November 22, 2013

Reflection / John F. Fink

Remembering the apologist C. S. Lewis

John F. FinkC. S. Lewis died 50 years ago today, on Nov. 22, 1963—the same day that John F. Kennedy and Aldous Huxley died. He was 64.

Lewis has been called the most beloved Christian apologist and storyteller of the 20th century. It’s remarkable that his numerous books, including those on Christianity, his novels, science fiction and children’s books, continue to be best-sellers.

I admit to having been influenced greatly by Lewis’s writings. When I down-sized after I remarried and moved to a smaller home 16 months ago, I donated 52 boxes of books and personal papers to Marian University’s library, but I couldn’t part with my books by and about Lewis. I return to them frequently.

Clive Staples Lewis, who called himself Jack from an early age and was thus known to his friends, was a convert from atheism to belief in God in 1929 and then to Christianity in 1931. He never moved on to Catholicism, probably because his Northern Ireland roots were too strong. Nevertheless, Blessed John Paul II was one of his admirers, and the Catholic publishing company Ignatius Press sells many of the books by and about him.

Lewis’s “day job” was as a don (professor) of English literature at Oxford University in England, where he tutored students. One of his many writings about English literature was English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama, a volume of the Oxford History of English Literature, which Lewis nicknamed OHEL.

He was also president of the Oxford Socratic Club from 1942 to 1954, when Lewis left Oxford for Cambridge University. It sponsored weekly debates on the relevance of Christianity in a modernist world.

Lewis began publishing his religious writings and science fiction in the 1930s, but it wasn’t until the World War II years that he became widely known in the United States. That began with the publication of his book The Screwtape Letters in 1942. These are 31 imaginary letters from an elderly devil named Screwtape to a younger devil, Wormwood, on the art of temptation. Before its publication as a book, it was serialized in The Guardian during 1941.

During World War II, Lewis—who had been wounded in combat during World War I—was asked to give four series of radio talks about Christianity over the BBC. These talks were published as separate books, but later combined into one book called Mere Christianity.

After the war, Lewis published Miracles: A Preliminary Study in 1947. By this time, he had come to the attention of Time magazine, where he was featured on the cover of the Sept. 8, 1947 issue. Inside was an article that included him among “heretics” who actually believed in Christianity—T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, Dorothy Sayers and Graham Greene.

Lewis then became prolific in his writings. He wrote his seven children’s books, The Chronicles of Narnia, from 1950 to 1955. They, like everything else he wrote, were invigorated by his faith.

Lewis was a man of prayer and, in his devotional life, was guided by Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ. He prayed morning and evening prayer from the Anglican Church’s Book of Common Prayer. One of his books was Reflections on the Psalms. And uncommon in the Anglican Church, he regularly went to confession to an Anglican priest.

For people not familiar with Lewis’s work, I suggest you begin with his spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy, which ends with his conversion to Christianity in 1931, although the book wasn’t published until 1955.

Then I suggest Mere Christianity. In it, Lewis teaches the fundamental truths of Christianity, finding common ground on which all Christians should agree. (In my book Mere Catholicism, I tried to find common ground on which all Catholics should agree.)

I like Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, and admit that that’s where I got my inspiration for my book Letters to St. Francis de Sales: Mostly on Prayer. And those who are mourning over the death of a spouse can benefit by reading A Grief Observed, which Lewis wrote after the death of his wife, Joy.

Of course, there’s also The Screwtape Letters.

(John F. Fink is editor emeritus of The Criterion.)

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