Originally created 11/28/98

C.S. Lewis still winning converts



OXFORD, England -- Twenty-five years after his death, and a century after his birth, C.S. Lewis continues to win converts to "Mere Christianity" -- the title of one of his best-known books.

Lewis is the first author recommended to people exploring Christianity through the Alpha Course, a program of suppers and conversation that is now the largest evangelistic effort in Britain.

The course, which has been taken up by all the main Christian denominations, has also spread to the United States and other countries.

Indeed, the first author quoted in the course is Lewis: "Christianity is a statement which, if false, is of no importance, and, if true, of infinite importance. The one thing it cannot be is moderately important."

The thought is typical of C.S. Lewis, "wonderfully logical, yet at the same time it goes right to the heart of the matter," said the Rev. Nicky Gumbel of Holy Trinity Brompton, the London church where the Alpha Course began.

"There is a balance in his writing, I think, between the mind and the heart," Gumbel said.

Lewis was an Oxford don and later a Cambridge professor who won respect as a scholar of English literature and an enduring popular following for his religious writings, as well as his "Narnia" fantasies.

Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on Nov. 29, 1898, he was raised in a conventionally religious Anglican home but grew into an atheist.

He affirmed his belief in God following a mystical experience in 1929, but it was another two years before Lewis fully embraced Christianity -- prodded by an all-night conversation with his friends Hugo Dyson and J.R.R. Tolkien, a Roman Catholic don who wrote the "Lord of the Ring" and other highly regarded fantasies.

The first of Lewis' religious works was "The Pilgrim's Regress" in 1933, followed by "The Problem of Pain" in 1940 and "The Screwtape Letters" in 1941. The first of his "Broadcast Talks," later expanded as "Mere Christianity," was published in 1942.

His marriage in 1956 to an abrasive American divorcee, Joy Davidman Gresham, and her death from cancer four years later, has been retold on stage and in the 1993 film "Shadowlands," but most poignantly in Lewis' own words.

"You never know how much you believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life or death to you," he wrote in "A Grief Observed," published under a pseudonym in 1961.

Lewis died Nov. 22, 1963 -- the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

He has a strong following in the United States, with Wichita, Kansas, planning more centenary events in November (11), than Oxford (three).

"It's just us crazy Americans. We overdo everything," said Frank Kastor, professor emeritus of English at Wichita State University, who rates Lewis as this century's most gifted and articulate communicator of Christian beliefs.

"I've been teaching him in my classes for quite a few years. I've been reading him for 20 years, and he continues to feed me," Kastor said in a telephone interview.

The Marian E. Wade Center at Illinois' Wheaton College has 2,000 volumes from Lewis' personal library, and the wardrobe from his Belfast home that inspired "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," the first of the "Narnia" tales.

Lewis' old home in Oxford, called The Kilns, has been bought and restored by the C.S. Lewis Foundation of Redlands, Calif.

Not that Lewis was entirely neglected at home. The Royal Mail issued a commemorative stamp this summer, and admirers in Northern Ireland paid for a statue in Belfast of Lewis opening the wardrobe into the realm of the imagination.

Michael Ward, now a resident at The Kilns, said the pilgrims still come, most of them Christians.

"The variety of his writing, in so many styles, keeps one's interest alive," Ward said. "And the fact that he is a Christian, but is not sort of locked away in a ghetto but is interested in making sense of the whole of life, and isn't narrowly pietistic."

Walter Hooper, an American who was a trustee of Lewis' estate, lives in Oxford and is now editing Lewis' letters, sees a simple reason for the continuing interest.

"I think Lewis has been around for so long we've had a chance for many, many minds to look at his books," he said. "I think he proved to be as good as we think he is, both profound and clear."

Admiration of Lewis has not been universal, however. During his lifetime, his religious writing and his wartime broadcasts on the BBC were an embarrassment to some of his academic colleagues.

The Rev. R.H. Lightfoot, chaplain of New College, Oxford, once said Lewis' turn to religion was "a sad loss to the English faculty. I wish it could be said to be a gain to the faculty of theology."

A.N. Wilson, whose generally sympathetic biography of Lewis was published in 1994, wrote recently in The Daily Telegraph that doing the book converted him from a tepid believer into an atheist.

Wilson attacked the "eitheror" type of argument that Gumbel quoted, and which Lewis put more strongly in "The Problem of Pain," the first of his religious books, published in 1940.

Lewis said of Jesus: "Either he was a raving lunatic of an unusually abominable type or else He was, and is, precisely what He said."

That argument, Wilson contended, contradicted Lewis' major concern as a literary scholar -- to make the reader think about how something was understood by the people who first read it.

As Wilson sees it, Lewis ignored the possibility that "different books of the New Testament have different ways of describing the indescribable, that is, the nature of Christ."