A superb scholar and commentator, C.S. Lewis was above all a great man.
-Douglas Gresham talks to Peter Barnes-
Douglas Gresham is a son of Joy Davidman, an American writer who came to marry C. S. Lewis, the great Christian apologist, literary critic and author of the Narnia Chronicles, near the end of their lives. He lived for many years in Tasmania, and has recently been involved as a producer in the filming of the Narnia Chronicles. The Silver Chair is the next one due. Lewis was known to friends and family as Jack. He was fond of a dog named Jacksie which died, or was killed, when Lewis was four. Lewis then took on the name Jacksie which later became Jack.
You went through some tough experiences as a youngster. Would you like to tell us something of your earliest childhood memories?
I was born in New York to a mother raised as a Jewish atheist. My father had a Christian background, but he struggled with his own lifestyle. For all that, I had a happy childhood until I was about eight, when my parents’ marriage fell apart and home became a frightening and insecure place. My parents split in 1953, and my mother fled to London with my brother and me. In 1955 we moved to Oxford where we met Jack and Warnie (his brother, Warren). It was a wonderful atmosphere, full of intellectual stimulation and learning. It was a new world to a young boy.
When my mother fell ill with cancer, she was not expected to live long at all, but I had my first experience of God. Alone in Holy Trinity Church, as a frightened and lonely 11-year-old boy, I knelt and silently prayed that my mother would be permitted to live. There I met Christ and was given absolute assurance that my mother would recover. I was no longer afraid, no longer grieving. I knew that she would live. However, that experience did not cause me to submit to Christ’s authority at that time.
He talked simply with children but never talked down to them, and was a lot of fun.
When it was over, I felt I had walked back into the Shadowlands, as Jack would put it. My mother did, in fact, recover for nearly four years, and they were the happiest years in Jack and Joy’s life. Then in 1960 my mother died. My father came over to England to meet us, but that was not a great success. I greeted him rather formally, without much obvious affection. Before long, he too contracted cancer, and suicided.
What are your earliest memories of C. S. Lewis? What was he like as a man and as a stepfather?
When I first met him, I was a little disappointed. Here was this stooped, balding, professorial gentleman with long nicotine-stained fingers, who dressed in the shabbiest clothes I had ever seen. He had no interest in looking fashionable; he could look shabby in a tuxedo. But he was a wonderful stepfather. He described himself as not good with children, and people have often taken that at face value, and so one often hears this comment, but he was a delight for any child to be with. He talked simply with children but never talked down to them, and was a lot of fun. He was never paternalistic with people, including children – always very natural with them.
Your mother came from a highly political, indeed communistic, background before becoming a Christian. Lewis, in my view, had quite a sharp view of how politics operated but he was essentially rather apolitical. How did your mother and Lewis interact in terms of their ideas and worldviews?
Jack was not simply “rather apolitical”. He never read newspapers and was totally apolitical. He actually despised politics. At one stage he actually thought that Marshal Tito was the king of Greece. Warnie was horrified at this lack of political knowledge, and mocked him in good humour. But Jack was the greatest psychologist I have ever met. He understood human beings, and that is why he could be so astute in commenting on society in general. Actually, my mother too outgrew communism and then politics in general, and became quite apolitical. Again, like Jack, she came to see it all as just meaningless shadow-boxing. The only people worthy of high political office are those who do not want it. Modern political life is dominated by egotists who do great damage.
He was the best wordsmith of the 20th century. He could connect with everybody.
In what ways did Lewis influence your own Christian understanding and walk?
Hugely, by his example mainly. He would always answer my questions but he never preached to me. He lived Christianity visibly and strongly every second of every day. It was something I observed at close hand, and it had the strongest possible impact on me. He lived out his faith with Christ as Lord over every area of life. But he never pushed his faith on to me. He prayed constantly, all day in a sense, and I saw the evidence of his communion with Christ. It was only later, of course, that I read what he wrote in his books.
In terms of his theology, Lewis always struck me as remarkable for the way he could use common sense arguments yet they seemed fresh and new. Would you say that that is part of his enduring appeal as a Christian apologist?
Yes, he was the best wordsmith of the 20th century. He could connect with everybody. During the war – in 1943 or 1944 – there were pubs in rural England where silence would descend while Jack did his broadcasts. Ordinary people of every ilk would listen respectfully to the radio to hear what he said, because they wanted to hear him. God has put this sense of Himself and of truth within us all. People knew that their lives could end at any time, and Jack spoke meaningfully to them about this life, and God’s kingdom.
He could be friends with royalty and with gardeners. There was no snobbery in him.
He could be daring. In Mere Christianity he comments: “I am not asking anyone to accept Christianity if his best reasoning tells him the weight of the evidence is against it.”
Yes, he was strongly evidential in his approach. But he would press the person to keep thinking and reasoning. He was convinced that the person who truly and humbly reasoned would finally be led to Christ. It would be wrong to think that he accepted that a person’s reason should be sufficient to keep him from Christ.
Also, for all his obvious intelligence, he strove to be a humble and sympathetic man. In an unusual way, he did possess the common touch. Was that your experience of him too?
Oh yes, remember that he served as a soldier in the trenches of World War I. That was a very equalising experience. He could be friends with royalty and with gardeners. There was no snobbery in him. He believed what is obviously true, that God so often works in a quiet and unobserved way, and that this work is what is really significant.
He knocked back a knighthood, didn’t he?
