Surprised by Culture: C. S. Lewis and the Redeeming of Popular Culture

Joel C discusses C. S. Lewis’ engagement with popular culture following his mid-life conversion to Christianity despite his instinctive dislike of almost everything associated with modernity and popular culture. He examines how Lewis became one of Christianity’s most revered voices within popular Western culture and why the impact of his writings is even more pronounced and pervasive today than it was during his lifetime.

Surprised by Culture: C. S. Lewis and the Redeeming of Popular Culture

Mission Round Table 16:3 (September–December 2021): 4–10

Joel C

Joel holds a doctorate in English from a major American university and has taught courses on Western literature, language, film, and culture at universities in the US and Asia since the late 1980s. Along the way, he has had the privilege of introducing The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe to dozens of university students.

 

One of my lingering regrets as a lover of great literature is that I did not first discover the remarkable writings of C. S. Lewis until I was already in college. As a college freshman, I had signed up for an elective course on “Mythology” taught by Mr. Warren Olsen, an English instructor who also happened to be an evangelical Christian. One day, Mr. Olsen wrote the name “Clive Staples Lewis” on the blackboard and briefly remarked that Lewis had written a popular series of fantasy novels for children called the Chronicles of Narnia. I had never heard of C. S. Lewis before, but I had by then developed a taste for fantasy novels and decided to give the Chronicles of Narnia a try. I bought a boxed set containing mass-market paperbacks of all seven of the Narnia novels and, one snowy weekend in the heart of a long Minnesota winter, settled down to read Book One: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

Even as an adult reader, I was quickly captivated by the magical world of talking beasts and mythological creatures that I found waiting for me on the other side of the wardrobe door. Perhaps it helped that Minnesota winters, by the time February and March come rolling along, invariably begin to look and feel very much like “always winter and never Christmas.” At any rate, over the next few weeks, I read through all seven of the Narnia novels in rapid succession, with one foot seemingly in Narnia and the other in the real world for days on end. But I was left mournfully wondering in the end how Narnia might have looked and felt to me if, like Lucy Pevensie, I had only been eight years old when I first pressed my way through the wardrobe and into the snowy woods of Lantern Waste on the other side.

Accordingly, after I had become a father with young children of my own, I was determined not to let my boys suffer the same misfortune (as it were) that I had suffered in missing out on the world of Narnia as a child. Perhaps I was somewhat too anxious on that score, for when our oldest son turned three, I decided that the time must be right to try out The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe on young Christopher. Christopher was both highly active and highly verbal at that stage, and the only time that he ever really sat still for any length of time was when we were reading books together on the sofa. The Lion was to be his first full-length “chapter book,” and I was not entirely certain that he had either the attention span or the patience at that point to sit through the entire novel. We would take it in smaller, bite-sized chunks, one or two chapters at a time.

As it turned out, Christopher was more than capable of attending to the details of the story as it unfolded. He was all eyes and ears, soaking up the delightful Pauline Baynes illustrations that perfectly complemented Lewis’ simple, folksy, down-to-earth narrative style. As the four Pevensie children—Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy—increasingly found themselves drawn into the very real dangers and delights of an enemy-occupied Narnia, little Christopher was right there with them every step of the way.

And then, something utterly astonishing happened. We were approaching the nadir of the story in Chapter Fourteen, where Aslan—the great, good, and powerful lion, the rightful ruler of Narnia—willingly gives himself up to the White Witch, the evil usurper, in exchange for the life of one of the Pevensie children. As Aslan, in a quick sequence of events, was captured, bound, shorn of his great mane, muzzled, and laid out on a cold Stone Table by the White Witch and her evil horde of minions, the full implications of what was about to happen began to manifest themselves in Christopher’s very body language. He first began to wiggle and squirm uncomfortably beside me on the sofa. Then, he was off the sofa altogether, weaving back and forth angrily across the living room floor. Finally, as the White Witch began to whet a stone knife in preparation for her final moment of supposed triumph over the great lion, Christopher could contain himself no longer. Through his clenched teeth, cries of “No! No!” began to well up from deep within him. “No! This can’t happen!” he finally shouted out to no one in particular. I was stunned! Little three-year-old Christopher, with every fiber of his being, was viscerally reacting against the utter horror and injustice of what was essentially a re-envisioning of the crucifixion of Jesus—and he was positively livid with the wrongness of it!

