IN A rambling red-brick
house on the western edge of Oxford, a melancholy desk sits at a
bay window looking out over tangled woodland. Across the battered
floor, an ancient ashtray stands against a worn armchair, while in
the middle distance wall maps and pictures depict a fantasy
When Clive 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, which are still in print, widely read, and quoted
with reverence today.
He achieved greatest fame
with the Chronicles of Narnia, stories for children which contain
deep Christian echoes. But he also gained renown for his Christian
apologetics, the chief of which, Mere Christianity, was
rated by the American magazine Christianity Today as "Best
religious book" of the 20th century, above works by luminaries such
as Karl Barth and Jürgen Moltmann.
paradoxically, Lewis has been largely ignored at the university
where he taught for three decades until his early death from bone
cancer and renal failure in 1963. He gained greater recognition in
the United States, where the Episcopal Church celebrates a "Holy C.
S. Lewis" day each November.
Fifty years after his
death, however, things may be changing. The Revd Michael Ward,
chaplain of St Peter's College, Oxford, and co-editor of The
Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis, says: "Like his close
friend, J. R. R. Tolkien, Lewis expressed his Christian faith
through narrative and imagination, which seems to be chiming in
with the needs of our contemporary culture.
"People are picking up
intuitively again on the timeless religious element in his books,
even if they're not directly aware of their fundamentally Christian
LEWIS won an Oxford
scholarship from his native Northern Ireland in 1916. He graduated,
after fighting and getting wounded in the First World War,
eventually becoming a Fellow of Magdalen College.
Despite his prodigious
output, and the huge popularity of his lectures, the academic
establishment in Oxford was, for many years, dismissive of
The university's theology
faculty viewed him as a literary intruder, and remained divided
over his significance. The English faculty, which Lewis did much to
develop, acknowledged his studies on medieval and Renaissance
literature, but considered him too preoccupied with Christianity.
Ultimately, Lewis took up a professorship at Cambridge instead.
As a new generation is
introduced to the world of Narnia, Judith Wolfe, the editor of
Oxford's Journal of Inklings Studies, thinks that Lewis's
Christian vision has gained a new relevance.
"Although Lewis wasn't a
professional theologian, he struggled all his life with the
question faced by Christians - what and where is God? - and his
acute sense of the world Christianity portrays is just as profound
as the best modern theologians'", Dr Wolfe argues.
"He also realised
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."
BORN in Belfast in
November 1898, and baptised in the Church of Ireland, Lewis
abandoned his faith at school, recalling in his autobiography,
Surprised by Joy, how he had been confirmed and received
communion "in total disbelief, acting a part, eating and drinking
my own condemnation".
His letters and diaries
suggest that his atheism was articulate, and serious. But Lewis
attributed much of it to Christianity's "ugly architecture, ugly
music, and bad poetry", insisting that he was largely motivated by
"hatred of authority", and a "monstrous individualism".
But he could never rid
himself of a yearning for what he called "joy": a sense of
unsatisfied desire. When he returned to faith at Oxford in
September 1931, after conversations with Tolkien, among others, he
did so "kicking, struggling, resentful, darting my eyes in every
direction for a chance to escape". Lewis said that he "knelt and
prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant
convert in all England".
It was in the "true myth"
of Christianity, he believed, that religion had "reached its
maturity"; and this required "orgy and ritual" as well as
"intellect and conscience".
Tolkien by declining to become a Roman Catholic, and remained a
broad-church Anglican. But he was sympathetic to a concept of
purgatory, and to the practices of confession and prayer to the
saints, and retained an ecumenical focus.
Meanwhile, his return to
faith released powers of imagination, and launched him on a new
career as an interpreter and populariser of Christianity.
Christianity, based on his acclaimed wartime broadcasts for
the BBC, tackled popular objections to Christianity, stripping it
down to its essentials with simple, striking arguments and
In September 1947, two
years before the first of his Narnia Chronicles appeared, Mere
Christianity had put "Oxford's C. S. Lewis" on the cover of
By then, he had achieved
further renown with The Abolition of Man, which cited
Plato, Aristotle, and St Augustine in defence of natural law and
objective values, as well as a science-fiction trilogy, and a
discourse on miracles.
The Revd Dr Diarmaid
MacCulloch, Professor of the History of the Church in the
University of Oxford, thinks that Lewis's non-denominational
approach to Christianity helps to explain his particular popularity
in the US. This demotic approach, Professor MacCulloch believes,
gives him fresh appeal today.
