journey post 11: C.S. Lewis, Rebel Without A Cause
Rebel without a cause? What does C.S. Lewis have in common with James Dean? I can’t picture two individuals more different.
“Clive Staples” is what fills out the “C.S.” Yes, Clive. To American ears, “Clive” sounds like the butler, or a trifle higher—a gentleman’s gentleman, as we are now learning via “Downton Abbey.” Certainly, the epitome of stuffy English tradition, “tut, tut, cheerio and all that…” Let us maintain our formality for a moment, shall we? Lewis was a professor at both Oxford and Cambridge (England), and in actuality, he was Irish.
James Dean, in his role in the movie “Rebel Without a Cause” seems to be a rebel with a cause. His parents are always arguing over him, his mother not liking what he did, his dad sympathetic but, having no backbone, always giving in to his wife. Bullies come into the picture, too. Dean’s world is cruel and unfair. There is a somewhat happy ending to the movie, although Dean himself died before its release.
Top photo: C.S. Lewis
Bottom photo: James Dean on poster for the movie
Beneath Lewis’ surface stuffiness was a mind awake to life: to continuing childhood wonder, to pondering life in a beautiful but dangerous universe, to the rare combination of complex thinking and simple expression. To family and friends, ”Clive” was simply “Jack,” a shortened from “Jacksie,” which was his dog’s name and which Lewis insisted on being called when his beloved Jacksie died. Raised in tradition and the best schools, yet his mother died early, and his father was distant. Lewis regarded the universe as cruel and unjust, and he rebelled against tradition and Christianity as an older teen. Jack became an atheist—a man living in a world without a cause, so to speak. The horribleness of World War One certainly confirmed that. After the young lieutenant was wounded in the trenches in that “Great War,” his father never came to visit him.
That knowledge might unstuffy the picture a bit, but I did not know those things when I first picked up the book, Mere Christianity. Allow me to expand on three things I mentioned last time that I did know then:
As I said, Lewis was a world-renowned certified smart guy. Oxford and Cambridge were, to me, the top of the top. When I came back on the academic scene after ‘Nam, I was every day in rooms full of people who considered themselves smart. That was intimidating to this young man of 22, unsure of himself and comparing himself with others in this and any other setting. I knew I was above average smart, but I kept hearing this tape: “So why, brainiac, did LBJ send you to Vietnam to be his cannon fodder?” Lewis provided the hope that it was okay to believe this stuff and gave reason to believe that Christianity was founded on more than superstition and fear.
That Lewis had been an atheist attracted me because I had become at least a little honest in the midst of death, allowing myself to ask those big issue questions about the universe, God, and Jesus. I did not consider myself an atheist, perhaps more because of social pressure. After all, any atheists in my post-war world of small town America would be aliens. Los Angeles of the 1950s and 60s was small and spread out and very non-cosmopolitan. I figured atheists would be clustered in exotic places like New York—not here. Everyone I knew was a Christian—whether or not they really were or even considered themselves such. We all went to a church of some kind—until now. Since the mid-60s, everything was on the table and subject to question and reexamination. How did Lewis get from atheism to Christianity?
I made a big deal in the last post about the impact of my pastor, Roland Hughes. Roland was to me in many ways a nice but scary man because of his bold and fearless stands on uncomfortable things, including following Jesus. A lasting picture of him in my mind is riding a wave with an odd sort of determined warrior smile on his face… But he proved over and over his genuine care for me, and if Lewis was important to him, then I had to read this book, Mere Christianity.
So I did.
Mere Christianity is Lewis’ explanation of the basics of Christian belief. Opening it, I was so focused on wanting to understand the resurrection that I was totally unprepared for what the book was actually about. It did not begin with the resurrection, or with Jesus. I would like to know if Lewis ever watched “The Wizard of Oz,” released just a month before Hitler launched the Blitzkrieg into Europe. A man who wrote to the wonder of children certainly would approve a scary movie like that, since he knew children needed to see good conquering evil—which was ever-present in that world. Glinda (the good witch) said, in response to Dorothy’s question about how to get to The Emerald City, “It’s always best to start at the beginning… and follow the yellow brick road.”
So Lewis began at the beginning. He first delivered the chapters orally, as a series of short talks given over the BBC (radio) in the dark days of the Blitz in London. Lewis divided the printed book into four parts (he calls them “books”). I will be focusing for now on the first two. That’s all I read in 1970. Book 1 is called “Right and wrong as a clue to the meaning of the universe,” and Book 2 is titled, “What Christians believe.”
Above: Vintage Lewis. (I’m uncertain of where he penned these words.)
The first few pages of the book left me disappointed. His beginning was the “Law of human nature,” right and wrong. It seemed too simple. The writing appeared elementary and didn’t talk about the Bible right off the bat. The simplicity of his language and argument seemed beneath a classical scholar speaking to the entire British nation. Fortunately for me, I kept on reading….