April 22, 2009

C.S. Lewis’s Religion Through Sneak Attack

My paper for the upcoming Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology conference is almost done, but a few parts (like this one) have hit the cutting room floor.

In 1916 an atheistic C.S. Lewis eagerly wrote to tell his lifelong friend Arthur Greeves about a “great literary experience” he’d had. “By hazard,” he picked up a copy of George MacDonald’s “Faerie Romance for Men and Women,” Phantastes, and instructed Arthur: “you simply MUST get this at once.”1 He would later credit the book with doing him “much good” before his conversion to Christianity, “when [he] had no idea what was behind it.” After recommending it to another friend he wrote “This [book] has always made it easier for me to understand how the better elements in mythology can be a real praeparatio evangelica [“preparation for the gospel”] for people who do not yet know whither they are being led.”2 After his conversion Lewis found yet more inspiration from MacDonald in his non-fiction works. In a preface Lewis wrote for a collection of these writings he said he considered the Scottish minister and author to be his “master”:

“My own debt to [Unspoken Sermons] is almost as great as one man can owe to another…Indeed, I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him. But it has not seemed to me that those who have received my books kindly take even now sufficient notice of the affiliation.”3
For Lewis, MacDonald’s fiction was a prelude to his more direct Christian writings, but an important prelude which helped tip him towards God in the first place. Lewis became well-known by making use of fiction as a preparation for the gospel. In 1939, shortly after his lesser-known fiction Out of the Silent Planet  was published Lewis was both “grieved and amused” that only two out of about sixty reviewers recognized the religious undertones. “Any amount of theology can now be smuggled into people’s minds under cover of romance without their knowing it,”4  he half-joked to a fellow writer. In 1947 one reader sent Lewis a subject index he’d created for the wildly popular Screwtape Letters.5  Though Lewis was “delighted,” he declined making use of it in future editions. “Part of the success of that book depends on luring the ordinary reader into serious self-knowledge under pretence of being a kind of joke,” so an index would instantly “give the bluff away.”6 One fan was concerned that Lewis’s fiction seemed to give “a more perceptible challenge than Scripture itself.”7 Lewis attributed this to a reader’s being caught unprepared; the fiction was less likely to have the negative baggage a reader might associate with scripture.

Despite sneaking doctrine into fiction Lewis insisted the “first business of a story is to be a GOOD STORY.”8  He frequently noted his stories began with a mental picture rather than being created as allegories of his religious beliefs. “Behind my own stories there are no ‘facts’ at all, tho’ I hope there are truths. That is, they may be regarded as imaginative hypotheses illustrating what I believe to be theological truths…I don’t of course mean that I started with these abstract ‘morals’ & then invented yarns to illustrate them…Stories begin…simply with pictures coming into my head.”9  His Narnia series began with the mental image of  “a faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood”10  and he repeatedly insisted the Narnia series was not an allegory, but a creative fiction. “I did not say to myself ‘Let us represent Jesus as He really is in our world by a Lion in Narnia’: I said ‘Let us suppose that there was a land like Narnia and that the Son of God, as He became a Man in our world, became a Lion there, and then imagine what would happen.’”11 Rarely mentioned was another source of inspiration: “It might amuse you that the whole thing took its rise from nightmares about lions which I suddenly started having.”12 

He counseled one aspiring Christian writer not to force things: “If God wants you to serve him in that way…you will find it coming of its own accord. If not, well – a good story which will give innocent pleasure is a good thing, juts like cooking a good nourishing meal. (You don’t put little texts in your family soup, I’ll be bound.)”13  Writers need not worry that the deeper truths might escape the children, “what they do not understand at the time will go into their semi-conscious mind and help them to understand the Cross years later…Symbolism exists precisely for the purpose of conveying to the imagination what the intellect is not ready for.”14  Such symbolism shouldn’t be weak, either. Lewis said most of the books of “Christian instruction for children” seemed to be “namby-pamby and ‘sissie’ and calculated to nauseate any child worth his salt.”15  He felt his efforts to help children in the “seven ‘Narnian fairy tales” attempt to avoid that pitfall, and “work well with some children but not with others.”16 

