The student’s name was Ben. He was a first-year student in his first week of college, and as I ate my lunch in the refectory I could see that he was waiting for me to finish so that he could approach my table. “I hear that you are a Christian,” he said when, my tray pushed aside, he at last came up. I nodded. “Well,” he said, in a rush, “I’m a Christian, too, and last night I got into a long discussion in the dorm with some other students and they were saying things that I didn’t know how to answer and I was wondering if you could help.” Instantly the scene of the night before unfolded in my mind. Ben, it was obvious, had gotten into his first college bull session and, as often is the case, the subject had been religion, science, evolution, and all the apparent conflicts and contradictions among them. He was a small town Alabamian from a small Baptist church and had found what the other students were saying very disturbing.
Ben and I agreed to meet and, when we did, there was no small talk. His first and only question was, “Do you think Genesis is true or is it just a myth?”
I smiled—having been down this road before, I knew exactly what to say. “Ben,” I said, “I think Genesis is true and it’s a myth. Myths aren’t lies, even though the word is sometimes misused that way. Myths are stories that are told and retold because people find them helpful in making sense of the world and their place in it. I happen to think Genesis is a story that God gave us and that the truths in it are capital-T truths, not mere facts.
“Think what we learn from Genesis,” I continued, warming up to my own eloquence. “We learn that God created everything and that it’s good. We learn that God created us in his own image. We learn that God cares about how we behave and that there is a price to pay when we disobey. But we also learn that even then, even as he is banishing us from the garden, he’s still with us to give us clothing and a pat on the back. Those are truths, Ben. How long it took to create things and whether or not there was really a garden of Eden—those are just details.”
I sat back, pleased with myself, and waited. After a couple minutes, Ben looked up from his thoughts. “So what do you think?” he said. “Is Genesis true or is it just a myth?”
If I had been smart, I would have spared Ben my myth-is-truth rap and told him about C.S. Lewis.
Not everything about Lewis, of course—there is simply too much to tell. Does any other writer turn up on so many shelves of a good bookstore or library? In the literary criticism section one is likely to find, at a minimum, The Allegory of Love and English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, two books that, according to Norman Cantor’s Inventing the Middle Ages (1993), were “bold, original, seminal works that rocked the transatlantic world of medieval studies” and had an “incalculable effect” on modern understandings of the Middle Ages. In literature we find Till We Have Faces, a retelling of the Cupid and Psyche myth that is arguably one of the finest English language novels of the 20th century. The religion shelves will be chock full, of course—books like Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, The Problem of Pain, and Miracles continue to sell millions of copies each year. But then so will the science fiction shelves with Lewis’s trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength), and the children’s section, with his seven-volume Chronicles of Narnia, the most famous of which is The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. And don’t stop there—look in poetry for one of several collections of his verse, in biography for his spiritual autobiography Surprised by Joy, and in the section on death and dying for A Grief Observed, the nakedly powerful memoir of Lewis’s tormented reaction to the death of his wife that provided the basis for the movie and play Shadowlands. If there is a book about great teachers to be found, it probably will contain a chapter on Lewis, a famously successful lecturer and tutor at Oxford and Cambridge Universities from the 1920’s to the 1950’s.
The Lewis I wish I had told Ben about, though, is one whose story has often been recorded but never fully understood. It is Lewis the spiritual pilgrim, the lifelong seeker of truth who rejected Christianity as a youth because it seemed “one mythology among many,” embraced Christianity as a young man in part because it was mythic, then proclaimed Christianity to others for the rest of his life, most effectively through writings that are laden with mythology.
The young C. S. Lewis, born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1898 to a middle-class family and schooled in England from his tenth birthday on, scorned Christianity because it seemed unreasonable. In Surprised by Joy Lewis records that although he had been raised (at least nominally) as a Christian, at the age of 13 he noticed that when his class studied, say, the Aeneid, the teachers’ “accepted position seemed to be that religions were normally a mere farrago of nonsense, though our own, by a fortunate exception, was exactly true.” This, on the face of it, struck him as absurd. His atheism gained intellectual grounding when, at age 16, he came under the influence of a private tutor, W.T. Kirkpatrick, who was much enamored of a new work by Sir James Frazer called The Golden Bough.
