The Magic Never Ends -- The Life and Work of C.S. Lewis
Subject: Lyle Dorsett
Interviewer: Chip Duncan
Transcripts: Patrick Hammerlund
The segments included* in this interview excerpt were recorded during August, 2000 at the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College as part of The Magic Never Ends -- The Life and Work of C.S. Lewis. The documentary is a co-production of The Duncan Entertainment Group with Crouse Entertainment Group and WTTW-Chicago. The video, book, and compact disc are available for purchase at our company store. Lyle Dorsett is the former head of the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. The Wade Center houses the world's largest collection of memorabilia and scholarly work on the life and writings of C.S. Lewis. He is also the author of And God Came in: The Extraordinary Story of Joy Davidman, Her Life and Marriage to C.S. Lewis.
(* This transcript has been edited due to length.)
Who was C.S. Lewis?
C.S. Lewis was one of the most influential authors of the early 20th century. And his influence continues to grow forth. In fact, he reaches more people today through his writings than he did when he was alive, and his influence then was considerable. He writes on a variety of levels, and the man has published in seven different genres. You will find it in poetry, you'll find it in adult fiction, you'll find it in children's fiction, you'll find it in some theological treatise. He will write in many genres and develop the same topic … for example the problem with pain or the problem of evil. Or the resurrection, the hope of the resurrection, and so forth. He will develop these things.
Some people like poetry, some people like fiction, some people like non-fiction, some people like more didactic teaching. You can find it in Lewis…. And he continues to speak with every generation because he deals with themes that have value to many people. He deal with topics that span races and genders and generations and people groups, they just do. Who are we? Where are we going? Is there a God? If there's a God, why is there evil? These are questions that we all have, all wrestle with, thoughtful people wrestle with these things. And Lewis is very good at helping us see them without being overly preachy.
Who was Lewis as a professor, a scholar? Who was he as a man?
Lewis was certainly a writer. … He lives on today through his writings. Although some of the people who are still around, who knew him personally, he had a profound impact on their lives. I would say beyond being a writer, though, to really get at the core of who Lewis was, he was a teacher. Now he was a Christian, and that marks who he is, it marks the worldview he brings to whatever subject, but Lewis is always the teacher. And whatever subject he's teaching, he is aware that he's teaching. For example, one of the genres that he writes in, which I like to refer to as a genre, is letter writing. It's almost a lost art today. We have at Wheaton College at the Marion D. Wade Center we have hundreds of his letters, hundreds of his letters, because people out there kept the letters he wrote to them. They're full of teaching. Some twelve year old girl might write and say, I'd like to be a writer like you or would you help me. And then he gives her a list of seven or eight things to do. You know turn off the radio, read no newspapers, and he goes down the line and tries to help her understand how to improve her own writing skills. ...Let's say he wants to write a book on prayer, he doesn't want to just write a book on prayer, he wants to teach people about prayer. So he thinks, he prays, he works on the idea of how am I going to most effectively teach this to people. He comes up with a device, fictional letters, such as Letters to Malcolm. People often say, well who is Malcolm, was it Malcolm Mugridge? Well no, it's a fictional Malcolm. But these are letters to Malcolm and the subtitle is chiefly on prayer. But they're really instructional, like the letters he wrote to real people. And he made his living as a teacher. He was a Fellow at Magdalen College Oxford. He was an Oxford graduate himself, he had two degrees from Oxford. He spent his life in the academic world, doing lectures and holding tutorials. Now he did not receive a professorship at Oxford, he did though at Cambridge in the 1950's. He went to Cambridge although he continued to lived in Oxford, he became a professor there, so he could lecture. ...He's always the teacher.
Can you talk about the affect Lewis had on your life?
