35 years ago this month, the president of the United States was assassinated. The global attention given to that event overshadowed the death on the same day of one of the most famous Christian writers of the 20th century. In the third of a century since these two deaths, the influence and esteem of the first has steadily eroded; the 1000 days of Camelot have been demythologized. The president has reappeared as all too human, and none too righteous. His reputation seems to have caught up with his character.
Not so for the other man. In fact, quite the opposite. For two and one half decades, the wit and wisdom of this Oxford scholar has enjoyed a sustained climb to the pinnacle of popularity. His homestead is being restored, his essays and stories enjoy international fame, and his simple grave stone is the destination of a constant stream of, yes, pilgrims. For the past year, people around the world have celebrated the birth of Clive Staples Lewis, born on November 28, 1898 and better known to you and me as C. S. Lewis.
Wormwood was his first claim to fame, although he had achieved considerable academic success years earlier. He attended Oxford University and graduated with what is called a triple first, what we might call summa cum laude in three different fields of study. It was and remains an extremely rare feat of intellect and discipline. He took a teaching post at Magdalen College in Oxford where he remained a tutor in Medieval and Renaissance English Literature until 1954. He published books of poetry and literary essays and was, as they say, getting along nicely in his profession, until something happened; he was converted to faith in Christ.
He tells the story in a wonderfully simple but spellbinding way in his spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy, the Shape of My Early Life. Conversion stories I collect and read and recommend, this one especially. C. S. Lewis grew up with gifted but agnostic parents. He knew nothing of Christ and the Christian faith. He knew only that he suffered from a spiritual condition of emptiness, yearning, and sensing vaguely a transcendence that is real, true, beautiful, and satisfying to the mind, soul, and imagination.
It was this element of imagination that was to be his avenue to a sure and certain faith. Once settled in the illustrious setting of Oxford (surely the epicenter of learning in all the world) he met with others interested in fantasy, others such as J. R. R. Tolkien and Charles Williams. They wrote stories, spun tales, created peoples and lands and languages. They gathered biweekly as “The Inklings”.
You can go today to the English pub named The Eagle and Child, just around the corner from the Baptist College, Regent’s Park. There they drank beer, read their stuff chapter at a time, and discussed the topics and trends of literature. And C. S. Lewis discovered, to his amazement, that all of his friends were what he later called “thorough supernaturalists.” This, of course, challenged his atheistic presuppositions and his naturalistic inclinations. All these men, each one a brilliant Oxford scholar, were Christians … professing and acting Christians, confessing Jesus as Lord, worshipping the triune God as Maker of Heaven and Earth, and seeking to live faithful in the fullness of the divine spirit. He was later to say, “An unbeliever can never be too careful what they read and with whom they associate; God has agents everywhere.”
Lewis recounts the episode of his own coming to faith. For days, weeks, and months, he had contemplated the stories of the Christian faith, their historicity, their truth, their cosmic significance. In the trinity term of 1931, at the age of 33 C. S. Lewis boarded the train for an excursion to the London Zoo. According to his own account, when it left the station he was still an atheist; when it arrived he was a believer in God, the most reluctant convert, he said, in all England.
He may have been reluctant, but his conversion, (body, soul, mind and imagination) has been the cause of rejoicing by millions of Christians the world over during the past 12 months. We remember what Paul wrote to the Romans, “I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you because your faith is being reported all over the world.” (Romans 1:8)
Back to the wormwood. It is a biblical word. It is found in Proverbs; it is used by Amos and Jeremiah; and there is this scene in The Revelation: “And the third angel sounded the trumpet and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers and upon the foundations of waters, and the name of the star is called wormwood; and the third part of the waters became wormwood, and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter.” (Revelation 8:10-11)
The falling star, the bitter taste, and the unexpected death all fit into the Wormwood of C. S. Lewis, tempter-in-training, under the direction of his uncle, Screwtape. Screwtape writes to Wormwood; and thus we have The Screwtape Letters. They were published in 1941, dedicated to J. R. R. Tolkien.
In these letters, this duo of demonic intent considers ways to disrupt the Christian life of a certain human person by shaping temptations that strike at the weakness of the person: sins of the flesh, sins of the spirit all come into play. In one letter, Wormwood exults that his assigned believer is drifting away from God; it seems he has lost the emotional attachment to the faith … the fire, the enthusiasm, the passion, the delight, the joy … it is all gone, and Wormwood is sure that his human project is near to apostasy, is very close to abandoning Christ all together.
To which Screwtape replies, in a passage I long ago committed to memory and which has sustained me in many a dry day of discipleship.
“Do not be deceived, wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger, that when a human, no longer desiring but still intending to do our Enemy’s will, looks upon a world from which every trace of God seems to have vanished and asks why he has been forsaken, and obeys.”