Lewis also began his more public Christian apologetics with subtlety. In 1941 he was asked by the director of religious broadcasting for the BBC to present "A series of talks on something like 'The Christian Faith As I See It - by a Layman'." Lewis decided the best approach would be to discuss "the Law of Nature, or objective right and wrong." Since the New Testament seemed to assume an audience that already perceived a need for repentance and forgiveness, according to Lewis, a "modern England" required a different approach. "The first step is to create, or recover, the sense of guilt. Hence if I give a series of talks I should mention Christianity only at the end, and would prefer not to unmask my battery till then. Some title like 'The Art of Being Shocked' or 'These Humans' would suit me."17 As Lewis became known more broadly as a Christian apologist his subtlety in non-fictional works decreased. When asked to contribute some articles to the then-newly-established magazine Christianity Today in 1955, Lewis replied: “If I am now good for anything it is for catching the reader unawares – thro’ fiction and symbol. I have done what I could in the way of frontal attacks, but I now feel quite sure those days are over.”18  He didn’t stop writing non-fictional theological works, but tried to keep out of the “dog-fights between professing schools of ‘Christian’ thought.”19  After the Narnia series was completed he tried his hand at a fiction geared more towards adults called Till We Have Faces. Though Lewis said it was “far and away the best I have written,” it was his “one big failure both with the critics and with the public.” Even his young stepson Douglas Gresham asked “When are you going to stop writing all that bilge and write interesting books again?”20

The sneak attack could go astray if a reader enjoys the fiction more than the actual gospel. “I am shocked to hear that your friends think of following me,” he wrote to one concerned reader. “I wanted them to follow Christ. But they’ll get over this confusion soon, I trust.”21 

Lewis obviously believed his own works shouldn’t be put first, of course; God should: “For second things are always corrupted when they are put first. Never forget this: souls are immortal, and your children & grandchildren will still be alive when my books have, like the Galaxy and Nature herself, passed away.”22


Walter Hooper, ed., The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis I: Family Letters, 1905-1931, pp.169-170 (Hereafter cited as "CL" followed by the volume and page number). Lewis and Arthur often discussed books in great detail, including the physical build of the book. They favored “Everyman” editions, which could be ordered with a custom color binding. In the letter mentioning Phantastes,  Lewis reported he recently purchased a volume in the chocolate binding he used to dislike. “So you see I am gradually becoming converted to all your views,” he teased. “Perhaps one of these days you may even make a Christian of me” (CL 1:170-71).

CL 2:453.

Clive Staples Lewis, George MacDonald: An Anthology, Macmillan (1946), p. 18.

CL 2:262.

Lewis's letters have a lot of interesting tidbits about The Screwtape Letters. Lewis was “struck by the idea” for a “useful and entertaining” book called “As one Devil to Another” while sitting in Church one morning (see CL 2:426-427). It was the book Lewis enjoyed writing the least (CL 2:830. See also 3:1063 where Lewis writes “Personally, I liked nearly all my books less than Screwtape.” Given many other references, Lewis doubtless meant to say “more”). Lewis was annoyed by what he saw as a dreadfully written American rip-off called The Devil You Say (CL 3:326). Finally, Lewis once considered writing a companion book to Screwtape featuring “letters to the guardian angel from an archangel” but he “funked it” (CL 3:440).

CL 2:758.

CL 3:1023. Lewis also advised those struggling with the Bible to try a different translation. “If childish associations are too intrusive…it’s a good idea to try it in some other language" (CL 2:375). It has become more difficult for Lewis to surprise some people.

CL 3:502.

CL 3:465-466.