The Golden Bough was the product of Frazer’s monumental survey of all the world religions and mythologies he could lay his hands on. In general, Frazer regarded religion as a human effort to make sense of the frightening and incomprehensible: thunder, pestilence, famine, death, and so on. In particular, Frazer found in human cultures a recurring story of a dying and resurrected god. This god usually was associated with agriculture and fertility—just as in the cycle of nature the plant is broken, the seed enters the ground, and life springs up, so is the god broken, buried, and restored. The Loki, a mischievous god who dislikes Balder, finds a mistletoe bush that the gods have overlooked and fashions one of its branches into a spear. Then, when the gods are enjoying the sport of throwing things at Balder and seeing them bounce off harmlessly, Loki arranges for Balder’s brother to throw the mistletoe spear. It pierces Balder and kills him. Balder’s death, the myth continues, triggers Ragnorak, the climactic twilight of the gods in which Balder returns to life to preside over a new world inaugurated by the first man and woman.
In reading Longfellow’s poem, Lewis came upon these lines:
I heard a voice, that cried,
“Balder the beautiful
Is dead, is dead!”
And through the misty air
Passed like the mournful cry
Of sunward sailing cranes.
At that moment, Lewis records, “instantly I was uplifted into huge regions of northern sky, I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described . . .and then, as in other examples [of joy], found myself at the very same moment already falling out of that desire and wishing I were back in it.”
Lewis’s passage to adulthood was more intellectual than imaginative. A precocious and successful student, he won a scholarship to University College, Oxford, earned first class degrees in Honour Mods (Greek and Latin texts), Greats (classical philosophy), and English language and literature. At age 27, after serving in the army during World War I, he was elected a fellow in English at Oxford’s Magdalen College.
Through these years of academic progress, Lewis remained steadfast, even aggressive in his atheism. In 1917 he published a book of atheistic poems (the ones his brother objected to) called Spirits in Bondage. The title, which is drawn from I Peter, was meant to suggest the theme—namely, that religion keeps people in a state of spiritual enslavement. Lewis wrote that the book is “mainly strung around the idea . . . that nature is wholly diabolical and malevolent and that God, if he exists, is outside of and in opposition to the cosmic arrangements.”
But even as a man, Lewis had occasional experiences of joy. At age 24, the old feeling of exquisite yearning was sparked during a visit home by a walk in the Castlereagh Hills, the very hills that had so enflamed his imagination as a boy. Four years later, just turning the pages of a dictionary of Norse mythology and seeing the old names was enough. Indeed, Lewis later wrote of this period in his life, “The two hemispheres of my mind were in the sharpest contrast. On the one side a many-islanded sea of poetry and myth; on the other a glib and shallow “rationalism.” Nearly all that I loved I believed to be imaginary; nearly all that I believed to be real I thought grim and meaningless.”
Not long afterward, while still a fellow at Magdalen, Lewis changed his mind about two things. First, he reluctantly concluded that there is a god. Emotions must have an object, he decided after reading Samuel Alexander’s Space, Time and Deity (1920) and reflecting on his earlier study of Plato. The yearning that animates joy must be for a real thing. Letting go grudgingly of his atheism, Lewis tried out for a time the concept of the “Absolute Mind,” which then was popular among the English Hegelians and which was quite different, he insisted, from “the God of popular religion.” But he found in trying to teach the concept to students that the distinction between God and the Absolute Mind was so vague as to be meaningless. If there is a “superhuman mind,” it must be a “Person.” And what were his own efforts to understand the eternal truths of the Absolute Mind and bring his life into accord with them if not “what ordinary people call “prayer to God”?”
Eventually, with all the enthusiasm of the mouse seeking the cat, Lewis gave way to theism. “You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen,” he later recalled, “night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.” To Lewis, belief in God was the only intellectually honest position he could take: “I am an empirical Theist. I have arrived at God by induction.”
The second matter about which Lewis changed his mind was the resurrection of Jesus. He actually had begun entertaining the idea that the resurrection was a historical event before his conversion to theism. The catalyst was an offhand remark by T.D. Weldon, a fellow Oxford don and, like Lewis, an avowed atheist. “Rum thing, that stuff of Frazer’s about the Dying God,” Weldon said in casual conversation. “It almost looks as if it really happened once.” Jarred by the remark and even more by its source, Lewis read the gospels closely and found them, “in their artless, historical, fashion,” to be persuasive on the evidence. The gospels’ avowedly historical character was telling, he concluded: unlike the other dying god stories, this one was painstakingly set in a particular time and place. Even more convincing to Lewis was what he did not find in the gospel accounts— namely, anything at all having to do with agriculture of fertility. What could it mean—a “corn god” story without the promise of corn?
