November 12, 2013

The Real World of C.S. Lewis


It’s easy to read the works of C.S. Lewis and conclude from his sharp-minded insights and easy articulation of complicated concepts that he was a man who had figured out the great questions of life and of God. Some writers (and movies) have gone so far as to suggest that Lewis’ Christianity was an academic ivory-tower faith, untouched by real life. 

The truth about C.S. Lewis was something completely different. In fact, Lewis’ faith and writings were forged in a furnace of real-world pain and experience.

Early Life

Lewis came from a classically Victorian, middle-class family in Northern Ireland. He described his early life as idyllic, filled with books, imagination and a deep closeness to his brother Warnie. Lewis’ world changed dramatically when he was nine years old after his mother died of cancer. (Readers of The Magician’s Nephew may recognize Lewis’ personal experience through Digory and his ailing mother.)  His grief-stricken father, unable to cope with the loss, sent Lewis and his brother off to boarding school in England. Lewis’ experience at the hands of an abusive headmaster and schoolmates was almost Dickensian in its horror. Only when he was removed from school and placed in the hands of a brilliant tutor did Lewis discover his true potential intellectually and artistically.

It is often overlooked that Lewis fought in the First World War and was seriously wounded when a bomb went off nearby on the battlefield. Shrapnel hit his leg, hand and chest. The pieces in his chest were so close to his heart that they were left there for almost thirty years. As a result of his war experiences, Lewis suffered from ongoing respiratory and stomach problems, as well as arthritic-type pain around the wounds. He also endured recurring nightmares.

A Promise to a Friend

Another outcome from the war was a relationship Lewis developed with the Moore family. At the start of the war, Lewis had become friends with Paddy Moore and was soon drawn into their family. He became like a second-son to Paddy’s mother — Mrs. ‘Minto’ Moore — and a brother to Paddy’s sister, Maureen. A promise was made between the two young men that, if either died in the war, the survivor would take care of his family. Paddy was killed in action and Lewis kept his promise. He and Warnie eventually bought a house with Mrs. Moore and Maureen, living with them until Maureen left to get married and Mrs. Moore’s death in 1951.

Mrs. Moore was not a well woman, emotionally or mentally. She was controlling, domineering and often treated Lewis like a domestic servant. She often interrupted his writing with some trivial or mundane chore. She was demanding often for the sake of demand. Worse, she resented Lewis’ conversion to Christianity and the many ways his faith took him away from home as he sought to share it through his lectures, writing and broadcasts. As she grew older, her mental and emotional state deteriorated, requiring more and more of Lewis’ time and energy. Yet he never failed her.

Lewis’ life was complicated further by his beloved brother Warnie. During the First World War and his extended career in the military thereafter, Warnie became a binge alcoholic. For the rest of Lewis’ life, Warnie often needed his brother’s care, whether he was hospitalized or at home.

Sense of Duty

Lewis was also a man with a deep sense of duty. He was a diligent and dedicated tutor at Oxford University’s Magdalen College. He involved himself in the lives of his students, helping them academically, emotionally and financially as they had need. Apart from the demands of his normal job, he believed as a Christian that he should use his God-given talents in the cause of Christ — and rarely refused opportunities to speak or write whenever they came his way. Articles, essays and major books about faith and literature were pressed in with his many other obligations. During World War II, he took on the additional task of lecturing officers at the Royal Air Force bases around Britain. And, of course, he agreed to do several series of "talks" about the faith for the British Broadcasting Corporation, which later became the classic Mere Christianity

If Lewis’ essays and books give the impression of a man who had everything figured out, his personal letters reveal a man who was constantly exploring what he believed. Though his relationship with Christ was staunchly fixed in its orthodoxy, the dynamic of the relationship was as fluid as any relationship could be.

For example, ten years into his life as a Christian, the death of a family friend caused Lewis to write to his brother how his view of funerals had changed since his conversion to Christianity: “… one has lost, in a great measure, one’s old morbid feeling about funerals: and what a satisfaction it is to find that the new outlook has, in even one direction, worked down as far as the level of the instinctive feelings. Would that it were so in all directions. What I still find most untouched is the speech habits — I meant that in the full tide of conversation one still finds oneself saying automatically things that are uncharitable, profane and even untrue.”

The Problem of Pain

While writing the book The Problem of Pain, Lewis slipped in the bathtub and hurt himself enough to wonder if he’d broken a rib. The pain reminded him of how he felt in the casualty ward after being wounded in the First World War. Later, he humorously noted in a letter to Warnie, “If you are writing a book about pain and then get some actual pain as I did from my rib, it does not either, as the cynic would expect, blow the doctrine to bits, nor, as a Christian would hope, turn into practice, but remains quite unconnected and irrelevant, just as any other bit of actual life does when you are reading or writing.”

In those two examples, we see the interplay of Lewis’ faith as he acknowledged both how he had changed and how he needed to change. Every aspect of his life — the pains and the pleasures — were fodder for deep consideration as part of his ongoing quest to discover what God was doing in his life and, of more importance, how he could turn his faith into action in the most meaningful ways.

It’s worth remembering, when reading the wry insights of The Screwtape Letters or the lucid explanations in Mere Christianity or the emotionally wrought descriptions in A Grief Observed, that these words did not come from the lofty experience of someone in an academic tower, but were forged in a furnace of great sacrifice. Yet, within that reality, Lewis’ writing exudes one of the greatest of Christian concepts: grace.  

The following is excerpted from a series of articles written by Paul McCusker, the author of a brand new audio production, C. S. Lewis at War — the new Radio Theatre release from Focus on the Family and Tyndale.

Originally Published: November 12, 2013
Category: Culture
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