BOOK REVIEW: News Weekly
C.S. LEWIS IN A TIME OF WAR, by Justin Phillips
, September 19, 2009
C.S. Lewis, wartime and Britain
C.S. LEWIS IN A TIME OF WAR
by Justin Phillips
(New York: HarperCollins)
Hardcover: 336 pages
Rec. price: AUD$39.95
Reviewed by Bill Muehlenberg
Britain has not always been a relative basket case. It was a great nation not all that long ago. During World War II it produced gallantry, bravery and heroism. Not only leaders, such as Churchill, stood tall, but the common Brit, faced with huge challenges and dangers, managed to rise to the occasion.
Seventy years ago, Germany invaded Poland, putting Britain on a wartime footing. Children were shifted out of London, rationing and hardships ensued, and the Battle of Britain was soon underway. Especially severe was the terror of the Blitz, the intense and sustained eight-month bombing campaign by the Nazis which the nation endured. The character and resilience of the British people during this difficult period were glowing examples of English greatness.
Winston Churchill was certainly a lion-hearted stalwart during this period. His many speeches were stirring stuff. One of his speeches, broadcast on the BBC on June 18, 1940, was a tremendous rallying cry to the nation. In part he said:
"The Battle of France is over. The Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation. ... Cold fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. ...
"Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth lasts for a thousand years, men will still say, 'This was their finest hour'."
Churchill was not the only one to use the airwaves to mobilise and embolden a nation. Oxford don C.S. Lewis also famously made use of the BBC to present a number of riveting talks during the war. His religious talks, which were eventually turned into one of his most famous books, Mere Christianity, were a turning-point for religious broadcasting in the UK.
The whole story of his wartime talks is nicely presented in Justin Phillips's book C.S. Lewis in a Time of War. In it the radio talks which galvanised a nation are set in their proper context, and refreshing new glimpses into the man and his mission are gleaned.
The BBC back then was a different kettle of fish from what it is today (now it is much more secular, with a Muslim recently appointed head of its religious programming). It featured copious amounts of religious - that is, Christian - broadcasting, and saw it as part of its duty to do so.
Lewis had just penned The Problem of Pain in 1940. BBC's religious broadcasting director James Welch was quite taken by the work, and determined to get Lewis to use broadcasting as the nation grappled with issues of war and suffering.
Welch wanted something new - not just the usual clerics, but a layperson who could deliver popular theology and speak intelligently and forcefully on the issues of the day. While Lewis was a well-known and much respected university lecturer, the transition to radio would be a big jump.
Lewis took some convincing, but eventually agreed to do the talks. Debate over just what would be covered and how took place, but eventually a series of five 15-minute talks was delivered in August and September of 1941. Entitled "Right and wrong: a clue to the meaning of the universe", the talks were an instant hit.
The great success of the talks can be measured by the amount of correspondence Lewis and the BBC received. And Lewis was the sort of person who sought to answer every single letter - even that of his critics. His letters to just one person - his old friend, Arthur Greeves - fills a volume of 600 pages.
Three more series of talks were delivered over the next three years. Each set of talks was soon turned into booklets, but it was 1952 when Mere Christianity appeared, containing all the talks, with few extra changes or additions. That book has gone on to become one of the great works of Christian apologetics of the past century.
The BBC was eager to have Lewis do many more talks, but his university commitments, along with other tasks, kept Lewis far too busy. However, the broadcasts turned Lewis into a well-known national figure. Subsequently, these broadcasts and his books turned him into an international figure.
His books - theology, apologetics, children's stories, and literary criticism - sold exceedingly well. A year 2000 estimate put the number of his books sold worldwide at over 200 million copies in over 30 languages.
The number of people who became Christians as a result of Lewis's radio talks and books, and who were strengthened in their faith - intellectually as well as spiritually - would be impossible to determine. But Lewis would surely be one of the most influential Christian apologists of the past century.
Not everyone liked his broadcast talks. Some believers objected to his conception of "mere Christianity", and sceptics and rationalists turned him into public enemy number one. The free-thinker magazines poured contempt on the man, but most Brits found him to be a voice of wisdom and common sense.
As Phillips says of his legacy, "Lewis restored an intellectual respectability to Christianity in a culture which thought it had rejected it and left it behind. He rendered complex doctrine and ideas comprehensible. He demonstrated that Christian teaching and values were still relevant to the most complex ethical dilemmas. ... Through Lewis, a Christian orthodoxy that is non-denominational yet true to biblical Christianity has permeated far and wide."
Of course, he was not alone here. J.R.R. Tolkien and Dorothy Sayers were some of the other influential British Christians who made a real impact on wartime and post-war Britain, and the rest of the world.
Writes Phillips: "Lewis and the other Christian writers had rehabilitated the Christian faith and given it a massive intellectual thrust into British culture as a whole."
While political leaders of the stature of Churchill were indispensable to helping the Brits get through the difficult days of the war, so too was the moral, spiritual and intellectual leadership of Lewis.
It is often the case that when times are the bleakest, God raises up vital leaders to see people through the darkest of hours.
Providentially, C.S. Lewis was raised up, and his BBC talks, along with his books, have made a tremendous difference, in both difficult times and in times of peace and security.
May many more Lewises be raised up for the days ahead.