Strange as it may seem, Lewis’s newfound belief in God and the resurrection did not convert him to Christianity; indeed, he briefly flirted with Hinduism. Lewis did not like all the Christian talk about” “propitiation”—”sacrifice”—”the blood of the Lamb”—expressions wh. I cd only interpret in senses that seemed to me either silly or shocking.” Nor did he care much for Jesus. “Everyone told me that [in the gospels] I should find a figure I couldn’t help loving,” Lewis wrote in a letter. “Well, I could. . . . Indeed, some of His behaviour seemed to me open to criticism, e.g., accepting an invitation to dine with a Pharisee and then loading him with torrents of abuse.” Above all, “What I couldn’t see was how the life and death of Someone Else (whoever he was) two thousand years ago could help us here and now—except insofar as his example helped us.”
On Sept. 19, 1931, Lewis vented his frustration to J. R. R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson, two Christians and fellow scholars whom he was entertaining in his rooms at Magdalen. Whenever I encounter a dying god story in mythology, Lewis told them, I am “mysteriously moved, even though no one knows where he is supposed to have lived and died; he’s not historical.” The thrill was akin to that of watching “a diver, stripping off garment after garment, making himself naked, then flashing for a moment in the air, and then down through the green, and warm, and sunlit water into the pitch black, cold, freezing water, down into the mud and slime, then up again, his lungs almost bursting, back again to the green and warm and sunlit water, and then at last out into the sunshine, holding in his hand the dripping thing he went down to get.” Why, Lewis wondered, am I not similarly moved by the gospels’ historical accounts of Jesus’s death and resurrection?
The answer, Lewis’s colleagues told him, was to recognize that the gospel story was mythic and should be appreciated as such, “but with this tremendous difference that it really happened. . . . The dying god really appears—as a historical person, living in a definite time and place.” As Lewis later wrote, “By becoming fact [the dying god story] does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle.” But “it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths: i.e. the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call “real things.” “The Christian story of the dying god, in other words, lay at the exact intersection of myth and history.
Lewis was persuaded by his friends’ view, in part because it helped to resolve three other matters previously disturbing to him. One was the mundane literary style of the gospels, which he, like Saint Augustine, had previously found distasteful. Now Lewis realized that “if ever a myth had become fact, had been incarnated, it would be just like this,” combining “the matter of the great myths” with an “artless, historical style.”
Another was the seemingly inconsistent portrayal of Jesus in the gospels—”as real, as recognizable, through all that depth of time, as Plato’s Socrates or Boswell’s Johnson, . . .yet also numinous, lit by a light from beyond the world, a god.” It now made sense to Lewis that Jesus was fully human—reflecting on Jesus’s crucifixion eve despair and doubt in the garden of Gethsemane, he wrote, “How thankful I am that when God became Man he did not choose to become a man of iron nerves: that would not have helped weaklings like you and me nearly so much.” (Lewis’s letters show that he leaned heavily on the Jesus of Gethsemante when, years later, his wife was dying.) But he was equally appreciative of Jesus’s divinity. To a correspondent who complained that divinity gave Jesus an unfair advantage, Lewis replied that, by that standard, “a man shd refuse a rope thrown to him by another who had one foot on the bank, saying “Oh but you have an unfair advantage.” It is because of that advantage that He can help.”
Lewis was perhaps most grateful for a third insight that accompanied his conversion, namely, that Christians should hold other mythologies and religions in high regard. (This was, of course, the opposite of his early teachers’ views, which had turned him away from Christianity as a boy.) “Myth,” Lewis wrote, “is the isthmus which connects the peninsular world of thought with the vast continent we really belong to”—indeed, “it was through almost believing in the gods that I came to believe in God.” As for other religions, on the great issue of whether deity was real or not, “the whole mass of those who had worshipped—all who had danced and sung and sacrificed and trembled and adored—were clearly right.” To declare Christianity true was not to declare all other religions false. Rather, Christianity was true because it was the answer to two vital questions: “Where has religion reached its true maturity? Where, if anywhere, have the hints of all Paganism been fulfilled?”
Lewis was, by temperament and (thanks to his tutor Kirkpatrick) by training the sort of person who, when he became convinced of something, could not resist sharing it with others. His vocational life at Oxford was the life of the mind, and most of the writing he had done since boyhood was of a scholarly kind. Not surprisingly, then, when Lewis turned his talents to spreading the gospel, he wrote numerous books and essays grounded in reason. “I am not asking anyone to accept Christianity if his best reasoning tells him that the weight of the evidence is against it,” he wrote in Mere Christianity.
