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C.S. Lewis | Biography

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Early Life

Clive Staples Lewis was born in Belfast, Ireland, on November 29, 1898. He was the second son of Protestant parents. His older brother, Warren, was an important companion throughout Lewis's childhood and adulthood. Lewis's early childhood was arguably the happiest time in his life. At age four he told his family he would now be called "Jack," and he was known by Jack for the rest of his life. Young Jack loved stories, especially about animals who dressed like humans and knights and chivalry. He combined these two loves into a continuing narrative about an imaginary land, one that he and Warren spent years collaborating on. Their parents took them to church each Sunday, but young Jack found the Christianity of his youth dull and dry—a mere statement of identity rather than real faith.

When his mother died in 1908, 10-year-old Jack's happiness evaporated. His father fell to pieces and sent Jack away to boarding school. Lewis remembered this school as an awful experience, although it was his first attempt to practice Christianity in earnest. He eventually stopped practicing due to his anxiety during prayer. Thereafter, he became a staunch atheist. The joy during these years came from Lewis's love of the music of German composer Richard Wagner and Norse mythology. So that he could be admitted to Oxford University, young Lewis was sent to live with a family friend, William Kirkpatrick, who gave Lewis an education in the classics, literature, and debate, which he happily absorbed.

Lewis entered the university in 1916, as World War I (1914–18) raged in Europe. As an Irishman, Lewis was not obliged to serve, but he volunteered and ended up serving on the front lines. During his service he met another Irishman, Edward Moore, whose friendship would change Lewis's life forever. The two friends agreed that if one was killed, the other would support his family. While Lewis was discharged with shrapnel wounds, Moore was killed. Lewis kept his word, and he lived with Edward's mother until she died. Lewis graduated from Oxford with degrees in Greek and Latin literature, classical philosophy, and English language and literature.

Early Career

In 1925 Lewis began a 30-year teaching career at Oxford University's Magdalen College. The following year, his long mythological poem Dymer was published to critical acclaim. At Oxford, Lewis became part of a literary discussion group that included his brother as well as English writer J.R.R. Tolkien, a man who would have a profound influence on Lewis's life and countless other writers with his fantasy novels The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings series (1954+). The group called itself the Inklings and was composed of atheists, Christians, and followers of anthroposophy—a spiritual path devoted to individual freedom and self-improvement developed by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner. They discussed matters of philosophy, religion, and literary theory, as well as critiqued each other's work.

Because of the Inklings, Lewis converted to Christianity, an event he described as gradual and rational. In September 1931, three days after an all-night talk with Tolkien and another friend from the Inklings, Lewis accepted the faith during the course of a motorcycle ride to the zoo. He began to write works of Christian apologia—a defense of Christian ideas—in addition to the academic and fiction writing he was already doing. In 1938 he published his first work of science fiction, Out of the Silent Planet.

During World War II (1939–45), Lewis joined the Home Guard and took in the evacuees who would become inspirations for a series of children's books collectively titled The Chronicles of Narnia (1950–56). These comprise perhaps his most famous and best-loved works. In 1940 he released The Problem of Pain where he addresses one of theology's central problems, the presence of suffering in a world created by a benevolent creator. In 1942 Lewis published The Screwtape Letters, another work about Christianity made up of a satirical series of letters from an elder demon to his protégé that Lewis dubbed "diabolical ventriloquism."

Late Career

In 1942 Lewis was asked by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) to give a series of radio broadcasts on Christianity from a layman's perspective. The BBC wanted a message of hope to reach the British people. The nation was suffering under the total war being waged from above by months of unrelenting Nazi air attacks known to history as "the Blitz." Lewis, a veteran of World War I, a writer, and an Oxford scholar of classics and literature, was not a theologian or clergyman. Moreover, he had been an atheist for much of his life. As such he was in a position to illuminate and argue for Christianity while having empathy for the position of skeptics and atheists. Lewis gave four series of talks on Christianity as live broadcasts. These talks were later compiled into book form as Mere Christianity, a text that has become one of the most beloved and widely read works of Christian apologetics.

During the 40s and 50s, prolific years for Lewis, he continued to compose academic pieces, fiction, and Christian apologetics. During a 1948 debate, British philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe pointed out a logical flaw in Lewis's argument for Christianity. Humbled, Lewis rewrote a chapter from his work Miracles (1947) and thereafter began to approach Christianity from faith rather than reason.

Lewis wrote and published the seven books that make up The Chronicles of Narnia between 1950 and 1956. These much-loved children's novels have often been described as Christian allegories. Lewis intended to present a mythology in the Narnia books that would prime their minds for the Christian narrative. During these years he was also composing his autobiography, Surprised by Joy (1955).

Edward's mother died in 1951. The previous year, Lewis had begun corresponding with Joy Gresham. A teacher of English literature living in New York, Gresham was married and a recent convert to Christianity. She came to England in 1952 and became a frequent visitor at the Lewis household. In 1954 Lewis became the chair of medieval and Renaissance literature at Cambridge University. In 1956 Lewis published his last work of fiction and the one he considered his best: Till We Have Faces, a retelling of a Greek myth. That same year Gresham's work permit expired, and Lewis married her in a quiet civil ceremony, ostensibly so she could remain in England.

Their relationship deepened when Gresham became sick with cancer. Lewis prayed to bear her suffering, and she rallied, coming home from the hospital. Lewis chronicled their relationship, which lasted until her death in 1960, in Shadowlands, a play and film.

Finding his faith in God tested by Gresham's death, Lewis carefully recorded his process of grief and his eventual return to faith in a book he published in 1961 under a pseudonym, A Grief Observed. After a number of people recommended the book to Lewis, he admitted to having written it.

Lewis died on November 22, 1963. A year after his death, Lewis's final work, Letters to Malcolm, was published.

Legacy

The works of C.S. Lewis have become increasingly popular in the years since his death in 1963. His Christian works are discussed and used today by different denominations. His relevance seems to be growing, not diminishing, and he is respected today for his wide range of skills as a writer. Sales of his most popular works—Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, and The Chronicles of Narnia—continue to rise. An executive at publisher HarperOne claimed in 2011 that the previous 10 years saw the highest sales of Lewis's works yet. Screwtape and Mere Christianity each sell 150,000 copies annually. In that same year the Lewis Bible was released, featuring annotations with Lewis's words. The following year saw a nationwide tour of a stage adaptation of The Screwtape Letters. Three live action films of the Narnia books, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader were released between 2005 and 2008, generating a combined $1.6 billion at box offices worldwide.

Lewis's own life, a significant part of which was his conversion to Christianity at age 30, was captured in a biography by Alan Jacobs in 2005. A 2011 article in The New York Times ranked Lewis's reach in converting others to Christianity on a par with Constantine, who Christianized the Roman Empire, and Pope Urban II, who ordered the Crusades. Many public figures have admitted Lewis is the man responsible for their conversion. This hyperbole gets at the effect Lewis has had on popular Christian thought in the years since his conversion. His theology and point of view are still the subject of lively debate among defenders and critics. They have become classics of apologetic literature. The C.S. Lewis Institute, which works to spread the teachings of Christianity through the framework of C.S. Lewis's writings, offers a number of discipleship programs, publications, and extensive online resources.
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