex without feeling, even intense feeling.“]

We can by now begin to connect the dots, and in so doing note that we have reconstructed what in general outline is the original shape of the Roman Catholic case against contraception (in the development of which Augustine was, of course, of incalculable importance). The argument, simply put, is: the good or purpose of marriage is procreation — production of offspring. To be sure, sexual intercourse also gives pleasure, and there is nothing wrong with that. Indeed, it would have given pleasure even to Adam and Eve in paradise. [Cf. Power, p.106: "It is important to note that what Augustine repudiated was not desire per se, nor pleasure, but inordinate desire and pleasure not controlled by the will."]

But if we come to seek the pleasure alone — apart from the purpose for which our sexuality is intended — we have distorted our nature. Contraceptive intercourse is an attempt to separate the pleasure of the act from its good. Adam and Eve in paradise would not have so separated this pleasure from this good. They would have engaged in sexual intercourse “as a deliberate act undisturbed by human passion” for the purpose only of producing children – and they would have enjoyed, as a kind of bonus, the pleasure the act also gives. [City of God 14.26. Cf. also Ramsey, pp. 60-62]

We should not underestimate what Augustine here grants. He was, in Peter Brown’s words, “quite prepared to allow that such [sexual] pleasure might have occurred in Paradise — no small imaginative feat for a late antique person of ascetic lifestyle. What concerned him was that, after the fall of Adam and Eve, this pleasure had gained a momentum of its own.” [Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press,1988), p. 417] Augustine’s worry, that is, was that as the search for this pleasure becomes a sweet necessity, we may attempt to separate the pleasure of the act from the good of procreation, seeking the pleasure for its own sake alone.

We may, then, summarize Augustine’s view — or at least, one reasonable reading of it — as follows: just as nourishment constitutes the good of food, the eating of which also, as it happens, gives pleasure, so children constitute the good of sex, the experience of which also, as it happens, gives pleasure. As we should not grasp for the pleasure of eating apart from the good purpose to which it is divinely ordered, so also we should not seek the pleasure of the sexual act apart from the good to which it is divinely ordered. Food is medicine — that is, its purpose is our sustenance and health. Sexual intercourse is also a kind of medicine: it sustains not the individual but the species. Its purpose is offspring.


The Deeper Magic: Atonement In Narnia — Alister McGrath

June 7, 2013
One major theme in Christian theological reflection concerns how the death of Christ on the cross is to be interpreted, especially in relation to the salvation of humanity. These ways of interpreting the Cross, traditionally referred it to as "theories of the Atonement," have played a major role in Christian discussion and debate through the ages. Lewis positions his account of the death of Aslan at the hands of the White Witch within the context of this stream of thinking.

One major theme in Christian theological reflection concerns how the death of Christ on the cross is to be interpreted, especially in relation to the salvation of humanity. These ways of interpreting the Cross, traditionally referred it to as “theories of the Atonement,” have played a major role in Christian discussion and debate through the ages. Lewis positions his account of the death of Aslan at the hands of the White Witch within the context of this stream of thinking.

I must confess here what a pure joy it has been to have been reading McGrath’s analysis of Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. I never read them as a child and thus never had that childhood understanding of fantasy literature. In fact for most of my life I never even liked Fantasy or even Science Fiction as a genre. On the contrary, it used to irritate me no end and it wasn’t until Michael Crichton appeared with a kind of science fiction where it was difficult to see where the science left off and the fiction began (I’m thinking of his classic The Andromeda Strain) that I could begin to see any redeeming value in the genre.That was something I found educational and useful. This other stuff was a waste of my time.

But for me and my conversion nothing was more important than C. S. Lewis. Thanks to Lewis, it was as if all my reading and my literary understanding of truth and beauty were finally made accessible to and enveloped in the person of Christ where previously it had only been able to stand outside, making me a mute observer of miracles, never able to fully embrace and completely believe. McGrath’s reading of Lewis is so perceptive and follows my own path of conversion. Lewis and I just simply connected.


