C.S. Lewis the occultist and other rather obvious errors

Here’s a dirty little secret that reporters don’t want you to know. When writing the back story or filler for a news item, we often rely on our knowledge of a topic to flesh out a story.

While some newspapers used to boast that they fact-checked every statement before releasing a story to a waiting world, that degree of rigor has disappeared. Budgets cuts have reduced editorial staff who were once tasked with cleaning up stories, while at the same time more copy is demanded of writers at a faster pace.

Factual errors happen for many reasons. Reporters mishear or misread things, sources are misinformed, story subjects lie and other reporters try to trip you up. I am not as familiar with American media culture as I am with the British — but I have been led astray by my peers and I in turn have been less than helpful to others. And I have produced howlers that still haunt my dreams.

Often a mistake will not be caught — allowing a graceful correction in the next issue buried beneath the candle ads. But there are some topics that most reporters know not to mess with  — items that are part of our collective memory, or items memorized by fanatics. Woe to he who mangles a Star Trek or Monty Python quote.

Religion News Service dropped a brick (several in fact) in its article entitled “Fifty years later, C.S. Lewis’ legacy shines in US, not his homeland”, making mistakes of fact that fans of Lewis would spot in an instant.

The article begins:

When he died on Nov. 22, 1963 hardly a soul blinked in Northern Ireland where he was born or in England where he spent most of his working life as one of the world’s greatest Christian apologists.

Clive Staples Lewis was a week short of 65 when he suffered a heart attack at his home in Oxford. The obituary writers barely noticed his demise, in part because he died on the same day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.

British indifference to Lewis half a century ago will be examined at a one-day seminar at Wheaton College on Nov. 1, co-sponsored by the Marion E. Wade Center, the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals and Wheaton College’s Faith and Learning program.

Not much to worry about so far — save for the fact the conference was not about “British indifference to Lewis.” The circular for the conference states it will examine the “Oxford don’s influential presence within American culture. ” In other words, the conference will discuss not why Lewis has not caught on in the UK, but why he is so popular in America. There is a difference.

Dropping into the filler of this piece — where RNS gives a biography of Lewis — we see these statements.

Shattered by [his mother's] death, Lewis abandoned his inherited faith at the age of 15 and threw himself into a study of mythology and the occult. …

His conversion to Christianity was slow and laborious. Reluctantly, he fell under the influence of Oxford colleague and friend J.R.R. Tolkien and G.K. Chesterton, who met every Tuesday morning at a local public house in Oxford and formed a debating club called ”Inklings.” …

Tolkien and Chesterton were disappointed that their new convert turned towards the Church of England, not Rome. …

C.S. Lewis went on to write acclaimed books about Christianity — “The Screwtape Letters,” “The Chronicles of Narnia,” “The Space Trilogy,” “Mere Christianity,” “Miracles and The Problem of Pain” — the latter written after he watched his American Jewish wife, Joy Davidman Gresham, die of bone cancer in 1960.

Working back to front with this list, The Problem of Pain was written in 1940, before Lewis met his wife. The book he wrote after his wife’s death was A Grief Observed.

Chesterton was not one of the “Inklings.” In his spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy, Lewis acknowledges Chesterton’s influence upon his life.

I had never heard of [Chesterton] and had no idea of what he stood for; nor can I quite understand why he made such an immediate conquest of me. It might have been expected that my pessimism, my atheism, and my hatred of sentiment would have made him to me the least congenial of all authors. It would almost seem that Providence, or some “second cause” of a very obscure kind, quite over-rules our previous tastes when It decides to bring two minds together. Liking an author may be as involuntary and improbable as falling in love. I was by now a sufficiently experienced reader to distinguish liking from agreement. I did not need to accept what Chesterton said in order to enjoy it.

Chesterton, it could be said, baptized Lewis’ intellect the way that George MacDonald baptized his imagination, preparing the ground for his conversion to Christianity. In Surprised by Joy he writes:

In reading Chesterton, as in reading MacDonald, I did not know what I was letting myself in for. A young man who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere — “Bibles laid open, millions of surprises,” as Herbert says, “fine nets and stratagems.” God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.”