"Lewis has attracted more
conservative Christians at a time when religion is undergoing a
great realignment between the forces of tradition and change," he
"This tension runs right
across the theological categories, and can now unite a conservative
Catholic with a conservative Protestant in a way which would not
have happened half a century ago. Among such supporters of
traditional religion, Lewis is seen as a standard-bearer."
Walter Hooper, an
American who acted as Lewis's private secretary in his declining
years, remembers him as affable, and hard-drinking, but also
generous and discerning - a man who made a sincere attempt, against
difficult odds, to live a Christian life.
NOW 81 years old, and a
trustee of Lewis's estate, Mr Hooper has spent decades editing his
letters, diaries, and poems, as well as writing about his former
employer. A former Anglican priest who then joined the Roman
Catholic Church, he thinks interest in Lewis is now also growing
among Roman Catholics, led by papal example.
During a 1988 Cambridge
University lecture, the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger praised
Lewis's rejection of "destructive relativism" in The Abolition
of Man, while in a 1994 talk in the US he quoted from The
Mr Hooper recalls how the
late Blessed John Paul II also revealed a knowledge of Lewis's
works when he met him at the pontiff's request, particularly
lauding The Four Loves.
"Lewis owed it to his
fans to avoid complexities, and set Christianity's core beliefs in
place," Mr Hooper says. "But he was adamant that those core
beliefs, the deposit of faith, must always remain, no matter how
Dr Wolfe believes that
pressure is growing for fuller academic recognition of Lewis at his
old university. His work has appeared on reading lists in both
English literature and systematic theology, and this year, for the
first time, the theology faculty provided lectures on Lewis for
aspiring Oxford students.
THERE are signs that
Lewis is also becoming better known in Europe. His works have been
written about by phenomenologists in France, and an Inklings
Gesellschaft is meeting in Germany, together with a
symposium devoted to Lewis's correspondence with the RC Neo-Thomist
philosopher Josef Pieper.
In Scandinavia, a C. S.
Lewis Association was founded recently in Denmark, while five of
Lewis's books, including Mere Christianity, are being now
being reissued by Finland's largest Christian publisher.
Jason Lepojarvi, a
theologian from Helsinki University, read Lewis's The Problem
of Pain during his military service, and is now a leading
devotee. He thinks that interest in Lewis will increase as his
insights into faith and society gain in prophetic quality.
For many Protestants,
uneasy and dissatisfied at their Churches' "social conformism",
Lewis's Christian orthodoxy and ethical conservatism are proving
attractive, Mr Lepojarvi says.
professional theologians still hold Lewis in disdain. He was not
even indexed in Blackwell's 820-page The Modern
Theologians, published in 2005.
Although the introduction
in the Cambridge Companion describes Lewis as "almost
certainly the most influential religious author of the Twentieth
Century in English or any other language", one prominent
contributor, Stanley Hauerwas, has dismissed him from the lectern
as no more than "a fairly interesting Church of England thinker",
who fell far below the stature of G. K. Chesterton.
MacCulloch, while praising Lewis's storytelling imagination, has
doubts about his originality and coherence, and thinks that much of
his work has more in common with astrology and pagan mythology than
Mr Hooper disagrees. He
thinks that current attitudes call into question the role of
theology in a sceptical, secularised world, where the Christian
faith is in danger of being ignored, and all Christian thinkers
should be making efforts, as Lewis put it in Mere
Christianity, "to draw men into Christ, to make them little
AGAINST this background,
Lewis's contribution to popularising Christianity deserves greater
acknowledgement, Mr Hooper believes. So does his achievement in
rallying a group of Christian writers who, besides Tolkien,
included the mystic Charles Williams, and the novelist Dorothy L.
"Lewis believed he had a
responsibility to spread the gospel through his writings," Mr
Hooper says, "and showed how Christianity could be presented in
almost any form - from science fiction to children's fables.
"Because the academics
wouldn't touch him with a bargepole, it's taken a long time for his
works to be acknowledged. But Lewis couldn't deal with anything
without illuminating it; and I think many people are now
appreciating the inspirational power which runs through his
Back at The Kilns, the
rooms still exist where Lewis received Tolkien and other friends;
where he played Scrabble with his wife, the American Joy Davidman,
whom he married late in life, shortly before she succumbed to
cancer at the age of 45; and where he died on 22 November 1963, the
same day as President John F. Kennedy.
The once-derelict house, restored as a study centre by US
volunteers between 1993 and 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 inter- est grows worldwide in this dynamic and
insightful Christian visionary.