The only way that I could convince Christopher to let me continue on with the story was by assuring him that the story was not yet over—that there were, in fact, still several more chapters to go in the book, and that anything might happen in those remaining chapters to turn a sad story into a happy one.

When Christopher had calmed down enough to join me on the sofa once again, I quickly finished off Chapter Fourteen and launched into Chapter Fifteen: “Deeper Magic from Before the Dawn of Time.” Around three pages (!) into Chapter Fifteen, after Susan and Lucy Pevensie had had sufficient time to grieve over the lifeless body of Aslan (thereby establishing for us as readers the incontrovertible fact that the great lion was indeed dead), the most magical moment in the entire Narnia series transpires:

The rising of the sun had made everything look so different—all colours and shadows were changed—that for a moment they didn’t see the important thing. Then they did. The Stone Table was broken into two pieces by a great crack that ran down it from end to end; and there was no Aslan.

“Oh, oh, oh!” cried the two girls, rushing back to the Table.

“Oh, it’s too bad,” sobbed Lucy; “they might have left the body alone.”

“Who’s done it?” cried Susan. “What does it mean? Is it more magic?”

“Yes!” said a great voice behind their backs. “It is more magic.”

They looked round. There, shining in the sunrise, larger than they had seen him before, shaking his mane (for it had apparently grown again) stood Aslan himself.[1]

As the shock of Aslan’s sudden, glorious reappearance began to sink in, Christopher was once again off the sofa. This time, however, it was not convulsive anger but uncontainable joy that animated his entire body. With radiant face, uplifted arms, and exultant cries of “Yes! Yes! Yes!” he danced across the living room in sheer delight. Then, with unmistakable hints of laughter in his voice, he triumphantly exclaimed, “I knew it! I knew it!”

In his simple, three-year-old mind and spirit, little Christopher had grasped the essential truth of the resurrection of Jesus as thoroughly as any theologian ever had—and all by means of a popular fantasy story.

This unforgettable experience of reading The Lion to my three-year-old son, coupled with my own prior experience of first encountering the writings of C. S. Lewis as an adult, merely served to heighten and underscore in bold ink the immense regard that I already had for C. S. Lewis as a prophetic Christian voice speaking into the wastelands of modern Western culture. Little Christopher’s intuitive, whole-bodied response to the Christian gospel as re-imagined within a fictional Narnian universe was proof yet again of the astonishing influence and enduring popularity of C. S. Lewis as a Christian writer and thinker, both during his lifetime and in the decades since his death. But how was it that this semi-reclusive Oxford don—who had never had children, nieces, or nephews of his own, who had an instinctive dislike of almost everything associated with modernity and popular culture, and who was an avowed atheist right up to the mid-point of his life—should somehow, seemingly against all odds, have become one of Christianity’s most recognizable, marketable, and revered voices within popular Western culture today?

