"IN THE TRINITY term of 1929 I gave in and admitted that God was God ... perhaps the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England." The author of these words, C.S. Lewis, was born on 29 November 1898 in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
An eminent academic in the field of English literature at Oxford University (1925-1954) and later Cambridge University (1954-1966), he was baptised into the Church of Ireland, but became an atheist while still at school.
He rediscovered his belief in God when he was 31, citing as a contributing factor, the parallels between Christianity and pagan myth in recurring cycles of "dying and reviving" gods. This led him to consider the extent to which these myths prefigured the person of Jesus Christ and he later claimed "my conversion very largely depended on recognising Christianity as the completion, the actualisation, the entelechy [bringing to perfection] of something that has never been wholly absent from the mind of man."
C. S. Lewis is renowned for his many books and writings on Christian apologetics such as Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain, The Abolition of Man and classics like The Screwtape Letters and the series of children's books, The Narnian Chronicles.
Having become an Anglican, Lewis was aware that in an increasingly secular and post-Christian society belief in an omnipotent God was under threat. As he put it: "The ancient man approached God as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man the roles are reversed. He is judge; God is in the dock."
In this ambience, the dearth of intelligent non-specialist material examining the central tenets of Christianity left a vacuum for the ordinary layman who wished to inform himself. "When I began, Christianity came before the great mass of my unbelieving fellow countrymen either in the highly emotional form offered by revivialists or in the unintelligible language of highly cultured clergymen. Most men were reached by neither. My task was, therefore, simply that of a translator - one of turning Christian doctrine into the vernacular."
His capacity to argue persuasively on the central problems of Christian belief, ethics and theology in a concise and readable manner, coupled with the humour which permeates works such as The Screwtape Letters, won him many admirers across the broad spectrum of Christian belief.
Perhaps the best exemplar of this ability to explicate complex matters simply is Mere Christianity. The "mere" of the title refers to that basic core of beliefs common to all Christians. Lewis believed his task was to "tell the outside world what all Christians believe. Controversy I leave to others: that is the business of theologians."
In his preface to the French edition of his book The Problem of Pain, he wrote that as a Christian "I am very much aware that our divisions grieve the Holy Spirit and hold back the work of Christ."
While C. S. Lewis was born in Belfast, he lived nearly all his life in Oxford. He did, however, often come to Ireland on holidays. His brother, Warnie, was an even more regular visitor. It was as a result of one of Warnie's recurrent periods of illness while holidaying in Ireland in 1947 that C. S. Lewis met Mother Mary Martin of the Medical Missionaries of Mary in Drogheda.
With Warnie hospitalised in Our Lady of Lourdes, C. S. Lewis visited him twice a day at the hospital and consequently met Mother Mary Martin a number of times. She asked him to contribute a piece to a book which the order was publishing to mark its first ten years. Lewis's essay was titled "Some Thoughts."
A few months after his 1947 meeting with Mother Mary Martin, C. S. Lewis was featured on the cover of Time magazine, a testament to the impact of his writing in America. The inside article was titled "Don versus Devil," a reference no doubt to The Screwtape Letters, which had been published in the US in 1943 and had been an instant success.
His aim in this book was an exploration of "the psychology of temptation from the other point of view." The epistolary format combined with the intelligent use of a rather black sense of humour makes its didactic purpose both deeply insightful and very enjoyable. The book comprises thirty-one letters of advice from an elderly and more "successful" devil to his young nephew who has just embarked on his career of temptation and corruption, with the first soul in his charge a recent Christian convert.
C. S. Lewis's main interest when writing this book was to stress the very real presence of evil in the world. If his main concern was to highlight the "immortal consequences of seemingly insignificant choices," it is interesting that his setting for Hell was not some Dantesque inferno but a bureaucracy.
"I live," he says, "in a managerial age - in a world of 'Admin'. Evil is conceived and ordered ... in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the offices of a thoroughly nasty business concern."
As Christmas draws closer and people begin to think about presents, those with young children in mind might consider C. S. Lewis's magical and wonderfully written children's series on Narnia. As one critic noted, they are "embedded with Christianity."
But lest this might sound too heavy-handed, they are not overtly works of Christian doctrine. Rather they educate children's sensibility through tales of great beauty, creativity and imagination. For those with a more developed sensitivity to Lewis's philosophical outlook, the Christian symbolism and Platonic references are discernible, but certainly not at the expense of the story line or characters. Another critic put it more succinctly: "He evangelises through the imagination."
With acknowledgement to 'The Irish Catholic'.