Wednesday, February 20, 2013

C. S. Lewis: A Biography through Five "Plot Points"

Lewis thinking about those plot points

In film and television, plot points are significant events within a plot where the action digs in and pivots toward another direction. These are moments of crisis around which the plot revolves. They can be anything from an event to an item to the discovery of a character or motive. A brief narrative of C. S. Lewis’s life can be written around five plot points in which the story of his life altered dramatically and he sought to resolve them. Please let me know how well this works as a way to understand Lewis. It is the nature of these critical plot points that they bring momentous changes. 
      First plot point: Lewis was born just before the turn of the 20th century, November 29, 1898, in Belfast, Ireland, in a family of four including his older brother and his best friend, Warren or “Warnie.” His early childhood appears to be happy until his beloved mother, Florence, dies of cancer. For the next few years, he attends various boarding schools—which he detests. Around 14, he abandons his faith. At ten, he was sent to school in England, at twelve not far from his home in Ireland (Campbell College), and from thirteen to fifteen back in England (Chartres). At fifteen he won the classical scholarship at Wyvern College in same English town as Chartres. From sixteen to eighteen, Lewis prepared for his university entrance—and more importantly his education is revived—when he moves to Surry and is privately tutored by W. T. Kirkpatrick, whom he named “The Great Knock.”
      In November 1908, C. S. Lewis, a nine year-old boy from Belfast Ireland, experiences the first major crisis of his life. His beloved mother “Flora” dies of cancer. His later reflections reveal the depth of this trauma. (By the way, the first thing to do, when writing about Lewis: to first read something he wrote—something as beautiful, as winsome, as wise, and as touching what follows.)

With my mother's death all settled happiness, all that was tranquil and reliable, disappeared from my life. There was to be much fun, many pleasures, many stabs of joy; but no more of the old security. It was sea and islands now; the great continent had sunk like Atlantis.

Lewis never had a stable relationship with his father, and his mother provided him with tenderness and security. The closing paragraph from the first chapter of his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, both alludes to how he later described this tragic moment and thus how he resolved his crisis. The death of his mother also began gradually to separate him from his father, which was a relationship that—even with his later Christian faith—he never healed. Having knocked out this “settled happiness” he searched to respond and gradually found recourse in cynicism and atheism.
      This crisis was deepened as Lewis got sent to boarding schools less than a month after his mother’s death. Later in life, Lewis summarized his experience at three different schools in a letter to a child who wrote him about his Narnia tales, “I was a three schools (all boarding schools) of which two were very horrible. I never hated anything so much, not even the front line trenches in World War I. Indeed the story is far too horrid to tell anyone of your age.”
      The dialectic between reason—especially the empiricist Logical Positivism of the early twentieth century in which we can only reasonably talk about what we see and touch—and imagination or faith takes hold in his life. His staunch and rather prickly atheism does not ultimately satisfy him, but he tamps down its voices and finds focus and meaning in the dialectics of his beloved teacher Kirk and the glories of great literature.
      At the same time, his atheism deepens and becomes more poignant. Although he was later able to resolve faith with the suffering of the life, that resolution did not happen until after seventeen years of bitterness and cynicism and depression, marked by his potent atheism. “I maintained that God did not exist. I was also very angry with God for not existing.”
      Nonetheless, within this long period of atheism, the seeds of a metamorphosis are sown. At 18, he picks up George MacDonald’s Phantases, and his imagination, as he phrased it, is “baptized.”

Plot point 2: He experiences the horrors of the trenches of the “Great War,” including being wounded. In 1917, he begins studies in Oxford at University College, but soon volunteers for military service in WWI and comes home wounded in April 1918. After taking three exams, Honour Moderations (midway examinations), Greats (classics and philosophy), and English Language and Literature, he takes three “firsts” (which is an amazing feat). He begins tutoring in 1924 at University College, though his hope is to be a great poet. In 1925, he is elected fellow in English Language and Literature at Magdalen College, Oxford.
      Lewis does not write much directly about the war—aside from the stirring sections in Surprised by Joy and a few other allusions—but he saw suffering, the depth of which led to a depressive period that wasn’t really resolved until his conversion in 1931. The reality of evil in the world—and its companion, pain—work their way through almost everything he wrote. It’s partly the “problem of pain” as Lewis titled his first non-fictional apologetic work, but it’s even more the very fact that “pain hurts,” and we are perplexed about our response, let alone a solution.
      Reading various biographies of Lewis, I have been struck by his desire for fame, particularly to be recognized as one of the great poets of the twentieth century. This brilliant young scholar, with three “firsts,” could not find a teaching job, and for all his three decades at Oxford, never moved beyond being a “tutor.”

Plot point 3: His father, with whom he had a tumultuous relationship, dies in 1929. That same year he becomes a theist. Then in 1931, he believes in Jesus Christ and becomes a communicant in the Anglican Church. His first major breakthrough in religious writing comes after his broadcast talks for the BBC—later published as Mere Christianity—receive enthusiastic response in 1942.
      In some ways, this is the central chapter of Lewis’s life, which does occur midway in his span of years. He describes this famous stroll on Addison’s Way in Oxford in September 1931, at age 32, in a letter to his childhood friend, Arthur Greeves. After walking with fellow Oxford professors, J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson, he admitted that his struggle was between pagan “myths”—which, as a lover of classical literature, he cherished—and the uniqueness of the story of Jesus and his discovery that “Christ is simply a true myth.”
      The Harvard Medical school psychiatrist, Armand Nicholi, when he compared the lives of Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis, pointed to the profound resolution of Lewis’s depression that this conversion engendered. He fought against God, especially that God would take away his ability to command and determine his own life.