A deeper look into C. S. Lewis’ own life and legacy offers numerous clues as to how and why this apparently came about.[2] Despite a distaste for most forms of popular culture that bordered at times on outright distain, C. S. Lewis had an almost otherworldly knack for knowing how and when to harness the various forms of popular culture that were at his disposal—satire, science fiction, radio broadcasts, public lectures, children’s fairy stories, even romance novels—to communicate “mere Christianity” to vast numbers of people of all ages, faith traditions, and walks of life. There is a remarkable dose of irony in all of this. Those familiar with his private life and preferences report that Lewis never read The Times and considered the habit of “following the news” to be “pernicious and time-wasting.”[3] Yet, that did not prevent Time magazine, the most popular twentieth-century news weekly in the United States with an annual circulation in the millions, from featuring a full-color image of “Oxford’s C. S. Lewis” across the cover of its 8 September 1947 issue, with the cryptic tagline, “His heresy: Christianity.”[4] Similarly, Lewis apparently had “no interest whatsoever” in the radio, which he regarded as a “harsh contraption” to be avoided at all costs—particularly when it was blaring forth popular music and programming (as it invariably was) from the nearby bungalow of his faithful gardener and universal handyman, Mr. Paxford.[5] And yet, during the height of World War II, C. S. Lewis’ calm, reassuring voice was being broadcast by BBC Radio to millions of listeners across the British Isles, making Lewis perhaps the most trusted and recognizable radio personality—especially with regard to the Christian faith—in all of England by the end of the war.[6] Nor did the cinema hold any special charms for Lewis. “There is death in the cinema,” warned Lewis in a 1947 essay, insisting that “nothing can be more disastrous than the view that the cinema can and should replace popular written fiction.”[7] And yet, in a curious twist of fate, three of Lewis’ most popular novels in the Narnia series have, in recent years, been made into major blockbuster movies, with combined domestic and international box office revenues in excess of 1.5 billion US dollars.[8] To top it all off, even the more intimate details of Lewis’ private life—his gradual, reluctant conversion to Christianity in the 1920s and 30s and his highly unusual marriage to an American divorcee named Joy Davidman in the late 1950s—have, since Lewis’ death in 1963, been packaged and repackaged for popular consumption in the form of numerous theatrical productions, two made-for-television movies,[9] and one major motion picture.[10] This perhaps helps to explain why the pop-cultural image and impact of C. S. Lewis and his writings is, by most accounts, even more pronounced and pervasive today than it was during his lifetime.

C. S. Lewis’ protracted, often torturous, twenty-year journey (c. 1912–1931) from atheism to theism and then to full-blown Christian orthodoxy actually served as a surprisingly fertile training ground for equipping him to become one of the most influential Christian apologists of the twentieth century. For one thing, it convinced Lewis of the profound influence that popular fiction and “mythology” could have on one’s spiritual outlook and predilections—whether for good or for evil. Though Lewis, as a general rule, had little interest in popular culture per se, he was, nevertheless, a voracious reader, devouring virtually anything in print that he could lay his hands on, including popular fiction.[11] At the age of seventeen, Lewis purchased “almost unwillingly” a copy of George MacDonald’s fantasy novel, Phantastes, which was to play a significant role in setting him on the pathway towards professing faith in Christ many years later.[12] In Surprised by Joy, his 1955 spiritual autobiography, Lewis reflects on the subconscious impact that this delightful encounter with what he called “goodness” in MacDonald had upon him: “It is as if I were carried sleeping across the frontier, or as if I had died in the old country and could never remember how I came alive in the new.”[13] In a separate account of the novel’s profound impact on him, Lewis wrote:

The whole book had about it a sort of cool, morning innocence, and also, quite unmistakably, a certain quality of Death, good Death. What it actually did to me was to convert, even to baptize […] my imagination. It did nothing to my intellect nor (at that time) to my conscience.[14]

There can be little doubt that Lewis, in writing his seven fantasy novels for children between 1950 and 1956, was both desiring and anticipating that his Narnia stories might have the same sort of spiritual impact on a new generation of readers that George MacDonald’s “fairy stories” had once had upon him. A few months after The Last Battle was released in 1956 as the final book in the Narnia series, Lewis admitted as much in an article for the New York Times Book Review:

I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralyzed much of my own religion in childhood [….] [What if] by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could.[15]

This is not to say that Lewis was deliberately seeking to evangelize his young readers in a strictly religious sense. But he was clearly hoping that those children who had come to fall in love with Aslan in the Narnian world might somehow become predisposed to recognize and fall in love with Christ in our own world. Once, when commenting on the popularity of his Narnia books in conversation with a close personal friend, Lewis candidly remarked: “I am aiming at a sort of pre-baptism of the child’s imagination.”[16] What George MacDonald, through his “fairy stories,” had done for a youthful C. S. Lewis, C. S. Lewis, through his Narnia stories, was seeking to do for his own young readers.

