The summer after my freshman year of college, I volunteered to help the C. S. Lewis Foundation renovate The Kilns, Lewis's former home (then in a state of disrepair) just outside Oxford. I don't remember if I went expecting a spiritual boon from touching the domestic relics of the patron saint of American evangelicalism. What I do remember is a back breaking week of painting fireplaces, carrying bricks, and digging flower beds. I particularly remember the day we ordered "topsoil" and a large dump truck rained down upon us a load of exactly that the top of the soil, complete with clumps of sod, pebbles, candy wrappers, and broken glass. Years later I returned to find, with great satisfaction, that our laborand many others volunteers' effortshad resulted in a proper English garden surrounding a proper English house, a haven for Oxford students and a pilgrimage site for Lewis fans.
If reports are correct, The Kilns of Lewis's day wasn't exactly the Ritz. Lewis's stepson Douglas Gresham recalls holes in the roof, rotting wood, light switches that spit fire, ceilings that collapsed, and carpets constantly growing deeper from the accumulated cigarette and pipe ash (since Lewis and his brother believed the ashes kept moths away). Surely not a place for someone whose soaring imagination bestowed upon future generations the stories of Deep Magic and lion-hearted Love. Surely not a place for a brilliant Oxford don whose ability to express complex theological ideas in everyday language has made him the spiritual grandfather of millions.
But, as Lewis knew well, that's precisely what the Christian life is aboutknocking on heaven's door while standing two inches deep in pipe ash. It is no accident that someone so well acquainted with a world much bigger than himself should be continually pointing us to the baffling, painful, glorious quagmires and quiddities of the Real.
Here was a man who could happily have spent his entire life in quiet seclusion reading books and taking walks through the woods with a few close friends. Yet he found himself fighting in the trenches of France, "adopting" the mother and sister of his friend who died in battle, welcoming into his home a gaggle of giggly schoolgirls evacuated from London during the second World War, taking his faith public and attracting international attention in a way that scandalized his colleagues, patiently answering thousands of letters from readers all over the world, and marrying an ex-communist American divorcée with two sons and only a few short years left to live. Here was a man whose intellectual honestly forced him to put aside all of the more attractive philosophies that tempted him in order to face up to the only argument that made sense of the world. In supreme contrast to our postmodern, self-indulgent dogmatism of personal opinion, here was a stoop-shouldered, baggy-trousered, tweed-jacketed, beer-drinking Church of England parishioner full of the humility and wonder that comes from standing before the unavoidable thereness and tangible mystery of objective truth.
He wrote in Mere Christianity, "Besides being complicated, reality, in my experience, is usually odd. It is not neat, not obvious, not what you expect. That is one of the reasons I believe in Christianity. It is a religion you could not have guessed. If it offered us just the kind of universe we had always expected, I should feel we were making it up. But, in fact, it is not the sort of thing anyone would have made up. It has just that queer twist about it that real things have."
Reality is iconoclastic, Lewis reminds us again and again. It bursts all preconceived notions of what lifeand what Godshould be like. You might insist that God is a human invention and then be "surprised by joy" into belief. You might spend most of your adult life uncomfortable around children and suddenly become stepfather to two boys. You might plunge into the heart of earthly love only to have it shatter and leave a grief too divinely significant not to be observed. You might order topsoil and be stuck standing in a gritty mess of dry dirt and candy wrappers but dig, dig away.
Jennifer Trafton is managing editor of Christian History & Biography. More Christian history, including a list of events that occurred this week in the church's past, is available at ChristianHistory.net. Subscriptions to the quarterly print magazine Christian History & Biography are also available.
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Christian History & Biographydevoted an issue to C.S. Lewis in 1985. Its Winter 2005 issue also covers Lewis, and is available for purchase from our site. Lewis was also covered in the magazine's issue on the most influential Christians of the 20th century.
Previous Christian History Corners include:
Eat, Drink, and Relax | Think the Pilgrims would frown on today's football-tossing, turkey-gobbling Thanksgiving festivities? Maybe not. (Nov. 18, 2005)
Is It Wrong-Headed to Translate the Gospel for Culture? | Christian History Corner takes on the Christ and culture debate. (Oct. 28, 2005)
Old Words, Vibrant Faith | Christian pop/rock band Jars of Clay explains why the church needs more Redemption Songs. (Oct. 21, 2005)
J.S. Bach: For the Glory of God | Such humility is exceedingly rare among those who have gained worldwide fame (Oct. 14, 2005)
Bringing Peace to Paradise | The wave of the future needs the wisdom of the past (Oct. 7, 2005)
Emergents, Meet Saints! | The wave of the future needs the wisdom of the past (Sept. 30, 2005)
From Mutual Aid to Global Action | How the Anabaptist emphasis on practical acts of love led a tightly knit enclave to reach out to the world. (Sept. 23, 2005)
The Trailblazer | The first evangelical missionary to India set out to prove that the gospel does not destroy culture but transforms it from within. (Sept. 16, 2005)
Reformation Reoriented | Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom evaluate the Catholic/evangelical detente in Is the Reformation Over? (Sept. 2, 2005)
Ministries of Mercy: Mother Teresa | She stirred a generation by touching the untouchables. (Aug. 26, 2005)
Changed Lives: Luther | The daily gift of new life. (Aug. 19, 2005)
Liberating Faith | When Korea threw off Japanese rule in 1945, it was as much a victory for the church as for the nation. (Aug. 12, 2005)