Full text of discussion titled ‘C.S. Lewis: The Story of His Journey to Faith and Christian Apologist’ with Harry Lee Poe. Why was C.S. Lewis formerly an atheist? What arguments and experiences convinced him to change his mind, and which people played a key role in his conversion? In this interview, Sean Mcdowell talk with author and expert Harry Lee Poe about his latest book: THE MAKING OF C.S. LEWIS: FROM ATHEIST TO APOLOGIST.
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SEAN MCDOWELL: What is the story of C.S. Lewis, one of the greatest apologists not only of the 20th century, but really of all time? Why did he move from an atheist to a Christian? What were the arguments and experiences he had that shaped his life? What lessons can we learn from him for today?
Well, that’s what we’re going to explore in this program, and I don’t know anybody more qualified to talk about the conversion of C.S. Lewis than our guest today, Dr. Harry Lee Poe, who goes by Hal, has a fascinating new book. It’s over 300 pages. He did a massive amount of research on his life and his story, and it’s called The Making of C.S. Lewis. Thanks for taking the time not only to do the research for that book, but for coming on and joining me on the show.
HARRY LEE POE: Thanks, Sean. It’s good to be with you.
SEAN MCDOWELL: So the story begins where C.S. Lewis is an undergrad, and he’s a materialist, kind of a staunch atheist. Before we get into his conversion, what led him to that point being an atheist at roughly, say, around 20 years old?
DIM VIEW OF RELIGION
HARRY LEE POE: It had been quite a few years in the making. Lewis had a happy childhood, but his mother died of cancer when he was nine years old, and that was the first big blow to his view of religion, a child’s view of religion. And so why didn’t God keep his mother alive? And he came from a religious family. His mother’s father was the rector of their church, and her grandfather was a bishop. So there’s a long religious tradition in the family.
But Lewis then, when his mother died, went off to boarding school. And in boarding school, while studying Latin, the Latin teacher was explaining to them that all the mythologies of ancient Rome and Greece were simply made-up stories to explain natural phenomenon, and the gods and the goddesses represented different forces of nature, and they were just stories that developed to explain things.
And young Lewis, in essentially what we would call middle school, made the logical connection that, therefore, the Bible is just a collection of made-up stories as well. And so he then develops a dim view of religion. Now, he’s going to church every Sunday. That’s part of the obligation of being in these boarding schools, and they had chapel. And so he’s receiving a huge amount of Bible, but it’s just Bible-less literature, these old stories. So that’s the first piece.
And then, when he was in what we would call high school, he went to be privately tutored. He didn’t do well in the big boarding school. With the sports, he had some genital thumb problem. He couldn’t bend his thumb at that joint, and so that made sports difficult for him, catching, throwing, that sort of thing. So he was an odd man out at school. His father finally decided to send him to a private tutor. And his father had known this man. He’d been his headmaster when he was in school. But since then, W.T. Kirkpatrick had become an avowed atheist and materialist. Albert Lewis didn’t realize that. And so he sent his son to study with a man who’s going to provide young C.S. Lewis with the intellectual underpinnings of atheism. He gave him a strong, rationalistic basis for materialism, the idea that only physical matter exists. Nothing exists besides atoms and the forces of the universe.
So there it was. It was a one-two punch, and he was quite comfortable in his atheism, in his materialism.
SEAN MCDOWELL: What’s so interesting to me in your book is that these pieces of Lewis’ earlier life, like the death of his mother, plays out in his ministry. Later, of course, he writes the book The Problem of Pain. He thinks that Christianity is a myth. Later on, he starts writing in different books about how it’s the true myth. So you see these life experiences that he had play out when he becomes an apologist.
Now, before we get to his responses to some of the reasons he became an atheist, broadly speaking, tell me the journey that he went on. Because in The Pilgrim’s Regress, one of the early books Lewis wrote, he describes how he went from, make sure I get this correctly, from popular realism to philosophical idealism, from idealism to pantheism, pantheism to theism, theism to Christianity. Now, we don’t have to unpack each one of those, but broadly speaking, from atheism, what were the different big steps he went through to ultimately become a Christian?
HARRY LEE POE: Well, it is fascinating, and it’s a period that took from, well, about the time he entered service in World War I, so 1917 until 1931. That’s the period of his conversion. I think that’s very important for us to recognize when we’re doing evangelism and apologetics. It takes time, and we need to be comfortable with time. God created time for a reason, and God does things with time.
In our culture, we want things to happen instantly, and in the Bible, things rarely happen instantly. God is slow to anger, and He’s patient. So, a long period of time, and these steps. Now, if you want a concise treatment of these steps, go to Mere Christianity, and in fact, the outline of Mere Christianity, those first two sections, are in fact the story of Lewis’s conversion from a third-person point of view. Lewis is discussing them as simply ideas that we observe, but these ideas were in fact the things that happened to him spiritually.
So, think of Mere Christianity as a version of Lewis’s testimony. So, that first piece, realism, popular realism, the idea that the only thing that’s real is something you can touch, taste, smell, hear, feel. The things we know through our five senses, material, matter, the physical universe. So, that was his position when he left W.T. Kirkpatrick to go up to Oxford. He was a popular realist.
Now, philosophical idealism. While he was developing this love of philosophy with W.T. Kirkpatrick, and just the joy of rational argument, and pulling arguments apart, and critique, and all of that sort of thing. He was doing that during the day, but at night, he was doing something subversive. He was reading for pleasure. And in the evenings, he had a couple of hours of free time in which he was reading all the great novels, all the great stories of western literature.
Now, during this period, he had his new friend, Arthur Greaves, introduced him to Jane Austen. And Jane Austen, then the Bronte Sisters, and all of that literature. But he and his friend, Arthur Greaves, shared a love of Norse mythology. So, they were also reading different versions of the Norse myth. He came upon William Morris. And Morris was a 19th century novelist, but polymath. He was really the father of the arts and crafts movement, so he had a wallpaper factory, he had a tile factory. He dabbled in all sorts of things.
And Lewis loved his treatment of the old mythologies, so he read something else Morris wrote: The Well at the End of the World. And in that story, Lewis was really gripped by the storyline. And the hero goes on a quest to the end of the world for the great thing. And along the way, he fights the unbeatable foe. He goes where the brave dare not go. He dreams the impossible dream. You can think of that song from The Man of La Mancha, which is in fact a parody of this kind of story. And once at the end of the world, the great thing is found. And the hero returns a different person, because the journey itself changes them. He loved this story. It gripped him.
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