Once in a stately passion I cried with desperate grief
'Oh Lord, my heart is black with guile, of sinners I am chief'
Then stooped my guardian angel and whispered from behind
'Vanity my little man, you're nothing of the kind'
In the Screwtape Letters, C.S Lewis famously depicts a devil trying and failing to tempt a Christian convert to turn away from his faith.
Lewis really believed in the Devil: but I don't think he really believed in Screwtape. I don't think he thought that actual spiritual beings literally tried to persuade young men not to go on nice country walks (because real innocent pleasures would make them less inclined to waste time with their vulgar and snobby friends). I don't think he literally believed that bad angels corresponded with one another about whether it would be better to direct a particular young man towards extreme pacifism or extreme patriotism (because zealous attachment to any secular cause is likely to impede simple day-to-day obedience to God). I don't think that many theologians, even conservative ones, visualise Satan in those terms. Screwtape is a literary device, allowing Lewis to talk wittily and delightfully about the psychology of sin.
Lewis didn't think that he was clever enough or pious enough to write a mirror Screwtape from the angel's point of view. But in Surprised by Joy he visualises a personal God intervening directly to secure the conversion of a particular human being.
Of course he really believes in God. But does he really believe in the God of Surprised by Joy?
Lewis visualises God as an adversary or an opponent, and he describes the final stages of his conversion as a series of chess moves, culminating in Check (when he started to believe that there was a god) and Checkmate (when he accepted that the God of philosophy was the same as the God of religion).
"My Adversary began to make his final moves...The first Move annihilated what remained of the New Look...The next Move was intellectual and consolidated the first Move...God closed in on me....My adversary waived the point..."
Lewis said that medieval allegory had been a way of representing very subtle psychological states in vivid and concrete terms. The single moment at which a man falls in love might be portrayed as a hero creeping over the wall of a garden and stealing a rose; a second's hesitation between slapping your enemy and turning the other cheek, as a jousting tournament between two champions called Meekness and Wrath. "How a clever man kept searching for final and clinching proofs of the non-existence of God, realised there weren't any, and became a believer" can certainly be imagined as "God forcing a man's chess king into checkmate." Other people have depicted the same experience as a journey, a voyage, or a quest. The experience suggests the metaphor: but your choice of metaphor must affect how you describe the experience. It might even inform which events you think come into the story and which have nothing to do with it.
Is Lewis using a teaching-metaphor to help us see how finding a particular book of fairy tales on a particular day; deciding to re-read a particular Greek tragedy when he wasn't particularly studying it; and coming across a complicated argument about perception in an obscure philosophical text book all led up to the moment when he had to admit that God was God? Or does he really think that God was specially active in those particular events?
If you believe in God, then it is not at all unreasonable to think in terms of God intending to convert C.S Lewis. Lewis talks interestingly about the idea of Special Providence in his book on Miracles. Undoubtedly very many people were praying on D-Day; and a lot of people think that the weather on June 6th was so perfect for the Allied plan that it must have been directly caused by God. Well, yes, says Lewis; but only in so far as every other bit of weather, like every other event in the universe, is directly caused by God. We just happen to be able to see it a little bit more clearly at that point. He applies a similar line of thought to the actual Miracles of Jesus: in one sense Jesus turning water into wine at Cana is no more miraculous than God turning water into wine every day in every vineyard in France.
Lewis certainly says that finding a second-hand copy of George MacDonald's Phantastes at a particular station book shop on a particular day was at one level a piece of random good luck or good fortune, and at another the result of a "superabundance of mercy". He came to see it as a crucial move in the divine game, putting him into Check for the first time. Devin Brown in his biography presses the point rather harder than Lewis himself does. Such a spiritually significant find could not have been a matter of mere chance:
"Did Jack happen on the book by hazard on that frosty March evening in 1916, as he claimed in his letter to Arthur...Looking back the adult Lewis suggest that this event in his life was more like part of the careful strategy of a chess player than a random accident....Who put the book in his way and in doing so put Jack's plan to be a strict materialist in check? Not chance or hazard, as Jack first thought, but a strategic opponent whose every move was made with intention -- the intention to help and avail."
I remember reading about a very old man in the 1970s who displayed his unused ticket for the Titanic in his home, alongside a Bible quote about God rescuing people from the storm. Good for him: I am sure that is what missing the boat must have felt like. But that kind of implies that the thousand people who caught Titanic were directly drowned by God. Which might be true. If you believe in God, you have to say that at some level it is true. But unless all the victims were noticeably evil and all the survivors were noticeably saintly, you have to file it under Inscrutable.
