Local News: On Friday, September 20, from 12pm to 1pm, Mission Mississippi is hosting a "Jackson's Women's Luncheon" at First Baptist Church (431 N. State St., 3rd Floor, Room 315). The cost of attending is $6. To learn more about this event, call (601) 353-6477 or e-mail email@example.com.
This Sunday, September 22, marks the 82nd anniversary of a day that would change the world, though few people could've anticipated it at the time. On September 22, 1931, C.S. Lewis came to believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, a shift in his worldview that radically impacted the rest of his life, both as a man and as an author. Let's explore what led Lewis to Christ and the difference it made in him afterwards.
1. Lewis’ conversion
Much has been written about C.S. Lewis’ famous conversion from atheism to Christianity, but perhaps the best source to learn about this pivotal event in his life (and in 20th century Church history, for that matter) is his own autobiography, Surprised by Joy. In the book, he describes an outing he and his brother took to the Whipsnade Zoo. Lewis was riding in the sidecar of his brother’s motorcycle, and he said that when they set out for the zoo, he did not believe Jesus Christ was the Son of God. When they arrived, he did. It was an non-emotional experience that Lewis later described as like having woken up after a long sleep.
Lewis had been baptized as an infant and had been confirmed in the Anglican Church as a teenager, although he had already lapsed into atheism by this point. To make his return to the faith public, Lewis decided to take Communion on Christmas Day 1931 at the church he’d been attending, Holy Trinity Church—Headington Quarry. Ever since his conversion from atheism to Theism two years previously, he’d been attending chapel services, but he had refrained from participating in sacramental acts since, though he considered himself a believer in God, he hadn’t regarded himself as a Christian.
Lewis’ conversion may have been unemotional, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t involve his whole self—heart, mind, soul, and body. Lewis, the consummate scholar, did, in a sense, “think his way” into the faith, but his emotions were involved. One can easily see this by reading his 1933 allegorical and semi-autobiographical classic, The Pilgrim’s Regress.
2. Factors that led to Lewis’ conversion
In his autobiography, Lewis credits G.K. Chesterton’s 1922 book, The Everlasting Man, as having a profound influence on his thinking. Lewis said that Chesterton’s book, written in response to H.G. Wells’ Outline of History, was the first time he’d ever seen human history laid out from a Christian perspective in a way that thoroughly made sense. Lewis’ friend, J.R.R. Tolkien, was another important factor in shaping Lewis’ thinking. Lewis said he had a difficult time understanding how the death of someone 2,000 years ago could possibly be relevant for him in the present. Tolkien helped Lewis see that what Christ enacted is essentially an embodiment of what all of the ancient myths about a dying and resurrected dimly foreshadowed. Lewis came to see that Christ’s death and resurrection is, as he put it, a “true Myth”.
Such an abstract understanding of Christ’s work might not resonate with many modern people, but for Lewis, a lifelong lover of ancient mythology, understanding Christ in such terms helped break down prejudices against the Christian narrative.
Perhaps the clincher was Lewis’ own reading of the gospels themselves. In the gospels, Lewis encountered a figure who couldn’t possibly be regarded as just a “good, moral teacher”—the popular perception of Jesus in 20th century England. Jesus’ own statements and actions in the gospels show that he regarded himself as Divine. Jesus, therefore, must either be the Lord, as he claimed to be, or else a liar (if he deliberately was misleading his followers) or a “lunatic”—someone who’d lost touch with reality and mistakenly thought he was God. Lewis couldn’t accept the premise that Christ was either a liar or mentally ill, and so he was forced to conclude that Jesus was and is God. That central belief intact, the rest of the Christian worldview fell naturally into place.
3. Lewis—a changed man
The greatest immediate change Lewis detected in himself after coming to Christ was that he, as he put it, lost all interest in himself. He’d long kept a diary, but ceased at his conversion. His whole approach to life, which hitherto had been inward and self-focused, was now outward focused and Christ-centered.
In his 20s, he had restlessly aspired to be a famous poet. He craved literary success and was devastated by his setbacks when success as a poet didn’t come to him. After coming to Christ, he gave up trying to write anything “important” and began to just try to be the best English professor he could be. His ambition now out of the way, God did in fact use him to write some of the most “important” literature of the 20th century. God used Lewis’ years of atheism to make him an ideal person to speak to the skepticism so many 20th century people felt. Unlike many evangelists who trivialize objections to Christianity as if they weren’t to be taken seriously, Lewis grappled with objections humbly, knowing firsthand what it felt like to have bought into the lie of unbelief.
The change in Lewis’ post-conversion demeanor is most sharply seen by reading his letters, which have recently been published in three volumes by Walter Hooper, literary advisor of C.S. Lewis’ estate. In his 20s, Lewis’ letters often come across as sarcastic, snobbish, and somewhat condescending to people less intellectual than him. Even racism and sexism are not absent from Lewis’ pre-conversion letters. After becoming a Christian, the tone of Lewis’ letters changed. He ceased to talk about himself and his own prerogative. He came to regard people—all people, whether male or female, educated or uneducated—as image-bearers of God, and therefore deserving to be taken seriously with respect and dignity.
It would be overly simplistic to say that Lewis never wrestled with doubts ever again. In 1960, after the loss of his wife, Helen Joy Davidman, to bone cancer, Lewis struggled to make sense of how a good God could permit his wife to undergo such torture. Lewis despaired at times, as any man would in the same situation, but he didn’t lose his faith. His classic, A Grief Observed, shows a man who has had the audacity to cry out to God, not holding back his frustration. Though he never “got over” Joy’s death, in the end, Lewis had peace that God hadn’t abandoned him.
This November 22 marks the 50th anniversary of Lewis’ death. As book sales year in and year out indicate, Lewis’ influence as a Christian thinker continues as strong as ever. If anything, Lewis is reaching more people now than during his own lifetime. Lewis serves as an example of a man who surrendered his life and will to Christ and was used by God in ways he himself could never have anticipated.