Jack Outside the Box: Celebrating C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis always brought people back to the main point, and that’s the point.

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Every Nov. 22 we are reminded that the assassination of President Kennedy and the death of C.S. Lewis took place on the same afternoon.

Joseph Pearce has written here comparing the legacies and possible destinies of the two men. 

One of things most refreshing about Jack (as C.S. Lewis was nicknamed) was his seeming unconcern about what others thought of him. There’s a whiff of real humility there. 

He thought and lived outside the box. As an Oxford professor he was supposed to stay within the cozy coterie of the common room, but Jack went outside that. He was humble enough not to worry about his career, and happily stooped to write religious books, popular science fiction or children’s fairy tale. For this he suffered ridicule and rejection by his peers — not being elected as Professor of Poetry at Oxford despite being the obvious choice.

He didn’t give two hoots for the opinions of the liberal Bible scholars, and skewered their stupidity with a single thrust saying that he was not a Bible scholar, but a literary critic, and their work as literary critics of the Bible simply didn’t stand up to scrutiny.

He was quite happy to ridicule the liberal bishop who wanted to turn Jesus into a do-gooder and water down the faith. He was impatient with all forms of religious hypocrisy, cant and holier-than-thou obfuscation. 

He brought people back to the main point, and that’s the point. Time and again he fearlessly and happily declared the emperor to be naked. In his personal life he took risks — marrying a former Jewish atheist convert who was divorced and giving away most of his book royalties. A need for respectability was simply not in his makeup.

He had learned the lesson as a boy at Malvern School. He recounts how the “bloods” — the upper-crust boys — ran an elitist club. They bullied the younger boys and Lewis was one of their victims. Lewis noticed how some boys would sell their souls to get into the “inner ring,” or the elite club of real insiders. Spotting such cowardly and traitorous behavior from an early age, Lewis would live outside the box for the rest of his life.

At the same time he was said to be the most open, honest, friendly and welcoming of men. He had time for neglected undergraduate students, wrote endless letters of advice to nobodies who had written to him, and would be happy to swap stories and intellectual debates with anyone who was willing to engage with him on the same straightforward, no-nonsense level. By rejecting the quest for the “inner circle” Lewis was able to belong to everyone.

This “everyman” quality is also what enabled him to write religion for the man in the street — children’s stories, essays for magazines and newspapers and science fiction fantasy. In an essay to seminarians on how to communicate the faith he is clear that the communication must be shorn of all fancy talk, jargon, theological jibber-jabber, footnotes, highbrow references and ecclesiastical mumbo jumbo. Never a member of the inner ring, it was his calling to communicate with the masses of individuals who were also never in the inner circle.

This explains why, when I moved to England (with a bad case of Anglophilia) I was astounded to find that in his own country he was virtually ignored. I, and many others, considered him one of England’s greatest voices in the 20th century. At Oxford it was an error in taste to mention Lewis. Those in the intellectual inner ring of Oxford, Cambridge and the Church of England regarded him rather like an insane uncle, or perhaps like Uncle Albert in Mary Poppins — an eccentric but somewhat lovable idiot.

Eventually on the 50th anniversary of his death, Lewis was granted a plaque in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey — the signal that at last the English establishment recognized his genius. Even so, the initiative for the plaque was driven by American admirers, not his own countrymen.

If Jack were looking over the battlements of heaven when they installed the plaque no doubt he would have been surprised and amused. I can see him roaring with laughter… ”What, me here with all those grand people? What, me in the inner ring? Come now, there must be some mistake! How ludicrous! All those establishment types giving me a plaque when they always avoided me like the plague!”

The poet John Betjeman was a student of Lewis at Oxford, and he once referred to his old mentor in a poem as “St. C.S. Lewis.” It was one of Betjeman’s characteristic jokes, but like most of good jokes, they were funny because they reveal a truth we hadn’t admitted before.

Is C.S. Lewis a saint? I’m happy to include him in that great multitude which no man can number who heaven knows are saints, but which the Church here below has not granted the honor of the altars.

As for me, whenever I celebrate St. Cecilia’s Day (which is the anniversary of Lewis’ death) I’m happy to include him in the roll call of those for whom I pray and who I pray are praying for me.