Was Lewis's finding Phantastes a special kind of event: or should we say that God decides every piece of reading matter on every train journey? Was it part of the Divine Plan that I should pick up a copy of Private Eye before my day trip to Bath Spa? If the truest biography of C.S Lewis is nothing more or less than an account of how God checkmated him, does it follow that a true biography of Isembard Kingdom Brunell or Gracie Fields or Zayn Malik would tell the (doubtless equally fascinating) story of how they (so far as I know) evaded God's gambits and stalemated him?
Or is C.S Lewis a special case? Not everyone is told by a burning bush that they have to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt. Not everyone gets approached by the Angel Gabriel and asked to become the Mother of God. So perhaps not everyone finds a copy of a Victorian fantasy novel on a bookstall which forces them to understand the Hegelian Absolute in terms of a personal Deity. Should we perhaps take an instrumental view of Lewis's conversion: God specially wanted him, because he specially wanted there to be some intellectual rigorous Thought For the Day broadcasts on the Wartime Home Service.
Some evangelicals really do think this way. I can recall being told that God had arranged grants and bursaries for foreign students to study in the UK in order that the Christian Union should get a shot at converting them -- because they were by definition going to be the leaders and captains of industry in their own countries when they got home.
I do wonder whether Devin Brown, and indeed Douglas Gresham, are inclined to see Lewis in this way: not as an important Christian intellectual, but as a full-on Prophet. Certainly Brown's biography is inclined to over-praise the subject. The Inklings produced "some of the best writing of the century -- some would say of any century." During the Second World War his radio broadcasts made Lewis's "the most widely recognised voice after Churchill's". (Really? More widely recognised than Uncle Mac, Arthur Askey, Vera Lynne, Tommy Handley, Lord Haw-Haw?). If Lewis really was this important, and if he was really so determined not to be converted, then we can see why God kept dropping books of poetry into his lap at opportune moments.We might have to reimagine Surprised by Joy as a retelling of the book of Jonah, with a copy of Space, Time and Deity standing in for the gigantic fish.
I don't buy it as a piece of theology. I think "God arranged for me to find a copy of Phantastes in a second hand bookshop, and thus put me in spiritual Check" has to be taken to mean "In retrospect, reading this book was a crucial moment in my journey to faith." Lewis might have said that it was like crossing a bridge, or like a light coming on, or like scales falling from his eyes. But he chose to say it was like a devastatingly clever move in an intellectual game.
Lewis was an apologist: he is quite open about the fact that he sometimes selects arguments because they give him a tactical advantage over his opponent. He is very aware that the centrality of Joy in his book opens him up to the charge that his faith is a matter of wish fulfilment. So he choses to emphasise that, from an intellectual standpoint, he did not want to believe in God, and worked very hard to avoid doing so.
I very much enjoy Ian Mills and Laura Robinson's podcast about New Testament scholarship. I particularly enjoyed the one about Wrede's interpretation of Mark's Gospel. (Wrede came up with the theory of the Secret Messiah, but that's not important right now.) They said that hardly any modern critic would fully accept Wrede's theory. But, they said, it was still a landmark in scholarship, because it moved the question on from "Why did it happen that way?" to "Why did Saint Mark choose to tell it that way?"
"Why did C.S. Lewis's conversion happen this way?" is a perfectly good question. "Why did C.S Lewis choose to tell the story of his conversion in this way?" is one we ought to be prepared to ask.
Lewis married a lady named Joy. And Brown points out that the ceremony to welcome a new Fellow to the Magdalene college involved all the other academics shaking hands with him and saying "I wish you joy". Of course they didn't mean joy in the same sense, but it's a pleasing connection. Joy is what Lewis was surprised by; Joy is what the story of his life is about.
Let's take him at his word. He experienced Joy through his brother's toy garden, and through a few lines of Longfellow and the title of an opera by Wagner, and then through George MacDonald and William Morris and lots of poets we probably have not heard of. He did not exactly say "Because I wish for there to be a God, God must exist." But he did find that the experience of Joy sent him down a path that led him to believe that there was a Mind behind the universe. The existence of Joy was powerful evidence that God existed: at any rate, that human beings were not "just" clouds of atoms.
But couldn't the aesthetic experience have led him in a quite different direction? Might someone else not have argued like this:
"I have an experience that I might call Joy, or transcendence, or merely Spirituality. This Transcendence or Spirituality is the core of religion: the most real thing there is. Some people experience it when they sit very quietly and respect everyone in the room; other people experience it when they sit cross-legged and recite a mantra; I experienced it through my big brother's miniature garden. I think that when you pay attention to it, you are paying attention to the most important thing in the universe. And I think that if you do attend to it, and attend to other people who are attending to it, you will become better and happier people, and the world would become a better and happier place. In our tradition, we call it God. Our religious mythology is a way of talking about that Transcendence: of making maps of the God territory. Other people might well call it something else. Some of us think that when we are experiencing the God/Joy/Spirit thing, we are actually in touch with something outside of the normal world of Time and Space. Some people think we are talking about something inside ourselves. Some people don't think it matters."
