When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, November 22 1963 was engraved in the annals of history. But while the world reeled in shock and grief, another great figure of the twentieth century peacefully died in his bedroom. C. S. Lewis, beloved author of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe finally passed from the Shadowlands into the Solid World of Heaven.
Lewis is more popular today than he was fifty years ago. And the approaching anniversary of his death has prompted fresh attention on Lewis, including a recent conference, the November issue of Christianity Today, and a recent article from the Religious News Service.
Unfortunately, the RNS article contains many factual errors and could leave readers with some false impressions about Lewis’s childhood abandonment of Christianity, his interest in the occult, and the details of his conversion.
Born in Belfast in 1898, Lewis was raised Anglican, but rejected Christianity as a teenager. RNS suggests that this was prompted by the death of Lewis’s mother and wrongly dates the inception of Lewis’s unbelief to his fifteenth year.
Shattered by her death, Lewis abandoned his inherited faith at the age of 15 and threw himself into a study of mythology and the occult.
But Lewis was actually thirteen, not fifteen. And in his spiritual autobiography Surprised by Joy, Lewis lays out the conscious and unconscious causes of his childhood apostasy, showing that it wasn’t simply a reaction to the loss of his mother, but the complex result of several factors. These included not only his fascination with the occult, but also a self-imposed “intolerable burden” of private prayer, his reading of the classics, and “a deeply ingrained pessimism,” the seeds of which Lewis says, “were sown before my mother’s death.”
Young Jack (as he was known by family and friends) did feel an attraction to mythology and the occult (though he would have rejected any simple identification of mythology with the occult; these two things were quite distinct in his mind). But it would be false to imply that he abandoned himself to the study of the occult or that this fascination was life-long. Later in Surprised by Joy, he says that he was “wonderfully protected” from any abiding attachment to the occult, first by his ignorance, incapacity, and cowardice, but especially by “the known nature of Joy.” Joy, for Lewis, meant not so much the emotion of happiness, but an intense longing that was deeply satisfying to experience, but the fulfillment of which eluded him at every turn – until he became a Christian.
From Lewis’s own words, it’s clear that this unhealthy interest in the occult was temporary and proved unsatisfying. In fact, he says,
I had learned a wholesome antipathy to everything occult and magical which was to stand me in good stead when, at Oxford, I came to meet Magicians, Spiritualists, and the like. Not that the ravenous lust was never to tempt me again but that I now knew it for a temptation. And above all, I now knew that Joy did not point in that direction.
Jack’s conversion was a slow process from atheism to theism to Christian faith. Lewis compares this process to a foxhunt (with himself as the fox) and a game of chess (“Check” and “Checkmate” are two of the chapter titles in Surprised by Joy). There were many influences along the way including the writings of George MacDonald and G. K. Chesterton (who, contrary to RNS, was not a member of the Inklings and never personally met Lewis), as well as conversations with his friends J. R. R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson.
Tolkien, of course, was the author of The Lord of the Rings, a book Lewis highly praised. Together, Lewis and Tolkien formed the nucleus of The Inklings, a loose association of friends (not a formal club) that began meeting in 1933, usually on Thursday evenings in Lewis’s rooms at Magdelen College and before lunch on Mondays or Fridays at a pub called The Eagle and the Child (dubbed “The Bird and the Baby” by Lewis and his cronies!).
In 1952, Lewis met Joy Davidman Gresham, a Jewish American who had come to Christian faith partly as a result of Lewis’s writing. They were married in 1956, first in a civil ceremony (to grant her British citizenship) and later in a private Christian ceremony.
Joy died from cancer less than two years into their marriage, leaving Jack shattered by the loss. He chronicled his journey through this grief in A Grief Observed (not, as RNS reports, The Problem of Pain, which was published in 1940). Jack died of renal failure (not a heart attack) one week before his 65th birthday and is buried in the church yard of Holy Trinity Church, Headington, Oxford.
C. S. Lewis’s legacy endures fifty years later, his writing remaining a great gift to both the church and the world. Lewis’s classical training and keen intellect equipped him with razor-sharp reason. His expertise in medieval literature and life-long love for story and mythology fertilized a verdant imagination. His early atheism gave him both sympathy with skeptics and the ability to convincingly critique the very positions he had once so tenaciously held. And his slow but thorough conversion to Christ baptized his reason and imagination, which together gave birth to several dozen books ranging from poetry, allegory, science fiction, and fantasy to theology, apologetics, literary criticism, and ethics. Lewis’s books continue to glow with goodness, sparkle with beauty, and pulsate with truth, challenging the minds and nourishing the imaginations of children and adults alike.