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Writer journeyed from atheism to Christianity

C.S. Lewis scholar explores author's beliefs

BLADE RELIGION EDITOR

BOWLING GREEN - C.S. Lewis made a slow and thoughtful transition from atheism to agnosticism to theism to Christianity, and the combination of his experience, education, and intellect made him uniquely qualified to explain the religious convictions he ultimately reached, Dr. Bruce L. Edwards said.

A professor of literature at Bowling Green State University, Dr. Edwards said in a lecture last week that the Irish author, who was born 105 years ago today and died at age 64 on Nov. 22, 1963 - the day President Kennedy was shot - was "a genial though orthodox Christian apologist in a time of ostentatious irreligion, fundamentalist extremism, or New Age mysticism."

In an Internet poll in 2000, Lewis was named one of the "most influential Christians of the 20th Century" along with Billy Graham and Mother Teresa, and his books - including Mere Christianity, The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Screwtape Letters - still sell millions of copies every year.

Lewis' Narnia, a series of children's fantasy tales, "is about to explode," Dr. Edwards predicted, saying it is reportedly being made into an animated Hollywood movie by the producer of the hit film Shrek.

Born in Belfast, Ireland, in a time of sectarian violence, Lewis was reading Greek and Latin by age 5. He was brought up in a Christian home but abandoned religion to become an atheist at age 9 when his mother died of respiratory disease.

"After his mother's death, he grew up a very strict logician," Dr. Edwards said.

"He retreated to his intellect for his comfort."

Lewis earned a scholarship to Oxford University but by age 19 was serving in the British Army in World War I, fighting in the trenches of France.

He returned to the university and explored Norse mythology, occultism, Eastern mysticism, and philosophical idealism, Dr. Edwards said.

It was his friendship with fellow writer and scholar J.R.R. Tolkien, a devout Catholic and author of the renowned The Lord of the Rings trilogy, that led him to re-engage his imagination.

"When he starts hanging around Tolkien, his imagination is challenged again at what they call the mythological aspects of the incarnation, by which they don't mean nonhistorical, but grand in scope for humankind," Dr. Edwards said.

"That opens up the door for Lewis to see Christ as a historic figure, not just some fanciful wish fulfillment."

It was a long and logical progression of faith, with no "Damascus Road conversion," Dr. Edwards said.

The deliberate sequence of events, along with his scholarly education and writing skills, give Lewis a broad appeal that has not faded.

"He knows what it's like to be lost and confused, but there's also a recovery of the imagination that helps him more than anybody else," Dr. Edwards said.

In addition, Lewis lived during the advent of postmodernism in Europe, a philosophical age that has since crossed over to the United States, Dr. Edwards said.

That makes his cultural observations relevant to American life today.

Douglas Gresham, Lewis' stepson, said in a separate interview this week that Clive Staples Lewis - known as "Jack" to family and friends - remains popular because he tackled timeless truths.

"Jack's works are not about the cultures of man but about God and his eternal truths. The truths of God do not age or change," Mr. Gresham said, "and thus are now and always will be as relevant and applicable as the they were the day that Jack wrote, illustrating and explaining them."

He said Lewis intentionally avoided the constraints of contemporary style, because "what is up to date today will be out of date tomorrow.

"Outside of that restriction, Jack's work is timeless in quality and thus will be read and enjoyed as long as men read at all."

He said his stepfather was able to write about his faith without sounding judgmental or arrogant "because true Christian faith leaves no room for either arrogance or judgmentalism. It is those who do not fully understand nor fully accept what Jesus taught that are arrogant and judgmental. Jack was neither of these things.

"Jack stated facts as facts and his own opinions very plainly as his own opinions. His enormous breadth of reading, and his superb education, gave him a knowledge of words and word usage that enabled him to write with a crystal clarity and great simplicity even about the most complex matters.

"Jack told me about writing: ‘First be sure that you know exactly what you want to say and then be sure that you have said exactly that.'"

Mr. Gresham, who lives near Carlow, Ireland, was 10 when Lewis became his stepfather.

Lewis' romance and marriage to Joy Davidson Gresham, who died of cancer shortly after their marriage, is the subject of the 1993 movie Shadowlands, starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger.

"That movie is a pet peeve," Dr. Edwards said.

"It captures the angst of Lewis' life, toward the end of his life, but it doesn't capture his joy and frivolity.

"He was a much more gregarious person and Joy Davidson Gresham was in her own right a vibrant Christian writer.

"That all gets dissolved in the movie's preoccupation with suffering."