The Magic Never Ends -- The Life and Work of C.S. Lewis
Subject: Christopher W. Mitchell
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. Christopher W. Mitchell is the director of the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. Mitchell spent several years as a Christian missionary, including time in both India and Haiti. As director of the Wade Center, Mitchell has lectured widely and published several articles on C. S. Lewis. Mitchell is also an assistant professor of theological studies at Wheaton College and book review editor of Seven: An Anglo-American Literary Review.
(* This transcript has been edited due to length.)
Who was C.S. Lewis?
C. S. Lewis was best known as an Oxford Don. He basically taught at Oxford for most of his life. He was born in Belfast, Ireland. He was the second of two children. He had an older brother, about three years older, Warren, Warnie he called him, and parents Albert and Flora. His mother died when he was nine, and his father didn't really ever quite recover from that, and so shipped them off to boarding schools. Not a very good experience most of it. And eventually he landed with a friend of the family who tutored him for about three years in preparation for Oxford, named William T. Kirkpatrick. He entered into Oxford as a confirmed atheist and through his own search process, influences through friends, particularly Owen Barfield a friend of his, he came to Christ at about 33 years old, to a Christian faith. And he has a statement that describes this transition. … He made the statement that the things that he asserts most rigorously and vigorously are things he resisted long and accepted late. And he basically brought all of his understanding, his argumentative skills, his vast learning to bear under defense of the Christian faith. And began to write in popular areas, apologetics, and then fiction that became extremely popular and today is probably viewed as one of the most significant Christians of the 20th century.
What do you personally consider the most important aspect of Lewis and his work?
From a historical perspective as I look at him, at C.S. Lewis, and his presence in the 20th century, clearly it has to be as an advocate of the Christian faith. That's the most important legacy of Lewis in terms of influence. There are other things to be said that were important, he was a great writer, a great literary critic, literary historian, great writer of children's fantasy literature. But, the core of his being after he came to a Christian faith was really seeking to promote the Christian faith, to seek to clear away the intellectual prejudices against it, by showing fallacies in objections to the Christian faith. Sort of clearing away the intellectual rubble and then seeking to prepare the mind and the imagination to receive the Christian message. And so he did that in apologetics and he did that within his fictional writings, and he did that probably as well as anybody in this century in terms of success. If the sale of his books and the popularity that he has around the world show anything it shows that he was successful. …That's really historically why he stands out.
How is it that he could take complicated subject matter and make it simple enough for general understanding?
In terms of why Lewis was so effective, especially in taking complex arguments, or complex concepts, intellectual concepts, whether philosophical or theological … it began with his mentoring under William T. Kirkpatrick, who prepared him for the University examinations. He forced Lewis to come to clear and distinct ideas and to articulate them clearly. …Kirkpatrick wouldn't let anything go. And Lewis came to the understanding that if you cannot communicate something in simple common language, then you probably don't have a clear and distinct idea of what you're talking about. And so the test of understanding clear and distinct ideas is being able to communicate that in clear ordinary language. And he worked very hard at that. So I think a lot of his success has to do with the fact that he clearly understood what he was talking about. Whether one agreed with it or not, his clear and distinct ideas, that wasn't the issue, but the idea of his clear communication, you know bringing things down to where people could understand them was really was one of the things that marked him out.
Can you talk about Lewis' early views on Christianity and how they changed during his life?
As a young child, he really doesn't have a whole lot of memory himself. You know he's confirmed and baptized at the regular time and tried at a stage in his boarding school days being a Christian and it just didn't take and he ended up just kind of throwing it over. During his time with William T. Kirkpatrick, he became this confirmed atheist in his thinking and viewed Christianity from that point on as myth, and myth in the sense of being false. Later his views on myth change especially as a result of his talking with J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson. He always loved myth, but myth was not fact and myth was something that was false and that's the same category he put Christianity in. In fact, in a letter to his friend Arthur Greeves, he just lumps Christianity in with all the other myths that basically distract the people from the truth and reality and facts. But, as he began reading, especially in English Literature, he began reading people who were either Christians or what he would say, tainted with the Christian view that made more sense than those who were supposed to be more enlightened, the non-Christian writers. And he didn't know what to do with that. And then he read Chesterton's Everlasting Man and at that point he began to see that maybe Christianity was not so intellectually in the dark as he had thought. So there's this journey. But what he's doing at this point is really looking for reasons not to believe in the Christian faith and yet without him even trying things are coming into his life to force him to look at it and say well maybe it's not such an open and shut case. …The last thing that really came into play was what he would call the mythic elements of Christianity, redemption, a dying god, resurrection, God's sacrifice … and where that had all come from. It was J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson who sort of put that last piece of the puzzle together and basically showed him that if he met these qualities in any other mythic mode, that is non-Christian mythic mode, he really enjoyed them, they touched him and spoke to him deeply. But, when it came to the Christian myth, he responded differently. What Tolkien and Dyson sought to argue was that Christianity works on you just like any other myth. It's just that in this case it's myth become fact.
