A Birthday Tribute to C.S. Lewis
A Deeply Imagined Life
by Major Deborah Flagg –
Maybe it’s because he was converted to Christianity while riding in a motorcycle sidecar. Maybe it’s because he was the very picture of the British academic, all tweed jackets and afternoon tea. Maybe it’s because of his uncommon ability to meet us at the poles of both joy and pain. Maybe it’s because his stories give voice to our deepest longings and his treatises give structure to our homeless intellects. Maybe it’s for all these reasons and countless others that, 100 years after his birth, we continue to be drawn to C.S. Lewis; that we, in fact, can’t get enough of him and his mythical, magical brand of the Christian faith.
This adulation would have surprised Lewis, however, who once predicted that no one would be reading his books five years after his death. Who could have foreseen the impact that this somewhat rumpled and ruddy Oxford don would have on the intellectual and spiritual life of so many late 20th century Christians? But the fact is that more people today read Lewis than any other Christian author, and with over 60 books on his life and work in print, C.S. Lewis scholarship is still burgeoning. Commenting on this phenomenon in Christianity Today, J.I. Packer doubts that “the full measure of him has been taken by anyone as yet.” How do we account for the classical power of Lewis’ words?
Perhaps part of the secret to Lewis’ literary longevity and esteem is this: In a world dominated by the one-dimensional machinations of technology, where everything is flattened to fit a computer or television screen, Lewis takes us through the wardrobe into a rich multi-layered universe populated with round and comely characters, and deep with the rumblings of truth. Lewis feeds the hungry imaginations of us jaded millenials and calls us to a place where there is room for the Absolute; where God is the music, the freedom, the incalculable mystery and where the clouded windows of our postmodern subjectivism are pried open, if only for a little while.
We ought to celebrate such a legacy. No doubt, if Lewis were alive today they would probably throw him a bang-up 100th birthday party at the ol’ Eagle and Child Pub on St. Giles Street in Oxford. If we were among the fortunate guests, we might see him sitting in a corner with a pint (he was not a teetotaler), a wry grin on his face, surrounded by a formidable pile of gifts. The gifts would not be his to keep, however, they are for us–from him– and they all have a title: Surprised by Joy, Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Pilgrim’s Regress, The Four Loves, Till We Have Faces, The Weight of Glory …And more and more. On this birthday celebration, let’s tear the wrappings from just a few, and give thanks.
THE LURE OF “NORTHERNESS”
When C.S. Lewis walked the venerable streets of Oxford, when he looked on those gray spires piercing the Anglican sky, when he held tutorials in his chilly rooms at Magdalen College, hiked along the River Cherwell, met with literary friends over glasses of glistening sherry, attended services at Holy Trinity parish and pondered the inestimable depths of Christianity in the hallowed halls once home to John Wesley and Isaac Newton, it was a different world than it is now. In the years surrounding World War II, there was still room in the collective consciousness for objective truth — right and wrong, good and bad. Modernity had not yet splintered into the thousand strands of subjective truth claims that we call “postmodernity.” The remnants of a centralized body of knowledge and an overarching value system were still intact.
Yet, Lewis seemed to sense there were changes in the air and that the winds of truth were shifting. He took these changes to task. In The Abolition of Man, he writes: “Traditional morality is not one among a series of possible systems of value. It is the sole source of all value and judgments.” For Lewis, truth mattered; he was passionate about it. He believed in moral formation and moral character. As an antidote to the moral relativism, nihilism and common desperation that we face at this moment in history, he not only gives us logical argument, but offers the poetic and compelling concept of “Northerness,” a vision of “huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight of Northern Summer . . .”
Beyond personality, narrow concerns, particulars of place, in Lewis’ thought there is a unifying, alluring “God of utter actuality” who brings everything together and makes truth possible. The good is not a shifting opinion, but a “fixed point” by which we can confidently set our moral compass.
THE ENIGMA OF PAIN
Lewis offers us two panoramic views on the universal human dilemma of suffering, one as a theologian and the other as a bereaved spouse. In his purely theological work, The Problem of Pain, he asserts that pain is “God’s megaphone,” to the human race, a wake-up call drawing us back to God. Lewis’ purpose in this book was to “solve the intellectual problem raised by suffering,” and, in his characteristic lucid and sincere style, he comes close to accomplishing this goal. “Pain shatters the illusion that what we have, whether good or bad in itself, is our own and enough for us,” he writes. And if anyone needed to hear this reminder, we Americans of the 1990s do, with our obsessive avoidance of pain and our endless quests for self-determination.
The problem of pain is revisited many vulnerable years later when, in A Grief Observed, he recounts the death of his wife, Joy Davidman, and the effect that this grief had on him and his thinking. Not intended to be instructive or theological, not even intended for publication, this book is instead reflective, personal, the raw emotions of a man in the agonizing grip of bereavement. It is honest, painfully so. “And meanwhile, where is God?” Lewis laments. After turning to God in his extremity, all he finds is “A door slammed in your face . . . After that, silence.”