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.

      The way he resolves the crisis of his unbelief first, and then of believing in Jesus Christ as the Son God secondly, echoes through his apologetics and really through all his writing. The argument against naturalism, for the natural law as it points to the Lawgiver, the argument from desire (or Joy) all stem from this significant moment of resolution, his resolution of Jesus as Lord (and not liar or lunatic), as well as his conviction that Christianity doesn’t invalid, but instead fulfills, the best of Paganism, all derive from the intellectual breakthrough. It also allowed him to wed his great imagination with his searching reason in a powerful blend.
      For readers who cherish—or perhaps even idolize—Lewis’s specifically Christian writings, the 1940s are the period of great flowering, here, for example, one finds The Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity, and Miracles. It is for me, and for those I’ve talked with, a time when a treasure-trove of Christian insight has been unleashed. Nonetheless, there are at least two crises in his later fame. For Lewis, fame represented a kind of crisis—becoming a spokesperson, a task, according to the Time article that accompanied his front-cover picture, he found a chore and blamed on the “unscrupulousness of God.” (Incidentally, When Lewis’s picture appeared on the September 8, 1947 of Time magazine. The heading read “OXFORD'S C.S. LEWIS His Heresy: Christianity.”) And then added: “I certainly never intended being a hot gospeler. If I had only known this when I became a Christian!” I once asked the well-known commentator on Lewis, and erstwhile President of the C. S. Lewis Society, why Lewis did this work—why this brilliant academic didn’t just stay in the safe cocoon of Oxford University. Jim Como replied quite simply (and I paraphrase): “Because no one else was doing it, and Lewis saw it as his Christian duty.”
      But Lewis wasn’t just a spokesperson, he was a popularizer, or better yet, a translator: “People praise me for being a translator. But where are the others? I wanted to start a school of translation.” Without others alongside, seeing this critical need, he takes up the task of translation and becomes the best-known Christian apologist of the twentieth century.

Plot point 4: After losing a debate in 1948 with the famous philosopher, Elizabeth Anscombe, at the Oxford Society, Lewis sets his mind to fiction and begins publishing The Chronicles of Narnia in 1950, which continue through 1956, and which represent his most famous books. Mrs. Moore, whom Lewis cared for right at the end of World War One, dies in 1951. He is voted down for a professorship at Oxford, but is subsequently offered one at Cambridge, where he starts teaching in 1954.
      This period marks a transition to another kind of religious writing. He confesses in a letter from 1950 that his well of creativity is dry and submits his craft to whatever God designs, he muse returns, and he moves into a period of focusing on fantasy writing and begins to write his most famous series of books, The Chronicles of Narnia. Although many, like Ian Wilson, have argued that Lewis’s defeat in the debate with Elizabeth Anscombe occasioned his retreat from apologetics, it seems more clear—as I’ll develop below—that through this crisis, he realized the weakness of direct apologetics and instead sought to show rather than tell his readers why they ought to take Christian faith seriously and joyfully.
      Another major transition is the death of Mrs. Moore. Although Lewis cared deeply for her, this represents a relief as well and simply more time to write. Similarly, though he was disappointed by his not receiving a professorship at Oxford, his move to Cambridge removed him from his tutoring duties and so we had more time to work. These two critical changes open a new time for imagination. He is also happier at Cambridge—since he finds the atmosphere more congenial to faith—and, because he does not have to tutor students, he has more time.
Plot point 5: He marries Joy Davidman, an American divorcĂ©e with two young sons, in 1956. She dies on July 13, 1960. In response, he writes A Grief Observed. After a brief, serious illness—including a coma the preceding summer—he dies on 22 November 1963.
      After meeting this brilliant writer from New York City, Lewis meets another crisis: a mother, dying of cancer, with two young sons. Undoubtedly, he saw his own life being replayed. He respected her mind and she devoured and cherished his writings. He felt the crisis imminent enough that he married her first in a civil ceremony (and told few of his friends) simply in order for her not to be deported. Gradually, they fell in love, and he was married by her hospital bed in a Christian ceremony. After a prayer for healing by an Anglican priest, Peter Bide, she recovered briefly, and they enjoyed a honeymoon, including a trip to Greece, but within eighteen months she succumbed to bone cancer.
      Joy’s death was tumultuous for Lewis, although it was not the destruction of his rational faith that many have argued. This becomes clear in reading the recently released letters from this period. It helped him to draw a full circle back to his first apologetic work, the Problem of Pain. Most significantly, Lewis’s own death give special poignancy to his reflections on afterlife. He did not begin with a robust faith a life to come, but he realized this was the only way to resolve the crisis of death—that our life on this earth comes to an end and presents a great question about the goodness of God.

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