This is a notable month for fans of C.S. Lewis : He was born on Nov. 29, 1898, and left the world on the 22nd of the same month in 1963. The passing of this major figure in Christian thinking thus became a footnote to the day of President Kennedy’s assassination.
Lewis deserves to be remembered as one of the great lights of English academics for his scholarship on Medieval and Renaissance literature. But he is deservedly best known as a spokesman for Christianity. If anything, Lewis’s work is more widely read now than during his lifetime, thanks in part to the Hollywood films based on his landmark fantasy series, “The Chronicles of Narnia.” A fourth movie, based on “The Silver Chair” in Lewis’s Narnia series, is poised for production and scheduled for a 2016 release.
His nonfiction books—such as “The Screwtape Letters,” in which devils discuss how to corrupt a well-meaning human—have broad appeal because they defend Christian belief by answering questions that a doubting public might be struggling with. Author Anthony Burgess once wrote that “Lewis is the ideal persuader for the half-convinced, for the good man who would like to be a Christian but finds his intellect getting in the way.”
Lewis grappled with crisis and struggle, and he came down on the side of faith. It was his honesty and intellectual rigor in describing his trials that help make him so compelling.
The crises that Lewis faced were substantial—his mother’s death when he was 9; being sent to a series of boarding schools that he detested; fighting and being wounded in World War I; living through the Great Depression and World War II; caring for his alcoholic brother; and, finally, the death of his wife, Joy.
How did he work through those crises? His son-in-law, Douglas Gresham, comments on Lewis’s response to Joy’s death, “He did what he always did under extreme stress. He sat down at his desk, and looking into himself and carefully observing what was happening deep in his mind where we keep our inmost secrets, he picked up his pen and an old exercise book and began to write.”
He wrote about the crises he faced with atheism, with the Christian faith and the crises he faced simply because he was human. Lewis tells us that he became an atheist around age 14, but that he sought something more. “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy,” he wrote, “the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”
In his early 30s he became “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England,” as he put it. He struggled on his way to prominence as a champion of Christian orthodoxy, and that struggle animates his writing.
As he pondered conversion, Lewis grappled with his love of myth, which he called “at its best, a real unfocused gleam of divine truth falling on human imagination.” How could he believe in the Bible in light of all the other myths he treasured?
Here his love of literature helped him. “There is nothing in literature which does not, in some degree, percolate into life,” Lewis determined in his 1936 academic study, “The Allegory of Love.”
He believed that the Bible was a book full of narratives and meaningful stories that “carries” the word of God and that derives its authority from Jesus Christ. He was not a fundamentalist, who believes every word from scripture contains literal truth. Instead, Lewis interpreted the Bible as a literary text.
Finally, Lewis took on crises that no human being can avoid—suffering, death and what one might call “the crisis of feeling.” The latter is that problem everyone faces when emotions simply don’t lead us to contentment. If life is supposed to feel good, what happens when it doesn’t? Feelings—particularly the emotional rush of life—remain for many the final arbiter of truth.
Yet Lewis found his own wisdom hard to take when his wife died. Not only had he lost a cherished spouse, but he saw his own life replayed—Joy had two young sons whom she left behind at almost the same age as Lewis and his brother at their mother’s death. His searing honesty remains the most arresting feature of “A Grief Observed,” the book he wrote after Joy’s death: “Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him.”
But later in the book he resolved that even God does not respond to every inquiry: “When I lay these questions before God I get no answer. But a rather special sort of ‘No answer.’ It is not the locked door. It is more like a silent, certainly not uncompassionate, gaze. As though He shook His head not in refusal but waiving the question. Like, ‘Peace, child; you don’t understand.’ ” Accepting that not every question receives an answer brought Lewis the resolution and peace that lie beyond human understanding.
Mr. Cootsona teaches at California State University at Chico and is the author of “C.S. Lewis and the Crisis of a Christian” (Westminster John Knox Press, 2014).