C. S. Lewis may have been the most important Christian thinker of the twentieth century. His modern classic Mere Christianity was the first Christian book I ever read back in my early college days. And that book played an important role in shaping my early faith and motivating my interest in Christian apologetics. I’ve gone on to read and reread many of Lewis’s remarkable works.
In May of 2018, I visited England as part of a Reasons to Believe (RTB) tour that involved visiting Oxford University as well as many of the sites connected to Lewis. I was pleased to have visited The Eagle and Child pub on the grounds of Oxford University where Lewis and his Inklings friends (J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield, and Hugo Dyson, among others) met weekly to discuss the articles and books that they were writing. I also toured The Kilns, Lewis’s home for more than thirty years and the place where he wrote many of his best-selling books, including The Chronicles of Narnia. I was also honored to visit Lewis’s burial site on the grounds of Holy Trinity Church, which is just a short drive from Oxford University.
While traveling from London to Oxford on a bus I gave a talk about Lewis’s life and accomplishments to the RTB tour group. Here are three things I mentioned about Lewis that you may not have known, even if you are already familiar with his life and writings.
- There were actually “three C. S. Lewises.”
In his biography that commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of Lewis’s death in 2013, theologian Alister McGrath notes that Lewis’s longtime friend Owen Barfield said there were really “three C. S. Lewises.”1 That is, Lewis is known for his important work in three distinct areas. First, he was probably best known as a best-selling children’s novelist (The Chronicles of Narnia, 1950–56). Second, he was also a Christian writer of books on theology and apologetics (e.g., The Weight of Glory, 1949; The Problem of Pain, 1940). And third, he was an “Oxbridge” don and literary scholar of Medieval and Renaissance English (e.g., The Allegory of Love, 1936; Oxford History of English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, 1954). I have met many people who have read Lewis’s books in one area (usually fiction or apologetics) but are unfamiliar with his writings in the other fields. Lewis was quite the gifted and dedicated multitasker.
- Lewis served as a patriot of the United Kingdom (UK) in two World Wars.
Lewis served in World War I as a second lieutenant in the Somerset Light Infantry of the British Army (1917–18).2 He was wounded when a British shell exploded short of its target. Several of his close friends were killed in the war and Lewis suffered mentally and emotionally from post-traumatic stress. Lewis didn’t serve as a soldier in World War II, but he did give inspirational talks to members of Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF), whose mortality rates during the war were very high. He also gave religious talks on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) during the war titled “The Case for Christianity,” which became the basis for his book, Mere Christianity. Lewis’s BBC broadcasts were so popular that after the war, Prime Minister Winston Churchill offered to nominate Lewis to receive a royal medal for his work on behalf of Britain during World War II.3 However, Lewis selflessly declined the honor.
- Lewis lived in an extremely secular time period, which makes his conversion from atheism to Christianity even more remarkable.
The fifty-year period prior to Lewis’s birth in 1898 saw a deeply secular zeitgeist emerging in Europe. Groundbreaking works were published in such fields as politics (Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx, 1848), science (On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, 1859), philosophy (The Gay Science by Friedrich Nietzsche, 1882), and psychology (Studies in Hysteria by Sigmund Freud, 1895). The Anglican Christian faith Lewis had been exposed to as child had been ravaged by the death of his mother at age nine followed by estrangement from his father. The final blow came from the training of his extremely secular boarding school teacher William T. Kirkpatrick (1848–1921).
His life experiences during this time exposed Lewis to atheism and a thoroughgoing naturalist worldview. Yet, in returning to Oxford after World War I—first as a student and then as a lecturer—Lewis’s encounter with Christian authors and friends stimulated his thinking about historic Christianity. Tolkien and others helped Lewis to see that the Gospels reveal the incarnate Jesus Christ as the God-man and that story was the “true myth” (a story that is true to factual history). Lewis converted first to theism and then to Christianity while he was in his early thirties.
Lewis used an abductive type of reasoning (inference to the best explanation) and a cumulative case approach to affirm the truth of Christianity. Here’s one of his famous quotes: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”4
So those are three things that you may not have known about the extraordinary Clive Staples “Jack” Lewis. May his life inspire you to excel in your endeavors to the glory of God. For more about him, see my article “Christian Thinkers 101: A Crash Course on C. S. Lewis.”
Reflection: Your Turn
Did any of this biographical information about Lewis catch you by surprise? Have you read any of his books? If so, which is your favorite?
- Alister McGrath, S.Lewis: A Life—Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2013), x.
- McGrath, S. Lewis: A Life, 65–66.
- McGrath, S. Lewis: A Life, 248.
- S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, rev. ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 140.