He began to realize is that myth is not false. Myth participates in truth. And what he began to see is that all myths originate and this was Chesterton's argument even earlier. Chesterton argues … that we all have a common origin, and then out of that origin, the truth becomes fragmented. And so you have all these different story lines, mythic story lines and each reflect the truth. So you have in every great civilization you have notions of creation, even notions of a flood, Gilgamesh epic, you have notions of a dying God. …But what happens with Christianity is that Christianity is the true myth. It holds on to everything that is true, and it actually becomes historical fact. And that is that this dying God that all of these others have talked about actually happens in Christianity. You can date it. You know, during a particular time in Roman history, during a particular census, he's crucified under Pontius Pilate. So what Lewis began to realize is that myth participates in truth, that's why it touches us so deeply. But this myth is the true myth, it's God's myth all the rest are man's myths, but this is God's myth.
How did Lewis' childhood work in setting up who he became?
Clearly, the death of Lewis' mother was a watershed in his life. He even makes this statement as he reflects on it in "Surprised by Joy", that it was like Atlantis had sunk. Still joy, but not the old security and sureness. And it was doubly difficult because with the loss of his mother he progressively lost his father. His father didn't recover. Now I don't think it was as bleak as some people would make it out to be especially if you read the letters that are exchanged in the family papers. There's a real affection by his father but his father was never able to really engage in the way that I think the boys really wanted him to after that. It isn't because he wasn't willing, I think he was just incapable. …When Lewis was wounded in the war and came back, Albert didn't come and visit him. Anybody who's lived long enough knows that those sorts of things leave lasting impact.
Can you talk about C.S. Lewis as a Christian writer and why he is so popular in America?
In terms of Lewis' popularity as a writer, that's unquestionable in terms of just the sales of his books. He's never been out of print. …In terms of translations, his popularity goes beyond the English speaking world. For example, 1,100,000 copies of Mere Christianity were translated into Russian and published in Russia. There's just a tremendous following. Harper-Collins has said that for about the last decade that they have sold a million copies of the Chronicles of Narnia a year and that's something that's not been out of print since the 50s. …And so the question is raised, why? Why is he so popular? And not just his fiction, his what we would call non-fiction apologetic writings are still popular. And I think there are a number of factors that come into play. I think his ability to take complex ideas and to translate those into common language and common conceptions. His ability for illustration, metaphor, that gets at the heart of an idea. He was brilliant at it. And they engage both the intellect and the imagination. I think the other thing that Lewis was able to do was combine two strengths. Typically you can find a person who can do one or the other, but to do both is a rare combination. One might be able to translate conceptual ideas effectively in prose, in apologetic type work, but couldn't then put it into an imaginative context and write fiction. Or might be strong in fiction and couldn't do the other. Lewis was able to do both. You see that coming into play, both aspects in his non-fiction and in his fiction. For example, in his non-fiction, let's say Mere Christianity, you know, in a very, sort of, propositional way he's dealing with concepts. But then he can bring to bear upon an idea an illustration, or metaphor, or story that engages, not just the mind, but the imagination and the emotion, that actually brings you on board. In his fiction, he already has your imagination, and he has you engaged, but in the process, he can marshal arguments to bear. …Lewis' ability to combine these two things, is a rare art. And he did as well as anybody. So he's engaging the mind, he's engaging the imagination together. And I think that rare quality is compelling. You don't find too many theological works that are able to do that. …But Lewis, whether you agree or not, is engaging, he's an engaging writer. He loved words, and again himself he was well read and was able to bring those things to bear. I think the other thing is that he tied into very long standing understandings of human nature. Starting clear back to the Socratic period and Plato and the conception of the human person. …And I think he appealed to those things, I think he appealed to our sense of right and wrong. Now we may not accept the Christian conception of right and wrong, but he could bring it over into this parallel world where we don't have prejudices and we cheer. Tolkien did the same thing. Tolkien said he basically takes this world and he sort of plays it out in this parallel world of Middle Earth, and we're all on board, and we're all cheering for the right things. And awakens these things in us. And I think that's what Lewis was doing as well, and he did it intentionally.
