C.S. Lewis was arguably the finest popular communicator of the Christian message in modern times and he is about to become very big business, indeed. There are five movies being made of Lewis’s seven-book Narnia series, the first and most famous being The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
Each book is self-contained, but as a whole, the series tells of the creation and eventual conclusion of a world where acts of good and evil, light and dark all play and dance together into a profound explanation of our very existence.
The books work on several levels. As pure fantasy, they create a tone and set a standard that has yet to be equalled. Yet, they also triumph as Christian metaphor. Not in some clumsy and didactic manner, but with a seemingly effortless ability to colour secular magic with godly reality.
Born in November 1898 in Belfast, Northern Ireland, C.S. Lewis always considered himself to be an ordinary teacher. In fact, he was a lecturer at both Oxford and Cambridge Universities and was considered one of the finest minds of his generation.
“There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils,” he wrote. “One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.”
Lewis declared himself a Christian in 1929, “perhaps the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.” It was as though he had tried to avoid the inevitable, considering every argument against Christianity, forcing himself to take on all of the objections his fertile mind could produce. Each one he overcame. By the time his intellect was well and truly won over, his emotional being simply fell into place.
From this point on, everything he wrote was informed and enlivened by his Christianity. But Lewis was too subtle and too clever to knock people over the head with his faith. He knew that talking was far more effective than shouting. In 1950, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was published, the first of seven books in the Narnia series.
In 1952, Lewis’s Mere Christianity appeared. The title reflected the author’s attempt to remove Christianity away from those who would adapt it, dilute it, change what is pure and perfect into something that is confused and confusing. He showed that a belief in God was logical and that from this belief, an acceptance of Jesus Christ was unavoidable. He reversed the equation offered by the secular world: that it is the thoughtless who become Christians, the thoughtful who reject it. Simply, he summed up the arguments like an angel: “There is no need to be worried by facetious people who try to make the Christian hope of Heaven ridiculous by saying they do not want to spend eternity playing harps.
The answer to such people is that if they cannot understand books written for grownups, they should not talk about them. All the scriptural imagery (harps, crowns, gold, etc.) is, of course, a merely symbolical attempt to express the inexpressible. People who take these symbols literally might as well think that when Christ told us to be like doves, He meant that we were to lay eggs.”
In the 1950s, Lewis met and fell in love with Joy Davidman, an American convert from Judaism. The marriage was beautiful but brief and Joy died in 1960. The movie Shadowlands chronicled some of the magnificence of the relationship, but managed to expunge most of the Christianity from the story. What brought them together, what sustained them during the agony of cancer and what saved Lewis after the loss was a profound Christian belief.
After Joy’s death, Lewis wrote a short book entitled A Grief Observed, an exploration of his own feelings following his wife’s death. “Grief still feels like fear,” he said. “Up till this time, I always had too little time. Now, there is nothing but time. Almost pure time, empty successiveness.” He told friends he could no longer remember Joy’s face. Until it came to him that she was there all along, just waiting. Her face shone again in his mind and God’s love and certainty overwhelmed his pain.
Though his remaining years were never as happy as those spent with Joy, he wrote and lectured, becoming a famous man in Europe as well as North America. He died in 1963, on the same day as Kennedy. Quite the juxtaposition. Kennedy was a mere president; Lewis was much greater – a mere Christian.
Legions of the uninitiated will now be exposed to his work and ideas and that will make more than a few individuals extremely unhappy. The Narnia tales are the apotheosis of children’s literature. Never patronizing, certainly not politically correct and always timeless and startlingly wise. They make most contemporary children’s stories appear achingly meagre.
Michael Coren’s biography, C.S. Lewis: The Man Who Created Narnia, is published by Fitzhenry & Whiteside. Coren’s website is michaelcoren.com.