Gregory Rummo has offered several reviews to ESN on books by C.S. Lewis. Here he summarizes the life of Lewis, based on a recent “spiritual biography” by Devin Brown (Brazos Press, 2013), and offers his own reflections on the life of this man, who for so many of us exemplifies what it means to be a scholar Christian.
Infant and Child (1898 – 1908)
Clive Staples Lewis was born in Belfast, Ireland on November 29, 1898, at the end of the Victorian era into a world that “resembled the world of the Middle Ages, more than it does our world today” (Brown 10). His was a world of horse travel, brick-lined streets, maids and butlers; a world that would serve as the stage for much of Lewis’s later writings in the realm of fantasy. Lewis was a prolific writer, penning by hand some “thirty-eight books, over 200 essays and thousands of letters” (11).
Although his parents took him to church from his infancy, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church had no positive effect on his spiritual life. Lewis felt that being told he what ought to do had the result of “freezing feelings…as much religious education has … the opposite effect to that which was intended” (17). Critical to his development in his formative years was an intimate, life-long friendship with his older brother, Warnie. Frequent bouts of inclement weather that “imprisoned” the boys and kept them busy painting, drawing, and imagining the world which lay beyond Castlereagh Hills to the north, (21), “taught me longing,” he wrote (21), a longing that soon developed into a search for fulfilment, a major theme of his writings.
The emotion of Joy played a huge part in Lewis’s early development and there were several mystical experiences that were seminal: a gift of a small toy garden from Warnie and the memory of Castlereagh Hills. Lewis equated an experience of a flowering currant bush to Milton’s “enormous bliss” of Eden in Paradise Lost (28). Literature also had a profound effect. The Beatrix Potter story, Tale of Squirrel Nutkin kindled the Idea of Autumn. A Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem, The Saga of King Olaf, lifted him into “huge regions of northern sky” (32). Lewis later wrote that it was these experiences that taught him to be “surprised by Joy,” and that one must learn to “remember, to attend, to come awake, remain receptive” or run the risk of missing God who is “everywhere incognito.” (34).
Schoolboy and Adolescent (1908 – 1913)
When Lewis was only nine years old, his mother, Flora passed away from cancer. The early joyful years of Lewis’s life dissolved into sadness which Lewis described as a state of “all of us young and old, [being] ill-secured for happiness to continue for very long in this world…” (38). Lewis had prayed for a healing miracle and when she died, he continued to pray for her resurrection. Despite Lewis’s “irreligious” prayers and his treatment of God as more Magician than Savior (40), this episode, much as in the lives of Tolkien and MacDonald, who also lost their mothers at around the same age, became a part of the fantasy world they would write about later in life. After his conversion, Lewis would call death a “friend and a deliverer,” concluding “There are better things ahead than anything we leave behind” (45).
Lewis’s education during these years was a combination of having been tutored by his mother, his governess, and attendance at several schools including a stint at Wynard, a boarding school Lewis characterized as a concentration camp with a lunatic for a headmaster (50). But “All things work together for good…” (Rom. 8:28) and it was during this time that he also attended St. John’s Church in Watford where he “heard the doctrines of Christianity taught by men who obviously believed them,” (51). It was here that Lewis “became an effective believer,” (or so he said) yet he still struggled, fearing for his soul (52). As a student at Cherbourg House, he completely lost his faith due to the restraints he felt from Christianity (62). “I ceased to be a Christian,” he wrote (63), at one point falling into the occult. Yet the Hound of Heaven would not leave him alone. The “unseen unknown Great Thing,” (75) was in fact God, drawing him to Himself.
Young Man and University Student (1913 – 1925)
In 1914, after having been bullied at Malvern College where his socially awkward intellectualism made him an easy target, he spent three years under the tutelage of William Kirkpatrick, (82) an older man and former Presbyterian seminary student who had deconstructed his faith and become hostile to Christianity. Despite being an atheist, his influence in Lewis’s life was more as a teacher of critical thinking than persuader to embrace atheism. Lewis himself commented that Kirkpatrick gave him “fresh ammunition for the defense of a position he had already chosen,” (84). During this time, Lewis cultivated a friendship with Arthur Greeves, a simple man who Lewis says taught me to appreciate “charity and the homely: beauty in the commonplace,” (90).
In 1916, upon his arrival in Oxford, a confused Lewis, searching for a place to stay, walked completely out of town until realizing he had been walking in the wrong direction. As he turned around and saw the magnificent spires of the city, he commented that “he did not see to what extent this little adventure was an allegory of my whole life,” (97). A year later, Lewis found himself in the trenches of France during WWI. Although only in France for six months, the war left an indelible impression on his life. “My memory of the… war haunted my dreams for years,” (103).
Oxford Don and Reluctant Convert (1925 – 1931)
Lewis’s new friendship with Nevill Coghill (a Christian) and their frequent debates, coupled with the books that Lewis was reading at the time, written by Christians, caused him to rethink his atheism. “He must have been as blind as a bat not to have seen the contradiction between his philosophical worldview and his actual experience as a reader,” (114). Slowly he had come to the realization that the incidences of Joy he had experienced were not ends but the means, the desires to contemplate a greater Joy, something outside of himself, “a region of awe” (130). If Joy was a footprint, then there had to be a foot, he reasoned. This moved Lewis from idealism to deism, the next step on his road to faith. (132).
