Who was C.S. Lewis

Clive Staples Lewis found God while zooming along on a motorcycle.

As he famously later wrote of his faithful ride in the sidecar of his brother’s bike, “When we set out [to the Whipsnade Zoo] I did not believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo, I did.”

That was 1931, and Lewis remained a fervent devotee of the Church of England until his death 32 years later, just shy of his 65th birthday.

But it wasn’t merely a stiff English breeze or the pungent scent of motorcycle exhaust that made Lewis a man of God, but a series of discussions with his great friend and fellow faculty member at Oxford, J.R.R. Tolkien, including an especially heavy one the night before.

For most of his early life, Lewis was an atheist, but, by his early 30s, he was a theist — one who believes in a god or gods, but hasn’t fleshed out a belief system beyond that. But Tolkien, the author of “Lord of the Rings,” changed all that.

“Lewis was a theist — he didn’t know what to do with Jesus Christ. Tolkien basically created an argument. In adventure stories, you have to have two great facets. You need a sense of catastrophe, danger. Then you need a sense of what Tolkien called ‘eucatastrophe.’ That means ‘good catastrophe.’ That makes for the greatest adventure stories,” explained Pastor Earl Palmer, a scholar of both Lewis and Tolkien’s work who taught a class on the two at Berkeley’s New College.

According to Palmer, Tolkien, a devout Catholic, said: “‘You know, Jesus Christ is the good catastrophe of all time. Whereas our stories are part of the imagination, he’s real. He’s true.'”

Following his religious awakening, Lewis became what is known as a “Christian apologist.” While the term “apologist” has taken on the definition of a company man attempting to put a spin on a decidedly negative situation, it carried a different meaning in Christian circles; an apologist back then acknowledged the arguments of those who challenged Christian doctrine and then attempted to refute them.

Lewis is still much loved in the Christian community for his 1941 early religious works such as “The Screwtape Letters” and “Right and Wrong.” And in 1950, Lewis wrote a wonderful little story titled “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” for his goddaughter, Lucy.

Lewis had only intended to write the one book, but six more followed and were published at the rate of around one a year.

In 1956, he married Joy Davidman Gresham, 17 years his junior. Gresham had been born a Jew but converted to Christianity in 1952, partly due to the influence of Lewis’ books. At the time of their marriage, by her hospital bedside, it was believed she would imminently die of bone cancer, but she survived until 1960.

Lewis’ works are now seen as Christian allegories, but, maintains Palmer, they are also affirmations of faith, something Jews can identify with.

Similar affirmations can be gleaned from “Lord of the Rings,” and nobody seemed to have a problem with those critically acclaimed, blockbuster films.

Palmer’s colleague at New College, Margaret Horwitz, is unsure how a mass-marketing blitz will affect the legacy of Lewis.

“I know that his stepson, Douglas Gresham, is very much involved in the making of this film, and is trying to make it as true as possible. And marketing can go either way. It may help people find something or it may turn people off,” said Horwitz, a scholar focusing on film adaptations of British novels and Lewis — an area of emphasis that means she is keenly interested in the upcoming movie.

“Even if something is lost, they can interest people in going back to the books. I think the books are great entertainment as well as having ethical principles.”

Related Story:

‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.