Surprised by C.S. Lewis: Why his popularity endures
December 17th, 2010
05:30 PM ET

Surprised by C.S. Lewis: Why his popularity endures

By John Blake, CNN

C.S. Lewis was talking to his lawyer one day when the attorney told him he had to decide where his earnings would go after his death.

Lewis, who had already written “The Chronicles of Narnia” book series, told the lawyer he didn’t need to worry.

“After I’ve been dead five years, no one will read anything I’ve written,” Lewis said.

Lewis was a gifted writer, but he would have been a lousy estate planner. More than 40 years after his death, the former medieval literature professor has become the Elvis Presley of Christian publishing: His legacy is lucrative and still growing, scholars and book editors say.

The third film adaptation of Lewis’ "Narnia" series, “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” was released in theaters worldwide this month. HarperOne publishers also just released “The C.S. Lewis Bible,” a book pairing 600 selections of Lewis’ writings with matching scriptural passages.

Lewis’ books remain strong sellers. His “Mere Christianity” has been on the BookScan Religion Bestseller’s list a record 513 weeks since the list started in 2001. At least 430,000 copies of Lewis’ books have been sold this year alone, HarperOne officials said.

Lewis’ contemporary appeal may strike some as odd at first because he seemed so firmly planted in the past. A scholar at the University of Oxford in England, he wore shabby tweed jackets, smoked a pipe in the pub and was wounded in the trenches of World War I.

But Lewis’ popularity endures because of several reasons: his distinctive writing style, a tragic love affair and a shrewd choice he made early in his career, Lewis scholars say.

Lyle Dorsett, author of “Seeking the Secret Place: The Spiritual Formation of C. S. Lewis,” says Lewis was fearless.

“He didn’t dodge the tough questions,” says Dorsett, who told the story of Lewis’ conversation with his lawyer in “Seeking the Secret Place.” “People find that refreshing.”

Lewis’ shrewd early career move

Lewis is labeled a Christian writer, but he also wrote essays, children’s fiction, literary criticism and science fiction. He even hosted a popular BBC radio show during World War II.

Some scholars say Lewis’ BBC experience, where he had to make points quickly, honed his writing style. Lewis learned how to systematically explain Christianity in clear and catchy language, devoid of religious jargon.

Philip Yancey, an evangelical author, says Lewis developed this gift because he came to Christianity as an outsider. He was an atheist.

“Coming to faith as an atheist, he had an understanding of and sympathy for people who look at faith wistfully but can’t swallow it,” says Yancey, who writes about Lewis in his latest book, “What Good is God.”

Lewis remains popular because his books don’t seem dated, says Mickey Maudlin, HarperOne's project editor for "The C.S. Lewis Bible."

Lewis didn’t write about the doctrinal squabbles dividing Christian groups of his time, Maudlin says.

“He made a strategic decision early in his career to talk about ‘Mere Christianity,’ ’’ Maudlin says. “He never writes about different modes of baptism, different views of communion or anything that separates one church from another.”

The result: Lewis has a big following today among Evangelicals, Roman Catholics, Mormons - even skeptics, Maudlin says.

“C.S. Lewis wasn’t trapped by tribal thinking,” Maudlin says. “He was able to speak to everybody. He felt called by God to be an explainer of the big issues.”

How 'good infection’ converted Lewis

Though Lewis looked like the prototype of the mid-20th century English professor, he was actually an Irishman. He was born as Clive Staples Lewis in 1898 in Belfast. Friends and family called him “Jack.”

Scholars cite two events as the source for Lewis’ early atheism. His mother, Florence, died of cancer when Lewis was 9. And his best friend, Paddy, was killed during World War I. Most of the men in Lewis’ platoon didn’t survive the trenches.

“When he saw the carnage of World War I, he concluded that if God exists, He is a cosmic sadist,” says Dorsett, Lewis’ biographer.

Lewis' conversion to Christianity was gradual. It was prompted by what he later called “good infection” -  being drawn to faith unawares through the friends he made and books he read.

One of those friends was J.R.R. Tolkien, a fellow English professor at Oxford best known today as the author of “The Lord of the Rings.”