Lewis develops many of the classic Christological statements of the New Testament in the Chronicles of Narnia, generally focusing these on the person of Aslan. Yet perhaps his most intriguing reworking of a classic theological theme concerns his depiction of the death and resurrection of Aslan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. So what does Lewis understand by atonement?

One major theme in Christian theological reflection concerns how the death of Christ on the cross is to be interpreted, especially in relation to the salvation of humanity. These ways of interpreting the Cross, traditionally referred it to as “theories of the Atonement,” have played a major role in Christian discussion and debate through the ages. Lewis positions his account of the death of Aslan at the hands of the White Witch within the context of this stream of thinking. But what ideas does Lewis himself develop?

Before considering this question, we need to appreciate that Lewis was not a professional theologian, and did not have any expert knowledge of the historical debates within the Christian tradition on this question. While some have tried to relate Lewis to, for example, the medieval debate between Anselm of Canterbury and Peter Abelard, this is not a particularly profitable approach. Lewis tends to know theological ideas through their literary embodiments. It is therefore not to professional theologians that we must turn to explore Lewis’ ideas on the Atonement, but to the English literary tradition — to works such as Piers Plowman, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, or the medieval mystery plays. It is here that we will find the approaches that Lewis weaves into his Narnian narrative.

Lewis’s first discussion of approaches to the Atonement is is found in The Problem of Pain (1940). Lewis argues that any theory of the Atonement  is secondary to the actuality of it. While these various theories may be useful to some, Lewis remarks, “they do no good to me, and I am not going to invent others.”

Lewis returns to this theme in his broadcast talks of the 1940s. Lewis here remarks that, before he became a Christian, he held the view that Christians were obliged to take a specific position on the meaning of Christ’s death, and especially how it brought about salvation. One such theory was that human beings deserved to be punished for their sin, but “Christ volunteered to be punished instead, and so God let us off.” After his conversion, however, Lewis came to realize that theories about redemption are of secondary importance:

“What I came to see later on was that neither this theory nor any other is Christianity. The central Christian belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start. Theories as to how it did this are another matter.”
Broadcast Talks, p.52

In other words, “theories of the Atonement” are not the heart of Christianity; rather, they are attempts to explain how it works. We see here Lewis’s characteristic resistance to the primacy of theory over theological or literary actuality. It is perfectly possible to “accept what Christ has done without knowing how it works.” Theories are always, Lewis holds, secondary to what they represent:

“We are told that Christ was killed for us, that His death has lashed out our sins, and that by dying He disabled death itself, that’s the formula. That’s Christianity. That’s what has to be believed. Any theories we build up as to how Christ’s death did all this are, in my view, quite secondary: mere plans or diagrams to be left alone if they don’t help us, and, even if they do help us, not to be confused with the thing itself.”
Broadcast Talks, p. 53, 54

These reflections are in no way inconsistent with actually adopting such a theory; they merely set a theory in context, insisting that it is like a plan or diagram, which is “not to be confused with the thing itself.”

One of the most shocking and disturbing scenes in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is the death of Asian. Where the New Testament speaks of the death of Christ as redeeming humanity, Lewis presents Aslan’s death initially benefiting one person, and one person only — Edmund. The easily misled boy falls into the hands of the White Witch. Alarmed that the presence of humans in Narnia is a portent of the end of her reign, she attempts to neutralize them, using Edmund as her unwitting agent. In his attempts to secure her goodwill (and more Turkish Delight), Edmund deceives his siblings. And that act of deception proves to be a theological turning point.

The White Witch demands a meeting with Aslan, at which she declares that Edmund, by committing such an act of betrayal, has come under her authority. She has a right to his life, and she intends to exercise that right. The Deep Magic built into Narnia at its beginning by the Emperor-by-the-Sea laid down “that every traitor belongs to me as my lawful prey and that for every treachery I have a right to a kill.” Edmund is hers. His life is forfeit. And she demands his blood.

