Why Lewis Wouldn’t Write for ‘Christianity Today’

Small Talk — 2013 National Conference

The Romantic Rationalist: God, Life, and Imagination in the Work of C.S. Lewis

My task in the next 10 minutes is to explain to you why C.S. Lewis refused to write for Christianity Today. I have a facsimile copy of the very first edition of Christianity Today, published in 1956. But in 1955, Carl F. H. Henry, the founding editor of Christianity Today, wrote a letter to C.S. Lewis and asked him to publish a series of articles in Christianity Today. And I want to read to you an excerpt from an article that I published with Christianity Today on this very topic nearly a year ago now. Then, I want to offer you my theory about three converging streams of influence in Lewis’s life that led to this point in 1955 when he wrote to Carl Henry and told him that he couldn’t write for the magazine.

Three Converging Streams

I grew up in central Illinois in the middle of corn fields and soybean fields in a small town called Meredosia. I was not all that far from another little town in Illinois by the name of Alton. Alton is in the news all the time. Alton is in the middle of a 35,000 acre floodplain where the Mississippi, Missouri, and Illinois River all come together. I remember growing up and going to a state park named Pere Marquette. And if you hiked up to a tall point and a high point in the state park, you could look down and see where those three mighty rivers all came together to form this huge river plain.

What I want to do is read an excerpt from my article and then for us to kind of hike up to this high peak in Lewis’s life in 1955 and look back to see these three converging influences that led him to tell Carl F. H. Henry, “No.” So here’s the excerpt from the article. This is what C.S. Lewis wrote to Christianity today:

I wish your project heartily well, but can’t write you articles.

Carl F.H. Henry, founding editor of the magazine, had invited Lewis in 1955 to contribute to the magazine’s first issue. Lewis declined. Henry was not, as the saying goes, a day late and a dollar short. He was over a decade late and no dollar amount would have mattered as Lewis gave the lion’s share of his royalties to charity.

There was a time when Lewis would’ve said yes, namely, when Nazi soldiers marched into Poland and threatened the stability of the world. In this sense, Adolf Hitler’s influence on Lewis’s apologetics is an irrefutable fact. The Führer’s evil campaign paved the way for the clear-speaking Lewis to engage listeners of the British Broadcast Service.

Even as bombs fell over London, Lewis’s baritone voice boomed on radios across Europe. His evangelistic approach was tailor-made for men at war. Thus, Mere Christianity was born in the fullness of time, published in 1952 from the transcripts of his broadcast talks from the 1940s. But by the time the book was available in print, Lewis was already changing his approach. As Solomon said, there’s a time for war and a time for peace (Ecclesiastes 3:8). Lewis — and I think this is important for us to note — modified his evangelistic methods for both.

“Supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world (Lewis later said of the power of fiction to present truth), could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons?” Lewis thought so, thus he focused the rest of his writing career on smuggling theology behind enemy lines. The enemies Lewis now faced were comfort and post-war apathy. And to battle them both he would strike at his reader’s imagination. While Lewis’s articulation of the gospel took different paths, they all led to Christ. In so doing, he was able to take aim at both the head and the heart. As C.S. Lewis for the 21st century must learn from his apologetics in times of war and peace.

A Change in Apologetic Strategy

Listen to what C.S. Lewis told a group of youth workers shortly before the end of War War II. Lewis said — and anyone who’s done public apologetics will understand what Lewis says here — “That is why we apologists take our lives in our own hands, and can be saved only by falling back continually from the web of our own arguments, from Christian apologetics into Christ himself.” If Lewis was falling back from his arguments, it could mean only one thing: Aslan was on the move.

This is what Lewis wrote to Carl Henry later in 1955:

My thoughts and talents such as they are now flow differently, though I trust, not less Christian channels. And I do not think I’m at all likely to write more directly theological pieces. The last work of that sort which I attempted had to be abandoned. If I’m now good for anything, it is for catching the reader unawares through fiction and symbols. I’ve done what I could in the way of frontal attacks, but I now feel those days are over.

