Feb. 6th, 2005 04:46 pm C. S. Lewis speech
I'm gave this speech for my public speaking class a month or two ago. I thought it would be good to post here, since I haven't come up with much interesting thought lately. I've mostly been working on moving eastward.
THE LIFE, WORKS, AND INFLUENCE OF C. S. LEWIS
Have any of you stumbled upon a book that was so intriguing, fascinating and satisfying that you read it eight more times in the same year? When I was in high school this is what happened to me when I read my first non-fictional work of Clive Staples Lewis. I read one
book of his eight times in one year and each time I read it I gained some new insight that I hadn't seen before.
C. S. Lewis, as he came to be known, has become one of the most, if not the most, influential writers on religious thought in the late 20th century English-speaking world. However, he has not been admired only by religious people. He has been respected as an intellectual - a thoughtful and imaginative writer by many atheists, agnostics and other intellectuals of the twentieth century. There is something to be found in his writings for everyone, whether it be thoughtful arguments for ideologies, children's fantasy, science fiction or beautiful poetry.
I'd like to share with you a brief history of his early life, adult life, a brief discussion of a few of his writings, and some of his influence on America. I'll begin with an overview of his childhood through college years.
Lewis was born in 1898 in Belfast, Ireland. He was the younger of two sons. His mother died at age nine of cancer and he was left alone with his father and his brother. He began his education at a boarding school that same year, 1908, in Watfordshire, England. Two years later he attended Campbell College but had to leave because of respiratory difficulties. He then entered Malvern College where he was classically educated with a tutor and by the time he was fourteen he could read fluently German, Italian, French, Latin, Greek, a little Hebrew, and English. At age fifteen his father's schoolmaster became his tutor, William T. Kirkpatrick, also known as "The Great Knock." This education prepared him for his upcoming studies at Oxford but because he was so badly prepared for the exams, the equivalent of the SAT's, in mathematics, he failed them every time he took them. Only after being sent to war at age 18 was he able to become exempt from the exams because he was recognized as a veteran of the first World War.
After finishing his studies at Oxford and receiving three firsts on the final exams, which means literally perfection, as well as graduating with honors, he decided to devote the rest of his life to study and ideas.
Lewis began his adult life teaching as a professor at Magdalene College in 1925. It was during his time there that Lewis's father died and a big change in his beliefs came about. He previously was an atheist ever since his early adolescence but then became a
Theist - one who believes in God - although not the God of any
particular religion. After his conversion to Theism he became part of
a club called "The Inklings" in which professors from the area met
together and read and discussed their writings with each other. Other
members of the Inklings inlcuded J. R. R. Tolkien, the author of the
Lord of the Rings, Neville Coghill, Charles Williams and Dorothy
Sayers - the author of Lord Peter Wimsey (?) detective mystery
After some correspondence through mail with an American woman who admired his
work, the woman moved to England and became married to Lewis. Her
name was Helen Joy Gresham. In the movie "Shadowlands" Anthony
Hopkins plays the character of C. S. Lewis and tells the story of his
meeting and marrying Joy Gresham and then later of her dying of
cancer. The book that best explains Lewis's relationship to his wife
and his questioning of God's purposes is "A Grief Observed" which was
intended to be a diary of his struggles but later became a published
work that many found comforting in their own pain and suffering.
Lewis had incredibly developed intellectual abilities. For this
reason he was left feeling isolated from most of his peers. When he
met Joy Gresham he was almost instantly taken to her because there was
finally someone he could relate to who was on his intellectual level.
This is also why after she died he wrote in his journal, “Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be—or so it feels—welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence.” Although Lewis questioned God, he never lost his faith.
Lewis died on November, 22, 1963, the same day the world was shocked
in horror at the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Throughout his life Lewis was a veracious reader and he wrote 42
books, 2 short stories, 68 poems, published 48 letters, reviewed 34
books and edited or prefaced 125 other works. He had an ability to
write that could capture the mind of anyone at any age. For example,
his children's fantasy novels, The Chronicles of Narnia, became
incredibly popular in America when they first arrived. These
novels described, some believe, his worldview through allegory, in a
language that all people, young and old, could understand and enjoy.
In all, there are seven books that have been described by many as
magnificent works. The stories tell of a fantastical world which
interacts with our world as the main characters are transported to and
from that other world. Currently, films about the stories of Narnia
are being made with the cooperation and supervision of Lewis's
stepson, Douglas Gresham.
