The C.S. Lewis you never knew
C.S. Lewis has become a virtual Christian saint, but his life wasn't as tidy as his public image.
December 1st, 2013
06:00 AM ET

The C.S. Lewis you never knew

By John Blake, CNN

(CNN) - He looked like a “red-faced pork butcher in shabby tweeds,” lived secretly with a woman for years and was so turned on by S&M that he once asked people at a party whether he could spank them.

We’re talking, of course, about C.S. Lewis, the Christian icon and author of classics such as “Mere Christianity” and “The Chronicles of Narnia.”

It’s tempting to remember Lewis only as the self-assured defender of Christianity who never met an argument he couldn't demolish. His death 50 years ago, on November 22, 1963, was overshadowed by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He has since become a patron saint of American evangelicals.

But the actual man whom friends called “Jack” had a “horrible” personal life, thought he had failed as a defender of Christianity and spent so much time in pubs that his publishers initially struggled selling him to a religious audience, scholars say.

“American publishers worried about offending their more puritanical readers because it seemed impossible to get a dust jacket picture of Jack without a pint or a cigarette,” says Michael Tomko, a literature professor at Villanova University in Pennsylvania.

There are three other parts of Lewis’ life that clash with his image as well:

1. His religious books made him poor

No modern Christian author sells like Lewis. The cumulative sales of his Christian books for adults - not including the Christian allegory and children's fantasy "The Chronicles of Narnia" - now approach 10 million copies, according to HarperOne publishers. “Mere Christianity” sold more than 150,000 copies over the past year alone. Perhaps the only publishing parallel to Lewis' works would be “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, a mythology written by Lewis’ close friend and fellow Christian J.R.R. Tolkien.

But Lewis never got rich from his Christian classics, says Michael Maudlin, executive editor at HarperOne.

“His books left him poor,” Maudlin said. “He had all of this money coming in, but he didn’t take those royalties.”

Lewis vowed to donate all the money he made from his books on Christianity, Maudlin says. He got big tax bills for his Christian books but struggled to pay them because he had given the money away.

Lewis refused to renounce his vow even though his money worries persisted throughout his life, Maudlin says.

“He is a man whose number one anxiety in life was poverty,” Maudlin said. “Because his dad overspent, money was always a worry. He didn’t fix things in his home because he and his brother worried about poverty.”

Lewis’ financial worries stalked him until the end, says Alister McGrath, author of the acclaimed new book “C.S. Lewis: A Life.”

Lewis’ health began to fail near the end of his life, so he wanted to hire a private secretary to help tend to his affairs. His income, though, was so spotty that he told his potential secretary that he didn’t know whether he could pay him, McGrath writes.

Lewis was more worried about losing his teaching salary from the University of Cambridge than his book royalties, says McGrath, a professor at King's College London.

“Lewis was convinced that his books would cease to be popular and thus generate little in the way of income,” McGrath said.

2. He felt like a failure as a Christian communicator

"Brilliant" is one of the most common words used to describe Lewis. He seemed to have read everything, and he could easily write in several genres: children’s fantasy, science fiction, Christian apologetics and autobiography.

“He had an almost photographic memory,” Maudlin said. “He could recite the passage and page of a line from a book on medieval poetry.”

Lewis was not so adept in the ordinary world. He never learned to drive or type because he was too clumsy. And he was a shabby dresser who lived in a house that was falling apart.

He even began to doubt his ability to defend Christianity.

Lewis' breakthrough came as a Christian apologist, one who publicly defends and explains Christianity by invoking logic. He delivered a series of talks on Christianity for BBC radio during World War II that made him famous (you can hear some of those talks on YouTube). His fame crossed the Atlantic in 1947 when he made the cover of Time magazine.

But just as his fame peaked in the 1940s, Lewis began to doubt his persuasive powers, McGrath says.

Debating Christianity in public became “draining” for Lewis, McGrath says. At a 1945 lecture on Christian apologetics, according to McGrath, Lewis said, “Nothing is more dangerous to one’s own faith than the work of an apologist. No doctrine of that faith seems to me so spectral, so unreal as one that I have just successfully defended in a public debate.”

Lewis then lost a highly publicized debate to Elizabeth Anscombe, a young Catholic philosopher who pointed out inconsistencies in his reasoning. They clashed over passages in his book “Miracles,” which he later revised. Lewis’ confidence was shaken further when he realized that his argumentative powers had little effect on some of his closest friends and relatives, who remained hostile to Christianity, McGrath says.