Lewis’ two-decade journey from atheism to faith, however, involved far more than just the baptism of his imagination. His formidable intellect, guarded over by a brood of “watchful dragons” of his own, was in need of an even deeper cleansing than his imagination. I won’t take the time here to trace out all the finer particulars of that lengthy intellectual conversion process. They have, in fact, already been set forth quite splendidly by Lewis himself in Surprised by Joy. As might be expected of a literary scholar of Lewis’ stature, the reading of various classical and contemporary literary texts—including Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) and Chesterton’s Everlasting Man (1925)—played a significant role in opening up his mind to the moral foundations of all human experience and the existence of a supreme, good God operating in the universe.[17] Equally important, however, were the many personal conversations that he had along the way with various Christian—and even non-Christian—scholars and friends. There were to be many, many intermediate intellectual steps and stages, in other words, before Lewis was finally prepared, by late September 1931, to bow before Christ as Lord. One of those important intermediate steps, according to Lewis, occurred one night at Oxford during Trinity Term 1929. It was then that Lewis, after a season of vainly attempting to ignore the “unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet,” finally knelt down and admitted “that God was God”—famously becoming “perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”[18]

The final tipping point that carried him across the frontier from belief in the Christian God to belief in the salvific work of Jesus as God was actually a lengthy, late-night conversation that he had in his rooms at Magdalen College on 19 September 1931 with two Christian friends who would later join Lewis as regular members of The Inklings club: Hugo Dyson and J. R. R. Tolkien.[19] By the time Lewis had finally seen Dyson off around four in the morning, Lewis had come to accept that the “story of Christ” was not just one among many god myths but was “a true myth [….] with this tremendous difference that it really happened.”[20]

In retrospect, we should all be genuinely grateful that a gifted thinker, writer, and scholar such as C. S. Lewis did not profess faith in Christ sooner than he did. As someone who had already wrestled deeply and often with the various claims of morality, paganism, atheism, scientific materialism, theism, and the uniqueness of the Christian revelation in human history before crossing over into the Christian fold at the mid-point of his life, Lewis was uniquely positioned in later years to speak both sympathetically and convincingly on those same cultural, intellectual, and spiritual matters as a Christian speaker, author, and apologist. And just as personal conversations and popular literature had both played significant roles in his own conversion process, Lewis would find himself turning (almost reluctantly at times) to popular modes of spoken and written communication—public lectures, radio talks, apologetic literature, science fiction, fantasy stories, and personal letters—to help others around him find their way forward through the many pitfalls and dead-ends of modern Western culture in their own intellectual and spiritual journeys.

Lewis’ first, largely unsuccessful attempt at this was The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933), a fictional representation of his own long journey towards Christianity that was packaged in the form of an allegory. When sending the manuscript to his publisher, Lewis described the book as “a kind of Bunyan up to date.”[21] While some readers and reviewers found the novel to be engaging and helpful, most simply found it to be too difficult, complex, and opaque to gain much from it, and sales of the book were decidedly poor.[22] Lewis apparently took note of all this and learned from the experience.

His second attempt at employing popular fiction for redemptive purposes came in the late 1930s. As a boy growing up in Belfast, Lewis had loved the science fiction stories of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells,[23] and his passion for reading science fiction continued on into his adult years. It was not until after his conversion in 1931, however, that he first began to entertain “the idea that the ‘scientification’ appeal could be combined with the ‘supernatural’ appeal.”[24] Lewis, on reading a science fiction novel by David Lindsay called Voyage to Arcturus (1935) that had been recommended to him by a friend, had been impressed by the imaginative depth and scope of Lindsay’s story, but appalled by an embedded ideology within the novel that was “so Manichaean as to be almost satanic.”[25] In response, Lewis decided to try his hand at writing a spiritual thriller along the lines of those written by G. K. Chesterton and Charles Williams, only in the form of “a space-journey.” [26]

When Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet came out in late 1938, almost all of the nearly sixty reviews of the novel failed to pick up on, or in any way comment upon, the latent Christian ideology that Lewis had intentionally embedded within his space adventure.[27] This both fascinated and delighted Lewis! In a 1939 letter to a more spiritually perceptive reader who had written to Lewis after reading Out of the Silent Planet, Lewis wrote: “I think that this great ignorance might be a help to the evangelization of England; any amount of theology can now be smuggled into people’s minds under cover of romance without their knowing it.”[28] The important thing for Lewis in this was that the theological impact of the novel should be received by his readers at a subliminal level, just as had happened to him when reading the fantasy stories of George Macdonald.

