My mixed relationship with CS Lewis

CS Lewis was a favourite of mine, whether his Narnia series, or his multiple books on Christianity that he wrote with such preciseness. He was famous for his radio series on the BBC from 1941 to 1943 from London while the city was under periodic air raids, which ended up as a book named “Mere Christianity” and was a best seller. However, he held academic positions in English literature at both Oxford University (Magdalen College, 1925–1954) and Cambridge University (Magdalene College, 1954–1963). Reading the Narnia books as a child, I had no idea of his underlying message, and it would take some time before I did. The rationality of arguments has rarely convinced me; rather, I have always been receptive to poetry or literature, classical music and certain works of art have been able to move me. It is rather like an enchantment, but it makes people who speak about notes, words, rhymes, stanzas or colours, brushstrokes and shades seem to me as if they were in another world.

I suppose I am still the “impressionable boy” I had been as a child, who, failing miserably at school, played truant, and sat in Cafés scribbling the pages of notebooks full of inspired lines, trying to work out that which caused his unrest. No one could advise me as a pubescent child, although my mother sought advice from the family, and once a journalist, an acquaintance of my grandmother, was asked for his opinion on what I had written. He was probably very diplomatic when he told my mother that I should try harder in school and keep at it. Unfortunately, school was a cluster of conflicts, and the public library was off-limits for a kid who was supposed to be in school. I was confused, because I saw that many people around me talked about being riveted by a book, unable to put it down, and often depriving themselves of sleep as a result. But no one seemed to understand that which filled my senses and caused a longing for something still unnamed, unknown.

When I joined the army, everyone suspected it was a mistake, and I struggled to keep my head above water. There was a pay sergeant that seemed to take pity, although since I had reason to doubt his intentions, and he took me to Bavaria. When I stood on the Zugspitze at 2,962 meters and looked over the Wetterstein Mountains from the highest mountain in Germany or walked in the beautiful castles of southern Bavaria, Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein, I relived the awe and bubbled over with admiration. The perception of the beauty of such moments was a feeling that this was what I lived for, like water for my thirst, overriding all rational considerations. This kept something alive in me that the brutal masculinity of the army threatened to kill.

A year or so later, I met a teacher in the barracks cinema who was also interested in movies, we began a conversation about those books which had been made into films, and the book club I’d joined, and we struck a chord that people around us had trouble understanding. She was engaged to a corporal in the Signals, and our interest in each other, except for a brief moment, was not romantic, but was about the magic of stories. Before we were separated and she and I were officially no longer allowed to see each other because of the intervention of the army hierarchy, she gave me a list of books to read. I watched her marriage from a distance and realized that she had given me a very personal gift for which I was very grateful. The fact that we had gotten along so well made me suspect that I needed to find a woman with whom I could communicate on that level, and I set out to find that person. For most of them, I was just funny or a fascinating conversationalist. One approached me on the stairs of the bar we had in the basement of a barracks and tore my shirt off, but no one caused the harmony I had experienced talking to this teacher. This would take some time and require further effort, which was noticed by some of the officers I sometimes talked to on the radio watch in manoeuvres, all of whom thought I was in the wrong place.

It is amazing sometimes that there are people like me going through life, a victim of a failed schooling, lost and disoriented, despite all that we pride ourselves on in our society. Perhaps it is the conflict that fosters personal development, and the suffering that matures us and leads us from the nursery to the tragedy we call life’s struggles. I met many soldiers who, by all appearances, should not have been there, but perhaps they were supposed to be. Perhaps it was an important episode in my life, despite the sudden and desperate attempt to change things after I returned to Germany following a deployment in Northern Ireland. Fortunately, a girl who had been sitting across from me at the bar and had initially avoided me showed up. We talked. I hadn’t had this kind of conversation with most of the girls I knew, and this was personal, searching, and a relief. She was also a soul caught up in circumstances that she hadn’t been able to change, and in relationships that were unfulfilling, and I had the feeling that, with our combined effort, we could change things.