Then a secret deal is done, of which the children know nothing. Aslan agrees to act as a substitute for Edmund. He will die, so that Edmund may live. Unaware of what is about to happen, Lucy and Susan follow Aslan as he walks towards the hill of the Stone Table, to be bound and to die himself at the hands of the White Witch. This scene is as moving as it is horrific, and parallels at some points — but not at others — the New Testament accounts of Christ’s final hours in the garden of Gethsemane and his subsequent crucifixion. Aslan is put to death, surrounded by a baying mob, who mock him in his final agony.

One of the most moving scenes in the entire Narnia series describes how Susan and Lucy approach the dead lion, kneeling before him as they “kissed his cold face and stroked his beautiful fur,” crying “till they could cry no more.” Lewis here shows himself at his imaginative best reworking the themes of the images and texts of medieval piety – such as  the classic Pieta (the image of the dead Christ being held by his till Mary), and the text Stabat Mater Dolorosa (describing the pain and sorrow of Mary at Calvary, as she weeps at the scene of Christ’s death).

Then everything is unexpectedly transformed. Asian comes back to life. The witnesses to this dramatic moment are Lucy and Susan alone. paralleling the New Testament’s insistence that the first witnesses to the resurrection of Christ were three women. They are astonished and delighted, flinging themselves upon Aslan and covering him with kisses. What has happened?

“But what does it all mean?” asked Susan when they were somewhat calmer.

“It means,” said Aslan, “that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward.”

Aslan thus lives again, and Edmund is liberated from any legitimate claim on the White Witch’s part.

And there is still more to come. The courtyard of the White Witch’s castle is filled with petrified Narnians, turned into stone by the Witch. Following his resurrection, Aslan breaks down the castle gates, romps into the courtyard, breathes upon the statues, and restores them to life. Finally, he leads the liberated army through the shattered gates of the once-great fortress to fight for the freedom of Narnia. It is a dramatic and highly satisfying end to the narrative.

But where do these ideas come from? They are all derived from the writings of the Middle Ages — not works of academic theology, which generally were critical of such highly visual and dramatic approaches, but the popular religious literature of the age, which took pleasure in a powerful narrative of Satan’s being outmaneuvered and outwitted by Christ. According to these popular atonement theories, Satan had rightful possession over sinful human beings. God was unable to wrest humanity from Satan’s grasp by any legitimate means. Yet what if Satan were to overstep his legitimate authority, and claim the life of a sinless person — such as Jesus Christ, who, as God incarnate, was devoid of sin?

The great mystery plays of the Middle Ages — such as the cycle per formed at York in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries — dramatized the way in which a wily and canny God tricked Satan into overstepping his rights, and thus forfeiting them all. An arrogant Satan received his comeuppance, to howls of approval from the assembled townspeople. A central theme of this great popular approach to atonement was the “Harrowing of Hell” — a dramatic depiction of the risen Christ battering the gates of hell and setting free all who were imprisoned within its realm. All of humanity were thus liberated by the death and resurrection of Christ. In Narnia Edmund is the first to be saved by Aslan; the remainder are restored to life later, as Aslan breathes on the stone statues in the Witch’s castle.

Lewis’ narrative in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe contains the main themes of this medieval atonement drama: Satan having rights over sinful humanity; God outwitting Satan because of the sinlessness of Christ; and the breaking down of the gates of Hell, leading to the liberation of its prisoners. The imagery is derived from the great medieval popular religious writings which Lewis so admired and enjoyed.

So what are we to make of this approach to atonement? Most theologians regard Lewis’ narrative depiction of atonement with mild amusement, seeing it as muddled and confused. But this is to misunderstand both the nature of Lewis’ sources and his intentions. The great medieval mystery plays aimed to make the theological abstractions of atonement accessible, interesting, and above all entertaining. Lewis has brought his own distinct approach to this undertaking, but its historical roots and imaginative appeal are quite clear.


