The bright young student in the first row looked up at me with surprise: "C. S. Lewis was an atheist?" Several undergraduates in the class nodded and audibly confirmed my statement. "I had no idea," he muttered wide-eyed as he jotted down some notes. Indeed, C. S. Lewis ("Jack" to his friends) considered himself an atheist, albeit a confused one, until his time at Oxford:
I was at this time living, like so many Atheists or Antitheists, in a whirl of contradictions. I maintained that God did not exist. I was also very angry with God for not existing. I was equally angry with Him for creating a world. (1)
According to literary legend, Gertrude Stein said to Ernest Hemingway and his fellow expatriates living in Paris in the 1920s (most notably, F. Scott Fitzgerald, T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, and Ezra Pound) that they were all a "lost generation." She was referring to those who came of age between 1914 and 1918 during World War I. More than 9 million soldiers died, over 20 million were wounded, and 7 million were permanently disabled; and at the end of the war, a worldwide epidemic of the Spanish Influenza killed another 50 million people. Disillusioned by the war's devastation, the "Lost Generation" became generally cynical about morality, society, and religion-basically, they "lost" their way. This abandonment of Victorian ideals led to the "anything goes" Jazz Age (as portrayed in Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby), which crashed with the Stock Market in 1929 and crumbled to dust in the Great Depression of the 1930s; and barely 20 years after the "War to End all Wars," the world found itself destructively embroiled again on a massive scale.
In the literature class I was teaching at a Christian liberal arts college, I wanted to focus on those World War I era writers-like Fitzgerald and Virginia Woolf-who wrote from the pain of their perceived hopelessness within this devastation; but I also wanted to contrast them with those who had struggled through the same horrendous problems and yet-through faith in God and the promise of his gospel-had managed to find hope out of their original hopelessness. Of course, all the "great" writers were the despondent skeptical ones who, not surprisingly, generally ended badly: alcoholism (Fitzgerald at the age of 44); a shotgun (Hemingway after his diagnosis with terminal cancer); and drowning (Woolf after a final bout with severe mental illness). The one obvious example of someone who successfully made this transition from despair to faith was the poet T. S. Eliot (for his story, see "After Such Knowledge, What Forgiveness?" in Modern Reformation, March/April 2004); but I knew there had to be more than just "dear Tom" (as Woolf called him).
Then I remembered that C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien had both served as infantrymen for Britain in the war. As Lewis writes, "I arrived in the front trenches on my nineteenth birthday (November 1917), saw most of my service in the villages before Arras-Fampoux and Monchy-and was wounded at Mt. Bernenchon, near Lillers, in April, 1918." (2) He doesn't go into any details of the battle since "the war itself has been so often described by those who saw more of it than I that I shall say here little about it." (3) After all, he was only one young man out of 20 million who were wounded. What he chose to write about instead was another larger-scale battle that he was undergoing with the Creator of the universe, whom he was doing his best to ignore or at least avoid.
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. (4)
Surely, Lewis could have remained on the same path as many of his contemporaries and turned his back with finality on the God who had allowed such suffering in his life (the premature and painful death of his beloved mother, his harsh years in school as a sensitive and bright boy, the WWI deaths of friends and his own wounding). After all, he was encouraged by brilliant rationalists who were also avowed atheists, and he did his best to convince himself that there was no God-until he read George MacDonald's Phantastes and G. K. Chesterton's The Everlasting Man; and then at Oxford he met Owen Barfield and J. R. R. Tolkien among others. Now he began to read and talk with men who were just as intelligent and as educated as he, but who actually believed in God.
Lewis's avoidance of God was akin to someone lost in the jungle trying to hide from a lion hot on his scent. Despite Jack's strongest efforts, Aslan found him out.
I know very well when, but hardly how, the final step was taken. I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did….It was more like when a man, after long sleep, still lying motionless in bed, becomes aware that he is now awake. (5)
He had been through all the arguments and yet could not stand against the God who revealed himself and drew Lewis to him (or as he put it, "recalled me to Himself"). Perhaps it was this lengthy struggle against the Almighty that enabled Lewis to become such a strong apologist for the Christian faith-preparing him to help his country through World War II with his radio broadcasts, which were published soon afterward as Mere Christianity (a book that remains important for us almost 60 years later).
Of course, this short article can do no justice to the story of his conversion from atheism to deism and then to Christianity, which is precisely why Lewis recorded his personal history in Surprised by Joy. What I can offer, however, are my own thoughts on how Lewis fits within Gertrude Stein's "Lost Generation" category-as does Tolkien. True, they may not compare with the "great" literary (and poetically tragic) icons of the first half of the twentieth century, but their stories still speak to us today just as powerfully as ever. Witness the epic film dramas of Peter Jackson's Academy Award-winning The Lord of the Rings trilogy (which Tolkien based on the First World War), the recent movie version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in the first of The Chronicles of Narnia series, and now the new film, Prince Caspian, coming this May.
Unfortunately, some "serious thinkers"-such as some of my undergraduate students-dismiss these books as "only fantasy" (either they don't like worlds that "don't really exist" or they say they just "don't get it"). As I argued to my students, however, one of the reasons why fantasy worlds such as Narnia or Middle Earth are important is that they can help us to understand ultimate reality in a new light. How does one take the truth of the very real battle between Good and Evil and show that in our everyday world? One way is to become "sub-creator" (as Tolkien referred to himself) of another world that echoes the spiritual struggles of our own. In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien speaks to us on multiple levels, providing even the christological typology of prophet (Gandalf), priest (Frodo), and king (Aragorn). We recognize our Christian journey in this rich and vivid epic fraught with dread mixed with hope, finally ending in victory. As Lewis writes:
Indeed, in my view…I do not think the resemblance between the Christian and the merely imaginative experience is accidental. I think that all things, in their way, reflect heavenly truth, the imagination not least. (6)
In a much simpler tale, one intentionally written for children (unlike Tolkien's life work with its intricate history and multiple languages), Lewis tells the fantastical story of Aslan the Great Lion defeating evil first by destroying the White Witch and finally through the overthrow of Old Narnia (earth as we currently know it) and the revelation of New Narnia (the New Jerusalem). Ever trying to recapture that glimpse of "Joy," Lewis sought to help us see our Christian faith through fresh eyes by creating a lion who "isn't safe" but "good"; one who would devour his enemies and restore the children of Adam and Eve to their rightful places. (It should be noted, however, that as an Oxford academic, Narnia-and Lewis's Christian apologetic writings-cost him any serious scholarly reputation at the university.)
Like Tolkien, Lewis endured the horrors of war and what can be labeled as one of the bloodiest centuries of recent memory; but he didn't suffer long the fate of the rest of the "Lost Generation." The Shepherd (or, in this case, the Great Lion) called this wayward, stubborn sheep and brought him ("kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape" (7) ) into his fold of green pastures and still waters. We should give thanks to the One who pursued after Jack, and who pursues and holds us as well.
And as He spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them, it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before. (8)
2 [ Back ] Lewis, p. 188.
3 [ Back ] Lewis, p. 195.
4 [ Back ] Lewis, p. 191.
5 [ Back ] Lewis, p. 237.
6 [ Back ] Lewis, p. 167.
7 [ Back ] Lewis, p. 229.
8 [ Back ] C. S. Lewis, The Last Battle (New York: Harper, 1956), p. 228.