Many people have found Lewis’s apologetic works to be of great value. Most of them, I suspect, are people like me—people who were raised in the church, went off to college, then faced the challenge of reconciling faith with science and reason. To read a book by Lewis, whose intelligence sparkles on nearly every page of nearly everything he wrote, was enormously helpful in that effort. As Donald Williams once observed in Christianity Today, “the experience of discovering Lewis has formed an almost archetypal pattern in the lives of countless evangelical students. . . . First in this traditional pattern . . . came a period of gnawing doubt about the whole Christian faith. . . . Into this dark night of the soul swept whatever happened to be the student’s first Lewis book. . . . And what he or she found there was not so much answers, though they were wonderful beyond all hope—but more, an irrefutable demonstration that at least one Christian mind actually existed.”
Lewis’s greatest gifts as a literary evangelist, however, are on display in his works of the imagination. Story and myth, after all, had marked his own journey of faith, especially his realization that myths not only could convey truth, but be truth. Lewis also realized that although a reasoned argument for Christianity might hold people’s attention for as long as they were reading or hearing it, “the moment they have gone away from the lecture hall or laid down our article, they are plunged back into a world where the opposite position is taken for granted. Every newspaper, film, novel and textbook undermines our work. . . . [Thus w]hat we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects—with their Christianity latent.” Practicing what he preached led Lewis to write his science fiction novels—Perelandra, for example, in which the story of Eve’s temptation is reenacted on a different planet, with a different Eve, and with a different result—as well as fantasies like The Great Divorce, an imaginative portrayal of the afterlife.
Lewis’s crowning achievement was the Chronicles of Narnia, seven children’s novels that, like The Wind in the Willows and Charlotte’s Web, provide as much pleasure and satisfaction for the adults who read them aloud as for the children to whom they are read. Although Lewis was himself childless and had little experience of children, the enormous pleasure that successive generations of children have taken in the Chronicles is perhaps not altogether surprising. Given, as Lewis once wrote, that “the imaginative man in me is older, more continuously operative, and in that sense more basic than either the religious writer or the critic, . . . the fairy-tale was the genre best fitted for what I wanted to say.” (Boxen revisited.) The circumstances of the five-year burst from 1948 to 1953 when he wrote all seven of the Chronicles also were helpful, albeit perversely. Having overworked himself into the hospital and, when his doctor prescribed a long rest, been forced instead to double up at home because his brother succumbed to alcoholism, Lewis seems desperately to have needed an escape into fantasy.
The Chronicles, taken as a whole, are an imaginative retelling of the entire Christian story. In them, Lewis wrote, “I say, ‘Supposing there was a world like Narnia, and supposing, like ours, it needed redemption, let us imagine what sort of Incarnation and Passion and Resurrection Christ would have there.” He frankly hoped that children would not notice the books’ Christianity, for fear of turning them off. (This is good for you, dear.) His own childhood experience of religion, after all, had been so shadowed by a lifeless, stained glass version of the faith that he had not been able to feel anything of the love for Jesus that he was repeatedly told he ought to feel. In the Chronicles, Lewis wrote, “I am aiming at a sort of pre-baptism of the child’s imagination,” so that when the child encountered the Christian story later, it would be more engaging.
Asian, a lion, is the Christ of Narnia, and he is Lewis’s greatest literary creation. As Bede Griffiths has written, Asian has all of the “hidden power and majesty and awesomeness which Lewis associated with God, but also all his glory and the tenderness and even the humor which he believed belonged to him, so that children could run up to him and throw their arms around him and kiss him.” In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the first of the Chronicles, four English schoolchildren enter a world of talking animals and mythological creatures ranging from fauns to Father Christmas. Tolkien hated the pastiche of fantastic characters but, according to the Lewis biographer George Sayer, Narnia was not unlike Lewis’s view of heaven, “where all sorts of people could come together to celebrate, dance, and sing with fauns, giants, centaurs, dwarfs, and innumerable and very different animals.” In Narnia, Asian dies in order to spare one of the children from the full consequences of his sin, but is raised from death to triumph over the diabolical White Witch.
The six succeeding volumes of the Chronicles evoke other elements of the Christian story. “In Prince Caspian,” Lewis wrote, “the old stories about [Asian] are starting to be disbelieved. At the end of the [Voyage of the] Dawn Treader He appears as the Lamb. His three replies to Shasta [in The Horse and His Boy] suggest the Trinity. In The Silver Chair the old king is raised from the dead by a drop of Asian’s blood. Finally in the Last Battle we have the reign of anti-Christ (the ape), the end of the world, and the Last Judgement.” That quick summary makes the Chronicles sound far more formulaic than they are. Indeed, the chief pleasure of reading them lies not in the Christian elements themselves but rather in the stories and characters that make these elements seem—in the course of things, and without bold allegorical labels attached—appealing and exciting.