Lewis says the letters were easy to write … to conceive, to think through, to put on paper … but tough to complete. “The strain produced a sort of spiritual cramp …. It almost smothered me before I was done.” But they brought instant fame and fortune to the shy, scholarly bachelor. It put him on the best seller list and on the front cover of Time magazine. It also put him at the forefront of apologetics.
Let me explain that word, for the few tonight to whom it is strange. An apology is, in the classical sense, a defense, in this instance, a defense of the faith, of Christianity. Apologetics is that kind of philosophy and theology that is aimed at explaining what Christians believe so as to counter opposition and to answer questions. An apologist is a person who gives a defense of his Christian faith.
Paul was a great apologist. He wrote to the Philippians: “I am set for the defense of the gospel” (Philippians 1:16). Peter wrote in his first letter: “Be ready always to give an answer to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15).
Not everyone makes a good apologist; it takes certain gifts of knowledge, language, temperament, and communication. Not everyone makes a good musician, or a good teacher, or a good artist. God gives his gifts of ability and opportunity to whom He will; isn’t that what Paul the Apostle said in writing to the Corinthians about spiritual gifts?
C. S. Lewis may have been Christianity’s chief apologist of the 20th century. Goodness knows we have needed such a ministry! This century has been filled with doubt, skepticism, and unbelief. The wars, and rumors of wars, have tested our confidence in the mercy and justice of God. Technology and scientific knowledge have offered explanations for things that do not require the presence, the power, the purpose of an almighty and everlasting God.
The emerging dialogue between the religions of the world have been yet another challenge to the Christian world view. Jew and Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu, even the exponents of ancient tribal traditions and new age attitudes have joined the conversation.
Among Christians, there is an increasing and bewildering variety of ideas on everything from the gender of God to the ethics of death.
Sometimes it overwhelms the ordinary believer, and their pastor; sometimes what we need and long for is a simple, straightforward explanation of what Christians have always believed, a defense full of learning, style, and rational power, a presentation of things which we confess in a way that reaffirms for us their truth and certainty.
Such was the ministry of C. S. Lewis. Informal discussions and academic papers, Sunday morning sermons and Monday night discussions, logical treatises read the world over and radio broadcast talks to his own British people. “All things to all people,” the Word says, and so Lewis was.
Especially his broadcast talks. In 1943, the British Broadcasting Corporation asked Lewis to give a talk. It was wartime, there was little entertainment, even less hope. And so there came to be the first of those famous Broadcast talks that taken together, edited, and published, became one of the most famous Christian books of the century.
Mere Christianity is the description Lewis gave to that which most Christians had believed, confessed, and taught for most of her 2000 years. He described it in his essay entitled “Christian Apologetics” as “the faith preached by the Apostles, attested by the Martyrs, embodied in the Creeds, expounded by the Fathers.”
Granted there were peculiar things held only by his own church, the Church of England, or the Anglican church, as it is sometimes called, or the Episcopal Church, as we term it in the States. Likewise, we Baptists have our own distinctives, such as convert dipping and ballot casting. But there are things both Baptist and Anglicans and all Christians have in common.
Lewis said this Christian family is like a great building. There is a large central hall, with many side rooms. The large central hall is that part of our faith that is common to all. It includes convictions about God, Jesus, salvation and eternity. It includes practices, such as bible reading, hymn singing, and hand shaking. It includes values and behaviors, such as justice, marriage, truth telling, compassion, and forgiveness.
What goes on in the main hall is “mere Christianity.” His God-given duty was to assist people in entering this hall. Don’t stay there, he said; find one of the side rooms. There you will find fellowship, and friendship, and nourishment, and ministry. But first you must enter the central hall, understand, and experience, and enter into those convictions, practices, and values that constitute mere Christianity.
I was a college student 30 years ago when my mother sent me a paperback copy of Mere Christianity. It had my father’s name scrawled in ink inside the front cover. I read that book, I consumed that book, I devoured that book, I delighted in that book. I still have that book, in a way. Actually. I have loaned it to another person. I used to be very protective of my books. I treasure them so. Until I read this from Lewis.
“Yes,” my friend said, “I don’t see why there shouldn’t be books in Heaven. But you will find that your library in Heaven contains only some of the books you had on earth.”
“Which?” I asked.
“The ones you gave away or lent.”
“I hope the lent ones won’t still have all the borrowers ‘dirty thumb marks,'” said I.
“Oh yes they will,” said he. “But just as the wounds of the martyrs will have turned into beauties, so you will find that the thumb-marks have turned into beautiful illuminated capitals or exquisite marginal woodcuts.”
Lewis reinvigorated my confidence in Christian faith. He taught me anew how to believe, with conviction, and knowledge, and clarity.
More than that, he taught me how to think, using logic, and analogy, and consideration, at the same time void of arrogance and anger.
He taught me how to write, using simple, straightforward language.
Yet for all of his erudition as a scholar, for all of his skill as a writer, for all of his courage as an apologist, it was yet one more gift he possessed which, in my judgment, will be his legacy to the world, namely, his imagination.