According to some accounts, Tolkien, a Christian intellectual, helped convert Lewis. He showed Lewis that many of the mythological books he loved to read were Christian allegories.

Lewis, though, would later add that there was something more subtle that led to his conversion.

He called it “joy.”

“Joy” was Lewis' term for a stab of longing that unexpectedly welled up in him during moments of contemplation, such as listening to opera or reading an ancient Norse tale.

In his book, “The Weight of Glory,” Lewis wrote that the yearning he experienced during those moments convinced him there was another existence beyond this world.

“For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a love we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never visited.”

Lewis’ painful love affair

Lewis could be poetic, but he could also be brutally honest. He demonstrated this in his most searing book, “A Grief Observed.”

In the book, Lewis writes about falling in love - and losing that love. Lewis was a bachelor who lived with his older brother Warnie for much of his life. Then he met Joy Davidman Gresham, a Jewish American writer who was 15 years his junior.

Dorsett says Lewis was both physically and intellectually smitten with Gresham. He says they used to play Scrabble together, using Hebrew, Greek, Latin and German words to fill in the blanks.

“She had a sharp wit and he loved it,” Dorsett says. “She loved to debate and challenge him. They were always having an intellectual tennis match.”

Lewis’ relationship with Gresham would also challenge his faith.

Lewis married Gresham when he was 58. Soon, however, she developed bone cancer. She experienced what seemed to be a miraculous recovery only to fall ill again. Four years after marrying Lewis, she was dead.

Lewis was devastated. He began to question his belief in God:

“Go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face and a sound of bolting,” he wrote in “A Grief Observed.”

“A Grief Observed” inspired the film, “Shadowlands,” starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger. One of the most moving scenes in the film took place when Lewis’ character embraced Gresham’s grieving son, Douglas, and they both wept unabashedly together.

Douglas Gresham at the premier of the latest 'Narnia' film in London.

Douglas Gresham is now 65 with a bristly white beard and a booming baritone. He still holds tightly to his memories of Lewis.

Gresham says there’s one part of Lewis’ personality that movies and scholars often get wrong. Many people think Lewis was a dour Englishman.

“He was full of fun,” Gresham says. “He was always surrounded by people who liked to laugh and drink pints of beer. You could always tell if Jack was in the house. You would hear roars of laughter.”

He was also humble, Gresham says. Lewis spent hours each day answering letters from his admirers.

“Jack was someone who believed that if someone would write him, then the least he could do was give a reply,” Gresham says. “Sometimes people would just show up at the door, and he would never turn them away.”

What would Lewis think of his fame?

Gresham says commentators also often miss the mark on Lewis' friendship with Tolkien.

Lewis and Tolkien were both members of the Inklings, an informal literary group at Oxford that met to swap stories and ale.

In “Shadowlands,” Joy Gresham is portrayed as a party crasher who alienated a stuffy Tolkien. Some scholars have suggested that Lewis and Tolkien’s friendship suffered because of Lewis’ marriage to Gresham.

“Tolkien was a devout Catholic,” says Dorsett, Lewis’ biographer. "He found her quite abrasive.”

Gresham, though, snorts at the suggestion that his mother damaged Lewis’ friendship with Tolkien.

“It never happened,” he says.

Gresham says that when he went to visit Lewis in the hospital during his last days, he saw Tolkien. Tolkien told him he could live with him if anything happened to Lewis, Gresham says.

“Now you don’t do that for someone you’re not fond of,” Gresham says. “He was Jack’s best friend when he died.”

Lewis died at 64 of kidney failure on November 22, 1963, the same day President Kennedy was assassinated. His death was overshadowed by coverage of Kennedy’s death as well as the death of Aldous Huxley, another famous author who died that day.

Lewis, however, grabs his share of headlines today.

Gresham, a retired physiotherapist, spends much of his time talking about Lewis. He’s a producer for the latest "Narnia" film, answers letters from Lewis' fans and has written a biography called “Lenten Lands: My Childhood with Joy Davidman and C.S. Lewis.”

He says he doesn’t get tired of talking about the man some still call “Jack.”

“It gives me great pleasure to introduce him to people who haven’t met him yet,” he says. “I’m an unashamed C.S. Lewis fan.”