C. S. Lewis’ Aslan: The Heart’s Desire – Alister McGrath

June 6, 2013
Lewis here transposes one of the central themes of works such as Mere Christianity into an imaginative mode. There is indeed a emptiness within human nature, a longing which none but God can satisfy. Using Aslan as God's proxy, Lewis constructs a narrative of yearning and wistfulness, tinged with the hope of ultimate fulfillment.

Lewis here transposes one of the central themes of works such as Mere Christianity into an imaginative mode. There is indeed a emptiness within human nature, a longing which none but God can satisfy. Using Aslan as God’s proxy, Lewis constructs a narrative of yearning and wistfulness, tinged with the hope of ultimate fulfillment.

How did Lewis develop the idea and image of a noble lion as his central character? Lewis himself seems to disclaim any privileged insight here. He once remarked, “I don’t know where the Lion came from or why He came. But once He was there, He pulled the whole story together.” It is not however, difficult to suggest possible explanations of how Aslan came bounding into” Lewis’ imagination. Lewis’ close friend Charles Williams had written a novel titled The Place of the Lion (1931), which Lewis had read with interest, clearly appreciating how the image could be developed further.

The use of the image of a lion as a central character made perfect and theological sense to Lewis. A lion was already used widely in Christian theological tradition as an image of Christ, following the New Testament’s reference to Christ as the “Lion of the tribe of Judah, of David” (Revelation 5:5). Furthermore, a lion is the traditional symbol associated with Lewis’ childhood church, St. Mark’s Anglican Church in Dundela, located on the outskirts of Belfast. The church’s rectory, which Lewis visited regularly as a child, had a door knocker in the form of a lion’s head.

The use of the image of a lion is relatively easy to understand. But what about the lion’s name?

Lewis came across the specific name Aslan in the notes to Edward Lane’s translation of The Arabian Nights (1838). The name Aslan is particularly significant in Ottoman colonial history. Until the end of the First World War, Turkey was an imperial power, exercising considerable political and economic influence in many parts of the Middle East. Although Lewis links his discovery of the term with the Arabian Nights, it is entirely possible that he also came to know of it through Richard Davenport’s classic study of 1838, The Life of Ali Pasha, of Tepeleni, Vizier of Epirus: Surnamed Aslan, or the Lion.

Davenport had earlier published an important life of Edmund Spenser (1822), which Lewis would have encountered while researching the poet. This Ottoman lineage explains how Lewis came to use the Turkish name “Aslan” for his great lion. “It is the Turkish for Lion. I pronounce it Ass-lan myself. And of course I meant the Lion of Judah.”

The most characteristic feature of Lewis’s Aslan is that he evokes awe and wonder. Lewis develops this theme with relation to Aslan by emphasizing the fact that he is wild — an awe-inspiring, magnificent creature, which has not been tamed through domestication, or had his claws pulled out to ensure he is powerless. As the Beaver whispers to the children, “He is wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.”

To understand the literary force of Lewis’s depiction of Aslan, we need to appreciate the importance of Lewis’ early reading of Rudolph Otto’s classic religious work The Idea of the Holy (1923). This work, which Lewis first read in 1936 and regularly identified as one of the most important books he had ever read, persuaded him of the importance of the “numinous” — a mysterious and awe-inspiring quality of certain things or beings, real or imagined, which Lewis described as seemingly “lit by a light from beyond the world.”

Lewis devotes a substantial part of the opening chapter of The Problem of Pain to an analysis of Otto’s idea, and offers one specific literary illustration of its importance. Lewis notes the passage in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (1908) in which Rat and Mole approach Pan:

“Rat!” [Mole] found breath to whisper, shaking, `Are you afraid?”

“Afraid?” murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. “Afraid? Of HIM? O never, never! And yet — and yet — O Mole, I am afraid!”‘

This passage deserves to be read in full, as it had clearly influenced Lewis’s depiction of the impact of Aslan on the children and animals in Narnian.

