C.S. Lewis: The 'Reluctant Convert'
A gift for writing, a fateful motorcycle ride, and a fascination with joy made C.S. Lewis into the writer we still love today.
In later life, C. S. Lewis - "Jack" to friends and family - would say that it all began with a toy garden. He was seven years old when his older brother, who was known by his nickname "Warnie," brought to their playroom a biscuit tin he had decorated with tiny twigs, moss, and flowers. As Jack gazed at the miniature fairyland he was seized with wonder. The beauty was compelling and mysterious, even mystical, and before he could grasp exactly what it conjured in his spirit the sensation flashed away. This great inexpressible desire, even a desire for desiring, became the touchstone of Lewis' life. He called it Joy.
Fifty years would pass before Lewis, childless himself, would complete the enduring classic of children's literature known as the Chronicles of Narnia. The initial volume, "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe," will no doubt find a whole new generation of readers when the movie version is released in December. But this one slim novel is only a tiny sample of Lewis' prodigious, and often profound, work.
Lewis's large, stolid face filled the cover of Time magazine on September 8, 1947. The article described Lewis as "a short, thickset man with a ruddy face and a big voice." An Oxford don at the time (he later moved on to Cambridge), Lewis was hearty and unaffected, and savored his hours talking and arguing with friends over pipes and pints of ale. It isn't the image, the Time reporter said, that we associate with "a best-selling author and one of the most influential spokesmen for Christianity in the English-speaking world."
Lewis began teaching at Oxford in 1925, with a special emphasis on medieval literature. He was, at the time, an atheist. His mother had died of cancer when he was only nine, shattering his trust in God's goodness. By the age of 14, Lewis had rejected faith in any kind of God, and his horrific experience during World War I (in which he was wounded) only confirmed these convictions. Yet his immersion in European literature repeatedly confronted him with the fact that the writers he most admired were Christian. By 1929, Lewis felt compelled to adopt a cautious theism. In his 1955 autobiography, "Surprised by Joy" (there's that term again), Lewis described himself at this point as "the most dejected and reluctant convert in all of England."
J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, was to take a decisive role in the next step of Lewis' conversion. On a fall evening in 1931, Lewis had dinner with fellow professors Tolkien and Hugo Dyson. They walked through the college's park, talking, until the early hours of the morning. The conversation turned to mythology. Lewis felt that myths, despite their imaginative appeal, were, in the end, merely lies. Tolkien proposed instead that the beauty of Christianity is that it is a myth that happens to be true. The universal hunger planted in human beings by God, evidenced by all the world's mythologies, was made manifest in time and space. In Jesus Christ, God really did walk this earth, die, and rise again.
A few days after that late-night walk, Lewis, still pondering the conversation, got into the sidecar of Warnie's motorcycle for a trip to the zoo. He later wrote, "When we set out I did not believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did." It was a distinctly intellectual conversion, a laser-like search for Truth, unaccompanied by emotional tumult. Yet it seems somehow characteristic of Lewis-never one to stand on dignity--that it took place in a sidecar on the way to the zoo.