After a relatively short time, we decided to get married, much to the surprise of everyone around us. Shortly thereafter, I applied for early discharge from the army, which also caused unrest in the unit. As if to prevent our marriage, I was transferred to northern Germany, but I met people who had known my father as young soldiers and were now serving as officers. They helped me, and soon I was on my way to England to disband. Everything happened in a fever, and my excitement was mixed with foreboding, for it was another episode I was beginning, with an uncertain outcome. When I arrived back in Germany and fell into the arms of my new wife, I could have cried, but I rarely did. We struggled to become independent at first, and when we finally had our own apartment, it was a bit dilapidated, and we both struggled in our jobs, but we felt like we were free. I was free to embark on an inner journey to seek the cause of my unrest and seek that which had installed that feeling of enchantment in me. I learnt German rapidly, engaged in conversations with students living above us in that ramshackle house, enjoyed the company of my wife’s friends, and had the feeling of making progress.

The reunion with CS Lewis came shortly after, amid a flood of other books that I quickly devoured. When our son was born, five years after we were married, my perspective changed and I began to think about what stories I could tell our son, and of course Narnia, which had been partially translated into German, came to mind. I still didn’t know who the wise, compassionate, magical authority Aslan was who served as a mysterious and benevolent guide to the human children who visited Narnia; or that C. S. Lewis had described Aslan as an alternate version of Jesus, the form in which he might have appeared in an alternate reality. When I read “Surprised by Joy” in a German version, a theme returned in me that had been circling around me since conversations with the pastor before I married Monika. Later I read “Mere Christianity”, this time in English, but the rationality of his arguments did not seem to appeal to me, and I remembered a passage in “Surprised by Joy”:

“You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”

Christianity, or “Him who I so desired not to meet,” nudged me as seriously as Lewis, I felt, but there was nothing rational about it. I didn’t particularly like Christians, except for my Methodist great-aunt, who was an extraordinary person. I didn’t like the moralizing and the morbidly sweet songs that were sung in church. On finding a German booklet on Abraham in the ruins of a community house, I found the story strangely appealing, but I was unsure where to find people telling this kind of story, so I asked a Pastor, who brought us together with a couple, with whom we have been friends ever since. They belonged to a group that tended to think that the Bible was literally true, which was entertaining for some time, because it made me aware of the internal consistency of the stories. But after a while I noticed that they were mixing the biblical world for the real world, and rather than exiting after putting down the book, they mentally remained in that world.

I had read other, more critical writers at the time, who pointed out that the pragmatic way of thinking that we use to get along in the world has its limitations, and that the biblical stories focused more on the elusive, mysterious, and tragic aspects of the human situation that pragmatic thinking could not cope with, that would be more apt to be labelled myth. The lay people I talked to expressed concern about the books I was reading, and some of them even cited CS Lewis as a better choice, though I knew his background prevented him from sharing more than a few similar beliefs with fundamentalist Christians.

On the subject of myth, for example, he stated, “Myth in general is not merely misunderstood history… nor diabolical illusion… not priestly lying… but at its best, a real unfocused gleam of divine truth on human imagination” (Miracles, 138). Thus, it must be understood that what Lewis calls myth is not merely a story skilfully told, but a reality wrapped in a narrative that, when properly understood, can convey great truths to the reader. I developed this position in early discussion forums and also in the lectures I gave, which were welcomed on one side, mostly by women and young people, but rejected by others, mostly older men. Above all, the influence of poetry with its suggestion of everyday enchantment, which was also a part of the Narnia stories of witches and magical beings, made me more convinced that we should encourage people to perceive the beauty of the Sermon on the Mount and the fact that these speeches captivated his listeners and stimulated their imagination. I was rebutted with the emphasis that “the Word of God was sharper than a double-edged sword”.

Recently I was drawn to a report that evangelical Christians in America were demanding that CS Lewis be banned, for not complying with their teaching. I suppose they caught on then.