If my infatuation with Lewis began with the imaginary correspondence between Wormwood and Screwtape (itself being a rather imaginative enterprise) it was my walk through the wardrobe into the land of Narnia that has forever changed the way I think about and enjoy the things of Christ.
I refer, of course, to his first book for children, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. In that book, four children, Susan, and Peter, and Lucy, and Edmond play Hide and Seek in the large, rambling home of an old professor. Lucy tries to hide in the wardrobe, what we would call a closet. As she feels her way through coat after coat she suddenly notices that it is not wool coats after all that press in around her; it is the prickly pines of trees, and underneath, it is ground covered with snow. And ahead, there is a lighted lamp post. So Lucy discovers Narnia.
Thus begin the Chronicles of Narnia, seven stories in seven books — Prince Caspian, The Silver Chair, The Horse and his Boy, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the Magicians Nephew, and The Last Battle.
If you have not read these to your children, leave now and hurry to the bookstore. If you have not bought these for your grandchildren, don’t wait another moment. You are free to leave. I offer the invitation this very moment. It was, after all, a deep conviction of Mr. Lewis himself, that it is far superior to read a famous and important book than to hear another person talk about it, or even to read something about it. It is Christmas time and here is the answer to your search for gifts.
There is nothing better than to begin life with a few good books. And these are good books!
Lewis has described all of the essential elements of the Christian world using the imaginary world of Narnia. There is the white witch, who has cast a spell on the land, making it, as they say, always winter but never Christmas; there is Asian the lion, the Christ figure, whose gentle ferocity mirrors both the mercy and wrath of God. There are animals and battles, courage and treachery, victory and defeat. And this is just the beginning. The mind and the imagination are forever reshaped by the reading of these seven stories.
Lewis is not the first to employ the imagination in the cause of the gospel. Baptist preacher John Bunyan wrote Pilgrim’s Progress. It is the remarkable story of Christian and his journey from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City, with stops at such places as the Interpreter’s House and Vanity Fair. English poet John Milton created Paradise Lost, and Paradise Regained, providing much of our medieval imagery about heaven and hell. And what of John, exiled on the island of Patmos, writing down the vision given to him. We call it The Revelation of Jesus Christ. It is full of angels and animals, death and destruction, weal and woe. It is the last book of our Bible, but it may be first in interest and influence.
Think of our Lord himself, always telling stories, drawing the imagination into the search for truth and meaning, creating such famous characters as the good Samaritan, the shepherd looking for the one lost sheep, the man who built his house upon the sand, and the publican who went into the temple to pray and could only stand afar off and say, “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner.”
Can you not see these people in your mind’s eye? Can you not picture the Samaritan putting the injured man upon his donkey? Can you not envision the shepherd tromping over hill and stream looking for his lamb?
You cannot conceive of Christian faith without these people. They illustrate the power of the baptized imagination. It is my conviction that the most enduring legacy of C. S. Lewis will be his stories for children, for they show us all how to visualize the faith, the hope, and the love that constitute the essence of our Christian religion. All of us need a wardrobe through which to walk into the Christian faith. May God raise up, perhaps, from this congregation, boys and girls, men and women, whose skill with the story will be put to gospel use.
C. S. Lewis spent his life in Oxford, England. For a few years, beginning in 1954, he traveled by train to Cambridge where he taught as professor of English literature at Magdalene College. He was far and away the most popular scholar at either Oxford or Cambridge. His lectures attracted huge audiences, his sermons packed the pews, every book became a best seller.
Some of you may have seen the recent movie version of one episode in his life — his marriage. It was called Shadowlands and starred Anthony Hopkins in the title role of Lewis. He fell in love with Joy Davidman, even though she was Jewish, divorced, and suffering from cancer. They were married in a bedside ceremony, and later in a church. They were together but a few years until she died. And on November 22, 1963, Clive Staples Lewis also went home to be with his Lord, shunning publicity in death as he had in life.
C. S. Lewis was buried at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Haddington Quarry, on the outskirts of Oxford. It is a small, quaint village church, built of stone; it is where Mr. Lewis worshipped all the years of his Christian pilgrimage. He was very faithful to the worship of his church.
Holy Trinity Church is not easy to reach, by car or by bus. It sits in the middle of a housing development, off of the main road. Around the church is the cemetery. It consists of very old stones, surrounded by walls of stone and iron. Through the middle of this cemetery is a path, worn down to dirt.
You don’t need the signs that point the way; all you need is that path. It is the pilgrim path of countless thousands who come, week by week, year by year, to stand beside the simple stone slab that marks the place where the famous scholar, writer, poet, and storyteller is laid to rest.
Not just to stand, but to kneel in thanksgiving to a God for opening the mind and soul of this supremely gifted man ….
– in gratitude to this man, who offered back to his God the very best that he had ….
– in admiration for the ways, from wormwood to wardrobes, in which God sweetly, silently draws all of us into the delightful, eternal theater of His grace.
Thanks be unto God for His unspeakable gifts!

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