C. S. Lewis Superstar
At first glance, C. S. Lewis and Elvis Presley seem like polar opposites. But a closer look will show that these two cultural icons have a lot in common.
Like Elvis, C. S. Lewis had been a soldier. Both men came to fame on the radio. Both men's homes (Graceland and the Kilns) have become pilgrimage sites. Both left behind estates now valued in the millions. And both rose from relative obscurityElvis, a Mississippi truck driver, and Lewis, a tutor at Oxfordto become larger-than-life figures profiled in books and movies and beloved by legions of adoring fans. Like Elvis, even after death, Lewis remains a superstar.
Clive Staples Lewis was anything but a classic evangelical, socially or theologically. He smoked cigarettes and a pipe, and he regularly visited pubs to drink beer with friends. Though he shared basic Christian beliefs with evangelicals, he didn't subscribe to biblical inerrancy or penal substitution. He believed in purgatory and baptismal regeneration. How did someone with such a checkered pedigree come to be a theological Elvis Presley, adored by evangelicals?
The Problem of Pain
The journey begins in 1940, when the world was teetering on the brink of collapse. The Nazis were rampaging across Europe. France had fallen, Hitler had signed a nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union, and only Great Britain stood in the way of Nazi domination of Europe.
Theologian J. I. Packer was a schoolboy at the time in England. He recalls being taught about "inevitable progress fueled by scientists who were churning out the idea that science was going to transform the world. Science and education would make everything wonderfully different."
Such liberal idealism quickly ran into sin-drenched reality. Packer notes dryly, "In the early months of the Second World War, the plausibility of that began to diminish rapidly."
Into this void stepped Lewis, a former atheist and current member of the Church of England. Known to his friends as Jack, his literary success so far had been uninspiring. Sales of his book, The Pilgrim's Regress, had disappointed the publisher, J. M. Dent & Sons. In Clive Staples Lewis: A Dramatic Life, William Griffin notes that when Lewis sent Dent a manuscript of his science fiction novel, Out of the Silent Planet, the publisher returned it.
But Ashley Sampson, editor of a theological series called the Christian Challenge, had appreciated The Pilgrim's Regress. Sampson asked Lewis to write a book about suffering. Lewis agreed, and in it, rather than promoting "inevitable progress," he argued that pain and suffering are inevitable.
Lewis drew on Scripture and Christian tradition to make a rather old-fashioned point. "We are very shy nowadays of even mentioning heaven," Lewis wrote. "We are afraid of the jeer about 'pie in the sky' and of being told that we are trying to 'escape' from the duty of making a happy world here and now into dreams of a happy world elsewhere. But either there is 'pie in the sky,' or there is not. If there is not, then Christianity is false, for this doctrine is written into its whole fabric. If there is, then this truth, like any other, must be faced, whether it is useful at political meetings or not."
On the Radio
The Problem of Pain became Lewis's first publishing success. Soon after its release, Lewis received a letter from J. W. Welch, head of religious programming at the BBC. Would Lewis consider recording a series?
The idea astounded Lewis, who, Griffin notes, "hardly listened to the radio and could not remember having heard a religious program." Welch suggested two options: a series about Christian influence on modern literature or "a positive restatement of Christian doctrines in lay language." The second appealed to Lewis. He wrote to Welch, telling him he would be glad to help, provided the programs could wait until the summer holidays.