In Search of Better Stories

Bits and Pieces From One of Christianity’s Most Interesting Fellows.

I forgot how much I enjoy reading CS Lewis. It’s been years since I read his short anecdotal autobiography Surprised by Joy, which recounts his meandering conversion experience, but I dusted it off recently, dived right in and wasn’t disappointed.

Lewis is so brilliant, cerebral, and well-read that some parts of his biography I don’t even understand! But then he’ll crack a joke, tell a story, or make a poignant remark, and we are back together again as good of friends as ever.

Where Lewis is wrong, and I am right!

Lewis thinks it’s an unpardonable sin to write in the margins of a book. As for me, the greater sin is to leave the book untouched. A marked and thoroughly worked-over book is the same to me as the look of a field after it’s been harvested. The scribbled notations are the signs of great gleaning.

Lewis thinks it’s a waste of time to journal. As someone who’s been faithfully journaling for almost 40 years, I respectfully disagree.

Lewis’s deepest fears

Bugs. He hates them. That whole exoskeleton thing fills him with fear. Adding to the trauma is Lewis’ observation that French locomotives look similar and are thus equally hideous.

Church Attendance is a Grind.

Lewis really struggled to see the value of Church attendance. He viewed the organ as one of the most disagreeable instruments ever invented and Christian music as almost always bad. For Lewis, spiritual growth happened in smaller groups among a few close Christian friends. However, he did attend church, but only as a symbolic gesture of support for Christianity.

Daddy Issues

Lewis’ mom died early, and his relationship with his dad was always strained. “The restless fertility of his imagination” caused his dad to always “read between the lines,” making him constantly suspicious and unable to converse normally. Lewis generously says that his father‘s mind was “too active to be an accurate receiver,” which is a lovely way of saying that he never bothered to listen to anyone.

Lewis Hated His Childhood and Early Teen School Experience.

Lewis briefly talks about the horrors of trench warfare endured during World War I: The sniper bullets whizzing past his head, friends being blown to pieces, mangled corpses, mud and stench everywhere, the spectre of death always near and the agony of being injured by artillery fire.

But then, as he contemplates the dark, bleak memories of his public school experience. He is uncertain which experience was worse: trench, warfare, or school! He’s not joking, either. So what was so bad about the school?

He often refers to his school experience as his “concentration camp” time! Regarding his days at Belsen, he says of the headmaster’s influence, “All was forgotten as soon as learned and perfectly useless if it had been remembered.” Abuse and cruelty are what he remembers most during those early years of education.

But things got worse at Wyvern school. The problem, says Lewis, was how the entire thing was set up. Underclassmen were essentially the slaves of the upperclassmen; in many cases, this slavery included sexual favours. Teachers stayed out of it on purpose, as students were forced to learn how to navigate the politics and pitfalls of hierarchy as part of their education. The system was designed to protect the strong and persecute the weak, remembers Lewis bitterly.

To advance in the hierarchy of power, you needed to be an athlete. If you weren’t an athlete, you needed to support athletics with all your heart and soul. Those who lacked enthusiasm for their respective house or teams faced severe consequences. Lewis was a complete non-athlete who objected strongly to the entire athletics system. To him, these all-consuming competitions created a jealous and vindictive spirit among the student body.

Lewis’ years at Wyvern were spent hiding from upperclassmen, pretending to like sports, and being forced to do slave duties, all in an environment that fostered jealousy and vindictiveness. The experience left him utterly exhausted and discouraged—the same sort of exhaustion he felt in the trenches. Lewis’ brother loved Wyvern, but he was more of an athlete, and his face didn’t “bare the same smack inviting signature as mine.”

The conversion of CS Lewis

“There are traps set everywhere for young atheists. God is very unscrupulous.”

“The horror of the Christian universe is that it had no door marked exit.”

Prayer became a drudgery and religious practice an irritant. It felt to him like so much “hoop jumping” to get what you wanted from God, and what if you got it wrong? Then what? As a child, he lived in fear and uncertainty, which were two emotions he wanted to escape from. Life without God, he soon learned, meant there was no one to obey and no one to fear. He liked this way of being and soon discovered plenty of reasons to reject the almighty. However, the dark side of atheism is it provides no scope for the imagination. His unbelief left him feeling barren and empty. His imaginative powers were too great for a lasting conviction of “this is all there is.”

The “pang of joy” that first enthralled him when he fell in love with Norse, Celtic and Greek mythology kept whispering that there had to be more. The heart’s longings were too intense in Lewis to dismiss all but the material world.

He first found highly educated non-Christians who believed in more, which caused him to check his confidence in nothingness and dial back his “chronological snobbery.” Then he had a game-breaker. Instead of assuming Christianity is true and all other religions false, what if all religions were on a continuum toward maturity? What if the paganism he loved was the childhood of religion and Christianity the full-grown version of it? Paganism carries hints and clues that lead to the better, truer thing. Lewis followed this thinking and concluded that whatever good you could find in the world’s religions, you could always find a better version in Christianity or Hinduism. But Hinduism gets sidelined because cruelty and monstrosity operate alongside its beauty and goodness. At this point, Christianity again became tantalizing to Lewis, but could it be true?

The “artless, historical fashion” of the gospels finally pushed him over into belief. The greatest myth is Jesus, but the gospels are not mythological literature. Nothing in all literature is like the gospels. It’s the only place where myth becomes fact. In Jesus is the summing up and actuality of all religions. On the bus, on the way to the zoo, Lewis believed. Christianity is what all the old religions that so captured his imagination were pointing him to all along. — The zoo became Eden upon his arrival, and Lewis was never the same again.

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