Lewis thought that he had “failed as an apologist towards those who were closest to him,” McGrath writes. “How could Lewis maintain a profile as a public apologist with any integrity in the light of such private failures?”

When the BBC asked Lewis to participate in a discussion on the evidence of religious faith, he declined: “Like the old fangless snake in 'The Jungle Book,' I’ve largely lost my dialectical power.”

Some contend that even Lewis’ faith failed him.

He lost love not long after finding it late in his life: Joy Davidman was an American writer who befriended Lewis by letter and eventually became his wife. She died of cancer at 45 with Lewis at her bedside. Their love affair was depicted in the 1993 film “Shadowlands.”

Lewis had written about God and suffering in a book entitled “The Problem of Pain.” But when he wrote about losing his wife in “A Grief Observed,” he was a different man, says Ivan Strenski, a religious studies professor at the University of California, Riverside.

“The cocky self-confidence is totally destroyed,” Strenski said. “The confident, modern interpreter of Christianity is gone. He’s really a shattered Christian.”

3. He had a "horrible" personal life

When the University of St. Andrews in Scotland awarded Lewis an honorary degree in 1945, Lewis gloomily joked that he preferred getting a “case of Scotch whiskey.”

Lewis needed some escape at the time. His personal life was a wreck. The man who seemed like the embodiment of self-control and virtue in his books had a personal life complicated by dysfunction and deceit.

Lewis’ personal struggles began early. His beloved mother, Flora, died when he was 9; he never really got along with his father, Albert; and he was sent away to a miserable boarding school where a schoolmaster was literally declared insane.

“It was horrible," Maudlin said of Lewis’ personal life.

Then Lewis experienced another horror – trench warfare in World War I - but he rarely talked about the experience.  Nor did he talk much about the promise he made during the war to his fellow soldier and friend Paddy Moore.

Lewis assured Moore that he would take care of his mother if Paddy didn’t survive the war. Moore was killed, and Lewis fulfilled his vow after returning home. Lewis moved in with Paddy’s mother, Janie Moore, and helped raise her daughter, Maureen.

Lewis’ relationship with Janie Moore is still mystery. Some scholars say they became lovers; others say she was more like his mother. Lewis, though, hid the relationship from his father and his colleagues at Oxford University.

“There was an attraction between the two of them from the very beginning,” said Warren Rochelle, an English professor at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia.

“When he first met her, she was 45, almost the exact age when Lewis’ mother died, and it’s clear from correspondence that they found each other attractive and engaging,” Rochelle said.

Lewis had another complicated relationship at home with his brother Warren, or “Warnie," an alcoholic who moved in with Lewis and Janie Moore. Warnie couldn’t stand her.

As Janie Moore grew older, she lapsed into dementia. The demands of caring for an alcoholic brother and a disabled woman proved so difficult for Lewis that he was hospitalized for exhaustion at one point. Yet Lewis took care of Janie Moore and her daughter even as she presumably stopped being his lover, scholars say.

“She gave him stability, a family and a mother figure,” Rochelle said. “She gave him a lover for a while, but no one can prove it.”

Lewis’ sexual proclivities also clash with the images of the reserved Englishman who touted the virtues of abstinence before marriage in “Mere Christianity.”

Lewis displayed an interest in sadomasochism during his youth. He read the writings of the Marquis de Sade; once became drunk at a party and begged people to allow him to whip them; and signed three letters to friend Arthur Greeves with the closing “lover of the whip,” according to McGrath’s biography.

Lewis befriended Greeves during childhood, and the two remained close throughout his life. Greeves was gay, but that didn’t seem to bother Lewis.

“Lewis was aware of Greeves’ homosexuality and made it clear that this would not be a problem within their friendship,” McGrath said. “He also made it clear that he didn’t share Greeves’ orientation.”

Despite Lewis' personal hardships, those who've studied him say his kindness was as impressive as his intellect.

Lewis didn’t try to hide from a public that sought his counsel after he became famous. He made no attempt to conceal his phone number. He rose at daybreak to answer letters from people seeking spiritual advice.

He even made personal visits.  A priest once wrote Lewis that he didn’t know whether he believed in a loving God anymore. Lewis met the man and spent an afternoon talking to him about his problem, wrote A.N. Wilson, author of, “C.S. Lewis: A Biography.”

“The priest, who had expected the author of 'The Problem of Pain' to look pale and ethereal, was astonished by the red-faced pork butcher in shabby tweeds whom he actually encountered,” Wilson wrote.

