Church history: One ‘Mere Christian’ in Church History Clive Staples Lewis

He was listed as one of the 10 most influential Christians of the 20th century by Christian History magazine, along with such people as Karl Barth, Pope John XXIII, Billy Graham and Martin Luther King Jr. The magazine called him “the atheist scholar who became an Anglican, an apologist, and a ‘patron saint’ of Christians everywhere.”

He has also been described as “one of the best loved 20th century Christian apologists” and the “apostle to the skeptics” because he decisively answered common objections people throw up against accepting Christ as Savior. This individual was chosen for a 1947 Time magazine cover because he, having been perceived as a secular academic, was affirming publicly his Christian faith in his writings, on radio and in his relationships with others. By now, many of you know this person is Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963), or C.S. Lewis, as he is popularly known.

His varied background

Lewis, called “Jack” by his friends and family, was a distinguished professor at Oxford and Cambridge universities, renowned literary critic, and highly acclaimed author of science fiction and children’s literature. His best-known work in this genre is the children’s adventure tale, the Chronicles of Narnia, which retells the story of the Creation, the Fall and redemption of humanity and contains other Christian themes in allegorical form. Lewis’ 25 books on Christian topics include Mere Christianity (1952), The Problem of Pain (1940), Miracles (1947), The Screwtape Letters (1942), Surprised by Joy (1955) and The Great Divorce (1945). The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933) was a thinly disguised story of his personal road to conversion.

Between 1942 and 1944, Lewis went on British radio at the request of the director of religious broadcasting for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Lewis gave a number of talks in those years on what he called “mere Christianity,” the common or central beliefs of the faith. The popular weekly broadcasts reached a wide audience of receptive Brits in the dark years of World War II. The collection of radio talks were later brought together in one of Lewis’ most influential books, Mere Christianity.

One of Lewis’ most-often-quoted statements is from Mere Christianity, where he insists that people are confronted with three choices by Jesus’ claims about himself. Thinking of Jesus as a profound moral teacher will not do, said Lewis. People must decide whether he is a liar, lunatic or the Lord, as he claims:

A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with a man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the devil of hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon; or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

Becoming a Christian

What is most fascinating about Lewis, especially to evangelical Christians, is the story of his own conversion. The history of the church is a history of human beings who in one way or another at various stages of their lives encountered the risen Lord and responded with a “Yes, Lord, I will” to his “Yes, come.” The church is the sum total of men, women and children who have been enabled by the Father to be drawn to Jesus Christ through the Spirit (John 6:44, 65). Most of their names are unknown to us, and so are their conversion stories. But we are fortunate to know C.S. Lewis’ testimony because he has told it to us in his writings, especially in Surprised by Joy.

God works in many and diverse ways to bring his children to Christ — and he draws people to himself from all walks of life, cultures, intelligence rankings, ages, races and social levels. The Lord came to C.S. Lewis over several ways in a “small, still voice,” using various means — especially intellectual ones — to reach him. His conversion story is one example of how Christ has built his church over the centuries and continues to build it today.

C.S. Lewis was born into a Protestant family in Belfast, today Northern Ireland, on Nov. 29, 1898. He endured an unhappy and lonely childhood. He was especially crushed by the unexpected death of his mother from cancer when he was less than 10 years old. Her death left a hole in his heart and caused him to be disillusioned about God’s nearness. He rejected any Christian beliefs he might have had, even as a youth, and became an avowed atheist. When asked at age 18 what his religious views were, he called the worship of Christ and the Christian faith “one mythology among many.” By the time he had served in the British army on the front lines of France during World War I and began his studies at Oxford University as a student, now barely 20, he was a thorough-going materialist.

Lewis had been a voracious reader of what we would call good books. What he didn’t know was that Christ was beckoning him through his reading, slowly drawing the young man to himself.

Lewis was greatly influenced by two writers: George MacDonald, a 19th century minister and novelist, and G.K. Chesterton, a Christian apologist and London journalist. “In reading Chesterton, as in reading MacDonald,” he wrote in Surprised by Joy, “I did not know what I was letting myself in for. A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere…. God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.”