But belief in a philosophical God was still not theism and certainly not Christianity. The writings of G. K Chesterton and a conversation with one of his colleagues, T. D. Weldon on the historical truths of the Gospel (135) continued to chip away. On a bus ride, Lewis decided to “open, unbuckle, loosen the rein” (137), finally giving in. That evening, alone in his room at Magdalene College, “I admitted that God was God and I knelt and prayed: perhaps that night the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England” (140). But this was merely the embrace of theism and not Jesus Christ as personal savior. That was to come some two years later, on September 28, 1931 (155). While riding in the sidecar of Warnie’s motorcycle on the way to a visit at the zoo he committed his life to Christ. This occurred two weeks after a conversation he had with Sam Dyson and J. R. R. Tolkien along Addison’s Walk at Magdalene College when they suggested to Lewis that Christianity was like all other myths with one exception: it was true!
Inkling and Author (1931 – 1950)
The Inklings was a writing group that met informally. Among its almost two-dozen members were Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and his son, Christopher, Owen Barfield, Nevill Coghill, Sam Dyson et al. They read unpublished works aloud, critiquing and encouraging each other. From the Inklings arose the publication of many literary works that might otherwise have never seen the light of day. After Lewis’s death, Tolkien characterized his influence as an “unpayable debt,” saying, “but for his interest and unceasing eagerness for more, I should never have brought the Lord of the Rings to a conclusion,” (175).
After the publication of The Problem of Pain in 1940, Lewis was contacted by James Welch, the director of religious broadcasting for the BBC to begin a series of radio broadcasts on Christian apologetics for the layman. They ultimately were published as Mere Christianity and characterized as “one of the most successful works that Lewis ever undertook” (185). These two works are among his greatest contributions, showcasing his marvelous ability to distill deep, philosophical, and theological truths into a common language that Everyman can understand.
Husband, Widower and Brother Once More (1950 – 1963)
In what appears as an odd coincidence, a woman named Joy corresponded with Lewis. She ultimately travelled to London where the two met. Joy Davidman, a former member of the Communist Party, a divorcee, and a Jewish convert to Christianity, became Lewis’s wife. Shortly thereafter she was diagnosed with bone cancer and was given only a few months to live. But Lewis prayed and received the miraculous answer that had failed to heal his mother years earlier. Joy’s cancer went into remission, and she lived an almost normal life for several years until her cancer returned and she died in July 1960.
Once more, it was just Lewis and his brother living together at the Kilns. Beginning in 1961, Lewis suffered from kidney and heart problems. Three years after Joy’s death, on Friday, November 22, 1963, C. S. Lewis died from a heart attack in his home while sitting in an armchair: “And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks” (Heb. 11:4).
God wastes nothing in the life of a Christian who practices the conscious presence of God. In A Life Observed,the author, Devin Brown writes C. S. Lewis had correctly noted early on that “the world is crowded with God. He walks everywhere incognito,” and it was up to us to notice Him, “to remember, to attend, to come awake… to remain awake,” (34).
Lewis remembered God walking everywhere through the episodes of his journey from atheism to belief, incorporating them thematically into his writings. Despite the ups and downs in Lewis’s understanding of God, from Magician (40), in “Oldie’s miserable school, where Lewis claims to have become “an effective believer,” (52) to the ultimate deconstruction of his faith, to naturalism followed by idealism, deism, theism and finally Christianity, one sees the providence, mercy and the patience of God in pursuing Lewis. God used many events in Lewis’s life to reach out to him, including several traditional churches, “a vile boarding school” which taught him lessons in faith and hope to even something as small as a birth defect in his thumb joint (112). At several points in the reading, I was reminded that “God’s kindness is meant to lead… to repentance,” (Rom. 2:4) and that God is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance,” (2 Pet. 3:9).
The biographer Alan Jacobs said it was “hard to understand” Lewis’s account of this faith journey. But to those of us who know the Lord personally, the Holy Spirit works like the wind, that “blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So, it is with everyone born of the Spirit,” (John 3:8).
It was in fact a simple stroll along Addison’s Walk at Magdalene College with Sam Dyson and J. R. R. Tolkien, when their conversation was interrupted by the rushing wind. Lewis later said this wind was like the breath of the Holy Spirit breathing into his life. Two weeks later, he said he had passed on from believing in God to believing in Christ. And the Christian world has been blessed beyond measure by this man’s writings.
Lewis’s writings consist of many genres: poetry, allegory, literary criticism, fantasy, science fiction and apologetics (176). As such, he reaches a wide audience from children to deep thinking theologians and philosophers.
 In The Magician’s Nephew, Digory Kirke’s mother is cured of a disease when he takes a magic apple to her upon his trip home from Narnia. In The Silver Chair, Caspian is restored to life by a drop of blood from the wounded paw of Aslan.
 C. S. Lewis, Letters to an American Lady, 117.
 Francis Thompson, The Hound of Heaven, “The poem is an ode, and its subject is the pursuit of the human soul by God’s love.”
 C.S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves in a letter dated 12 September 1918 “God, if he exists, is outside of and in opposition to the cosmic arrangements,” Michael Ward, “C. S. Lewis on Christianity,” Lecture 5: Prayer and the Bible, an online course presented by Hillsdale College.
 Devin Brown, A Life Observed, Brazos Press, Grand Rapids, MI, 2013. (Additional references will be annotated by page numbers in parentheses).
Previous reviews by Gregory Rummo:
About the author:
Gregory J. Rummo, M.B.A., M.S. is a Lecturer of Chemistry in the School of Arts and Sciences at Palm Beach Atlantic University and an Adjunct Scholar at the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation. He is currently a DMin student at Knox Theological Seminary in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.