This eventually led Lewis to write two additional science fiction novels—Perelandra (1943) and That Hideous Strength (1945)—in what is now generally referred to as his “space trilogy.” In the writing of Perelandra, Lewis said that he had begun from a certain theological “supposition”: “Suppose, even now, in some other planet there were a first couple undergoing the same that Adam and Eve underwent here, but successfully.”[29] This was revolutionary in many respects, I would argue, in C. S. Lewis’ development as a Christian writer of popular fiction. While Lewis’ brief foray into the genre of science fiction had not been particularly successful from the vantage point of book sales or critical acclaim, it apparently helped Lewis to settle upon a unique suppositional approach to the writing of popular fiction that he would later employ to much greater effect in the Chronicles of Narnia. A few years after the last novel in the Narnia series had been published, Lewis would privately acknowledge that Aslan had been “an invention giving an imaginary answer to the question, ‘What might Christ become like if there really were a world like Narnia?’”[30]

Though C. S. Lewis’ “space trilogy” did not experience very much popular success as it was coming out in the 1940s, the same could certainly not be said of its author. When World War II began on 1 September 1939, C. S. Lewis was hardly known by anyone outside of the somewhat insular academic worlds of Oxford, Cambridge, and the British university system. By the time the war was over, C. S. Lewis had somehow achieved (and, certainly, without any personal intention of doing so) near-celebrity status as a lay Christian apologist on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

Here’s how it came about. At the start of the war, Lewis had been asked by the London publishing firm of Geoffrey Bles to contribute something on the subject of pain and suffering to their Christian Challenge Series of popular theological books. Lewis obliged, and the appearance of his well-reasoned, eminently readable The Problem of Pain in bookstalls across Britain in October 1940 could not have been more perfectly timed.[31] England had just endured four brutal months of almost-nightly German bombing at the height of the Battle of Britain, and people across the British Isles were desperate for spiritual hope and theological answers in response to their all-too-raw experiences with the horrors of war. Sales of The Problem of Pain were brisk and Geoffrey Bles responded by reprinting Lewis’ popular apologetic work nearly ten times during the war years.[32]

Lewis’ obvious gift in The Problem of Pain for explaining difficult theological matters in language that a lay person could easily grasp caught the attention of the BBC. The national broadcasting company had been searching for someone in Britain who could speak to the nation on matters of faith, preferring a lay Christian in that role rather than a prominent member of the clergy.[33] A BBC radio editor who had read The Problem of Pain wrote to Lewis in early 1941 with an invitation to “help us in our work of religious broadcasting.”[34] Despite Lewis’ general dislike of nearly everything associated with public broadcasting, he was, nevertheless, intrigued by the invitation. As his own small contribution to the war effort, he had already begun giving talks on faith (usually on weekends) to small groups of servicemen at airbases across the UK at the invitation of the Royal Air Force. What had struck Lewis quite forcefully in connection with his RAF speaking engagements was “the almost total absence from the minds of my audience of any sense of sin.”[35] This had led him to the conclusion that he would first need to convince his listeners of “the unwelcome diagnosis” that they were both morally and spiritually sick before he could “expect them to welcome the news of the remedy.”[36] The BBC invitation might give him just such an opportunity “to convince people that there is a moral law, that we disobey it, and that the existence of a Lawgiver is at least very probable.”[37]

Lewis had been learning another important lesson on communication from his RAF speaking engagements as well—the crucial importance (as he would later summarize at a gathering of Welsh clergyman and youth directors) of “learn[ing] the language of our audience”:

You must translate every bit of your Theology into the vernacular. This is very troublesome, and it means you can say very little in half an hour, but it is essential. It is also of the greatest service to your own thought. I have come to the conviction that if you cannot translate your thoughts into uneducated language, then your thoughts were confused. Power to translate is the test of having really understood one’s own meaning.[38]