I think that this is how many Quakers and Hindus would argue; I think it is probably what Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung believed. It may be the kind of thing that the Bishop of Woolworths had in mind when he said that God was within us rather than outside us.
Lewis says that he experienced Joy. And he says that Joy was a longing for something outside the universe -- and can therefore be taken as evidence that there must be an outside for humans to long for. Is a biographer not entitled to ask "Was the experience really what he said it was? And is Lewis's understanding of the experience the only way in which that experience can be understood?"
The fictional student at the end of Shadowlands tells Jack that he has read about being in love, but hasn't ever really been in love, so doesn't have the personal experience. The rather corny implication is that until Lewis met Joy Davidman, the expert in love poetry had never experienced the thing itself. Lewis never said "We read to know that we are not alone" (that's a line from the film) but the real Lewis certainly drew a distinction between intellectual knowledge and first hand experience.
Douglas Gresham, understandably, doesn't like it when people who never knew his step-father purport to be experts in his life. His complaint about even factually accurate works of scholarship is that "Jack is not in them". Devin Brown, says that "If you are looking for Lewis, the best place to find him is at the Kilns" --- the cottage he lived in for thirty years, which is now a Christian retreat centre.
"Everyone I have talked to who has visited has found that a genuine sense of Lewis fills the rooms and the lovely garden as well."
"A genuine sense of Lewis." Of course, one can feel someone's presence in a building, particularly if it is laid out more or less as they left it. Everyone who visits the terrible annex near the Prinsengracht in Amsterdam is deeply moved. I myself have written about visiting 151 Menlove Avenue in Liverpool. It was certainly possible to imagine John Lennon in that tiny bedroom, fantasising about the Bridget Bardot poster on the ceiling and listening to the Goon Show on an old-fashioned radio. Imagining him in that way made me feel closer to the man who wrote all those great songs. But was I in any real sense, close to John Lennon? Could I honestly say that Lennon was in some way present in that very ordinary little bedroom?
People go on pilgrimages: sometimes because they think that touching a thing which a holy person has touched has supernatural powers; but often because seeing the river Jordan or lake Galilee helps them imagine Jesus as he was in his earthly life. And "imagining Jesus" brings them closer to Jesus in a spiritual sense, or feels as if it does. It may even spark joy. So of course you might imagine or feel or get a sense of the presence of C.S Lewis when sitting on his old pew or sleeping in his old bedroom. But is this imaginative buzz spiritually significant? Some Muslims, not illogically, think that venerating places where Mohammed happens to have lived comes close to idolatry and have actually destroyed some of the ancient sites associated with him.
Lewis talks about encountering the personalities of dead historical figures by reading books about them. There are historical figures who we know to be real, but who we don't have any sense of as human beings: people like Henry II and Alexander the Great. But there are also fictional people who we know to have been made up, who we nevertheless feel that we have got to know personally: people like David Copperfield and Hamlet. But there are only three people of whom we feel we have both knowledge-of and knowledge-by-acquaintance: Doctor Johnson, Socrates and the historical Jesus. We feel we know them because of the way Boswell, Plato and St Mark wrote about them.
Those of us who are interested in C.S Lewis would very much like Douglas Gresham to play the role of Boswell: to take up his pen and write down everything that he remembered about him. Not what a holy man he was an how great a writer he was: we kind of take that for granted. But the trivial information which is what we call a personality: what he said that morning when he stubbed his toe on the corner of his bed; that funny joke that Warnie made that Jack didn't quite get; the conversation he had with the postman who kept bringing letters to the wrong house. Lewis, after all, said that the essence of a place, real or imaginary, is in its atmosphere: the cumulative effect of lots of tiny details. The Londoness of London and the Donegality of Donegal.
And that, to me, is what is left out of these hagiographical books. Any sense of the Lewisness of Lewis.
I don't think that story is going to be told. I think that Lewis the writer and thinker; Lewis the witty poet who could put a difficult idea just so; Lewis the insufferable old Tory and Lewis the pedantic tutor is going to vanish. Some hundreds of people claim to have had posthumous visions of Our Lady, and zillions of people pray to her every day. But the first century teenager with a particular colour of hair and a particular shoe size who sang particular lullabies and baked a particular kind of challah is entirely lost to history.
Theologically, that is as it should be. But I wish we could rescue the C.S Lewis of history from the incense of sanctification before it is too late.