A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away (by this, I mean before the Internet), people who wanted to learn about Christianity had the British scholar and author C. S. Lewis to help them.
When I was a teenager in the 1970s, a friend of mine told me about Lewis’s book Mere Christianity, and I distinctly remember feeling a sense of relief as I read through the pages. Here was an academic giant reassuring me that Christianity made sense, that my faith wasn’t an anti-intellectual remnant from humanity’s primitive past, and that I didn’t have to check my brain at the door when I became part of the family of God. There were real answers to my sincere questions about the Christian faith.
I went on to read other books by Lewis, including The Screwtape Letters, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, and his Space Trilogy novels. Lewis helped me to see the bigger picture beyond my relatively insignificant life: God was real; he was active; there was a cosmic battle going on, and I was in that battle! I didn’t have to fear, though, because Christ, like Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia, had already won the victory.
Recently, I had the opportunity of seeing Max McLean play the role of Lewis in the one-man play C. S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert. The play is an exploration of Lewis’s dramatic conversion from materialism to Christianity and is based on Lewis’s own works, as well as biographies on the scholar. Lewis, one of the most famous Christians of the twentieth century, lived and breathed in the intellectual elitist environments of Oxford and Cambridge from 1917 until his death in 1963. Prior to his conversion, Lewis was an absolute idealist who considered Christianity as useful—but not true.
In The Most Reluctant Convert, McLean takes the audience on a fascinating exploration of Lewis’s evolving internal conflict regarding the claims of Christianity. McLean’s transformation via hair/makeup/wardrobe alone made me feel like I had traveled back in time to observe the Oxford dean contemplate the meaning of the universe from the quiet of his study. Lewis “had always wanted, above all things, ‘not to be interfered with,’” and he could wrestle no longer against the existence of a God who had a claim on his soul:
You must picture me alone in my room at Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity term 1929 I gave in, and admitted… that God was God. I knelt and prayed; that night, perhaps, the most dejected, reluctant convert in all England. I did not then see the divine love which would accept a prodigal on such terms: kicking, struggling, resentful, darting his eyes in every direction looking for a chance to escape. The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of man. His compulsion is my liberation. (MRC; adapted from Surprised by Joy [Harcourt, 1966], p. 228)
Observing McLean's witty and poignant portrayal of Lewis's rhetorical battle within himself regarding the claims of Christianity gave me a richer appreciation of the fertile ground from which so much future apologetic fruit grew and matured. It’s likely that no one was more surprised by his conversion to Christianity than Lewis himself, and his writings over the subsequent years endeared him to many, while drawing critics as well, since some of Lewis’s writings are at odds with historical Christian doctrine.
In Modern Reformation’s article “‘For the Sake of the Story’: Doctrine and Discernment in Reading C. S. Lewis,” Donald T. Williams provides helpful insight and perspective regarding some of the troublesome points of Lewis’s theological positions. It should be expected that Lewis, with his inquisitive and creative mind, would continue to work through some of the less palpable doctrines of the Christian faith for non-Christians—in particular, exclusivism—with at times less than satisfactory results.
If you are in New York City this coming February or March, by all means go see “C. S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert” and get up close and personal with the British scholar whose vast and lasting influence on Christians over the past eighty-plus years sees no sign of slowing down. Among the many thousands of Christian books available today online, Mere Christianity remains the number one bestseller on Amazon for theology and apologetics. Lewis’s books were important stepping-stones in my journey to know God better over the past forty years, and, no doubt, they will continue to be the same for countless Christians until Christ returns.