Post-War Apathy

I want to offer you my case for why Lewis told Henry, “No.” So these are the three different converging influences, and the first is this: post-war apathy. C.S. Lewis’s first apologetic work, The Problem of Pain, caught the attention of James Welch, the head of the BBC’s religious broadcasting. His first apologetic book is really what started it all because James Welch was so impressed by it that he asked Lewis to come and deliver a talk on Christianity. But in that book, C.S. Lewis makes this statement:

We can ignore even pleasure, but pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.

Lewis understood that in times of pain, people were acutely sensitive to truth. And in a time of pain like war brings, Lewis spoke directly and after the war he changed his approach. So Lewis spoke through God’s megaphone. He was faithful to do so in the midst of a time of pain, but when his audience was no longer sensitive to the message, he would strike at their imagination.

James Welch, the one who invited Louis to speak on the BBC, estimated that three-fourths of their audience were generally indifferent to Christianity. That’s three-fourths of their audience for religious broadcasting.

Also in the forward to Dorothy Sayers, The Man Born to Be King, James Welch cites a study of British soldiers that gives the hard statistic that only 23 percent of the newly enlisted British soldiers heading off to war understood the meaning of Easter. So C.S. Lewis had his work cut out for him.

War, as the song goes, what is it good for? For Lewis it was good for sharing the gospel for those who had sensitive ears and searching hearts. So that’s the first stream, related to post-war apathy after the war. Lewis changed his approach.

Fatigue from the Public Eye

The second stream of influence is fatigue from Lewis’ public apologetics, both his success and his failure. This summer I had the opportunity to take a group of students to England, and we went to London. We also went to Oxford and Cambridge, and we were able to get on the train in Oxford and take it into London. And I was able to share with them this story that I share with you. Lewis would get on that train, the same railways that we got on from the safety of Oxford. Hitler did not bomb Oxford because he was preserving it (we now know) to make it his capital when he conquered England.

So Oxford was never bombed. That’s why the Narnia stories begin with children coming from London to the safety of Oxford. Lewis would take that train into a city that was constantly being bombed. Lewis put his life on the line to deliver the talks that became Mere Christianity. On the weekends, Lewis was ministering to the Royal Air Force to men and women. That’s how he spent his weekends. During the week he was lecturing. In the evenings, when he wasn’t drinking with his friends, he was presiding over the Socratic Club where they were defending the Christian faith.

And in fact, in one letter to one of his friends in 1941, Lewis described his apologetic work in this way, “One felt all the time as if one had just played a game of football, aching all over.” You should also take note of the 1947 Time Magazine cover story in which they made this statement:

Outside his own Christian circle, Lewis is not particularly popular with his Oxford colleagues. Some resent his large student following, others criticize his cheap performances on the BBC. But their most serious charge is that Lewis’s theological pamphleteering is a kind of academic heresy.

Lewis was constantly taking attacks because of his apologetics. He felt the pressure of it. In fact, listen to these powerful lines from one of Lewis’s first public sermons. It’s instructive for us to understand this change in Lewis’s life. Lewis writes:

We may come to love knowledge, our knowing, more than the thing known, to delight not in the exercise of our talents, but in the fact that they are ours or even in the reputation they bring us. Every success in a scholar’s life increases this danger. If it becomes irresistible, he must give up his scholarly work. The time for plucking out the right eye has arrived.

Lewis prophetically foresaw a time where the scholar, himself perhaps, would have to step away from such endeavors. Of course, there’s the famous debate with the female Catholic philosopher, G.E.M. Anscombe, which his biographer, Sayer, believed was a time when Lewis was defeated publicly. Of course, Lewis will later say he didn’t feel as bad as others thought of him.

