Learning from the Master: C.S. Lewis on Apologetics

For countless readers who have crossed the line from unbelief to embrace the Commandments and the Bible and the Beatitudes and all the lessons which Christ taught, their journey has been guided by the writings of C.S. Lewis.  

In Mere Christianity, his most popular apologetics work, Lewis leads his readers along the path of sound reason, helping the reader to discern why *A* is true and *B* is not.  At the end, the preposterous idea that we were created by a loving God, and that He sent His Son to die a cruel death in our stead, seems the only logical explanation  for life.

Despite Lewis’ prominence in Christian apologetics, he was not always a follower of Christ; during his university years, he was an avowed atheist.  At Oxford, he often debated philosophy and religion with several Christian friends including J.R.R. Tolkien (best known for the The Lord of the Rings trilogy).  And those friends were persuasive!  “Really, a young Atheist cannot guard his faith too carefully,” Lewis confided in his conversion story, Surprised by Joy. “Dangers lie in wait for him on every side.”

Lewis wrote poignantly in Surprised by Joy about his first steps toward faith, toward confirming the existence of God:

“You must picture me alone in that room at Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for 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 of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”

So Lewis embraced Christianity, albeit reluctantly.  

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Alister McGrath, in his new new book If I Had Lunch with C. S. Lewis: Exploring the Ideas of C. S. Lewis on the Meaning of Life, cites two major influences on Lewis’s growing interest in Christianity:

First, his friends–such as Owen Barfield–raised questions about his atheism that Lewis knew couldn’t be answered.  Second, Lewis read works by Christian writers–such as G.K. Chesterton–which helped him to realize that their faith provided a rich and realistic way of seeing, understanding, and experiencing the world.

Once a convert to the Christian faith, Lewis began his lifelong task of “passing it on”–sharing the gift he’d been given as an “apologist” for the faith.  McGrath explains that the three main tasks of apologetics are (1) defending, (2) commending, and (3) translating the faith.   

How did he successfully lead so many to faith?  For one thing, McGrath reports, C.S. Lewis was both a very good speaker and a very good writer.  He was skilled in translating complex ideas into the “cultural vernacular”–that is, he could communicate effectively with an academic audience, but also with the uneducated.

During the Second World War, Lewis was invited to tour Royal Air Force bases and talk to the aircrews about his faith.  This experience of speaking to “plodders”–young men who had left school at sixteen and had no intention of doing anything even remotely academic–forced him to translate his ideas into “uneducated language.”

Lewis’s lesson for would-be apologists today is twofold:  Listen before we speak; and translate every bit of our Theology into the vernacular, the language of the common man.

But beyond that, McGrath explains, Lewis enriches our vision of apologetics, allowing us to affirm that Christianity makes sense, without limiting it to the “glib and shallow” rationalism that he himself once knew as an atheist.  Says McGrath,

“Truth, beauty and goodness all have their part to play in Lewis’s apologetics.  Such an “imaginative apologetics” allows us to affirm the reasonableness of faith, while at the same time displaying its power to captivate the imagination.”

There’s so much more in just this single chapter of McGrath’s book.  He defends faith utilizing Lewis’ “argument from desire” and his “argument from morality.”  He shows how apologetics can be an invitation to step into the Christian way of seeing things, and explore how things look when seen from this vantage point.

Lovers of C.S. Lewis should, of course, read his works.  But If I Had Lunch with C. S. Lewis will, I’m sure, become a classic for those who want to better understand the apologist.

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If I Had Lunch with C. S. Lewis is a selection of the Patheos Book Club.  For more information, to read an excerpt, or to join the conversation, click here.

C.S. Lewis Goes to War

One imaginative moment seems now to matter more than the realities that followed.  It was the first bullet I heard—so far from me that it “whined” like a journalist’s or a peacetime poet’s bullet.  At that moment there was something not exactly like fear, much less than indifference; a little quavering signal that said, “This is War. This is what Homer wrote about.”

–C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis in 1917 (left) with friend Ernest Moore during World War I. Moore would later be killed, as were many of Lewis’ friends. (wilsonstation.com)

I was delighted to see in The Blaze an article featuring some never-before-seen photos from World War I.  Of particular interest was a photo of British author, broadcaster and philosopher C.S. Lewis as a young soldier in 1917. 