In this respect, Lewis’ wartime RAF talks before small, live, predominantly uneducated audiences at air bases across the British Isles had already given him the very clues that he would need to successfully take advantage of the BBC’s surprising invitation to speak to the entire nation on matters of faith. He now knew what his audience members would likely look like, where he would likely need to start in terms of their own awareness of sin and need for the gospel, and what type of language he would likely need to employ in order to move them forward in their own spiritual journeys towards Christ. After some additional back and forth correspondence between Lewis and the BBC’s assistant director of religious programming, it was agreed that Lewis would give a series of weekly live radio talks from the BBC’s London studios in August of 1941 on the moral law.[39]

There can be little doubt that Lewis approached this opportunity to address a “fairly intelligent audience of more than a million”[40] with deliberate missionary intent and zeal. As his imagined nationwide audience was not yet ready to receive “the remedy” of the gospel, he would tailor his talks toward “praeparatio evangelica rather than evangelium.[41] He apparently tailored them remarkably well. An enthusiastic audience response to Lewis’ first series of live BBC radio talks in August 1941 led to requests—first from his radio audience and then from the BBC—for more, and Lewis was more than willing to oblige.[42] In his second series of live radio talks, which were broadcast to the nation on Sunday afternoons in January and February of 1942, Lewis decided the time was right to move on from pre-evangelism to the core tenets of the Christian faith: “What Christians Believe.”[43] Two additional series of talks on the Christian faith followed in late 1942 and early 1944. By the time allied troops were landing on the beaches of Normandy in June of 1944, Lewis had delivered twenty-five BBC radio talks to listeners across the UK, with a peak weekly audience of 1.5 million listeners at one point along the way.[44] By VE Day on 8 May 1945, C. S. Lewis had become the most popular and trusted Christian celebrity in all of Great Britain.[45]

Mass popularity certainly has its advantages. In keeping with the rapid rise to fame of C. S. Lewis as a well-known and well-loved radio personality in the early years of World War II, sales of most of his subsequent apologetic works (The Abolition of Man, MiraclesMere Christianity) and much of his subsequent popular fiction (The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, The Chronicles of Narnia, Till We Have Faces) were uniformly strong and, in some cases, downright phenomenal. First edition copies of The Screwtape Letters (1942), which is perhaps best characterized as a satiric epistolary novel about common types of moral and spiritual temptation that we all face, are reported to have disappeared almost overnight when they first hit the market in early 1942, leading to eight reprintings in the UK alone that year.[46] When the “devilish” novel was first published in the United States the following year, The Screwtape Letters became an instant spiritual classic and cemented Lewis’ status as a Christian celebrity on both sides of the Atlantic.[47] Similarly, there can be little doubt that the commercial success of the seven Narnia novels, which were published one at a time between 1950 and 1956 to uneven critical reviews,[48] was helped along substantially by the fact that they had been written by a celebrity Christian author. But regardless of what the professional reviewers were saying about the Narnia stories at that time, children of all ages seemed to universally love them. The Narnia novels have been in continuous print ever since they first began to appear on the market in the 1950s, have been translated into at least forty-seven different languages, and have reached combined global sales well in excess of 100 million copies.[49]

But there is invariably a downside to celebrity status as well—even celebrity Christian status. Lewis’ calm, winsome, colloquial way of communicating with his listeners in his wartime BBC radio broadcasts generated an almost instantaneous and (to Lewis, at any rate) unanticipated response. Mounds of letters from listeners of all types and persuasions began to arrive at the BBC’s London offices addressed to “Mr. Lewis,” which the BBC dutifully forwarded on to C. S. Lewis at his home in Oxford. For the rest of his life, Lewis felt that it was his duty to respond (often with the indispensable administrative assistance of his older brother, Warnie Lewis) to all of his correspondents—and particularly to those that had turned to him with genuine and serious questions.[50] While this opened a new avenue for Lewis, as a Christian, to speak directly into the lives of hundreds of new correspondents from around the world,[51] it also placed an immense, time-consuming burden on Lewis’ shoulders, and he would struggle to keep up with his never-ending task of writing letters to complete strangers for the rest of his life.

