RETROSPECT: February 1st – 9th

The following is part of a series reflecting on the life of C.S. Lewis. This is accomplished by summarizing various events or happenings during his lifetime for the noted period and may include significant events related to him after his death.

Highlights for the first third of February (1st – 9th) include: Two more BBC talks from the second series, “What Christians Believe,” an often misunderstood debate and the first book that made Lewis famous.

Screwtape Letters (1)An idea that started in 1940 led to international fame for Lewis. This is before he gained fame for being the author of The Chronicles of Narnia and even before he was loved as a defender of the Christian faith. A small book containing thirty-one letters set things in motion that made Lewis gain international fame. Although The Screwtape Letters had been released weekly in 1941, it was not until a year later, on the 9th of this month that all of them could be found in one place. The first edition of 2,000 copies sold out even before the date of publication! In fact it was reprinted eight times before the end of 1942. Despite being so popular, it is well known that Lewis actually didn’t enjoy writing it. He said it was because the process of thinking in the mindset of a devil was very draining on him. Lewis liked his other fictional work, The Great Divorce much more and felt it was not as appreciated as it should have been.

Today Lewis is more known for Narnia and Mere Christianity, but during most of the 1940’s he was nearly exclusively associated with The Screwtape Letters. It is still regarded with great respect and there have been many imitations and tributes to the work. In fact, I did my own in 2012 with a podcast featuring Screwtape speaking at a Demon-Chapel. So much more could be said about this book, but because it appeared initially between May and November in 1941 in The Guardian I will wait to share more details during those corresponding weeks.

Lewis’s trilemma is the name given to a view he initially presented on the BBC on the 1st in 1942. At the close of this radio broadcast he stated there were only three ways to view Jesus; He was either who He claimed to be (God), “a lunatic” or “the Devil of Hell.” These thoughts were first available in print in Broadcast Talks (The Case for Christianity in the U.S.) and later in Mere Christianity as part of the second book. In that classic book the chapter was entitled “The Shocking Alternative.” The talk actually begins with Lewis presenting what is often called the Free Will Defense in response to the problem of evil in the world. While not only making evil feasible, Lewis notes it “is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having.” He asserts “God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself” but that Satan tries to “put into (our) heads” that we can.

Broadcast Talks (2)A week later, on the 8th, Lewis was before the microphone again to share what is now known as “The Perfect Penitent.” This is the fourth chapter in book II of Mere Christianity. In this talk Lewis conveys his view of the Atonement while acknowledging one should not “mistake it for the thing itself.” In fact he shares that any theory falls short and is “quite secondary” to the reality of what Christ did. They are like pictures used to describe the atom in place of what they are. A basic understanding can be expressed through the pictures, but they shouldn’t be confused with what atoms (and now, even smaller subatomic materials) are actually like.

On the 2nd in 1948 something unusual occurred in Lewis’s life. Known for his great debating skills he basically admitted to defeat on this date. The Oxford Socratic Club was the setting for the landmark event. Elizabeth Anscombe, a Roman Catholic, was his opponent (who was later elected Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge University). The evening began with Anscombe sharing her views in disagreement with Lewis on his previously established position that naturalism is self-refuting (as presented in the book Miracles). Lewis replied as he was scheduled to do, and after some clarifying by each on their positions and differences, an “open discussion followed” (as recorded in the Socratic Digest). Lewis admitted at the end that his use of the word “‘valid’ was an unfortunate one.” It is falsely believed by some that as a result of this challenge (which led him to revised chapter three of Miracles) that Lewis abandoned rational defenses of the faith altogether. Biographies by Dr. Alan Jacobs (The Narnian) and Dr. Alister McGrath (C. S. Lewis – A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet) provide helpful insights regarding this false belief. One of the essential points is that Lewis chose to direct most of his writings in other realms. He still wrote some essays dealing with rational apologetics after this time. However, he found he had said most of what he wanted to in that area. Soon after this Lewis would, among other things, showcase his further ability to write imaginatively when he penned his Narnia stories.

The Great DivorceThere were actually two other events on the 2nd of February that happen during Lewis’s life that stand out. A few years earlier (in 1942) he talked before the Socratic Club. It was only their second meeting. Lewis wasn’t the schedule speaker, but he was present to offer a reply on the topic of “Is God a Wish Fulfillment.” Next, in 1945, the thirteenth installment of “Who Goes Home? or The Grand Divorce,” which is better known as being the third part of chapter nine of The Great Divorce was published. Highlights include a question of when someone moves from becoming a grumbler to being a grumble and a short, but funny scene where one of the ghosts tries to present herself as still being attractive. The last segment of chapter nine came out the following week on the 9th. In this section we meet an unidentified “famous artist.” He is ready to continue painting, but is told he must focus on seeing before taking up the brush again. We learn that on earth he had helped others catch “glimpses of Heaven” before he lost his love for “light itself.” Just when it seems the Ghost will decide to stay he learns that there are no other famous painters there. That’s because no one is more celebrated than any other. The Ghost can’t stand it and decides he “must be off at once.”

Three notable events occurred on the 7th in Lewis’s life. The first, from 1939 was when a lesser known debate between him and Professor E. M. W. Tillyard happened. It was held at Magdalen College in Oxford, but, it did not begin just that year. Lewis and Tillyard had exchanged their opposing views in a publication called Essay and Studies starting in 1934. Specifically the issue dealt with whether or not a person could only understand someone’s poetry by knowing the poet’s biography. Lewis didn’t believed this and argued the meaning of a work is to be gain from what was written without needing to focus on the life of the author. The debate eventually led to a book co-author by both of them, The Personal Heresy (to be discussed in late April).

In 1941 Lewis’s replied to another issue close to his heart was published on the 7th. In the previous weekly edition of The Spectator, Dr. C. E. M. Joad expressed that God and evil were opposites. In “Evil and God,” Lewis underscored that Christian theology views the two as opposing, but not equal forces. Evil is a distortion of good and has a parasitic existence. Finally, on the 7th in 1944, Lewis was the only speaker before the Socratic Club talking on “‘Bulverism’ or The Foundation of 20th Century Thought.” This was an expanded version of an article first published March 29, 1941 in Time and Tide without a title in the section called “Notes on the Way.” The expression Lewis coins here means assuming someone is wrong and explaining why before proving the person is wrong. This essay, along with “Evil and God” is best found in God in the Dock.  

The HobbittSpeaking of days that have more than one significant event over the years, the 4th of February qualifies as well. It was on that date in 1933 Lewis wrote to his long-time friend Arthur Greeves and made comments about “reading a children’s story which Tolkien has just written.” Please note the year on that…it was four years before the publication of The Hobbit! Secondly, it was in 1957 on the 4th that the first paperback edition of The Problem of Pain came out (I’ll explore this book in October, the month it was initially published in 1940).  


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