And what about Lewis? What would he think of the movie franchise he’s spawned and the Christian icon he’s become?

“I think he’d be embarrassed,” Gresham says quickly. “The thought that he would be idolized by so many people would embarrass him deeply.”

- CNN Writer

Filed under: Anglican • Atheism • Belief • Books • Christianity

soundoff (383 Responses)
  1. Muneef

    Al-Isra sura 17:
    In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful
    They say: "What! when we are reduced to bones and dust, should we really be raised up (to be) a new creation?" (49) Say: "(Nay!) be ye stones or iron, (50) "Or created matter which, in your minds, is hardest (to be raised up)–(yet shall ye be raised up)!" Then will they say: "Who will cause us to return?" Say: "He Who created you first!" Then will they wag their heads towards thee, and say "When will that be?" Say "May be it will be quite soon! (51) "It will be on a Day when He will call you, and ye will answer (His call) with (words of) His praise, and ye will think that ye tarried but a little while!" (52) Say to My servants that they should (only) say those things that are best: for Satan doth sow dissensions among them: for Satan is to man an avowed enemy. (53) It is your Lord that knoweth you best: if He please, He granteth you Mercy, or if He please, punishment: We have not sent thee to be a disposer of their affairs for them. (54) And it is your Lord that knoweth best all beings that are in the heavens and on earth: We did bestow on some Prophets more (and other) gifts than on others: and We gave to David (the gift of) the Psalms. (55) Say: "Call on those― besides Him― whom ye fancy: they have neither the power to remove your troubles from you nor to change them." (56) Those whom they call upon do desire (for themselves) means of access to their Lord even those who are nearest: they hope for His Mercy and fear His Wrath: for the Wrath of thy Lord is something to take heed of. (57) There is not a population but We shall destroy it before the Day of Judgment or punish it with a dreadful Penalty: That is written in the (eternal) Record. (58) And We refrain from sending the Signs, only because the men of former generations treated them as false: We sent the She-camel: to the Thamud― to open their eyes, but they treated her wrongfully: We only send the Signs by way of terror (and warning from evil). (59) Behold! We told thee that thy Lord doth encompass mankind round about: We granted the Vision which We showed thee, but as a trial for men as also the Cursed Tree (mentioned) in the Qur'an: We put terror (and warning) into them, but it only increases their inordinate transgression! (60).

    December 20, 2010 at 5:24 am |
    • Muneef

      Energy & Matter.
      They say: "What! when we are reduced to bones and dust, should we really be raised up (to be) a new creation?" (49) Say: "(Nay!) be ye stones or iron, (50).


      December 20, 2010 at 5:33 am |
    • Muneef

      Al-Baqara Sura 02:
      I seek refuge with Allah from Satan (The Outcast).
      In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful
      There is no compulsion in religion. Verily, the Right Path has become distinct from the wrong path. Whoever disbelieves in Tâghût[] and believes in Allâh, then he has grasped the most trustworthy handhold that will never break. And Allâh is All-Hearer, All-Knower. (256) Allâh is the Walî (Protector or Guardian) of those who believe. He brings them out from darkness into light. But as for those who disbelieve, their Auliyâ (supporters and helpers) are Tâghût [false deities and false leaders], they bring them out from light into darkness. Those are the dwellers of the Fire, and they will abide therein forever. (see v.2:81,82) (257)

      Yes! Whosoever earns evil and his sin has surrounded him, they are dwellers of the Fire (i.e. Hell); they will dwell therein forever. (81) And those who believe (in the Oneness of Allâh swt- Islâmic Monotheism) and do righteous good deeds, they are dwellers of Paradise, they will dwell therein forever. (See V.2:275) (82)

      Al-Noor sura 24:   ((The state of a disbelievers)).
      "In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful  
      Or, like the darknesses in a sea deep; there covereth it a wave from above it, a wave from above it, above which is a cloud: darknesses one above anot her: when he putteth out his hand well-nigh he seeth it not. And upto whomsoever Allah shall not appoint a light, his shall be no light. (40) Beholdest thou not that Allah –those hallow Him whosoever is in the heavens and the earth and the birds with wings outspread? Surely each one knoweth his prayer and his hallowing; and Allah is the Knower of that which they do. (41)".