Lewis rarely spoke about the war, but he did talk about his experiences in his autobiography Surprised by Joy.  Speaking of the difficulties of war, he wrote:

Through the winter, weariness and water were our chief enemies.  I have gone to sleep marching and woken again and found myself marching still.  One walked in the trenches in thigh gum boots with water above the knee; one remembers the icy stream welling up inside the boot when you punctured it on concealed barbed wire.  Familiarity both with the very old and the very recent dead confirmed that view of corpses which had been formed the moment I saw my dead mother.  I came to know and pity and reverence the ordinary man:  particularly dear Sergeant Ayres, who was (I suppose) killed by the same shell that wounded me.  I was a futile officer (they gave commissions too easily then), a puppet moved about by him, and he turned this ridiculous and painful relation into something beautiful, became to me almost like a father.  But for the rest, the war—the frights, the cold, the smell of H.E., the horribly smashed men still moving like half-crushed beetles, the sitting or standing corpses, the landscape of sheer earth without a blade of grass, the boots worn day and night until they seemed to grow to your feet—all this shows rarely and faintly in memory. 

But beyond these sobering memories, Lewis’ reflections touch on the humorous:

The rest of my war experiences have little to do with this story.  How I “took” about sixty prisoners—that is, discovered to my great relief that the crowd of field-gray figure who suddenly appeared from nowhere, all had their hands up—is not worth telling, save as a joke.

He reflects on having been wounded:

…the moment, just after I had been hit, when I found (or thought I found) that I was not breathing and concluded that this was death.  I felt no fear and certainly no courage.  It did not seem to be an occasion for either.  The proposition “Here is a man dying” stood before my mind as dry, as factual, as unemotional as something in a textbook.  It was not even interesting.

And through it all, what emerges is the transformation of a man of letters.  During his recuperation from a wartime infection and during his convalescence after being wounded, he read and studied, considering life through the works of Bergson and Goethe, Titian, Christopher Wren, and the Psalms.

If you haven’t read Surprised by Joy, may I recommend that you put it on your wish list and read it soon?

And take a look at The Blaze to see the other newly published photos from the War.

 

 

Men Must Endure Their Going Hence: Remembering C.S. Lewis

Men Must Endure Their Going Hence.

So warns Edgar in Shakespeare’s classic King Lear.

And so says the tombstone shared by illustrious Christian apologist Clive Staples Lewis and his brother Warren.  The tombstone, located in the yard of Holy Trinity Church in Headington Quarry, Oxford, commemorates the writer C.S. “Jack” Lewis, who died 48 years ago on November 23, 1963, and his quieter older brother who died in April 1973.

Lewis was one of the intellectual giants of the 20th century, contributing a wealth of literature ranging from children’s literature and fantasy (most popular being The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobeand others in the Chronicles of Narnia series), to allegory, to literary criticism and popular theology.  During World War II, his reflections on his BBC radio broadcast—later republished as Mere Christianity—made the case for Christianity through the use of logic.

Despite Lewis’ prominence in Christian apologetics, he was not always a follower of Christ; during his university years, he was an avowed atheist.  At Oxford, he often debated philosophy and religion with several Christian friends including J.R.R. Tolkien (best known for the The Lord of the Rings trilogy).  And those friends were persuasive!  “Really, a young Atheist cannot guard his faith too carefully,” Lewis confided in his conversion story, Surprised by Joy. “Dangers lie in wait for him on every side.”

Lewis wrote poignantly in Surprised by Joy about his first steps toward faith, toward confirming the existence of God:

“You must picture me alone in that room at Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for 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 of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”

So Lewis embraced Christianity, albeit reluctantly.  But was Jesus real?  His interest piqued by the faith of friends who seemed too pragmatic to fall for a myth, Lewis read the Gospels—and he was amazed to find them believable.  The writers, he thought, were too unimaginative to have made the whole thing up; they seemed to truly believe the accounts of Jesus’ ministry, death and Resurrection.

Perhaps Lewis’ best known application of Aristotelian logic is his “Liar, Lunatic or Lord” syllogism.  Evaluating Jesus’ claims to be God, Lewis points to three possible explanations:  either he really was God, he was deliberately lying, or he was not God but thought himself to be (in other words, he was delusional or insane).  Nothing in the Gospel, according to Lewis, suggests that Jesus was not a person of truth; nor did he appear mentally impaired. The only logical answer, then, was that Jesus is truly what he said he was:  He is God.

On September 19, 1931, Jack Lewis engaged his friends Hugo Dyson and J.R.R. Tolkien in a discussion of myth.  The trio walked and talked all night:  Tolkien explaining how myths were God’s way of preparing the ground for the Christian story, and Dyson showing how Christianity worked for the believer, liberating him from sin and helping him to become a better person.  Lewis’ stubborn arguments for atheism were demolished.

It took days of ruminating and meditating for Lewis’ conversion to be complete.  Lewis himself explained that on November 12, he and his brother Warren traveled by motorcycle to Whipsnade Zoo.  “When we set out,” Lewis wrote, “I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God; and when we reached the zoo, I did.” 

Lewis’ book Pilgrim’s Regress tells the story of his dramatic conversion in allegorical form.