Well I was a professor of history at the University of Denver, and I had been at the University of Colorado before that and we lived in Boulder. And my wife and I went to a church in Boulder. I mean I was not offended by Christianity per se. I went to church, I just didn't believe in anything really. I didn't make a big deal of it. I mean, I wanted to be supportive of my wife. When we got married, we were not Christian, but she became Christian two years after we were married. I wanted to be supportive of her, church was important to her so I go along with it. But the pastor and his wife … did give me a couple of things on Lewis to read. And I think they sensed I needed a little help. Then I had a student, an undergraduate student at the University of Denver and one day he stopped me after class and asked me, "Professor Dorsett, did I understand you to say that bright people are not Christians?" I said, "Lorne, I said bright thoughtful people are not Christians. I didn't say bright people are not Christians." He said, "Oh, thank you sir." Then he paused and he said, "Have you ever read any of the writings of G.K. Chesterton or C.S. Lewis?" I said, "No I don't think I have." And he said, "Well you're always telling us to read widely and be eclectic in our readings and you're open to a free trade of ideas." Then he said, "So you owe it to yourself to read some of these people." So he bought me a copy of Chesterton's Orthodoxy, which had an influence on Lewis, by the way, the book profoundly influenced Lewis. And I read it, and I told him after I read it, I said, "Well, Chesterton obviously had a greater mind than I have, but I still don't deduce your ethics or your monotheism or anything else from this. And then he took me to a restaurant one day, he asked me to have lunch with him, and there was a bookshop there. It was a Christian restaurant with a bookshop. And he challenged me to read Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters, I believe those were the two he challenged me to. And I read them and then he passed another book or two on to me I believe it was The Great Divorce. And what happened to me was very much what the poet Francis Thompson wrote about in the late 19th century -- the hound of heavens are after me. I could almost hear them coming after me…. I was under conviction for something, I was longing for something, but I didn't know quite what to do with it all. But I was not eager to move in that direction. Then, an interesting thing happened, there was a lecture given at the University of Colorado, Boulder by Clyde Kilbee. Clyde Kilbee was, at that time, a professor of English Literature at Wheaton College and the director of the Marion E. Wade Collection that had the huge Lewis collection. Kilbee gave a lecture. I went to hear him because I was reading Lewis, though I still was not a believer. And I bought a copy of one of Kilbee's books, and had him autograph it for me, because I always love to get people's autographed books. That was in October of 1975. And the next summer I would become a Christian. And Lewis' writings had a profound impact. … It was like I was being drawn into something that was much bigger than I was. And Lewis was a key player in that even though I had never met him, he was dead by the time I was reading him.
So it's safe to say that Lewis is the reason that you're Christian.
Lewis is one of the reasons I'm a Christian, he's not the only reason. But he was a, his writings were very influential. It also was instructive to me to read his autobiographical work Surprised by Joy, and see that our pilgrimages were somewhat similar. There was always a longing. But there was a worldview that was naturalistic and materialistic, but yet being drawn into something that you really didn't particularly want to be drawn into. I was afraid of becoming a Christian because I was afraid I'd change. And I thought I'd never have fun again. But just the opposite was true, I got drawn in, I finally got free to have a really good time.
What do you consider that most important aspect of Lewis' life & work?
Well, I, I of course am interested in Lewis the person as well as Lewis the writer. Now he wouldn't particularly like that. Lewis, in a book he did with Tilliard called the personal heresy, Lewis really dislikes spending too much time focusing on who an author is, and trying to see how their writing flows out of who they are, and spending a great deal of time on that. On the other hand, I don't believe anybody writes in a vacuum. I believe even if the Holy Spirit is involved in inspiring someone, that still biblical truth or spiritual truth is filtered through a person living in a particular time. And Lewis' life fascinates me.
You wrote in your book that he was not a do-nothing President. What was Hoover’s perception of the role of the president?
Well, he believed that the role of the President was to kind of coordinate private efforts. Get as much private involvement as you could with leadership from Washington, but not to use law and the actual legal authority of the President to impose big changes.
So he was, saw the President as more of a coordinator of private efforts. He actually, in the '20s, appointed Franklin Roosevelt, before he was Governor of New York, to something called the Construction Industry Council which was a collection of people related to the building trades and in Roosevelt's case he was in the bonding business for construction, and to get them all kind of working together.
It is one of the things that a President needs to do, but it's not sufficient. It's, coordination of private efforts is necessary, but not sufficient. His laissez-faire principles still prevented him from taking the more intrusive action that FDR and later presidents did.
Can you tell me about Lewis' transformation into a Christian? As his work has converted many, he went through the conversion as well.