      December 20, 2010 at 5:45 am |
  2. Muneef

    To disbelievers read;
    At-Tur sura 52:
    In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful
    Or say they: He hath invented it? Nay, but they will not believe! (33) Then let them produce speech the like thereof, if they are truthful. (34) Or were they created out of naught? Or are they the creators? (35) Or did they create the heavens and the earth? Nay, but they are sure of nothing! (36) Or do they own the treasures of thy Lord? Or have they been given charge (thereof)? (37) Or have they any stairway (unto heaven) by means of which they overhear (decrees). Then let their listener produce some warrant manifest! (38) Or hath He daughters whereas ye have sons? (39) Or askest thou (Muhammad) a fee from them so that they are plunged in debt? (40) Or possess they the Unseen so that they can write (it) down? (41) Or seek they to ensnare (the messenger)? But those who disbelieve, they are the ensnared! (42) Or have they any god beside Allah? Glorified be Allah from all that they ascribe as partner (unto Him)! (43).

    Al-E-Imran verse 03:
    In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful
    He it is Who has sent down to thee the Book: in it are verses basic or fundamental (of established meaning); they are the foundation of the Book: others are not of well-established meaning. But those in whose hearts is perversity follow the part thereof that is not of well-established meaning. Seeking discord, and searching for its interpretation, but no one knows its true meanings except Allah, and those who are firmly grounded in knowledge say: "We believe in it; the whole of it is from our Lord"; and none will grasp the Message except men of understanding. (7)..

    December 20, 2010 at 5:10 am |
  3. Reality


    Might want to reread the comment.

    December 19, 2010 at 11:41 pm |
  4. chelseykia

    Don, I've read some of your comments in this thread, and... would it be out of line for me to just simply give you an online e-hug? 😀 It doesn't have any deeper implications whatsoever, just a random e-hug from a stranger online here in the land down under. 🙂 I've always been random like that lol.

    I guess what's keeping me from being "self-righteously infuriated" as a Christian upon reading your comments, is that I fully believe, with all my heart, that you'll come face to face with God. I don't believe in grouping people into 'Atheists' and 'Christians', because it encourages people to behave as if two factions are at war. It's the exact kind of tribal thinking that was mentioned in the article. It simplifies things too much, too little, when people are staggeringly, amazingly complex.

    I believe that whatever the case, as you live your life out, you'll find that God would be drawing you near to Him again. That I want to tell you that it's not fairy-tale/pixie-dust, that it is real, simply real. God has always been like that, He won't pass anyone by, not murderers, not rapists, not anyone. Someone like you, who appears to be a 'troll' here in the threads, and yet, I do not know what is occurring in your everyday life – but the one I love up there, He knows, and You will definitely see Him soon. 🙂

    The joy that C.S.Lewis mentions, that scent of a love not found here, you'll know exactly what he's talking about – everyone has the potential to, because deep inside, there is this yearning, this tiny wanting that could not be satisfied by anything except God's touch. Peace, dear friend! 🙂

    December 19, 2010 at 10:12 pm |
    • Don

      chelseykia, there is no god. And there is no yearning.

      December 19, 2010 at 10:44 pm |
    • chelseykia

      Still stands that I believe you'll meet God eventually. When you do, I fully expect you to tell me how incredible He is, and that the next time we meet face-to-face, you'll be pointing at me as we stand in Heaven and exclaiming," Hey, you're that weird Aussie faceless person I met online a long time ago, cheers!" 😀

      And I'll go," Heck yeah!" And we'll party all the time in heaven. Yes, I'm saying that with a straight face. Because I'm 150% confident it'll happen.

      The hug still stands, btw! 🙂

      December 19, 2010 at 10:54 pm |
    • Don

      There is no god.

      December 19, 2010 at 11:08 pm |
    • chelseykia

      Haha, there is, Don, there is. 🙂

      And because I just could not help it, I wish to throw in an extra hug right now. My apologies for being so very peculiar, but I am just bursting with love for you right now, lol – because I'm just that excited over how you'll come to meet God.