Near the end of The Magician’s Nephew, for example, Asian sings Narnia into creation. (The books are not chronological.) A voice— Asian’s voice—is heard, soon joined by a host of “cold, tingling, silvery voices” and a sky filled with stars. “If you had seen and heard it, you would have felt quite certain that it was the stars themselves who were singing, and that it was the First Voice, the deep one, which had made them appear and made them sing.” Then a sun appears (“younger than ours—you could imagine that it laughed for joy as it came up”), revealing a landscape “of many colours: they were fresh, hot and vivid.” Grass soon “spread out from the Lion like a pool. It ran up the sides of the little hills like a wave.” Soon the land is “bubbling like water in a pot, . . .swelling into humps. They were of very different sizes, some no bigger than mole-hills, some as big as wheel-barrows, two the size of cottages. And the humps moved and swelled till they burst, and the crumbled earth poured out of them, and from each hump there came out an animal.”
In The Silver Chair, the Queen of the Underworld traps and nearly convinces Puddleglum (a “marshwiggle”) and some children, all of whom she has entranced with an incense-laden fire, that there is no Narnia, no sky, no Lion. To read this account is to experience what W. Fred Graham has called the “deadly asphyxiating stuffiness of life without the transcendent”; one cannot help but cheer when, in a final act of will, Puddleglum breaks the enchantment by bravely stamping out the fire with his bare feet. “The children’s story pricks our imagination; it works,” Graham observes, in a way that some of Lewis’s more didactic writings—say, the proof he offers for God’s existence in Mere Christianity—do not.
One last example from the Chronicles; judgment day in Narnia, which is depicted in The Last Battle as a version of the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25. Emeth, a devout follower of the false god Tash who has never known Asian, encounters him:
[T]here came to meet me a great Lion. The speed of him was like the ostrich, and his size was an elephant’s; his hair was like pure gold and the brightness of his eyes, like gold that is liquid in the furnace. . . . Then I fell at his feet and thought, Surely this is the hour of death, for the Lion (who is worthy of all honour) will know that I have served Tash all my days and not him. Nevertheless, it is better to see the Lion and die than to be Tisroc of the world and live and not to have seen him. But the Glorious One bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, Son, thou art welcome. I said, Alas, Lord, I am no son of Thine but the servant of Tash. He answered, Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me. . . . [I]f any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he knows it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then though he says the name Asian, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted.
Inevitably, perhaps, Lewis has become something of a mythic Fig 6. , on Nov. 22, 1963—a date that some now mark more for his passing than for that of President John F. Kennedy (or, for that matter, of Aldous Huxley). The mythmaking began almost immediately. In a 1967 book called The Ring of Truth, the distinguished New Testament translator J.B. Phillips blandly reported that a “rosily radiant” Lewis had visited him twice in his home shortly after he died and “spoke a few words which were particularly relevant to the difficult circumstances through which I was passing.” Christian bookstores soon were filled with Lewis iconography, from the usual assortment of coffee mugs, T-shirts, and calendars to daily devotional books that consist entirely of excerpts from Lewis’s writings and a coffee-table volume, titled C.S. Lewis: Images of His [sic!] World, that takes the reader on a photographic tour of the English byways that Lewis trod. The London and Broadway play Shadowlands and, especially, the popular 1993 movie (now on home video) have spread numinous images of Lewis to still wider audiences. Meanwhile, according to A.N. Wilson, rival Lewis cults have sprung up: at Wheaton College, the Marion E. Wade Center which “keeps alive the image of an evangelical Lewis . . . non-smoking and teetotaler” (in truth, Lewis smoked and drank to excess), while at the Anglo-verging-on-Roman Catholic C.S. Lewis Society in Oxford, “a High Church, celibate C.S. Lewis is reverenced,” his inconvenient marriage notwithstanding.
Lewis, it is safe to say, would have been appalled by all of this. “Ever since I became a Christian,” he wrote, “I have thought that the best, perhaps the only, service I could do for my unbelieving neighbours was to explain and defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.” Having been led to Christianity along an avenue of myth and story, Lewis’s sole purpose was to use his considerable gifts, notably of myth creation and story telling, to guide his readers in the same way. With a success matched or exceeded by few others—only Paul, Augustine, and Pascal come instantly to mind—he accomplished this purpose admirably.