Lewis’ close friends also played a vital role in causing his heart to be open to Christ’s love through their talks with him about Christianity and Christ. One was Owen Barfield, who had also trod the road from atheism to theism and finally to Christ. Another was Nevill Coghill, who Lewis was amazed to discover was a Christian. Two close friends on the English faculty at Oxford’s Magdalen College, where Lewis also taught, Hugo Dyson and J.R.R. Tolkien, were also among a group of diverse people who witnessed the Lord to Lewis.

Finding God

In 1929 C.S. Lewis found himself challenged with God’s existence. This important milestone in his conversion journey was reached suddenly. As he tells the story, on one occasion during this time he happened to take a bus ride. When he got on the bus he was an atheist. When he came to his stop, he got off the bus believing in God’s existence. Not that Lewis was seeking God. He said he didn’t really want to find him. The revelation about God’s existence was something of a fright to him. He wrote in Surprised by Joy: “Amiable agnostics will talk cheerfully about ‘man’s search for God.’ To me, as I then was, they might as well have talked about the mouse’s search for the cat.”

But God was seeking C.S. Lewis and he found him. His call was coming and Lewis could find no place to hide. As Jonah running from the Lord, Lewis had been confronted with his own great “whale,” so to speak. It was God beckoning to him. The reluctant prodigal finally knew it was time to come home. In Surprised by Joy, Lewis tells us about his feelings when he could no longer deny God’s existence to himself:

You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, 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…. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance to escape.

When God drew Lewis’ heart to himself, he became conscious of the presence of his own sinfulness. “For the first time I examined myself with a seriously practical purpose,” wrote Lewis. “And there I found what appalled me: a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds. My name is legion.”

When Christ comes calling

Though Lewis was frightened by what he saw in himself, the Holy Spirit would open Lewis’ heart and mind to Christ’s forgiveness and love. It happened in September 1931 when Lewis was converted to the faith. He had engaged in a lengthy conversation about Christianity with J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson that started with dinner on the 19th and continued into the early morning hours of the 20th. The discussion challenged Lewis’ thinking and set the stage for what happened two days later.

It was on Sept. 22, 1931 that Lewis said yes to the Lord’s offer of himself —according to his testimony, this was the exact day he became a Christian. It happened on a ride to the Whipsnade Zoo with his brother, Warren. Lewis tells about it in his book, Surprised by Joy: “I know very well when, but hardly how, the final step was taken. I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought. Nor in great emotion…. It was more like when a man, after long sleep, still lying motionless in bed, becomes aware that he is now awake.”

One recalls the experience of the apostle Paul, who was also on a road trip, in his case from Jerusalem to Damascus. When Paul started out for Damascus, he did not know the Lord. As a rabbi, he had a strong belief in the God of Israel. But he had not yet been encountered by the living Christ. When he started his journey he did not know Christ, but when he arrived at his destination at Damascus, he was a converted disciple of the Lord (Acts 9:1-20).

Lewis was not struck down with blindness on the road to the zoo and didn’t hear the risen Christ audibly speaking to him. Nevertheless, the still quiet voice of Jesus had been dramatically impacting his mind and heart for some time, bringing him to the opportunity to utter the final yes. In Surprised by Joy, Lewis described that final time before he put his faith in Christ as a period of free and enlightened choice:

The odd thing was that before God closed in on me, I was in fact offered what now appears a moment of wholly free choice…. I became aware that I was holding something at bay, or shutting something out…. I felt myself being, there and then, given a free choice. I could open the door or keep it shut; I could unbuckle the armor or keep it on. Neither choice was presented as a duty; no threat or promise was attached to either, though I knew that to open the door or to take off the corslet meant the incalculable.

On Christmas Day 1931, C.S. Lewis joined the Anglican Church and took communion. For the next three decades he devoted much of his time to writing and speaking about Christ and the Christian faith. He had truly become a disciple of Christ who makes disciples. After several months of ill health and intermittent recovery, Lewis died peacefully on Nov. 22, 1963 — on the very day that U.S. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

Author: Paul Kroll

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