Lewis is still surprising people 50 years later. His ability to reach people long after his death is astonishing, some say.

“It’s odd that someone has been so popular for so long,” Maudlin said. “Lewis’ books are still in front of the bookstore. We grew up with him, so we lose touch with how unusual that is.”

The Christian icon whose image we see in bookstores may first seem distant. He spoke and dressed like a prim Englishman from another time. But his life was messy, contradictory and tarnished by thwarted dreams.

Perhaps Lewis still speaks to us because we when we look closer at his life, he’s really not that unusual.

We see ourselves.

- CNN Writer

Filed under: Books • Christianity • United Kingdom

soundoff (1,513 Responses)
  1. Joel Smith

    Spirit beings having a human experience, believers and disbelievers alike can not prove or disprove this greatest of all questions. The vitriol in the discourse speaks . Love or don't love , that is the choice, reread your posts , and see the hurt little child that has spoken and consider guiding him or her back onto the spiritual path. Consider our close relatives , the bear the lion the stallion the mare , your well loved dog, look at them and their adherence to their instincts, now ask yourself ,which of their instincts do you not share? and be honest!. The neighbors female dog comes into heat and your stud male dog runs off and joins in the gathering pack and has his moment following the dictates[ no pun intended!], of his instinct. Oh yeah, I forgot! You had his nuts cut off!. I'll go out on the limb, help others, love them if you can and be forgiving!

    December 28, 2013 at 4:42 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      Are you implying that it is just as proper to believe in unicorns as not because they can't be proven to not exist?

      Also, you did not mention any of our closest genetic relatives, and some mammals seem to be MORE moral in some actions (than we are) and those very same animals can seem to have NO morals in some actions...compared to us.

      December 28, 2013 at 4:48 pm |
      • Kay

        I agree. His *was* an odd post.

        December 28, 2013 at 6:51 pm |
    • Kay

      Why on earth would you list "the bear the lion the stallion the mare" as our "close relatives"??? Did you simply like the internal rhyme?

      I'm sorry, but your post really didn't make much sense.

      December 28, 2013 at 6:49 pm |
  2. aussieguy44

    I always loved some of Lewis' theological writings some which are not well known. These were "Learning in War Time", "The Inner Ring" and "Fern Seeds and Elephants" So much wisdom and knowledge. We should not expect our writers to be perfect. The Four Loves is a another classic. He deals with the grief of losing his wife in A Grief Observed. There is a PBS DVD called The Question of God where the views of Freud and Lewis are compared. Lewis the atheist becomes a Christian. Freud stays outwardly an atheist yet is privately writing to a Theologian in Switzerland.Freud lost both his favourite daughter and grandson to the Spanish Flue.

    December 19, 2013 at 5:26 am |
  3. Parker Gabriel

    Philip Pullman would have a field day with these revelations about C. S. Lewis. The author of "The 'His Dark Materials' Trilogy," comprising "The Golden Compass, or–Northern Lights," "The Subtle Knife," and "The Amber Spyglass," considers himself a secular humanist, and he absolutely HATES Lewis's "The Perelandra Trilogy" and "The Chronicles Of Narnia Books One Through Seven!" To him, they're all just naked catechism poorly disguised as respectively bad science fiction and even worse children's literature.

    December 17, 2013 at 11:46 am |
  4. On being human

    Ok so he had a party in his trousers, good for him. He probably experienced other things too like mid morning b.m. and the occasional vomit. It's all part of the journey, life is messy and nobody gets out of it alive.

    December 16, 2013 at 8:19 pm |
  5. Bill

    Oh, there goes CNN and the liberal left again, with flashy headlines designed to destroy Christianity (and God) and any of its proponents And we reach for the researchers with the same agenda for sources instead of surveying the lot of them. And the "facts" in the article doe't really detract from Lewis as a Christian at all! Just the manner in which the author chose to select what he'd include and weave together. Facts are stubborn things.

    December 11, 2013 at 12:50 pm |
    • Bob

      Bill, the end of Christianity and other religious superstitions is something that I, as a staunch fiscal conservative, really look forward to. I think it is just a matter of time before many more people, both conservative and liberal, realize that your religion emperor has no clothes and is all fiction.

      It's morons like you that have hijacked the conservative, low tax, pro business agenda with your crazy, backward superstition, which itself is closer to socialism than it is to any conservative economics anyway. Your time and support for your whacked out beliefs is coming to a close, and that's great news for humanity, and especially for real, honest conservatives.

