November 5, 2013

C.S. Lewis and The Providential Convergence


With the European outbreak of World War 2 in September, 1939, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) suddenly found itself as the single most important means of communication to the British people. Radio, which had only emerged after the First World War, was virtually untested for times of crises. The leadership had to scramble to discern the balance between the information the people needed to hear and the entertainment they desired to help them forget their worries.

And there was a lot for them to worry about. German invasion was likely, it was only a question of when. Thousands of children from the major cities were evacuated to strangers for their safe-keeping. The German air force began to mercilessly bomb London and surrounding areas. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed and wounded. If ever there was a need for help, comfort and encouragement — this was it.

A visionary in the BBC’s religious department — James Welch — passionately believed Christianity should be meaningful and relevant to the people in this hour of need. Obvious as that may seem, he faced formidable challenges. Great Britain had become secular culture. An ever-diminishing number of people knew or understood the basics of Christianity. And the war led BBC leadership to reduce the amount of broadcast time for religious programs.

A Voice for Faith

Welch had to be innovative, developing dramas with Christian themes. He looked for new and diverse ways to present discussion programs that explored Christian ideas. He also realized he needed a “voice” to articulate the faith to the BBC’s listeners. But where would he find a voice that could speak accessibly and intelligently to a cross-section of people?

Meanwhile, in Oxford, a tutor, lecturer and writer named C.S. Lewis dealt with his own challenges. Less than a decade before the war started, he had turned from atheism to embrace the Christian faith. With that conversion, he dedicated himself to communicating Christianity to whomever would listen. He saw first-hand how secular the culture had become and became counter-cultural against it. But his success was limited to articles, poetry, a satirical allegory and science fiction.

After the outbreak of the war, a publisher approached Lewis about writing a book tackling suffering and pain from a layman’s point of view. Lewis was reluctant — even wanting to write anonymously — yet agreed. The Problem of Pain, released in 1940, was a controversial success. While some argued with Lewis’ conclusions, few could deny that he’d struck the right tone in how he’d presented a Christian view of suffering.

Around this time, Lewis also began writing a series of letters for a Church of England newspaper. The letters purported to be advice from a “senior demon” to an underling about how to effectively tempt, dupe, and manipulate humans. They were called The Screwtape Letters.

Moral Law

Lewis and his work came to the attention of James Welch. With a wary hopefulness, Welch contacted Lewis about creating a series of broadcasts for the BBC exploring the Christian faith, perhaps explaining concepts like repentance and a personal need for Christ. Lewis agreed to do the broadcasts, but refused to take on the subjects Welch suggested. In a secular society, he said, people did not have an inherent need for repentance and, without that, could not understand a need for Jesus to die for them. He had to go further back, he said, and make the case for a “Moral Law,” drawn from common human experience. Only after he presented that case could he ever hope to persuade people of a greater and deeper spiritual need that could only be filled by Christ.

And so the first of four series of programs began, the total of them broadcast throughout the rest of the war to critical and popular acclaim. Eventually, the series was compiled into one book that Lewis called Mere Christianity.

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.

CC image sfjalar on Flickr.

Photograph by Arthur Strong, 1947

Originally Published: November 5, 2013
Category: Culture
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