Thankfully, Lewis does come to a place of understanding, taking us with him on the slow and painful ascent as he comes to terms with the God that he still believes is Love. In the process, we come to see that pain is never easy–is, indeed, a kind of hell–but one that can be redeemed.
And so, from Lewis, we have a balanced picture of pain–a way to think about it in the comfort of intellectual argument and analysis and a way to feel it in the midst of our personal anguish–and to know we’re not alone.
THE PULL OF LONGING
Most of us know how it feels to have a fleeting but palpable sense of yearning, a hint of something just beyond our grasp, a homesickness for a place we’ve never been, but may have dreamed or imagined, a “footfall in the memory” we are unable to retrieve, a deep and wrenching longing.This feeling might be triggered by a piece of music heard from afar, a tree in full autumnal color, or the warmth of those moments between sleep and waking.
C.S. Lewis was a student of longing, that inexpressible feeling which, he says, is evidence for the existence of God. For this, he presents some interesting arguments. For example, he observes that fish, who were created to swim in water, don’t have visions of flying or desires for dry land. They are completely at home in the water. Human beings, on the other hand, are never completely at home. We have our roots, our source “beyond” and sometimes the “beyond” impinges on our present realities, calling us out of “the far country” and back to God. Longing.
Lewis had another word for longing–joy–and he was surprised by it more than a few times, surprised by the intrusion of this “beyondness,” even before he articulated it as God. He describes these epiphanies in his book Surprised by Joy. The first glimpse came when he was about six. While standing beside a flowering currant bush, he was flooded with a memory from years before of his brother bringing a toy garden into the nursery. “Enormous bliss” is how he describes this feeling. The second glimpse came to him while reading Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin when he was overtaken with the “Idea of Autumn.” There were other glimpses, other moments, other hints of the transcendent. Lewis believed that these moments are what eventually brought him to faith in God. His unsatisfied desire finally found its object. “The central story of my life is about nothing else.” he writes.
We are surprised by Lewis’ concept of joy and his ability to articulate this mysterious state of being. And yet, we learn from him that when we long, we are longing for God, when we desire, our desire is for God, and all of our yearnings are in the end a yearning for God–our true home.
THE POWER OF IMAGINATION
“The imaginative man in me is older, more continually operative…more basic–than either the religious writer or the critic. It was he who made me first attempt to be a poet.” C.S. Lewis put great stock in the transformative power of imagination and from his childhood “Boxen” fantasies to The Chronicles of Narnia, he attempted to tell the most true things through that which was pure imagination.
And he captures our imagination. Narnia is a place we would all want to visit. The “Deeper Magic from before the dawn of time” is the ruling order there. The figure of Aslan dominates the landscape, bigger than life, regal, beautiful in courage and purity, the “real object of the unsatisfied and unsatisfiable longings on earth.” The Narnia stories act as a mirror to the Christian story, providing a parallel universe which allows us to really see the power of grace, redemption, sacrifice and eternal life. In Narnia our faith perceptions are revitalized and wakened from the numbing effect of familiarity and repetition. Yet, Narnia is a real world, self-contained, one which we must enter into with our whole hearts.
Children and adults alike fall under the spell of Lewis’ imaginative tales. Some children write to Lewis as if he were alive, their letters being stored in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. One little boy from New Jersey, upon hearing of Lewis’ passing wrote, “Dear Mr. Lewis, I’m sorry you died.”
And so are we all. As Jill says in The Last Battle, “Wouldn’t it be lovely if Narnia just went on and on?”
LENTEN LANDS AND EASTER DAYS
C.S. Lewis was a theologian for the common person. He was a weaver of stories, a crafter of myths, a seeker after truth, a loyal disciple. Gilbert Meilaender says of Lewis in the journal First Things, “He gives us something better–the feel, the quality, of a life truly lived before God. He gives us the everyday–in all its splendor, terror, pain, and possibility.” In short, C.S. Lewis has given us “mere Christianity” in all its numinous dimensions. And he has made it sing.
He was also a poet for whom language was a sacred trust. His beloved Joy Davidman’s tombstone is inscribed with one of his poems, one she particularly favored and asked Lewis to modify for her:
Here the whole world (stars, water, air,
And field, and forest, as they were
Reflected in a single mind)
Like cast-off clothes was left behind
In ashes yet with hope that she,
Re-born from holy poverty,
In lenten lands, hereafter may
Resume them on her Easter Day.
C.S. Lewis died on November 22, 1963, the same day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Lewis’ longtime friend, Austin Farrer, a chaplain at Oxford University offered the funeral address. It would have pleased Lewis that Farrer directed the praise for his life to God, the object of his life’s longing. “It is not the work of Lewis’ pen, it is the work of God’s fingers that we are to praise.”
Thankfully, C.S. Lewis was open to the work of God’s fingers and to the mysterious movings of grace through his baptized heart and imagination. His was a deep magic, a rare gift.