C. S. Lewis wasn’t a writer of fantasy. He was a teller of hard truths.
Merry Christmas! A day late, I know. Happy “Boxing Day,” then. 🥊
Movie buffs may have noticed a curious inclusion in this year’s Christmas releases: “Freud’s Last Session,” an imagined meeting between Sigmund Freud and C. S. Lewis at the outbreak of World War II. Adapted from a 2009 play by Mark St. Germain, the dialogue-heavy movie wasn’t doing well with critics as of press time (America’s review is forthcoming!), though Anthony Hopkins is winning plaudits for his depiction of Freud (weird coincidence: Hopkins depicted Lewis in “Shadowlands” in 1993). On the other hand, noted an America coworker, “Freud got all the best lines.”
Mark Noll in C. S. Lewis in America: “Americans saw Lewis as deeply learned, theologically focused, and unusually creative."
Then again, so did Screwtape. The clever title character of Lewis’s classic The Screwtape Letters was also an expert in psychology, as well as one of Satan’s most promising demons. Screwtape isn’t Freud, of course, and Freud isn’t Screwtape, but one can see that even Lewis knew that talking about life’s temptations is a little sexier for most readers than portraying the paths to holiness.
Indeed, Lewis is an acquired taste—sometimes a reacquired taste. I fell in love with his Narnia and Space Trilogy novels as a kid, but didn’t much enjoy his apologetic works like Mere Christianity or God in the Dock that I read as an adult. Lewis can feel like an Anglican G. K. Chesterton in those books, and like most people of good will, I can’t stand G. K. Chesterton.
In later years, however, encounters with Lewis’s more autobiographical works like A Grief Observed and Surprised by Joy brought me back into the fold and reminded me why Lewis is such a beloved spiritual writer. In Mark Noll’s new book C. S. Lewis in America, he suggests that Lewis became so popular on this side of the pond for particular reasons: “Americans saw Lewis as deeply learned, theologically focused, and unusually creative. Implicitly, they also recognized that his articulation of the faith was savvy and courageous.” Those qualities are worth a thousand smug Chestertonianisms.
Jessica Mesman: "Lewis does not come to lovely conclusions about his God or his religion or his suffering."
Born in Belfast in 1898, Clive Staples Lewis (“Jack” to family and friends, as viewers of “Freud’s Last Session” will be reminded) was primarily a scholar of English literature by trade. Wounded in the trenches of France during World War I, he studied at Oxford after the war and became a professor there in 1925, teaching at Oxford for almost 30 years and at Cambridge for nine more before he died in 1963.
Though raised in the Church of Ireland, Lewis became an atheist as a young man, returning to Christianity only in his 30s. Lewis was influenced in his return to the faith by his new friend J. R. R. Tolkien, a fellow Inkling (a distinguished group of Oxford storytellers and scholars) and professor at Oxford, as well as by, it seems, the aforementioned G. K. Chesterton. In 1956, Lewis married the American Joy Davidman. Her death in 1960 spurred Lewis to write A Grief Observed about his experience of loss and mourning. Lewis had published the book under a pseudonym and soon found friends unknowingly gifting him his own book as valuable spiritual reading to deal with his loss.
Though his Narnia books are his bestsellers by far (and have been adapted for radio, stage and screen), Lewis also wrote scholarly tomes, other novels like The Great Divorce and numerous books of nonfiction, including popular collections of essays and talks, including The Abolition of Man and Mere Christianity, as well as other apologetic works like Miracles and The Problem of Pain. The Screwtape Letters remains perhaps his funniest, most light-hearted and most clever work and has been imitated by more than a few writers, believers or not.
America contributors were fans of Lewis from the very start, even praising his early (and widely panned) 1936 novel Pilgrim’s Regress for its “correctness of fact that is not lessened by fancy, epigrammatic bits of wisdom, an argument spicy and not insipid, subtle yet easily caught.” In 1944, Charles Brady praised The Screwtape Letters in America as not just a work of theological brilliance but as an imaginative twin of Lewis Carroll’s finest work. “Not since another Oxford don chose to divest himself of his academic robes and slip down a rabbit-hole with Alice and the White Rabbit has the reading world been given such a divertissement by a race of spectacled savants,” Brady wrote.
Lewis can feel like an Anglican G. K. Chesterton in some books, and like most people of good will, I can’t stand G. K. Chesterton.
Ironically, the turmoil following the Second Vatican Council also seemed to give Lewis a newfound popularity among Catholic writers, perhaps for his seeming implacability in the face of rapidly changing mores and practices, and America’s reviews were no exception. “C. S. Lewis is as refreshing as a sea breeze. In a time when men are not always what their images project, to meet the blatantly honest and open C. S. Lewis is a delight,” wrote Thomas M. Sheehan in 1970. “Lewis is a man willing to declare himself a believer in God; willing to state that any unanswerable questions about God will be resolved in heaven,” he wrote. “For Lewis, God is real, and so, for that matter, is Satan; there is a heaven, and there is a hell.”
Recent years have brought further appreciations of Lewis in sometimes unexpected terms. Earlier this year, Stephen McNulty offered a perhaps counterintuitive gloss on Lewis’s novel The Great Divorce in “Reading C. S. Lewis during the climate crisis.” Like Lewis’s characters who live forever in Purgatory, because they cannot rid themselves of the idols and habits that keep them from Heaven, we do the same with our ecological responsibilities. “As Lewis demonstrates,” McNulty writes, “we will never know until we let go of the cultural, political and economic attachments that keep us trapped in this hell and imagine something different.”
In 2019, Jessica Mesman wrote of the profound ways in which Lewis’s A Grief Observed not only helped her through a time of prolonged suffering but also reminded her of why she became a writer in the first place. In that book, she wrote, a newly-widowed Lewis is “disgusted by the platitudes of well-meaning religious friends and the sympathy cards—he calls them ‘pitiable cant.’” Lewis will have none of it—if the joys of life are worth being cherished and celebrated, so too must the sufferings of life be reckoned with honestly:
A Grief Observed remains powerful precisely because Lewis does not come to lovely conclusions about his God or his religion or his suffering. He asks many more questions than he answers. He rants, questions, weeps and feels terrible, deservedly sorry for himself and for the woman he loved so much and has now lost. And in doing so, he renders in prose what it really feels like to grieve.
Fifty years after his death, C. S. Lewis was recognized at “Poet’s Corner” in Westminster Abbey, where many famous English-language writers are buried or honored. His stepson Douglas Gresham read a passage from The Last Battle from Lewis’s Narnia series at the service. The inscription on the stone floor of the church honoring Lewis is a quote from one of his talks:
I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else.
"I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else."
Also, big news from the Catholic Book Club: This fall, we are reading Come Forth: The Promise of Jesus’s Greatest Miracle, by James Martin, S.J. Click here to watch a livestream with Father Martin about the book or here to sign up for our Facebook discussion group.
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Happy reading (and Merry Christmas)!
James T. Keane