      I'll be ending it here on this note, but before that, just a little prayer that, yes, we'll party like whoa in the long future. 😉 With God as my witness right here, right now, I want to declare my heart's desire that this will come to pass, that I'll be hanging out with you, my precious friend, in heaven, that God's arms may be tightly wrapped around you, that whatever is happening or whatever wrong that you've gone through, no matter how little, I speak for it to surrender to God's will. 🙂

      (Rest assured, I'm quite normal, just that I tend to be quite giddy and smiley when it comes to talking about God lol.)

      December 19, 2010 at 11:23 pm |
    • Don

      There simply is no god.

      December 20, 2010 at 6:33 pm |
    • Peter F


      Even if you don't make Don smile, you sure do make me smile. 😀

      Peace to you, chels!

      December 21, 2010 at 1:13 am |
  5. Dystopiax

    I reported abuse on my own comment. The abuse is that of CNN 1) declaring that it had to be moderated, 2) remains so marked 21 hours later, while dozens of comments have followed it. Up yours.

    December 19, 2010 at 6:59 pm |
    • chelseykia

      You are still loved, lol!

      December 21, 2010 at 12:16 am |
    • chelseykia

      Hmm, that comment was actually to Don, no idea how it got there.

      Still, greetings to you, kind sir.

      December 21, 2010 at 12:24 am |
  6. David B.

    Mere Christianity was mere nonsense.
    The space trilogy was okay.
    Writing allegory isn't very hard compared to trying to process the real world. Thousands of monkey write self-help and religious books, but there's no actual information in them, just wasted paper.

    December 19, 2010 at 6:58 pm |
  7. L

    Pretend you were never born. There are trillions of eggs not fertilized that had the potential to become human. Those eggs will never have any of the tools we have to use reason to argue something that doesn't exist in the first place. This place is totally unexplainable. Humans can only look so far. Even with the greatest technologies and minds we won't get an explaination. There must be a reasonable question first anyway. What is that question?

    December 19, 2010 at 6:35 pm |
  8. L

    No god, no debate. Sorry.

    December 19, 2010 at 6:21 pm |
  9. Tom R

    I hate his books. The story line is ok but terrably slow to develope. I wouldnt have read TLWATW if they didnt kame us in grade school. and I wouldnt have read any of the others I read if I hadnt found out I was related to him.

    December 19, 2010 at 6:06 pm |
  10. Rick

    A brilliant author, for certain! But I have to wonder why so many fundamentalist Christians still look to him to defend their faith, because Lewis' theology (especially as articulated in Mere Christianity) is severally at odds with some of the most basic traditional Christian dogmas (e.g. hell and who's going there, et cetera).

    December 19, 2010 at 5:58 pm |
  11. tony

    I went from the Sunday school belief to disbelief entirely over about 40 years. The pointless horror of the Tsunami finally did it for me. I read the entire set of the T L W and W, but found the final "revealing" volumes to be the usual disconnected pro-god "reasoning" that did not follow from the earlier volumes at all.

    December 19, 2010 at 5:47 pm |
  12. thorrsman

    @Don, come now, why lie about it? 'Tis obvious enough to all who read your words. Such words come only from anger. Why you feel that anger, why you feel the need to attack those who have beliefs, is for you to answer. THAT you have such anger is foolish to deny, for your own words and insults mark you plainly.

    December 19, 2010 at 5:43 pm |
  13. nixliberals

    All creation will bow down at the appointed time. You, educated, will find out the hard way. A friend asked me "You believe in all that Jesus crap?" I told him "Let's put it this way, if, upon the end of our lives, I believed in Jesus and you didn't, and there is no Jesus, then I assume I will suffer the same fate as you, nothing happens. However, if, upon the end of our lives, I believed in Jesus and you didn't, You my friend, are in deep trouble, slain before the Throne of God, sent for complete destruction in a real place called HELL." All the ballyhooing from atheists does not bother me at all. I am sure of my God, the Holy Ghost, and Jesus. I have been called and sealed. He has revealed Himself to me and I know Him. You, atheists, BE AFRAID of death when it is at your door. I am glad when I am transformed I will not remember ANY of you. My brothers and sisters and I will rejoice at the Feast and Marriage of the Lamb and His bride. You will weep and gnash your teeth, in torment, deservedly. I will pray for you as SOME atheists will be converted before your death. Even Darwin repented!!

