Summary: A biographical overview of C. S. Lewis’ life, tracing the influences that led to his moving from a commitment to atheism to belief in Jesus Christ
The Life and Legacy of C. S. Lewis #1
"C.S. Lewis, Apostle to Skeptics"
This weekend we’re launching a series on The Life and Legacy of C. S. Lewis. This message will not involve the exposition of a text or the exploration of a topic, but the introduction of an amazing man whom God continues to use to reach a lost world with the good news of his love through Jesus Christ.
I want to confess at the outset that I’m not sure if Lewis would appreciate this message for the simple reason that he is the subject of it. On a personal level, I doubt that he would want us to make such a fuss about him. Professionally- he was a literary critic- he would want us to focus on his work, not on him. In a letter written to Roy Harrington dated January 19th 1948 Lewis wrote: "Thanks for your most kind letter and for... the sermon. About ’back-ground material’: the only thing of any importance (if that is) about me is what I have to say. ...I hope this doesn’t sound ungracious, it is not meant to be. In fact I am only revealing what you asked for, one of my pet ’peeves’. I can’t abide the idea that a man’s books should be ’set in their biographical context’ and if I had some rare information about the private life of Shakespeare or Dante I’d throw it in the fire, tell no one, and re-read their works. All this biographical interest is only a device for indulging in gossip as an excuse for not reading what the chaps say, which is their only claim on our attention."
Clive Staples Lewis was born on November 29th, 1898 in Belfast, Ireland. His father Albert, a successful attorney, was emotionally unpredictable (which bred in Lewis a certain distrust or dislike of emotion), while his mother Florence was analytical and cheerful. Around age 4 Lewis announced that he wanted to be known as Jacks, later shortened to Jack, the name he went by for the rest of his life. Jack and his brother Warnie, three years his elder, grew up at Little Lea, a wonderful, sprawling home ("almost a major character in my story") bursting with books. "I am a product of long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstairs indoor silences, attics explored in solitude, distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes, and the noise of wind under tiles." In one of those rooms was an old wardrobe where Jack and Warnie created an imaginary world. At Little Lea Jack, an avid reader, first encountered the Arthurian legends, medieval romances, Norse mythology, and classic children’s books. Creative and imaginative, he took to writing and illustrating his own stories featuring costumed talking animals. "What drove me to write was the extreme manual clumsiness from which I have always suffered... a physical defect which my brother and I both inherit from our father; we have only one joint in the thumb."
Three months before he turned 10, on his father’s 45th birthday, August 23rd, 1908, Jack’s mother Florence died of cancer. "With my mother’s death all settled happiness, all that was tranquil and reliable, disappeared from my life. There was to be much fun, many pleasures, many stabs of Joy; but no more of the old security. It was sea and islands now; the great continent had sunk like Atlantis."
His father sent Jack off to a boarding school, Wynyard, run by a cruel, mentally ill headmaster. He begged his father to allow him to leave but to no avail. "Life at a vile boarding school is in this way good preparation for the Christian life," he would write, "that it teaches one to live by hope." When Wynyard was finally shut down, following short stays at several other schools (where he was exposed to a number of unwholesome influences including, among other things, the occult), Jack was finally sent to study with William T. Kirkpatrick, a brilliant teacher under whose instruction he thrived. When Jack first met "the Great Knock" he casually mentioned how he had imagined Surrey would be "wilder." "Stop!" shouted Kirk. "What do you mean by wildness and on what grounds had you for not expecting it?" When Lewis admitted he didn’t have any idea, Kirk told him, "Do you not see, then, that you had no right to have any opinion whatever on the subject?" This all happened in the first three and a half minutes of their acquaintance and set the tone for their subsequent relationship. And Lewis thrived under Kirk of whom he wrote, "If ever a man came near to being a purely logical entity, that man was Kirk. He taught Jack to think logically and under his tutoring Jack flourished.
But the cumulative effect of his mother’s death, his exposure to cruelty and the occult at boarding school, the influence of his unbelieving tutor, his reading, his not wanting to be interfered with (he found the occult fascinating because it held out the promise of control without accountability), and his deeply ingrained pessimism all led Jack to become a committed atheist. "I had definitely formed the opinion that the universe was, in the main, a rather regrettable institution." He found Lucretius’ argument for atheism convincing: "Had God designed the world, it would not be/ A world so frail and faulty as we see." But, fearing his father’s disapproval, in what he called "one of the worst acts of my life" he allowed himself to be confirmed and took his first communion "in total disbelief, acting a part, eating and drinking my own condemnation... Cowardice drove me into hypocrisy and hypocrisy into blasphemy."