He did indeed. And if one wants to really examine Lewis' own personal transformation from agnostic…whether or not he was really an atheist that's hard to say … but he certainly was an agnostic. And if one wants to pursue his own pilgrimage, he makes it fairly clear in Surprised by Joy. One of the things that he talks about is that when he was a child and his mother was dying of cancer, and he was about ten years of age at the time. And he prayed and asked God to heal her, and she of course died. And he believed at that time, God either isn't there or if he's there, he's just cruel. Here was the problem of pain, and the problem of evil coming into his life at an early age. And he saw God as either impotent to do anything about it, or very cruel in the way that he worked with things. And so he sort of gave up on things. And he had very little help from his own father. And he gradually then moved into a world where his wounds were fed by a materialist and naturalist worldview. He was instructed and tutored by William Kirkpatrick down in Surrey. Who was an atheist, probably. He certainly didn't believe in God in any orthodox sense and belittled anyone that did and taught Jack to look in different areas. Nevertheless, WWI has a profound impact on him. And it makes him wrestle with why he lives and so many of his comrades die. Why? What's going on here? Is there a purpose? Is this just random? And he's beginning to struggle with some things. He also discovered that some of the authors he loved most were Christians. And here are authors that he loved to read, Milton for example, or Spencer. He began to read Chesterton, he admired Chesterton, and these people are Christians.
Then a number of his friends, people that he had gone to college with, gone to University with, people that he had been close to over the years, were becoming Christians or they were Christians. And so he's seeing this, some of his best friends like Barfield, Tolkien, Neville Coghill, these people are Christians. And what does he do with that? Well, he can't totally discount it. But concomitant with that, is this longing in his soul he's longing for something. He's not sure what it is, but he's longing for the perfect place to live and he can't find it. He's longing for love at some depths that he didn't find. His mother died, his father lets him down. You know, he's longing for these things and he can't find them. He'd obviously not found a woman that he could marry who he was comfortable with. He's longing for… He's just got these longings that he can't explain and he doesn't know what to do with them. At the same time he's a very thoughtful man and despite the longing that's going on, he has to deal with some hard questions and issues.
But as (J.R.R.) Tolkien pushed him and Tolkien said, "Jack, don't you understand that these older myths are glimpses that people had received of what was really going to happen. Bam, the light came on for him and he said my I hadn't quite though of it in that way. As he said, he was the most reluctant convert in the United Kingdom, he didn't really want to be a believer. But he couldn't help himself. He was drawn to God, God kept drawing him to him. And, but there were certain writers along the way, certain people that had a great impact. Tolkien did with the kind of questions and statements he made. George McDonald, whom he started reading long before becoming a Christian, and he said, McDonald baptized my imagination. And MacDonald is a decidedly Christian writer. And Lewis read MacDonald, he read a lot of MacDonald and he was drawn into it. Lewis read Chesterton, Chesterton was outspokenly Christian, and a tough minded man. And interestingly, MacDonald and Chesterton both … wrote about things that reached the heart they also were writing about things that touched the mind. So Lewis is getting it on two levels, head & heart.
So Tolkien was integral in Lewis' conversion, yet didn't think Lewis was qualified to write about Christianity.
That's right, Tolkien wanted Lewis to become a Trinitarian Christian, because Tolkien believed that it was the truth. And so a man that wanted to embrace truth, then he ought to enter into becoming a communicating member of the community that has the truth. You know, get into the ark of salvation, get into the church. And Lewis was outside. Ironically, when Lewis does get in, Tolkien is upset that he begins to trumpet the cause so loudly the way he did, but he felt it's inappropriate for Jack to do it. He's a philosopher, he's a literary historian/critic. He's not a trained theologian, he's not an ordained priest in the church, he has no business writing about this stuff. And Lewis on one level would have agreed. And in fact did agree, he said it's unfortunate I have to, but if others won't I must.
What made Lewis' writing so popular? How did he reach the masses?
He had an unusual gift. First of all, if he was just teaching didactically on some topic, like writing an essay called The Efficacy of Prayer, he had an ability just to say things logically and clearly and presented in an organized fashion where you could read it and understand it. But he also had an ability to tell things through story. He understood the power of story. His field was literature, his field was literary history and criticism and he knew the power of story to engage us. That when we enter into a story we enter into another world. Somebody reads a story, and they connect their own story to it. And of course Lewis leads you to the greatest story ever told, so my story connects me to a story I read that leads me to "the great story." And Lewis understood that, and he was a great storyteller. And beyond being a storyteller, he had an ability to use metaphor. He had an ability to describe things in ways that are just unforgettable.