While Lewis, like his friend and colleague J.R.R. Tolkein, was devoted to the Norse sagas and mythology, he was not an occultist. While some Christian groups have denounced Lewis’ work, saying it glorifies witchcraft and magic, the only evidence of a personal interest in magic comes in this passage in Surprised by Joy where he recounts how a matron at his prep school dabbled in the occult.

And that [the Matron's influence] started in me something with which, on and off, I have had plenty of trouble since – the desire for the preternatural…. it is a spiritual lust; and like the lust of the body is has the fatal power of making everything else in the world seem uninteresting while it lasts… The whole thing became a matter of speculation: I was soon (in the famous words) “altering ‘I believe’ to ‘one does feel…’” I passed into the cool evening of Higher Thought, where there was nothing to be obeyed, and nothing to be believed except what was either comforting or exciting. I do not mean that Miss C. did this; better say that the Enemy did this in me, taking occasion from things she innocently said. One reason why the Enemy found this so easy was that, without knowing it, I was already desperately anxious to get rid of my religion; and that for a reason worth recording.

This RNS piece would have benefited from fact-checking. My sense is that the back story was written from memories past — a press release in hand, a deadline approaching and off we go. These are not fatal flaws, but the article is incorrect as it stands. Not the best job from RNS, I’m afraid. Corrections, please?

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About geoconger
  • Thinkling

    Actually I have perceived pretty consistently poor quality across the board in RNS’s craft, certainly over the last couple of years. By my reckoning this piece was at least at the level of their average. FWIW, I follow RealClearReligion in lieu of RNS more now, a lot of religious diversity but much better (and accurate) writing.

    One additional copyedit you missed: ‘ “Miracles and The Problem of Pain” ‘ (from the second excerpt) should of course have read ‘ “Miracles” and “The Problem of Pain” ‘.

    [edited to fix spelling]

  • Nils

    Did Lewis ever meet Chesterton? Lewis became a Christian five years before Chesterton died. And it was Tolkien and Hugo Dyson who were instrumental in Lewis’ conversion. Also, Joy Gresham was a convert to Christianity as well, so the point about her religious background is poorly researched as well.

  • Guest

    Additionally, “The Problem of Pain” was published in 1940, some 20 years before Joy Gresham’s death. The text the article ought to have referenced is “A Grief Observed”, though it was not published in Lewis’ name until after his own death in 1963.

  • http://www.subcreators.com/blog Lori Pieper

    George, you really should have kept reading in Surprised by Joy. There more about Lewis’ interest in magic and the occult in it than you think. In a later chapter, about his life just before he went to Oxford, he describes the attraction to these things that arose from reading Yeats (his prose more than his poetry) and Maeterlinck. He says “If there had been in the neighborhood some elder person who dabbled in dirt of the Magical kind (such have a good nose for potential disciples) I might now be a Satanist or a maniac.”

    So he did read about the occult, though the journalist’s description is simplistic and overstated. And by misstating when the reading occurred, the mythology and the magic are lumped together as one, something that Lewis would never buy. He saw the effects of the mythology as beneficial, as an appeal to the imagination and as a pointer toward genuinely spiritual hope (those he misunderstood this for a long time), while he always at least dimly perceived the occult as evil.

    One thing that was definitely wrong in the article though, is the implication that Lewis lost his faith because of his mother’s death; in SBJ he clearly stated that this was not so. He said that he wasn’t bothered by the fact that God didn’t answer his prayers to save his mother because he basically didn’t have any real faith or understanding of God. In fact, he said he first came to a real Christian belief in the first few years after her death, and did not fall away until he was about 15.

    I should just add that I think SBJ is one of the greatest Christian books I’ve ever read and I heartily recommend it.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    The article also makes it sound as if Chesterton was part of The Inklings, which he most definitely was not.

  • Gail Finke

    HA HA! Chesterton and Tolkien hanging out together with Lewis at the pub, wouldn’t that have been wonderful? And mashing up two different books to make ““Miracles and The Problem of Pain” !!

  • Y. A. Warren

    Human love of a Jewish woman seems to be the defining moment in his belief in the human experience that both old and new testaments plainly compare to the unity human with The Sacred Spirit. Sacred Sexuality is purposely given as an example of the complete communion with the Sacred Spirit of all the universe, in all eternity.


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