      December 11, 2013 at 4:47 pm |
      • fred

        Over 1,400 years they tried to stomp out the Jews yet the Son of God was born from the seed of Abraham just as promised. The Son of God came and transformed our world as we know it to this day some 2,000 latter. Does your prediction even sound logical or reasonable?

        December 11, 2013 at 5:02 pm |
      • vinster76

        Bob: the end of you will come before the end of Christianity. I am one of the most conservative people I know, and I can attest that conservatism is NOT monolithic. You can be conservative and Christian, as well as conservative and atheistic/agnostic. I have neither the time or the inclination to debate you as to the merits or veracity of the Truth of Christ. Suffice it to say that one day, you and I will both know whether He exists or not. We'll just leave it at that.......

        December 11, 2013 at 8:44 pm |
  6. Dave

    When the author of the article writes things like : "He spoke and dressed like a prim Englishman from another time." it's a clue that he has never listened to Lewis speak. ("prim?" really ?!) This poorly researched article is written by someone who only has a very surface knowledge of Lewis's life and writings. People who want to know about C.S. Lewis's life should read the biography "Jack: A Life of C. S. Lewis" by George Sayer and/or "C. S. Lewis – A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet" by Alister McGrath.

    December 11, 2013 at 9:06 am |
  7. Verashni Pillay

    A few problems I have with this article, as a believer and a Lewis fan:

    1. Lewis admitted his struggles with lusts in his writings. Our struggles with sins do not make us a hypocrite, neither does a new understanding of grief upon losing someone.

    2. I can totally imagine the "begging for a whipping" was a joke, and taken out of context.

    3. Why the sinister tone in the intro about what was clearly a light-hearted description about looking like a butcher? The whole article is written with such insinuation over the facts. This is part of the problem with CNN's religion blog, which I actually do enjoy, is you sometimes assume you have to put on a journalisticy cynicism to justify the usually sidelined issues you cover.

    4. It's completely normal for any giant of the faith to increase in humility as they get older and realise how small they are next to God's incredible greatness. Look at the apostle Paul, and Mother Teresa. Lewis's progression from a self-assured figure to being humbled about his own abilities is actually a beautiful thing in some ways.

    5. SO MUCH insinuation and conjecture about his living with that woman. Not much to go on really and if anything his care for the family is incredible. If feelings did develop human relationships and emotions are complex and again, if he did struggle with lust he admitted it if not in detail. As Christian it is not our struggles that define us but our hope in our saviour and his grace to redeem us.

    December 9, 2013 at 5:17 pm |
    • JesusIsLord

      May God Bless you.

      December 9, 2013 at 7:25 pm |
    • Nancy

      thank you – well said. you have summarized my own critique of this article.

      December 15, 2013 at 12:20 pm |
      • Helen

        ...well-said...Thank you!

        December 21, 2013 at 9:13 pm |
  8. Bill

    “My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?”
    – C.S. Lewis

    December 9, 2013 at 4:51 pm |
    • vinster76

      Nice point Bill. the atheist would counter that you know the difference between straight and unstraight lines due to natural selection and blind processes. Which is easier to believe, a Sovereign Creator gave us the ability to know the difference, or blind chance....To me, it takes far more faith to believe in blind chance. But hey, if you really are determined not to believe, then you wont even believe even if God Himself were to show up unannounced on Earth. Hey wait! Isn't that what Christmas is all about??!!!

      December 9, 2013 at 5:12 pm |
      • JesusIsLord

        Vinster76, The universe is to well designed to be a result of chance vis a vis natural selection or Blind chance.
        You are just expressing your atheistic world-view instead of science.
        What is the origin of this Nature that lend itself to the so called selection, something can never come from nothing, check Newtons laws of Mechanics.
        Natural Selection plus blind chance is like a turnado going through a junk yard and leaving a Jumbo jet in its wake. Now that takes a lot of faith to believe.

        December 9, 2013 at 7:52 pm |
        • vinster76

          Jesus Is Lord: you should re-read my comments to Bill. I wrote that post in the words of what an atheist would argue to Bill's comments. I am a blood-bought, born-again, sinful, prideful, arrogant, yet truly and wonderfully saved Christian. As it is egg nog season, I shall give you a pass this time. Merry Christmas! Yes, I did just say that! To all you atheists who abhor what Jesus stands for, Merry Christmas! – He died for you also.....Like it or not......