What is important about Lewis marrying later in life, and the impact it had on his writing?
The importance and influence of Lewis' marriage and life with Joy, on his life and his thinking and his works is a big question. It's one that I don't know if I've thought out completely. Clearly it seems that there was influence. Joy brought a dimension to his life that wasn't there before. As anybody who's ever been married knows, you can't enter into a marriage relationship without a whole new dimension, aspect coming into your life. And Lewis jumped into it with both feet, that's very clear. There seems to be clear evidence that it did influence his writing of Till We Have Faces. That she helped bring him out of a dry spell. I think what his relationship with Joy did was gave him the opportunity to experience something that he had looked at, thought about deeply, wrote about from afar. And that is love, romantic love. …What marriage did was allow him to get in and actually experience it from the inside, and that certainly had an effect on him. Just exactly what it was I don't know that I'm in any position to say, any more than to say it would fill him out as a human being, just as any relationship like that does. Again it brings a whole other dimension to our experience as a human being. And whether it made him more human, as some people would say, I don't know if I'd want to go to say that. It certainly made him a fuller human but to say more human in the sense that there was something lacking, as in terms of a defect that Joy cured, I'm not convinced of that.
How did world of Oxford influence him?
Lewis loved Oxford. He loved the spires, he loved the life in Oxford. And part of it is he loved the life of the mind, and Oxford is a wonderful place for those who love the life of the mind. Lewis was also, and this is a little more technical, Lewis was in his conception of reality, was an idealist. That is that behind reality is mind, for him that would be God's mind. And that therefore, you take the ideas seriously in a way you wouldn't otherwise. ...I think because Oxford took ideas seriously, he loved that. They didn't all take them seriously in the same way he did, but he just didn't see ideas as lacking reality, ideas have reality. And why, because God made us that way, to think and to imagine, and to translate that imagination into particular things. Whether it's music, whether it's making a piece of furniture whether it's writing a piece of literature or a poem, whether it's constructing something. So the idea is there's a reality to those things...
I find it interesting that Lewis is accepted by such a wide range of Christians, can you explain that?
There are certain more fundamentalist-minded Protestants that have a hard time with him, especially because of certain lifestyle issues you know his drinking and smoking. And also some that would be against what they would call the magical elements within his writing. But, with the exception of those, which are really few, Lewis has an incredibly broad appeal and I don't know anybody who's really succeeded to do that in the same way Lewis has. …He has this incredible broad appeal and I think part of it has to do with the fact that he stayed with what he called Mere Christianity. He did not really niggle with particular doctrinal distinctions, but dealt with those things that were common to the faith. And again that's what made him a good lay theologian, because he had a very deep understanding of that common tradition. He read widely in that area and he understood it from the early church all the way through to the contemporary Anglican Catholic Church. I've been told that he was one of the few Protestant writers that Catholics were allowed to read. And I've been told the Pope, especially in the earlier days read quite a bit of Lewis. The Orthodox like Lewis. And I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that he wrote well and in an engaging way. He clarified issues and appealed to this common tradition. And I think, generally, Christians aren't happy about the divisions and want a reason to believe that they aren't as big as we make them out to be. And Lewis was able especially for the common person, the common Christian, to say, wow there is something bigger than my denomination. There is this thing called Christendom, there is this thing called Mere Christianity. And there is reason, not to say that there aren't differences, there are real differences between Protestant and Catholic. But do those differences amount to saying we can't ever play ball together as it were? Lewis challenged that. And without, I think, intentionally doing it, he's done a lot for the ecumenical movement within the Christian Church. One of his writings, that's been thankfully just re-issued, is one called the Latin Letters of C.S. Lewis. For 15-20 years he corresponded with a Catholic priest all in Latin. And they've been translated and you can read the Latin if you want or the English translation. And he engages Catholic priests over these years. And it's fascinating reading. And again it shows Lewis' sensibilities historically and theologically in terms of the church.
