What We Believe
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The Making of C. S. Lewis: From Atheist to Apologist (1918-1945), by Harry Lee Poe. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2021, 399 pages, $32.99.

For several years, “deconversions” have been a hot topic on social media as a succession of Christian celebrities—including pastors—have announced their departure from the faith. Apostasy is a tragic but not new phenomenon; one need look no further than the New Testament and Demas (2 Tim. 4:10). While writing this review, I am reading a biography of George Eliot, who abandoned the Christian faith and evangelical doctrine she once ardently espoused.

The current interest in evangelical deconversions makes it a good time to examine one of the more remarkable conversions in recent Christian history—that of C. S. “Jack” Lewis. Harry Lee Poe tells this unlikely story exceedingly well in The Making of C. S. Lewis, the second in a projected three-volume biography. His narrative covers the period from Lewis’s post World War I convalescence from severe battle wounds to the end of World War II, a period during which Lewis moved from atheist to theist, to Christian, and ultimately to formidable advocate of the faith.

Jack Lewis’s life was one of privilege and pain. During the Great Depression, when much of the world was in dire straits, he lived comfortably (217). His father, Albert Lewis, financially supported him well into adulthood, making it possible for him to pursue his Oxford studies. Albert, a lawyer, refrained from pressuring his son to follow in his profession. Instead, he encouraged his love for books—not only by purchasing them but also by becoming his conversation partner in discussing them. “In the end, Albert Lewis had the greatest role in the making of C. S. Lewis as a literary man” (127). In later years, with the arrogance of youth gone, Lewis would sadly recall that his stance toward his father was far from upright. He frequently deceived him regarding his use of money and other matters, withheld from him his true views about religion before his conversion, and spoke to others about him with contempt. Opportunities to set things right were gone, much to Lewis’s regret (340). Heartache was a traveling companion on Lewis’s journey to Christian maturity.

One of the excellent features of this book is the author’s helpful analysis and critique of Lewis’s works during this period, beginning with the publication of his first widely applauded and scholarly book, The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition (1936), and its study of medieval chivalry and the courtly love tradition. Poe says of this book: “In many ways, it is the only book Lewis ever wrote. All the other books flow from it like a stream” (151).

Poe comments on other books, including The Screwtape Letters (1942), The Problem of Pain (1940), A Preface to Paradise Lost (1942), The Abolition of Man (1943) and The Great Divorce (1945), as well as his famed BBC broadcasts during the World War II, messages that would later become the basis of Mere Christianity (1952). In his addresses, Lewis presented reasons to believe in God and clear teaching on basic Christian doctrines. His keen ability to answer objections to the Christian faith was not surprising. In addition to his considerable intellectual gifts and the ability to write and speak to a popular audience, “he knew the materialist objections to Christian faith because they had been his objections” (342). Citing Dennis Beets, Poe observes that “Lewis was a pastoral theologian who aimed at bringing comfort to people who were confused and afflicted” (257).

In his first volume, Becoming C. S. Lewis: A Biography of Young Jack Lewis (1898–1918), Poe observes that Lewis was “someone who collected friends like other people accumulate pennies” (255). Those friendships shaped him. About the Inklings, the author notes that they were “a company of friends who liked stories, poetry, and Jesus” (316). In that group were J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams, his closest friends. One member exaggerated when he wrote, “I believe Williams was the only one of us, except perhaps Ronald Tolkien, from whom Lewis learnt any of his thinking” (311). Nevertheless, the influence was real and mutual. For example, Lewis’s critiques and encouragements were critical to the publication of Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (131).

Other friendships were cultivated through the exchange of letters, as in the correspondence over many years with writers and scholars of considerable intellectual depth. Among these correspondents were Sister Penelope Lawson and Dorothy Sayers. The latter shared with Lewis “the common concern for the representation of the Christian faith in popular culture” (306).

Readers like me, who have been heavily influenced by the Puritan tradition, will especially find interesting that during his journey from theism to Christianity, Lewis read Bunyan’s Grace Abounding. “He was struck by Bunyan’s uncertainties, doubts, and fears even after his conversion, when he ‘felt himself united to Christ.’” He began to see truth’s “darker side” found in older works like this (132–133). Lewis “came to recognize the distinction between an idea or belief being out of fashion and being untrue” (83).

Attention is given to Lewis’s long-time relationship with the separated but not divorced Janie Moore, who was twenty-six years his senior. They lived under the same roof for more than three decades. Poe offers, to my mind, a convincing argument that this was never a sexual relationship. Instead, Moore functioned as a surrogate mother (206–209; Lewis’s mother had died in 1908). During World War I, Moore’s son, Paddy, a friend of Lewis and fellow soldier, was killed in action. It is possible that Jack and Paddy had made promises to care for the other’s parent in the eventuality of either’s death (Becoming C. S. Lewis, 257). In any case, Moore never experienced a religious conversion like Lewis’s and became increasingly difficult to live with as the years went by. Lewis’s perseverance in caring for her may have been an example of the chivalrous codes of conduct he came to love and live by.

I finished reading this wanting to know more about C. S. Lewis; I will be turning to several of the resources Poe recommends. Certainly there are beliefs Lewis held, that as a confessional Presbyterian, I must demur. His doctrines of biblical inspiration and atonement are inadequate. Nevertheless, as others have pointed out, he may well be the last Christian public intellectual with widespread name recognition and admiration throughout the English-speaking world. Many people trace their interest in the Christian faith to his writing. Others have found his apologetics helpful supports to their faith. If for no other reasons, one is well-served by studying his life and works.

Charles Malcolm Wingard is senior pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Yazoo City, Mississippi (PCA), and professor of pastoral theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi. Ordained Servant Online, April 2022.

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