Yes, Churchill’s government offered him one, but he thought that he had simply done his duty, no more. In World War II he took considerable risks in travelling about the country, but he wanted no applause for that. He was very wary of honours from the world, both in terms of how they might affect him and how they might affect his testimony as a Christian before unbelievers.
He never believed that we needed more Christian books. Bad Christian literature is bad literature and bad Christianity
You must have many insights into the Narnia Chronicles. Why have they continued to resonate with children, and with adults, down through the years?
Because they are true. Jack believed in 19th century virtues like honesty, personal responsibility, commitment, duty, courtesy, courage, and chivalry – all those qualities which the 20th century discarded as outdated, to our great cost. We are going to hell in a handbag. These great truths resonate with the human race, and fiction can be used in the service of truth.
He wrote Christianly but never made the mistake of thinking that Christian literature did not need to be good literature. How did this come through in his writings?
He never believed that we needed more Christian books. Bad Christian literature is bad literature and bad Christianity. A Christian who writes books needs to be a genuinely good writer. He was generous in his spirit. In his latter years he became quite good friends with T. S. Eliot, but he never liked modern poetry, including that of Eliot himself. Literature did not suddenly acquire a new status because an author was a professing Christian. Jack said: “We do not need more people writing Christian books, we need more Christians writing good books.”
He is probably as well-known for the Screwtape Letters as anything, yet he found that draining to write. Are there lessons in that?
He found it morally draining because he tried to think like the devil. Indeed, it was frightening to him that it is surprisingly easy to think like the devil. Jack always dealt very seriously with temptations in his own life. He understood others because he understood himself.
In one of his letters, Lewis comments that “apologetic work is so dangerous to one’s own faith. A doctrine never seems dimmer to me than when I have just successfully defended it”. What does that tell us about the Christian life in this fallen world?
I actually think it’s a fairly obvious point. After all, any doctrine that we, as mere human beings, can successfully defend must seem to us, for a moment at least, as containable within our own intellectual abilities and therefore cannot be a great and holy truth. The fact, of course, as we must soon realise, is that it is God Himself who gives us that defence for which we are so smugly congratulating ourselves and thus we are being fooled by the enemy. We soon wake up and smile wryly at our own folly.
What are the enduring strengths of Mere Christianity?
It comes back to truth. The book is not beholden to any denomination. Its argument gets into your head and under your skin. The hearer or the reader gets the impression that he is being addressed by someone who knows him well. While in prison, Charles Colson became one of thousands who found that he could not argue with it but had to surrender.
Some of us think he might have tried to say more on the atonement than just that “Jesus died for sinners”. For example, “propitiation” is not a much-used word today but it tells us something of how the atonement works in that Christ satisfied the justice of God.
No, that is all that is needed. Atonement is a suitable enough word. Propitiation may give the impression that God is outraged, and Christ has to force His hand to be merciful.
No, it is God’s love that leads to propitiation.
No, “atonement” is fine, or perhaps “redemption”. There is no need to go beyond “Christ died for sinners”.
He took very seriously the biblical injunction to give freely because he believed that the responsibility was ours to give, and not to worry about how the recipient spent what we gave.
Let’s differ and move on. As a pastor, I have sought to minister to a number of grieving spouses, often widows. Often they have found A Grief Observed very helpful, perhaps more helpful than other books. Why is it still such a useful book in ministry?
Again, it is raw honest truth; there are no platitudes in it. He knew what the loss of my mother had done to him. He grieved, and he grieved deeply. He was shattered. Stoicism was false, in Jack’s view. We are not meant to maintain a stiff upper lip and press on. There is more to life than that.
Originally, it was just a journal that Jack kept of how he dealt with my mother’s death. He left it in a desk drawer, with no intention of ever publishing it. One day Roger Lancelyn Green came to see how he was coping, and he was given it to read. Immediately he thought that it had to be published. It was to be published under a pseudonym, Dimidius (Latin for “Cut in half ”), but at the Faber publishing company, T. S. Eliot saw it and recognised it as coming from Jack. He thought that such a classical sounding pseudonym would be a giveaway, so N. W. Clerk (Nat Wilk Clerk, Anglo-Saxon for “No one knows the writer”) was used instead.
Funnily enough, some of Jack’s friends came across the book in bookstores and thought that it might help him, so they bought it for him! We ended up with copies of it all over the house. Only after his death did it become known that Jack was the author.
Soon after your mother’s funeral, Lewis said to you: “It is not important to succeed, but to do right. The rest is up to God.” That seems to have particularly struck you. Would you care to speak more on it?
It is a very important piece of advice. Jack lived this out. One day he was out walking – I think with J. R. R. Tolkien – and a beggar approached him for money. Jack emptied out his pockets and gave the man a considerable amount of money. When challenged as to the wisdom of this because the beggar would spend it on drink, Jack replied: “But I would spend it on drink.” He took very seriously the biblical injunction to give freely because he believed that the responsibility was ours to give, and not to worry about how the recipient spent what we gave.
Some years back you wrote: “While C. S. Lewis was a great scholar, a great writer (in many genres), a great teacher and a great theologian, Jack was a great man.” It seems like that is a good summary of what you would say to us about C. S. Lewis, and about what it means to be a Christian.
Yes, I would endorse what I wrote back then. Jack believed in Christ, and lived out that belief in everyday life.
First Published in the Winter 2014 Edition