Let's talk about Lewis and Joy Gresham. What were her motivations behind wanting to meet Lewis?
Joy like many people who lived in the 20th century, was searching for something. And in her search, she encountered Lewis, the writings of CS Lewis. Lewis' writings lead her to the New Testament. The New Testament pointed her to Jesus Christ and she became a Christian. And she was markedly influenced by a couple of Lewis' books. She was so influenced by them that she wanted to engage him in some question and answer. … So she wrote to CS Lewis, and it's very interesting that Warren Lewis, who opened a lot of Jack's mail … said, today we had a very interesting letter from an American woman named Mrs. Gresham. Now, hundreds of letters come in all the time, but yet … this letter was so striking that he singles it out. So Lewis responds to her. And to make a long story short, she took a trip to England, she met Lewis. … And she sought Lewis out first as a spiritual advisor, she fell in love with him...
So that relationship began, she's seeking a spiritual advisor, it goes to friendship, and it ends up going to love.
When did she fall in love with Lewis?
Well, Chad Walsh told me that she was in love with Lewis before she'd ever met him, she was in love with his mind. Well that could be, let's face it, Lewis wrote a book called The Four Loves. And they were all types and stages of loves. I mean, I think she might have been infatuated, she was attracted, but love, my goodness. There's no way she could have loved him if she hadn't met him, not really. Because love grows from sharing sufferings and joys and washing one another's feet. And their love grew in that environment.
When did Lewis fall in love with her?
I think Lewis was greatly attracted to her early on. He was attracted to her mind. … She had a way to say things, and they enjoyed her. If you see the movie, the movie Shadowlands, and there are a couple of them, they're very misleading. It makes it look like Joy begged him to marry her so she didn't have to go home. The opposite is the truth. She was packing up and ready to go, and Jack said, "I'm not going to let this happen." He didn't want her to go. It wasn't that she was maneuvering him into something because she wanted to be near there. But again, many people want to protect Lewis' reputation. They want to say, "He really didn't love her, she maneuvered him. He wouldn't have loved a divorced woman." Also, we have to know that in the United Kingdom there is still an enormous amount of Anti-Semitism. I find it shocking, the Anti-Semitism I encounter. I've encountered it among very intelligent people, very well educated people. I heard people say at various times, "Lewis married that, that New York Jew." I heard them say that. And so they were offended by this woman … she invades and he gets married. He would never have done this on his own. She, well you can see the whole point.
How did Lewis deal with significant wealth, enormous celebrity, and fame?
Well, those are very good questions. And, Lewis had increasing fame. He wasn't as famous in England in some ways as he was in America. But, he did have increasing fame and one way he dealt with it is he just tried to avoid being, he just avoided situations in which that would be fed. But he taught his classes and did his thing. A lot of people paid very little attention to him.
Enormous wealth? There is a huge amount of money being made off of Lewis' writings today. It was not that large when he was alive, however, it was substantial. But the way he dealt with it is, he had an Agape Fund. … Lewis put most of his royalties in that fund, and he gave that money away. He gave it away to worthy causes. For example, he educated Joy's boys with this money. He paid her rent with it. … There was one woman that wrote to Lewis and said, "I can't take this money you are going to give me. I just, I just can't do that." And he said, "Don't be silly. You need it, I have it, take it, and thank God for it." Her response was, "Well I will and thank you. No wonder God has blessed you with so much money." Lewis' answer was, "Be careful what you say there. Nowhere in my New Testament do I see that money is a blessing. Jesus tells us something quite different. He says it's almost impossible for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. He talks about the deceit of riches." And he said, "I need to give this money away, or it will destroy me."
And Lewis, the way he dealt with money was you get rid of it. … Lewis said this, in one place, he said, "Men and women will lean on anything before they lean on God," and this is what does them in. They'll lean on their good looks, they'll lean on their education, on their intellect, or on their money. The reason that money is so destructive is not that money itself is bad, it's that we lean on it rather than God. So Lewis wasn't about to lean on it, he gave it away. You've got to admire that. You've got to admire a man that lives out what he teaches. This is why I find Lewis admirable. This is why his life is important to me.