If you read James Como’s book, At the Breakfast Table, it includes reflections from students of Lewis’s who had breakfast with Lewis, and you’ll see that many of them will talk about the fact that in the days following the debate, Lewis was unusually irritable and grumpy and would reference the debate with certainly not fond thoughts. So you have a public embarrassment, perhaps.

O Thou Fair Silence

Let me just wrap up this second stream before moving to the third by quoting from C.S. Lewis’s poem, The Apologist’s Evening Prayer. Again, if you’ve done public apologetics, you can appreciate and resonate with this. Lewis writes:

From all my lame defeats and oh! much more From all the victories that I seemed to score; From cleverness shot forth on Thy behalf At which, while angels weep, the audience laugh; From all my proofs of Thy divinity, Thou, who wouldst give no sign, deliver me.

From all my thoughts, even from my thoughts of Thee, O thou fair Silence, fall, and set me free.

C.S. Lewis changed his approach after the war as people were no longer as sensitive. He changed his approach as a result, I believe, of both his apologetic success and failure.

Unfinished Writing

Finally, there’s an unfinished book he mentions to Carl Henry. And in conclusion, I’ll just say a few things about it. Lewis wrote a letter to an Italian priest by the name Don Giovanni Calabria, and the letter was written, mind you, in Latin. Don Giovanni was a huge fan of The Screwtape Letters. He sent Lewis a letter, but because Lewis did not speak Italian and the Italian priest did not speak English, the only language they shared was Latin. So there’s an entire collection of letters between Lewis and this Italian priest all written in Latin.

Here’s what C.S. Lewis said in 1952. He said he was having difficulty writing a book on prayer. He says:

I find many difficulties, nor do I definitely know whether God wishes me to complete my task or not.

In 1953, there’s a great trip. There’s a great, true story. C.S. Lewis and Martyn Lloyd-Jones were both on a boat to Ireland. Martyn Lloyd-Jones asked C.S. Lewis, “When will we have another book like Mere Christianity?” to which C.S. Lewis responded, “When I discover the meaning of prayer.” In 1953, Lewis wrote to his friend’s sister Penelope and he said, “I am still working on my book on prayer.” And then in 1954, he wrote to her again and he said, “I have had to abandon the book on prayer. It was clearly not for me.”

And in his letter to Carl Henry, he says that the last theological work he committed himself to had to be abandoned. C.S. Lewis did finish his book on prayer six months before he died, and it all came together when he put it in the context of a fictional conversation between him and a make-believe friend. The book is called Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer.

Beyond the Bright Blur

Those are the three streams of influence, I believe, that came together: post-war apathy, apologetic success and failure, and then finally, this book on prayer. The publishers took an excerpt out of that book and sent it out to friends of the author and the publisher. And the title of the book is Beyond the Bright Blur. There are only 350 copies of it made. I’m going to read just something from it, and I’ll be auctioning this book off after my talk. I do have a copy of one of the 350 supposed copies they made.

Inside the book it simply says:

Beyond the Bright Blur is taken from Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer by C.S. Lewis, which will be published in the year 1964. This limited edition is published as a New Year’s greeting to friends of the author and his publisher.

This was not to be, as the creator of Narnia took his last breath on November 22nd, 1963 and crossed over to meet The Emperor Beyond the Sea. I think if one were listening for it, a lion’s roar might have been heard from that old wardrobe in Oxford, England that very moment so many years ago.

C.S. Lewis deployed a direct apologetic during times of war and focused on smuggling the gospel after the war was over. Though Britain was at peace, Lewis continued to fight another battle until his death in 1963. Like the deep magic of Narnia, this battle was not with flesh and blood, but with powers and principalities. From wartime talks to talking fawns, his excellent life was committed to the advancement of the gospel, and though dead, yet still he speaks.

is dean of Boyce College, the undergraduate school of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses on worldview, philosophy, apologetics, and C.S. Lewis. He is the author of Jesus or Nothing.