Everyone who was alive 50 years ago probably remembers where they were and what they were doing on this date in 1963. It’s a day that is emblazoned in our minds because it was the day that one of the greatest and most influential men in modern history died. Sadly, I didn’t learn the significance of that day until nearly 30 years later. I’m still learning how much that man influenced my life and how indebted I, and many others, are to his life’s work.
His friends called him Jack, but the man I’m talking about is not the man that you are probably hearing about in the news today.
His name was Clive Staples Lewis.
On the first day of classes in my Master’s Degree program at Biola University, Craig Hazen welcomed us to the campus and asked us to go around the room for an introduction that included a short explanation for how and why we became interested enough in Christian Apologetics to enroll in the program we were just beginning. As I recall, there were about 28 of us in the room. Twenty five of us (me included) invoked the name of C. S. Lewis.
This was not, and is not, idolatry. Jack Lewis would reject and admonish the very thought of such a thing. It is simple respect and gratitude for the memory of the death of a great man and the enormous impact he had, and is still having, on this world.
His books are still being published. His allegorical stories and novels are still being made into films. Max Mclean has made himself deservedly famous for his one-man-show theatrical presentations in which he does nothing but give a dramatic recital of Lewis’s books (so far including The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce). Think about that. We live in the age of instant news, YouTube videos and Snapchat. Max Mclean is reciting 70 year-old C. S. Lewis books … and his audiences are mesmerized by them.
It is hard for me to imagine that any one person outside the biblical authors could ever again have as much influence on the thinking of so many people in ways that defend and promote the truth and reality of Christianity as C. S. Lewis. His way with words, the depth of his thoughts, and the prescience with which he anticipated the world we now inhabit is breathtaking to comprehend. He was a master of language and a brilliant observer of culture.
He was not a philosopher. He was something better. He was someone who could make philosophy real. He could see where philosophy was heading. His predictions and philosophical forecasts from the 1940s and 50s have become today’s headlines. If you’re skeptical of that claim, don’t take my word for it, just sit down for a couple of hours, read The Abolition of Man, and try to fathom the fact that it was first published in 1947.
Beyond that, C. S. Lewis was a model for both Christian believers and rationalistic skeptics who have both stopped thinking about life’s most important questions because they’ve already found their answers. He grew up an atheist but later admitted that his atheism was motivated by the emotional consequences of the pain he experienced in his youth that he could not reconcile with a good and loving God. That is a difficult thing to overcome. It is the most common reason for rejecting belief in God’s existence. It is the enemy of reason. Yet, Jack Lewis vanquished each of these because he was more committed to the rational pursuit of truth than a victim of the tendency to let emotion succeed in locking the door behind a closed mind.
Lewis’ mother died when he was 8 years-old. His father shipped him and his brother off to boarding schools where he gained not only a superior education but a love for books and inner reflection that was born of loneliness. Many of Lewis’ childhood memories shaped the characters he would later create. His vivid pictures of those times became the settings for his stories. He relished the influences of George McDonald and G. K. Chesterton, who made him a lover of story and challenged him to think for himself. He fought in World War I, was wounded, and had one of his dearest friends (Paddy Moore) die in that war. Then, because he honored a pact he made with Paddy, on his return to England, Lewis spent the next 32 years caring for Paddy’s mother — an enterprise that was both strenuous and stressful but that Lewis rarely mentioned.
This was a man who had every excuse to be bitter and angry but everyone who knew him thought him to be the most cheerful and joy-filled person they had ever met. Lewis rejected bitterness and emptiness because he turned toward the Truth and power of Christ.
In his autobiographical and ironically titled, Surprised By Joy, Lewis describes his arrival at Oxford and the idyllic picture he had in his mind of the place that would become his academic home and anchor. He got off the train and wandered through town looking for a place to stay. As he wandered, the town “became more and more shabby, with one dingy shop after another, [but he continued] ‘always expecting the next turn to reveal [its] beauties.’ Only when it became obvious that he was coming to open country and there was no town left did Jack stop and turn around. Then he saw [Oxford] in all its glory, with its grand collection of towers an spires reaching toward the sky, a picture of academic splendor unsurpassed anywhere in the world* …
Recently, I got as close as I could ever get to meeting Jack Lewis when his stepson, Douglas Gresham, along with Dr. Devin Brown of Asbury University and author of, A Life Observed: A Spiritual Biography of C. S. Lewis, visited a nearby church to spend a couple of hours telling stories about him. It’s a book that any skeptic or any fan of Christianity should read and consider because C. S. Lewis was both. I wish we would all be so dedicated and insistent on pursuing the Truth.
In an age where sound bites and celebrity count for more than substance, Jack Lewis — a man of whom there only exist 38 photographs in the world** — still resonates with and touches those who are privileged enough to take in his work. Over the years I have found that there are some of his ideas that I may take exception with but there is no Mere Christian who has made me think more about our shared convictions than Jack Lewis. I look forward to the day when I get off the bus at heaven’s gates. I don’t think I’ll have to look far to see a barely recognized figure who seems somehow more imposing than all the familiar faces whose own earthly notoriety was their goal. When I do, I’ll remember the words from The Great Divorce when the traveler’s guide/teacher assured his student that: “[He] is one of the great ones. Ye have heard that fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different things … Redeemed humanity is still young, it has hardly come to its full strength. But already there is joy enough in the little finger of a great saint such as yonder [gentleman] to waken all the dead things of the universe into life.”
* Devin Brown, A Life Observed, p. 97.
** According to The Magic Never Ends documentarian Chip Duncan as cited in: Devin Brown, A Life Observed, p. 18.