For example, Grahame speaks of Mole’s experiencing “an awe that smote and held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean That some august Presence was very, very near.”

Otto’s account of numinous experience identifies two distinct themes: a mysterium tremendum, a sense of mystery which evokes fear and trembling and niysterium fascinans, a mystery which fascinates and attracts. The numinous, for Otto, can thus terrify or energize, giving rise to a sense of either fear or delight, as suggested in Grahame’s dialogue. Other writers reframed the idea in terms of a “nostalgia for paradise,” which evokes overwhelming sense of belonging elsewhere.

In describing the reaction of the children to the Beaver’s softly whispered confidence that `Aslan is on the move — perhaps has already landed,” Lewis offers one of the finest literary statements of the impact of the numinous:

“And now a very curious thing happened. None of the children knew who Aslan was any more than you do; but the moment the Beaver had spoken these words everyone felt quite different. Perhaps it has sometimes happened to you in a dream that someone says something which you don’t understand but in the dream it feels as if it had some enormous meaning — either a terrifying one which turns the whole dream into a nightmare or else a lovely meaning too lovely to put into words, which makes the dream so beautiful that you remember it all your life and are always wishing you could get into that dream again. It was like that now. At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump in its inside.”

Lewis then describes how this “numinous” reality impacts each of the four children in a quite different manner. For some, it evokes fear and trembling; for others, a sense of unutterable love and longing:

“Edmund felt a sensation of mysterious horror. Peter felt suddenly brave and adventurous. Susan felt as if some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music had just floated by her. And Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realize that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer.”

Susan’s thoughts are clearly based on Lewis’s classic analysis of “longing,’ found especially in his 1941 sermon “The Weight of Glory,” which speaks of this desire as “the scent of a flower we have not found” or “the echo of a tune we have not heard.”

Lewis is here setting out, in a preliminary yet still powerful form his core theme of Aslan as the heart’s desire. Aslan evokes wonder, awe and an “unutterable love.” Even the name Aslan speaks to the depths of the soul. What would it be like to meet him? Lewis captures this complex sense of awe mingled with longing in the reaction of Peter to the Beaver’s declarations about this magnificent lion, who is “the King of wood and the son of the great Emperor-beyond-the-Sea.” “I’m longing to see him,’ said Peter, “even if I do feel frightened.”

Lewis here transposes one of the central themes of works such as Mere Christianity into an imaginative mode. There is indeed a emptiness within human nature, a longing which none but God can satisfy. Using Aslan as God’s proxy, Lewis constructs a narrative of yearning and wistfulness, tinged with the hope of ultimate fulfillment. That this is no misguided strategy is strongly suggested by a powerful passage in the writings of Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), easily one of the most articulate and influential British atheist writers of the twentieth century:

The centre of me is always and eternally a terrible pain .. searching for something beyond what the world contains, something transfigured and infinite. The beatific vision — God. I do not find it, I do not think it is to be found — but the love of it is my life…. It is the actual spring of life within me.

When, towards the end of The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader, ” Lucy piteously declares that she cannot bear to be separated from Aslan, she echoes this theme of the longing of the human heart for God. If she and Edmund return to their own country, they fear they will never see Aslan again.

“It isn’t Narnia, you know,” sobbed Lucy. “It’s you. We shan’t meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?” “But you shall meet me, dear one,” said Aslan.

“Are — are you there too, Sir?” said Edmund.

“I am,” said Aslan. “But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.”

In using Aslan as a figure or type of Christ, Lewis stands within a long and continuing tradition of Christ figures in literature and film, such as the “Old Man” in Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea Such Christ figures are found in literature of all genres, including Children’s books. The phenomenally successful Harry Potter series of novels incorporates a number of such themes. Gandalf is one of a number figures within Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, whose Christological associations are accentuated in Peter Jackson’s recent film version is series.


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