Lewis appears to have paid a steep professional price as well for his unlooked-for national and international fame as the face and voice of “mere Christianity.” His growing popularity as a Christian apologist and speaker within Britain generated a bewildering degree of reactionary hostility towards Lewis among many of his academic colleagues at Oxford University.[52] Even though Lewis was, by the end of the war, well-deserving of promotion to a full professorship based on his highly acclaimed scholarly work in the academic field of English literature, he was noticeably passed over first for a vacant Merton Chair of English position in 1947, then for a vacant Goldsmith Chair of English Literature position in 1948, and finally for a new Professor of Poetry position in 1951.[53] In the end, Lewis had to make a late-career move to Cambridge University in 1955 in order to finally secure—as Cambridge’s first Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature—the full professorship and lighter tutorial load that he so richly deserved and desperately needed.[54]

Plaque on a park-bench in Bangor, County Down, by Martitin Robinson, CC BY-SA 3.0  <https://creatitivecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons.

In the end, what I find most compelling about C. S. Lewis’ engagement with popular culture following his mid-life conversion to Christianity is the surprising extent to which he was even open to engaging with popular culture in the first place. Lewis never really outgrew his deep-seated provincialism and traditionalism. He apparently never learned to type, never learned to drive, never listened to the radio, hated going to the cinema, disliked having to travel up to London for any but the most pressing of reasons, was convinced that the literature of the past one hundred years should not be formally taught or examined at a British university,[55] and made only two trips beyond his beloved British Isles during his entire lifetime (once to the trenches of France as a foot soldier during WWI and once to Greece with his wife Joy shortly before her death in 1960). As mentioned above, Lewis once professed to being perhaps “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.” The same thing could almost be said with respect to his surprising and, at times, phenomenally effective forays into various uncomfortable realms of popular culture following his reluctant conversion to Christ in 1931. It is as if Lewis, like the Apostle Paul long ago, found himself compelled, almost against his will and better judgment, to say and do things for the love of Christ that might just possibly have a chance of touching—and somehow changing for the better—the lives of the largest possible number of persons around him. Along the way, Lewis arrived at deep convictions about the vital importance of baptizing the imagination as well as the intellect, of doing pre-evangelism before evangelism, of carefully translating theological truth into the dialect of one’s audience, and of following up mass evangelism opportunities with intimate, one-on-one communication.

I am almost tempted to think that C. S. Lewis, with his deep, intuitive grasp of an impressive array of sound missiological principles, might have become a remarkable missionary if he had been so led and inclined. But then again, wasn’t that precisely what he, in fact, did become? I see in C. S. Lewis a “mere Christian” who, in faithful obedience to his Lord and Savior, was willing to cross over again and again into unredeemed pop cultural spaces that bore all the marks of sin and of death, engaging head on the darkness that he found there—and always, always with the intention of redeeming whatever could be redeemed in those dark spaces, and redeeming whoever might be redeemed by means of them. It was a heroic, often exhausting personal mission for C. S. Lewis and it very likely sent him to an early grave. But he doubtless wouldn’t have had it any other way—and God’s kingdom on earth is all the greater because of it.


[1] C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, illus. Pauline Baynes (New York: HarperCollins, 2002), 184.

[2] Three excellent biographies on the life of C. S. Lewis form the basis for many of my incidental observations about his life in this article: Roger Lancelyn Green and Walter Hooper, C. S. Lewis: A Biography, rev. ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 2002); George Sayer, Jack: A Life of C. S. Lewis (Wheaton: Crossway, 1988); Alister McGrath, C. S. Lewis: A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2013).

[3] Green and Hooper, C. S. Lewis, 155, 236.

[4] See Time magazine cover image by Boris Artzybasheff, Time L, no. 10, 8 Sep 1947, U.S. ed., http://content.time.com/time/covers/0,16641,19470908,00.html (accessed 17 November 2021).

[5] Green and Hooper, C. S. Lewis, 241.

[6] McGrath, C. S. Lewis: A Life, 241; Sayer, Jack: A Life of C. S. Lewis, 278.

[7] C. S. Lewis, “On Stories,” in Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories, ed. Walter Hooper (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1966), 16–17.

[8] Statistics retrieved from Box Office Mojo, boxofficemojo.com (accessed 8 Nov 2021).

