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July 13, 1960: Remembeing Helen Joy Davidman

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Local News: This Thursday's Mission Mississippi Prayer Breakfast will take place from 6:45am to 7:45am at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson (1390 N State St). For more information, contact Ralph Kelly at 601-353-8316. Mission Mississippi's prayer breakfasts are intended to help foster greater unity in the Body of Christ across racial and denominational lines in the metro-Jackson area. To learn more, go to www.missionmississippi.org.

It was 54 years ago this week (July 13, 1960) that Helen Joy Davidman passed away at the young age of 45 due to bone cancer. Davidman, a poet and novelist, is today perhaps most widely remembered as the wife of C.S. Lewis. In the 1993 film, Shadowlands, Debra Winger portrayed Davidman and Douglas Gresham, Davidman’s son, praised her for capturing his mother’s personality dead on. She was by all accounts an abrasive New Yorker who had a fierce wit and unmatched intellect. Gresham speculated that one of the things that drew C.S. Lewis to his mother was that she was, perhaps like no other woman he had ever met, his intellectual equal.

2. Joy Davidman’s journey to Christ

Like her husband, C.S. Lewis, Joy Davidman was an atheist during her youth and embraced the Christian faith as an adult. In 1951, her testimony, titled, “The Longest Way Round”, was published in a collection called These Found the Way: Thirteen Converts to Protestant Christianity (The Westminster Press). Like Lewis’ conversion before hers, Davidman’s journey to Christ was more intellectual than it was emotional.

Describing herself as a 14-year-old, Davidman said, “I was an atheist and the daughter of an atheist; I assumed science had disproved God, just as I assumed that science had proved that matter was indestructible.” She said her atheism dated to when she was eight, the year she read H.G. WellsOutline of History. The fact that, at age eight, she was even able to read and process such a dense book shows the extent of her unusual intelligence.

Growing up in a secular, atheistic environment, she learned to explain away anything of a spiritual nature that seemed to beckon her: “A young poet like myself could be seized and shaken by spiritual powers a dozen times a day, and still take it for granted that there was no such thing as spirit. What happened to me was easily explained away; it was ‘only nerves’ or ‘only glands’. As soon as I discovered Frued, it became ‘only sex’. And yet if ever a human life was haunted, Christ haunted me.”

This squares with what C.S. Lewis said of his own conversion, how he'd felt pursued by God, like he had been "decided upon." Man's search for God, Lewis said, is like talking of the mouse's search for the cat. God was the pursuer.

Ethnically Jewish, Davidman says her family had shed all of Judaism’s religious trappings by the time she was born: “Many Jews got rid of the traditional forms of Judaism, but kept a vague and well-meaning belief in a vaguely well-meaning God—a sort of Unitarianism… My father declared proudly that he had retained the ethics of Judaism, the only ‘real’ part of it, and got rid of the theology—rather as if he had kept the top floor of our house but torn down the first floor and foundation.”

Davidman went on to join the Communist Party, admitting later that it was youthful rebellion more so than a close study of Marx’s philosophy that drew her in. Needless to say, this served to reinforce her atheistic outlook. By the mid 1940s, Davidman had married Bill Gresham and had two sons, so she found less and less time for Communist Party meetings or involvement of any kind. Around this time, she happened to come upon two books written by C.S. Lewis—The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce. Davidman said these books “stirred an unused part of my brain to momentary sluggish life.”

Though Lewis’ books were compelling, Davidman encountered obstacles to the faith that Lewis himself didn’t have to deal with; her Jewish background made coming to Christ even harder. Growing up, she said she’d been led to feel “cold chills” at the mere mention of Christ’s name: “For a thousand years Jews have lived among people who interpreted Christ’s will to mean floggings and burnings, ‘gentleman’s agreements,’ and closed universities. If nominal Christians so confuse their Master’s teachings, surely a poor Jew may be pardoned a little confusion.”

What pushed her over the edge was a crisis moment in which her husband appeared to be having a nervous breakdown. He’d spoken to her in desperation on the phone, not at all making it clear whether he intended to come home, and Davidman stayed up all night frantic about what was going to happen to him: “For the first time in my life I felt helpless; for the first time my pride was forced to admit that I was not, after all, the ‘master of my fate’ and the ‘captain of my soul.’ All my defenses… went down momentarily. And God came in.”

Davidman made it clear that this moment, itself, was not a coming to Christ; it was merely an abandonment of atheism. Shortly thereafter, she began studying world religions and reading more and more of C.S. Lewis’ writings. Her journey to Christ was a gradual one. Her presupposition had been that all religions are essentially the same, but she said when she began studying them, she discovered how untrue that is.

Though there was much to be commended in many of them, Davidman said, “Only one of them had complete understanding of the grace and repentance and charity that had come to me from God. And the Redeemer who made himself known, whose personality I would have recognized among ten thousand—well, when I read the New Testament, I recognized him. He was Jesus.”

2. The aftermath of Joy Davidman’s conversion

Davidman was baptized in 1948 at Pleasant Plains Presbyterian Church in New York. Her two sons were baptized in this congregation as well. Bill Gresham too had made a profession of faith in Christ around the same time as his wife, but his appeared to be short lived. In the years that followed, her marriage to Bill deteriorated; he was habitually unfaithful to her, at times abusive, and by the early 50s, he wanted to divorce her so that he could marry his cousin, Renee. Coinciding with the dissolution of her marriage, Davidman relocated to England with her two sons where she soon became friends with C.S. Lewis, the man whose writings had been so influential in her own journey to Christ. At this point, she identified herself, no longer as a Presbyterian, but as an Anglican.

A few years later, for reasons that are still unclear, the British government decided not to renew her work visa, leaving her in a quandary about what to do. Returning to America just after she’d finally settled in to England and helped her sons settle in seemed impractical. In April of 1956, C.S. Lewis came to her rescue by agreeing to marry her in a civil ceremony. Neither of them regarded it as a “real” marriage; it was merely a legal arrangement to enable Davidman to become a British citizen. Lewis continued to live in Oxford as a bachelor and Davidman continued to live as a single mother in London.

Later in 1956, Davidman fell ill with what was later to be diagnosed as bone cancer. In the end, Lewis’ heart’s desire was to have a “real” marriage to Joy, one blessed by the church, so that the two of them could live together as man and wife. A hospital bedside wedding was performed in March of 1957 and though she was essentially released from the hospital in order to die at home, the cancer went in to remission, much to everyone’s surprise. Lewis, in his late 50s, was finally experiencing the bliss of married love that he had long assumed had bypassed him for good.

The remission was temporary, and by the summer of 1960, Davidman’s body finally succumbed to the cancer. The loss devastated C.S. Lewis (as one can tell by reading A Grief Observed, one of his most heart-wrenching, personal books).

3. Conclusion—What we can learn from Joy Davidman’s life

Davidman’s legacy is, in many ways, similar to that of C.S. Lewis. Like Lewis, she was hindered from coming to Christ by numerous intellectual obstacles. Like Lewis, in the end, she realized that Christianity was a rational belief system, something that doesn’t at all require intellectual suicide. In hindsight, she saw that it was her own worldview that had been plagued with irrationality: “It’s not true that an atheist cannot have any morality; what he cannot have is a rational morality.”

Davidman, like Lewis, possessed a charitable spirit towards those who still found it difficult to believe in the supernatural. Her post-conversion writings are never “preachy”, but offer reasonable and plausible reasons for her own belief in Christ. Her testimony remain relevant even fifty years after her death because what she wrote about—overcoming intellectual obstacles to finally be able to see Christ for who he is—still resonates with people today.

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