In a rambling red-brick house on the western edge of Oxford, England, a melancholy desk sits at a bay window looking out over tangled woodland.
In the foreground, an ancient ashtray stands broodingly against a worn leather armchair, surrounded by wall maps and pictures depicting a fantasy landscape.
When Charles Staples Lewis bought The Kilns, a former brick factory, in 1930, he used its quiet remoteness to produce a stream of literary and spiritual masterpieces that are still quoted with reverence today.
But he achieved most fame with stories for children that contained deep Christian echoes, the best known of which, “Chronicles of Narnia,” has sold 100 million copies in more than 40 languages.
A current message
Until now, paradoxically, C.S. Lewis has been largely ignored at Oxford University, where he taught for three decades until his early death from bone cancer in 1963, gaining greater recognition in the United States, which he never visited.
With popular interest growing, however, and three Narnia books — “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe,” “Prince Caspian” and “Voyage of the Dawn Treader” — now blockbuster films, things could be changing.
“Like his close friend, J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewis expressed his Christian faith through narrative and imagination which chimes in well with the needs of our contemporary culture,” said Father Michael Ward, a Lewis expert at Oxford’s St. Peter’s College.
“People pick up intuitively on the timeless religious element in his books, even if they’re not directly aware of their fundamentally Christian message.”
Lewis won an Oxford scholarship from his native Northern Ireland in 1916, graduating in classics and English after fighting in World War I, and becoming a fellow of Magdalen College in 1925.
City landmarks include the Eagle and Child pub, where his informal literary group, The Inklings, met to discusses ideas, the walkways where he nurtured his fascination for Nordic, Celtic and Greek legends and the Anglican Holy Trinity Church where he lies buried with his brother, Warren Lewis.
Response from academia
Despite his prodigious output, however, Oxford’s academic establishment has traditionally been dismissive of Lewis.
The English faculty, which he did much to develop, considered him too preoccupied with Christianity, while the university’s theology faculty viewed him as a literary intruder.
As a new generation is introduced to the world of Narnia, Judith Wolfe, editor of Oxford’s Journal of Inklings Studies, thinks Lewis’ Christian vision is gaining a new relevance.
Lewis was writing at a time of profound change, she told Our Sunday Visitor, when the universal acceptance of humanity’s sinfulness was breaking down under the impact of modern Freudian analysis, and the traditional answers offered by Christian apologists no longer carried conviction.
He saw how Christianity’s witness to the world was diminished by denominational rivalries, and believed his role was to show what united Christians rather than divided them.
“Although Lewis wasn’t a professional theologian, his acute sense of the world Christianity portrays was just as profound as the best modern theologians’,” Wolfe told OSV. “He also realized Christian literature was failing to present good and holy characters who were also interesting — the evil ones were always more compelling. By portraying Christ as the lion Aslan in the ‘Narnia’ stories, he hoped to reveal the attractiveness of the good in real life.”
His journey of faith
Born at Belfast in November 1898 into the Anglican Church of Ireland, Lewis abandoned his faith at school, but was reconverted at Oxford by the devoutly Catholic Tolkein, author of “The Lord of the Rings.”
In “Surprised by Joy,” he recalled being brought back to Christianity “kicking, struggling, resentful, darting my eyes in every direction for a chance to escape.”
“That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me,” he wrote. “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.”
Lewis disappointed Tolkein by declining to become a Catholic, and remained a “high Church” Anglican. But he was sympathetic to the Catholic doctrines of purgatory, mortal sin and prayers to the saints, and retained an ecumenical focus — perhaps in reaction to the bitter religious divisions of Northern Ireland.
His book “Mere Christianity,” based on acclaimed wartime broadcasts for the BBC, tackled popular objections to Christianity from a sceptical viewpoint.
Diarmaid Macculloch, Oxford professor of church history, told OSV that Lewis’ nondenominational approach to Christianity, which predated ecumenical attitudes at the 1962-1965 Second Vatican Council, explained his popularity in the United States.
“Lewis tends to attract more conservative Christians, both Protestants and Catholics, at a time when religion is undergoing a realignment between the forces of tradition and change,” said Macculloch, a fellow of the British Academy, whose monumental 2009 “History of Christianity” was accompanied by a BBC series.
Walter Hooper, a Catholic American who lived with C.S. Lewis at the time of his death, sees other reasons why interest in Lewis looks set to grow, particularly among Catholics.
He remembers the then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger citing Lewis’s 1943 book, “The Abolition of Man,” during a 1988 lecture at Britain’s Cambridge University, and praising its defense of natural law and rejection of “destructive relativism.”
He also recalls how Blessed Pope John Paul II revealed a deep knowledge of Lewis’ works when he met Hooper at the pontiff’s request after a Rome general audience, particularly lauding his 1960 work, “The Four Loves,” and his devotion to a practical apostolate.
“Lewis owed it to his fans to avoid complexities and set Christianity’s core beliefs in place,” Hooper told OSV. “I think he’s being taken much more seriously in the Catholic Church now, at a time when the way these core beliefs are presented is all-important but the sense of meaning must always stay the same.”
A complex legacy
All of this will add pressure for fuller academic recognition of Lewis, who many now see as one of the 20th century’s most important Christian writers.
Wolfe, the journal editor, thinks Lewis is slowly gaining acceptance at his old university, largely under pressure from American students wishing to study him.
Books and papers are being published, while the Anglican Church of England’s two archbishops, Rowan Williams of Canterbury and John Sentamu of York, are both keen Lewis fans.
As his works are published abroad, an Inklings Gesellschaft is meeting in Germany, and Lewis is being written about by phenomenologists in France.
There will be struggles ahead. Lewis has been harshly attacked by celebrity atheists in Britain and the United States, including the fantasy novelist, Philip Pullman, author of the “His Dark Materials” trilogy, who has accused him of every sin from racism to misogyny, and of opposing the development of free will.
Meanwhile, even Macculloch, while praising Lewis’s story-telling imagination, has doubts about his theological originality, and thinks much of his work has more in common with astrology and pagan mythology than Christianity.
Father Ward and Wolfe disagree.
They think Lewis’ contribution to popularizing Christianity to a skeptical modern society deserves acknowledgement, along with his unique achievement in rallying a group of Christian writers, who, besides Tolkein, included the mystic Charles Williams and playwright Dorothy L. Sayers, at the very moment in modern times when their inspirational work was most needed.
“Lewis struggled all his life with the question faced by Christians — what and where is God,” Wolfe told OSV. “In an age when science and faith seem in conflict and God’s existence is no longer a shared assumption, he realized the very purpose of faith would be called into question. This was a human, not an than intellectual, problem; and it’s still the climate we’re in today.”
Back at The Kilns, the rooms still exist where Lewis received Tolkein and other associates, where he played scrabble with his American wife Joy Davidman, a former communist and fellow convert, before she succumbed to cancer at age 45, and where he died on Nov. 22, 1963 — the same day as President John F. Kennedy.
The once-derelict house, restored as a study center by U.S. volunteers in 1993-2002, is now owned by the California-based C.S. Lewis Foundation, and stands in a suburban landscape much changed from Lewis’s own days.
But visits are increasing as interest grows worldwide in this original and insightful Christian writer.
Jonathan Luxmoore writes from Poland.