    December 19, 2010 at 5:17 pm |
    • Something

      "He has revealed Himself to me ...."

      How? In what way?

      I guess "He" just doesn't like me - no revealings here... (oh, I could pretend; and get myself all worked up into an emotional state, but that doesn't do it... there is no-one there).

      December 19, 2010 at 5:25 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Darwin didn't "repent". That was a falsehood perpetuated by a self-serving would be evangelist.

      December 23, 2010 at 12:07 am |
  14. tallulah13

    I read the Narnia books in Junior High and never actually connected them with Christianity. I just thought that they were fun fantasy books, though nowhere near as good as The Lord of the Rings. As an adult atheist, I still remember the stories fondly. And I still don't think of them in any religious context, just adventure stories with talking animals. I read thousands of fantasy books as a child and young adult, and these actually hold no greater morality than many of them. Nobility, sacrifice and overcoming temptation are fairly consistent themes in fantasy.

    December 19, 2010 at 5:06 pm |
  15. nixliberals

    All creation will acknowledge Jesus WHEN the end of this world comes. Atheists; Let me tell you about a friend of mine who asked "What, you believe in all that Jesus crap?" I told him "definitely, but lets put it this way. If, in the end of this life, I die and like you, there is nothing beyond this life. Then I lived and believed that Jesus was my Savior, in vain. But, if I am right in my belief, these very words will be used against you and you WILL suffer eternal damnation for your unbelief." Maybe his unwillingness to believe is simply because he was not called by GOD, set apart for destruction. Still, I will take my chances with the TRUE GOD, who revealed HIMSELF to me, personally. Atheists and agnostics will never understand, unless they hear the calling. If the phone is ringing, you must answer. Us believers will pray for you while you still have time.

    December 19, 2010 at 4:59 pm |
  16. guster

    Why do you folks who mock God, come to the beliefs blogs in the first place? Seems to me you are not so sure deep down inside and like to get your daily reassurance from others. Seems insecure. BTW, God still loves you....

    December 19, 2010 at 3:49 pm |
    • Wisdom4u2

      Ain't that the truth!!

      I always think the same thing when reading their 'god mocking' comments.

      I wouldn't waste my time commenting on something I didn't believe in!

      December 19, 2010 at 7:31 pm |
  17. Tom

    Great article and I love Lewis' conversion story. He was an intellectual and academic, yet his atheistic view of life was conquered through Gods grace and his effort to believe and pursue a relationship with God. During this Christmas season as we remember to prepare for the Lords coming we need to pray for the atheists.

    December 19, 2010 at 3:49 pm |
  18. Frankie

    I am a Christian who is sometimes embarrassed by the statements of fellow Christians. I once knew a woman who told me God created the world in six days so we would learn the meaning of the work week. She also insisted that after a few years after her divorce, God reattached her hyman, making her a virgin once again so that when she remarried, her future husband would be marrying a virgin. Her daughter believes the dinosaurs disappeared because there was no room for them on the Ark. Both whack jobs! I quite often find it more difficult to explain my beliefs to fundamentalists than to athiests.

    December 19, 2010 at 2:44 pm |
  19. Wisdom4u2

    Even though I have not met the person of C. S. Lewis, I feel like I know him through his writings.
    What an honor it would have been to sit down beside him and watched as he pulled his vivid imaginations from his soul.
    As wonderful as the C. S. Lewis’ movies are, they really don’t come close to what I envision when reading his writings.
    I guess that’s what makes his writings so intriguing – no one envisions his stories the same way!
    I loved The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis!! Just Awesome!!

    December 19, 2010 at 2:33 pm |
  20. guster

    Good post Frankie. Science is just now starting to realize how complex life really is. The complexity of just a single cell is beyond imagination. As the tools of science continue to advance, it will continue to discover the fingerprints of God. It's just a matter of time...

    December 19, 2010 at 1:42 pm |
    • Don

      So god must be really complex, thus requiring a designer for god.

      December 19, 2010 at 2:25 pm |
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