[9] Shadowlands, directed by Norman Stone (BBC, 1986) and The Most Reluctant Convert, directed by Norman Stone (1A Poductions, 2021).

[10] Shadowlands, directed by Richard Attenborough (Spelling Films, 1993).

[11] Green and Hooper, C. S. Lewis, 159.

[12] C. S. Lewis, “Preface,” in George MacDonald: An Anthology, ed. C. S. Lewis (London: Collins, 1946), xxxii.

[13] C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1984), 207.

[14] C. S. Lewis, “Preface,” xxxiii.

[15] C. S. Lewis, “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to be Said,” in Of Other Worlds, 37.

[16] Sayer, Jack: A Life of C. S. Lewis, 318.

[17] McGrath, C. S. Lewis: A Life, 169; Green and Hooper, C. S. Lewis, 100.

[18] C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (London: HarperCollins, 2002), 271.

[19] Green and Hooper, C. S. Lewis, 114–15.

[20] Letter to Arthur Greeves, 18 Oct 1931, quoted in Green and Hooper, C. S. Lewis, 116.

[21] Quoted in McGrath, C. S. Lewis: A Life, 169.

[22] Green and Hooper, C. S. Lewis, 131–32; McGrath, C. S. Lewis: A Life, 170–71.

[23] McGrath, C. S. Lewis: A Life, 233.

[24] Green and Hooper, C. S. Lewis, 187.

[25] Quoted in Sayer, Jack: A Life of C. S. Lewis, 254.

[26] Quoted in Sayer, Jack: A Life of C. S. Lewis, 254.

[27] Sayer, Jack: A Life of C. S. Lewis, 255.

[28] Quoted in Sayer, Jack: A Life of C. S. Lewis, 255

[29] Quoted in Green and Hooper, C. S. Lewis, 199.

[30] Quoted in Green and Hooper, C. S. Lewis, 199.

[31] Sayer, Jack: A Life of C. S. Lewis, 270.

[32] Sayer, Jack: A Life of C. S. Lewis, 270.

[33] McGrath, C. S. Lewis: A Life, 205–206.

[34] Quoted in Green and Hooper, C. S. Lewis, 240.

[35] Quoted in Green and Hooper, C. S. Lewis, 244.

[36] Quoted in Green and Hooper, C. S. Lewis, 244.

[37] Quoted in Green and Hooper, C. S. Lewis, 244.

[38] Quoted in McGrath, C. S. Lewis: A Life, 207–208.

[39] McGrath, C. S. Lewis: A Life, 206–210.

[40] Letter from James Welch to C. S. Lewis, 7 Feb 1941, quoted in McGrath, C. S. Lewis: A Life, 206.

[41] Quoted in Green and Hooper, C. S. Lewis, 244.

[42] McGrath, C. S. Lewis: A Life, 210.

[43] McGrath, C. S. Lewis: A Life, 210–11.

[44] Justin Taylor, “75 Years Ago: C. S. Lewis Speaks to Britain about Christianity on the BBC—A Chronology,” TGC (blog), 5 August 2016, U.S. ed., https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/evangelical-history/75-years-ago-c-s-lewis-on-the-bbc-a-chronology (accessed 13 Nov 2021).

[45] McGrath, C. S. Lewis: A Life, 241; Sayer, Jack: A Life of C. S. Lewis, 278.

[46] Green and Hooper, C. S. Lewis, 237.

[47] Green and Hooper, C. S. Lewis, 237; Sayer, Jack: A Life of C. S. Lewis, 274.

[48] Green and Hooper, C. S. Lewis, 326–27; Sayer, Jack: A Life of C. S. Lewis, 315–16.

[49] “The Chronicles of Narnia,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Chronicles_of_Narnia#Publication_history (accessed 13 Nov 2021).

[50] Sayer, Jack: A Life of C. S. Lewis, 278.

[51] See C. S. Lewis, Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, 3 vols., ed. Walter Hooper (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2009).

[52] McGrath, C. S. Lewis: A Life, 218.

[53] McGrath, C. S. Lewis: A Life, 243–44.

[54] McGrath, C. S. Lewis: A Life, 314.

[55] Green and Hooper, C. S. Lewis, 156–157.

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