On November 22nd, 1963, the world was rocked by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. His death pushed another death off the headlines. On November 22nd, 1963, a stout, bald retired Oxford and Cambridge professor of Medieval and Renaissance literature fell to the floor at 5:30 p.m. and died a few minutes later in his brother’s arms. His name was C. S. Lewis.
So why should you care? Why should you care about the death of a stout, bald Irishman almost fifty-seven years ago?
Whether or not you’ve ever heard of Clive Staples “Jack” Lewis, he has affected you profoundly. If you enjoy The Chronicles of Narnia*, you have C. S. Lewis to thank. If the character of Treebeard in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings thrills you, he was modeled on C. S. Lewis. During WWII, Lewis rallied England through his talks on the BBC, his stentorian bass voice over the airwaves almost more recognizable than Winston Churchill’s.
Regardless of your religion, no one can encounter the writings, radio broadcasts or film versions of Lewis’ writings without great enjoyment and being profoundly affected, never to be quite the same again. But most importantly, for almost one hundred years, C. S. Lewis is the only reason millions of people have not lost their faith. How? One simple reason:
C. S. Lewis made it possible to be both a Christian
and a human being.
Now I realize how preposterous that sentence sounds. After all, religion is the exclusive province of human beings. Dogs and cats don’t need religion. Well, stick with me while I build my case, please.
Several years ago, an Amishwoman turned to me and said emphatically, “It’s wrong to get angry.”
I quite surprised myself by instantly responding, “But Jesus got angry! Remember when he threw the money changers out of the Temple?” She ignored me. In five words, she had perfectly summarized the “This is Christianity” message I too had received in my cult family, cult school and cult churches.
You can either be a Christian.
Or you can be human.
And never the twain shall meet.
In my circles, becoming a Christian seemed to mean undergoing some kind of humanectomy. Conversion meant the overnight amputation of all the so-called “negative” emotions: anger, jealousy, bitterness, grudge-holding, questioning, doubt, grief, any and all pain. All the emotions we validate as the early-warning-system that, “Ding! Ding! Ding! You are being wronged. You need to protect yourself. Shields up!”.
Welcome to the world of spiritual abuse.
Losing these emotions seemed to be what they meant by becoming “a new creature in Christ.” The “real” Christians I met at church seemed to have one mode and one emotion: “the joy of the Lord.”
But they never felt quite real to me.
I never managed to attain to their rarefied spiritual plane. I was vocal about my doubts and a mass of pain from years of narcissistic abuse. While they said they “knew that they knew that they knew” they were going to Heaven when they died, I’ve never had the confidence to claim to know what God thinks about me. Who was I, thought I, to assume salvation? I was, in a word, so pathetic that long ago I stopped appropriating the label of “Christian” lest I sully the word. Finally, it felt so toxic to step into a church, bless their hearts, that I stopped attending and went into a sort-of church detox fifteen years ago. But I still cling desperately to the foot of the Cross, slowly learning to my surprise that God does not hate me.
In all my confusion and humiliation, C. S. Lewis was the one shining light. Like me, there are millions who might’ve ditched Christianity entirely but for one man: C. S. Lewis.
Like me, there are millions who can’t read their Bibles. When you crack the cover, you hear only the screams of a sweating, pounding pastor furiously sermonizing from I Corinthians 6:18 about sex, only to find out later that he was carrying on a torrid affair with his secretary. (True story from my old church.)
But you can read C. S. Lewis. He makes the Scripture real and approachable, devoid of all my cult brainwashing.
Personally, he had me at “hello” and that “hello” was reading The Chronicles of Narnia as a little girl. He expresses the felt-but-inexpressable. He is brutally honest. Who else could be so authentic, so humble, so human as to write about the pleasure of peeling off a scab.
“You know — if you’ve ever picked the scab of a sore place.
It hurts like billy-oh but it is such fun to see it coming away.”
— The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
That’s a man you can trust.
Perhaps the wound most in need of having its scab scratched off is the wound of trying to be Christian to the exclusion of also being human.
That reminds me of a grandmotherly friend and Christian writer who invited me to her home several years ago. She confided that she was at the end of her tether. That she wanted to scream. That she fantasized daily about running away from home.
But you’d never be able to deduce her true feelings from her weekly writing. To read her column, she has it all together and her façade creates a burden for her readers who seek to emulate her walk with God. Whatever happened to…
Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden,
and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me;
for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.
For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
— Matthew 11: 28-30
It is only in the writings of C. S. Lewis that I found rest, meekness, lowliness and lightness. This most humble of men who hated attending church and loved his pints, his tobacco and his raunchy jokes…the soul damning trifecta of evil according to the cult churches I attended…feels like the real thing not because of his excess of virtue but because of his excess of humanity, honesty and humility.
Maybe it is poetic then that Jack Lewis’ death should’ve been buried under the headlines of President Kennedy’s assassination. That’s just the way Jack would’ve wanted it.
* I know it’s uncharitable, but I’ll never forgive Disney for their treatment of The Chronicles of Narnia. The White Witch should never have been made humorous. And avoid at all cost the biography Lewis’ step-son wrote about him that basically turned him into some kind of saccharin saint. Shhhhhhh! You hear that? It’s Jack rolling in his grave!