CL 2:923; see also 3:503. For a brief overview of how Lewis came to write the Narnia series, see Will Vaus, “The Lion, the Witch, & the Wardrobe,” Will Vaus Ministries.

CL 3:480.

CL 3:807.

CL 3:502-503.

CL 2:565. This advice to was to a writer named Sister Penelope CMSV, responding to her series of Biblical plays called The Holy Seed.

CL 3:1011.

Ibid. Ironically, when Lewis was asked in 1954 about doing a movie version of the Narnia stories he was reluctant: “I am sure you understand that Aslan is a divine figure, and anything remotely approaching the comic (above all anything in the Disney line) would be to me simple blasphemy” (CL 3:491). Perhaps he remembered his theater experience with Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, which was “inconceivably good and bad.” He thought the “terrifying bits were good,” but the “vulgarity of the winking dove at the beginning” was terrible, in addition to the “dwarfs’ jazz party [which was] pretty bad…I suppose it never occurred to the poor boob [Disney] that you could give them any other kind of music” (see CL 2:242).

CL 2:469-470. Before becoming Mere Christianity the broadcasts were published in pamphlet form as The Case for Christianity (1942), Christian Behaviour (1942), and Beyond Personality (1944). See Lewis, Mere Christianity: a revised and amplified edition, with a new introduction, of the three books, Broadcast talks, Christian behaviour, and Beyond personality, HarperSanFrancisco (2001).

CL 3:651, to Carl Henry, founder of Christianity Today.

CL 3:1425.

CL 3:1181.

CL 3:501. The same problem evidently happened with little Laurence Krieg, whose mother wrote Lewis with startling news: Six-year-old Laurence felt troubled that he loved Aslan greater than Jesus. Lewis responded (see CL 3:602-603):
 “Tell Laurence from me, with my love:
1/ Even if he was loving Aslan more than Jesus (I’ll explain in a moment why he can’t really be doing this) he would not be an idol-worshipper. If he were an idol-worshipper he’d be doing it on purpose, whereas he’s now doing it because he can’t help doing it, and trying hard not to do it. But God knows quite well how hard we find it to love Him more than anyone or anything else, and He won’t be angry with us as long as we are trying. And He will help us.

2/ But Laurence can't really love Aslan more than Jesus, even if he feels that's what he is doing. For the things he loves Aslan for doing or saying are simply the things Jesus really did and said. So that when Laurence thinks he is loving Aslan, he is really loving Jesus: and perhaps loving Him more than he ever did before. Of course there is one thing Aslan has that Jesus has not--I mean, the body of a lion. (But remember, if there are other worlds and they need to be saved and Christ were to save them as He would - He may really have taken all sorts of bodies in them which we don't know about.) Now if Laurence is bothered because he finds the lion-body seems nicer to him than the man-body, I don't think he need be bothered at all. God knows all about the way a little boy's imagination works (He made it, after all)…and anyway, Laurence will find as he grows older, that feeling (liking the lion-body better) will die away of itself, without his taking any trouble about it. So he needn't bother.

3/ If I were Laurence I'd just say in my prayers something like this: ‘Dear God, if the things I've been thinking and feeling about those books are things You don't like and are bad for me, please take away those feelings and thoughts. But if they are not bad, then please stop me from worrying about them. And help me every day to love you more in the way that really matters far more than any feelings or imaginations, by doing what you want and growing more like you.’ That is the sort of thing I think Laurence should say for himself; but it would be kind and Christian-like if he then added, ‘And if Mr. Lewis has worried any other children by his books or done them any harm, then please forgive him and help him never to do it again.’

Will this help? I am terribly sorry to have caused such trouble, and would take it as a great favor if you would write again and tell me how Laurence goes on. I shall of course have him daily in my prayers. He must be a corker of a boy: I hope you are prepared for the possibility he might turn out a saint. I daresay the saints' mothers have, in some ways, a rough time!

Yours sincerely,
C.S. Lewis” 
CL 3:733.