Another of his more loved books is an autobiography that tells of his
early life and a first hand account of his conversion from Atheism to
Theism and finally to Christianity. It is a common-sensical account
of his youth and the ideas from books that shaped his life's path.
This book is colored with such imagination and touches people in a
very honest, down-to-earth manner.
One of the first books to enter America and become a smash hit in 1943
was The Screwtape Letters. This small account of a devil interacting
with a second devil became one of the most popular books at that time
in the English-speaking world.
His influence on American thought has been enormous. From 1943, when
The Screwtape Letters were first published, to his death in 1963, it
would be very difficult to find a single author who equalled the
influence of this man on classical and religious thought in the late
20th century. His works enabled writers to move into the realm of the
imagination. The Screwtape Letters are an
example of meeting people in their own experience and capturing their
imagination. When the book first arrived in America it was instantly
taken up by the public as a religious book written with
sophistication and elegance. It was recognized as a masterpiece in
American culture as incredible insight into man's psychology. It rang
true to man's actual experience. He also moved readers into worlds of fantasy and utopia as in his Space Trilogy. Chad Walsh once said of his Space Trilogy that it is "Science fiction as science fiction at its fullest development should be." He was able to capture
the imagination and combine it with reason and intellect in order to
persuade people to religious truth.
He not only appealed to people of high intellect but met people at all
levels intellectually. Many church goers saw priests, pastors and
theologians as being "up in the clouds", saying things out of touch
with human experience. Lewis met people were they were. Since he
didn't really appear to be interested in religion he spoke to every
person. He had a solid ground ina field most people respected, even
if they didn't fully understand it. He was recognized by the
high-brow because he wrote in a civilized, highly-educated manner, but
he appealed to middle-brow folk because he wrote often in an
uneducated manner. Lewis once said, "I have come to the conviction
that if you cannot translate your thoughts into uneducated language,
then your thoughts were confused."
One of his biggest fans was the crowd of young adults who had rejected
their youthful puritanic Christianity and were slowly making their way
to Christian orthodoxy, or historic Christianity. One man once
commented that if taken a survey of this type of people, you would
probably find a great number of them as having taken all of their
religious thinking directly from the pages of Lewis's writings. Roman
Catholics also found him appealingly fresh, though wishing he had gone
further on some points, they found that he had restated in a new way
doctrines they had learned in catechism classes that had been
taught in a somewhat dull and dry manner.
Lewis's influence on American thought was also great because of the
timing in which he was being popularized among Americans. During WWII
the atmosphere in America was gradually changing. Previously,
religion was seldom talked about, but war brings suffering and death
and opens up ancient, historic questions. At all levels, cultural,
social and educational, religion was beginning to become discussed
more than ever before. This period of time, interestingly, from the
beginning of WWII through the late 1950's was the time in which Lewis
was most popular in the United States.
With all of his popularity and success in America, though, he was not
without critics. T. V. Smith was such a critic who was impressed with
the ingenuity of his book, "Miracles," but then turned around and
called it a "modernistic apologetics for Christian fundamentalism."
Even some theologians found fault with him, and one professor from a
New York seminary labeled his writings as heretical (calling his
doctrines Docetic and even Gnostic). A third category of critics were
students who considered him too clever with serious things, a "smart
alek." Other religious people thought he was too moralistic and
didn't speak on the mystery of grace enough. But even with these
critics it didn't stop him from reaching people in the depths of their
imagination and personal experience.
Since the 60's and in more modern times, his influence has shifted
somewhat. He is less talked about today than he was 10 or 15 years
ago. Part of the reason for this is that students are less concerned
with whether religion is true or false and more concerned with its
relevance to things like social and political causes. If religion can
be taken into action for some good then religion is valid. Lewis, on
the other hand, is more concerned with issues of objective truth,
goodness and beauty, and that something is valid because it is true
rather than relevant.
One man's prediction for which of his books will survive the next
generation are "The Screwtape Letters", "The Great Divorce", and "The
Chronicles of Narnia", because of their eloquence, probing nature and
appeal to the imagination.
I hope that you all have been able to see at least a little of what a
remarkable man C. S. Lewis was and some of his influence on our
culture. His writings were stimulating, captivating and met people in
the depths of their pain and confusion. He gave people of all sorts
the permission to ask the most difficult questions of life and also
the permission to realize that not every question will be answered fully in this life.
Thank you very much.