When 8-year-old Douglas Gresham met C.S. Lewis, the man who would become his stepfather, he was disappointed.
When 8-year-old Douglas Gresham met C.S. Lewis, the
man who would become his stepfather, he was disappointed.
The American boy had expected the British author of
“The Chronicles of Narnia” fantasy books “to be wearing silver armor
and carrying a sword with a jeweled pommel.”
Instead, Lewis “was a stooped, balding,
professorial-looking gentleman in shabby clothes, with long,
nicotine-stained fingers,” says Gresham, now 59, speaking on the phone
from his home in Ireland.
More than 40 years after Lewis’ death, people still
have their own ideas about him. Depending on whom you ask, Lewis was a
scholar, fantasy writer, Christian saint – or all that and more.
As Disney releases its much-anticipated movie “The
Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” on Dec. 9,
more people than ever are asking: Who was C.S. Lewis? And what is his
To many, Lewis is an icon of orthodox Christianity.
Despite growing up believing that there was no God, Lewis turned to
Christianity as an adult.
He then dedicated himself to promoting the faith and
did so, his admirers say, using simple language and logical reasoning
that anyone could understand.
Lewis’ Christian devotees find meaning in his
religious works such as “Mere Christianity,” a collection of radio
addresses Lewis gave in the early 1940s that explains the common
beliefs among Christians of different denominations.
Christians also see symbolism in Lewis’ children’s
books. Aslan, the great lion in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,”
who sacrifices himself for a human sinner and ultimately is
resurrected, becomes a representation of Jesus Christ, for instance.
In some evangelical circles, Lewis is revered. On
the 100th anniversary of Lewis’ birth, the evangelical magazine
Christianity Today published a piece calling Lewis “our patron saint”
and citing a poll in which the magazine’s readers chose Lewis as the
most influential writer in their lives.
“It is a bit of a paradox that C.S. Lewis, an
Anglican, has emerged as a virtual `saint’ among American
evangelicals,” says Mark Sargent, provost of Gordon College, a
Christian school in Wenham, Mass. “But it was Lewis, more than any
other author, who rekindled the life of the imagination within the
Gresham, who became Lewis’ stepson when his mother,
Joy Davidman, married the man, cautioned against any such
interpretation of his stepfather.
“If you want to remember him,” Gresham says,
“remember him as a man with all the foibles and difficulties and dark
times in his life that men have … , not as some kind of plaster
“He wasn’t like that at all,” adds Gresham, whose
book about Lewis, “Jack’s Life,” was released Oct. 1. “He was a man of
great humor, great warmth. He was a fun bloke to be around.”
Nobody is saying Lewis was perfect, says Bruce
Edwards, evangelical author of the new book “Further Up & Further
In” about the spiritual messages in “The Lion, the Witch and the
“Is there hero-worship involved in how people admire Lewis?” Edwards asks. “Sure.”
But Edwards warned against linking evangelicals’
admiration for Lewis to a naiveté about the world. “It’s a convenient
caricature to say, `Oh, they’ve got their Bibles, and they’ve got C.S.
Lewis’ `Mere Christianity,’ and they’ve got Narnia, and they don’t need
to look outside their window anymore,” Edwards said. “I’ve never met
anybody like that, who has such an ostrichlike view of the world.”
Hero-worship of Lewis is not isolated to evangelicals.
“He’s very popular among people who keep the old
faith, and not so popular among the modernists,” says Richard Purthill,
Catholic author of the book “C.S. Lewis’ Case for the Christian Faith.”
Purthill praised Lewis as a Christian “apologist,” one who gave people
a rational basis for believing in Christianity.
Stan Mattson, president of the C.S. Lewis Foundation
in Redlands, Calif., which encourages Christians to openly participate
in scholarship and the arts, said the group chose Lewis as its mentor,
because Lewis was a respected scholar who “was not prepared to check
his faith at the door.”
Describing himself as a “mere Christian,” Mattson
says he, like Lewis, belonged to the wider world of Christianity.
Lewis “wouldn’t be comfortable, really, being
co-opted by any one group,” said Mark Tauber, vice president and deputy
publisher of HarperSanFrancisco, the division of Harper Collins that
publishes Lewis’ non-fiction books.
Tauber said he was continually surprised by the
broad appeal of Lewis, who wrote more than 30 books. Recently, Tauber
received a call from a Mormon leader who mentioned that religious
school teachers were using “Mere Christianity” in the classroom. “We
had no idea that the Mormons were into Lewis,” Tauber notes.
While many see Lewis as a Christian hero, others
remember him as an academic who taught literature at Oxford and
“C.S. Lewis was primarily an excellent Renaissance
and Medieval scholar of the old-fashioned breed,” A.N. Wilson, Lewis’
British biographer, says.
Wilson, who renounced his own Christian faith,
described Lewis’ religious works as “unworthy” of the scholar. “They
peddle false arguments which, when unraveled, would lead to the
collapse of faith, not its strengthening,” he adds.
As for Lewis’ children’s books, Wilson called them “crude and derivative.”
Yet many readers know and love Lewis through these
stories about the magical, snowy world of Narnia, ruled by the evil
White Witch. The books in the seven-volume series have sold more than
85 million copies worldwide since “The Lion, the Witch and the
Wardrobe” first appeared in 1950.
Kristi Simonson, who runs the fan Web site Virtual
Narnia, has been captivated by Lewis’ make-believe world since seeing a
cartoon of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” as a child.
The books “make you long for something better, something
more, deeper than our present reality,” Simonson wrote in an e-mail.
For Gresham, all this talk about his stepfather and his legacy is misplaced.
“People should not be trying to remember C.S. Lewis
at all,” Gresham says. “They should be trying to remember the Jesus
Christ whom he represented and whom he preached.” (RNS)