Could you give your take on Mere Christianity the book as well as the concept?
In terms of the life of Lewis' book, Mere Christianity, the book itself continues to sell, continues to have impact in term of Lewis' specific unpacking of this concept, Mere Christianity as he understood it. But, at the same, the whole concept of Mere Christianity has almost taken a life of it's own. And people use it now in many different ways, especially in Ecumenical, sort of, engagements, and they may not always be using it in the same way that Lewis did. There's also the question of whether such a thing really does exist, is there such as thing as Mere Christianity? And people go back and forth on whether that really exists or not. But you have, you know, the one, the book, sort of, giving birth to the other. So there's sort of two phenomenons here. The book Mere Christianity, which continues to have an influence, continues to be read, continues to either clear up misconceptions and ideas for Christians or doing that for non-Christians. But then there's the other phenomenon, which is the whole concept of Mere Christianity, which Christians have embraced in fruitful ways. Fruitful ways in the sense of trying to rise up above their differences, not necessarily getting rid of the differences but being able to look at them in a new light. And I think if I was pushed to say which was most important, the book or the concept, that would be hard, hard to decide which has been most important and influential in the last 40, 50 years. They both are.
What is the concept?
To try to summarize the concept of Mere Christianity, I think the best way maybe to put it, is that Lewis is saying there's a common theological doctrinal tradition that runs through all the major Christian traditions. The Greek, the Orthodox tradition, the Roman Catholic tradition, and the Protestant tradition. They all hold to a Trinitarian conception of God. They all hold to the Son of God becoming incarnate at a particular point in history and being incarnate for the purpose of our salvation. That is for dealing with our sins. …The focus of that is most poignant on the cross, but really begins from the time of conception all the way to that point. That indeed it's God dying on that cross for us in human flesh, and not just appearing in human flesh, but a real incarnation. The mystery that God actually became a human being. …And this one is the savior of all mankind, whether they recognize it or not. It's at this point and only at this point that God becomes incarnate and performs this redemptive work. And this redemptive work involved sacrifice and suffering. And out of that comes redemption and healing for the human person. …Now in terms of Christ's work on the cross, which is viewed normally as the concept of atonement, all agree that the atonement was made, of covering for sin. How that was accomplished, is where the differences come in. And Lewis would recognize those differences, but what he deals with is the concept of atonement itself, which all traditions, that's part of Mere Christianity. That in some way, Christ covered our sins, dealt with our sins in a way that God can now accept us and they're not a barrier between our relationship and God. That's reality. All Christianity, from the first century to the present believes in that. There's this common tradition.
The Screwtape Letters.
The Screwtape Letters is the book that really put Lewis on the map as it were, in terms of public profile. And especially that it was written by an Oxford Don. Talking about the Devil and temptation and writing as if he's taking these things seriously. That, at that period of time when it came out was just unheard of. You know people didn't believe in that sort of thing any more. And it's the one thing that really, when you look at the cover of Time magazine that he's on, that's the theme that you have. It's the thing that projected Lewis out into the awareness, especially, of the American people.
Surprised by Joy.
I believe that Surprised by Joy is one of the most important works, if one is going to come to understand who this man is and how he thought. And to read it and take it as it is, rather than trying to analyze it, I think Lewis is looking back, putting the pieces together the best way he can, in terms of where he's at. I think I go back to that probably as much as any book that Lewis has written in terms of checking myself as I try to further my own work and research in the area.
The Chronicles of Narnia.
The Chronicles of Narnia is by far the best loved, the most widely read of all of Lewis' work. And what comes to mind in terms of getting around as the director of the Wade Center and speaking to people is that it is magical. For those who love the Chronicles of Narnia, it has a place of magic in their life. I think the idea of re-enchanting life for them is part of it. How it works, I don't know. I just know that it does and the facts speak for themselves. At least within the last decades, about a million copies are bought every year. And that's just remarkable being as it's never been out of print. And it'll probably be one of the things that Lewis will always be known for. They may not know Mere Christianity or remember The Screwtape Letters anymore, but you say Chronicles of Narnia and the best bet is they'll know him by that.