          December 9, 2013 at 8:05 pm |
      • JesusIsLord

        We contend that every effect must have a cause. God is not an effect. Thus it is not necessary to postulate a cause for him.
        Logic forces us to conclude that ultimately there was a Cause that was uncaused, or eternal. If something exists now, then something must have existed always, for something cannot come from nothing. Something does now exist; thus, something has existed always. That something is not matter, for matter is not eternal (as any physicist knows). Consequently, that eternal, uncaused Something must be non-material, and so, is the Cause of all material effects. The Bible identifies that eternal Cause/Mind as God (Psalm 90:2).
        But Mr. Russell contended that there “is no reason why the world could not have come into being without a cause; nor, on the other hand, is there any reason why it should not have always existed” (Ibid., 7). Neither of these positions is reasonable. The world could not have created itself because matter does not have that ability. If matter can create itself, there ought to be evidence that such is occurring. But the First Law of Thermodynamics indicates that matter is not being created; we must therefore conclude that matter cannot be self-caused.

        December 9, 2013 at 7:55 pm |
        • JesusIsLord

          That was a quote from " Bertrand Russell and Christianity, Part 1: ChristianCourier.com
          by Wayne Jackson.

          December 9, 2013 at 7:59 pm |
      • JesusIsLord

        God Bless you, Vinster76

        December 10, 2013 at 11:09 am |
  9. georgie porgie

    How did it cost him his life? He was gone for a few days, and he's still supposed to be around, right? What was the big cost?

    Excellent. when u think bout it, what really is the big deal? so they killed him. big whoop. people r killed all the time. plus, since he was god, he new he was makin a huge comeback in a few days.

    December 9, 2013 at 8:04 am |
  10. witch's promise

    Lend me your ear while I call you a fool
    You were kissed by a witch one night in the wood,
    And later insisted your feelings were true
    The witch's promise was coming,
    Believing he listened while laughing you flew

    Leaves falling red, yellow, brown, all are the same,
    And the love you have found lay outside in the rain
    Washed clean by the water but nursing it's pain
    The witch's promise was coming, and you're looking
    Elsewhere for your own selfish gain

    Keep looking, keep looking for somewhere to be,
    Well, you're wasting your time, they're not stupid like he is
    Meanwhile leaves are still falling, you're too blind to see

    You won't find it easy now, it's only fair
    He was willing to give to you, you didn't care
    You're waiting for more but you've already had your share
    The witch's promise is turning, so don't you wait up
    For him, he's going to be late

    December 8, 2013 at 11:38 pm |
    • Tom Petty

      I rolled on as the sky grew dark
      I put the pedal down to make some time
      There's something good waitin' down this road
      I'm pickin' up whatever is mine

      I'm runnin down a dream
      That never would come to me
      Working on a mystery
      Going wherever it leads
      Running down a dream

      December 16, 2013 at 7:49 pm |
  11. phantom235

    Superb gentleman!

    December 7, 2013 at 11:37 pm |
  12. myrtlemaylee

    And yet Lewis never used his intellect or his sins to earn an income by eviscerating – not simply critiquing, but eviscerating – others in print. Can't wait for the next installment – what will it be? "The dark side of the Dalai Lama"?

    December 7, 2013 at 8:28 pm |
  13. vinster76

    Street Epistemwhatever: did you take the time to look at the books written by lay people attesting to the veracity of the Truth of Life????? Did you??? Huh????? of course not, you choked down your blunt, threw back a jack and coke, and pontificated about something you know nothing about. I told you, check out the books, examine the evidence, then come back and talk like a man....Until you do, you make yourself to be foolish.......

    December 7, 2013 at 10:50 am |
  14. zimmy

    Doctor, can you hear me? I need some Medicaid
    I seen the kingdoms of the world and it’s making me feel afraid
    What I got ain’t painful, it’s just bound to kill me dead
    Like the men that followed Jesus when they put a price upon His head

    December 7, 2013 at 3:23 am |
    • zammy

      Street Epistemologist In Training aka dodo

      "You won't list evidence because there is no verifiable evidence to support a divine Jesus. We cannot list what does not exist. You must provide verifiable evidence or admit that you only have faith that a divine Jesus existed, or in other words, you are pretending to know despite having no verifiable evidence to support your claim."

      she ain't too swift.

      stop lying. u have no evidence to make such a deluded statement.

      December 7, 2013 at 3:28 am |
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