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Home » C.S. Lewis: The Story of His Journey to Faith and Christian Apologist w/ Harry Lee Poe (Transcript)

C.S. Lewis: The Story of His Journey to Faith and Christian Apologist w/ Harry Lee Poe (Transcript)

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.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here:


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?


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.

Then he discovered it was based on some medieval stories. The Quest of the Holy Grail, which was told and retold by Mallory. And you find a new telling of it with Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. And this then became, in later years, Lewis’s career. The study of these stories, these medieval stories. But the great plot was to go there and back again. And in the course of it, to be changed.

He then found the story again, written by George MacDonald. And George MacDonald’s story, Phantastes. And it just gripped him deeply. Now, among the things he liked about this kind of story was the values. There was nobility. There was humility. There was selflessness. All sorts of high and noble values. And you were fighting against evil and upholding the right. You were upholding truth.

And so here’s THE CRISIS FOR LEWIS. As he’s leaving WT Kirkpatrick and entering World War I. How can you have values in a brute universe? Nietzsche very succinctly, well not succinctly, but very carefully argued that in a brute universe of just matter, there is no right and wrong. No good and evil. Nothing beautiful, nothing ugly. There’s just what is. Brute matter.

And so Lewis had to decide, do values actually exist? And so that was his struggle in the early 1920s. Trying to decide, do they exist? And can you have a basis for right and wrong, for ethics, if there’s no God? If there’s nothing other than the physical. So he finally had to concede, well there’s something other than the physical. So these ideals, these values exist. Then you’ve got a problem.

How do you explain the existence of these values? And so that finally led him to the belief, well there’s got to be some sort of mind behind the universe. That the values alone can’t just exist without some mind conceiving them. And so that brought him, that’s your philosophical idealism, moving from there to some kind of religious idea. He looked at different religious ideas. Pantheism was one he liked for a little while, but not a very long while. He began to see the problems with pantheism. One of the big ones is it doesn’t really take evil seriously. All is one, so evil and good are just two sides to the same coin.

And so from there he went to the idea that no, there has to be a God. And that finally happened in January of 1930. And by then he was teaching at Magdalen College and he was going to chapel in the mornings. He was not a Christian, but he was convinced that there was some kind of a God, a personal God. And then his love of mythology comes back into play.

When he joined the English faculty in 1925, he made several new friends. One was J.R.R. Tolkien, the new professor of Anglo-Saxon. Tolkien started a reading group to learn old Icelandic and Lewis quickly joined. So did his other friend Nevill Coghill, another Christian. But Lewis and Tolkien began meeting together every Monday morning to talk about mythology and what they loved. And finally Tolkien showed Lewis something he had been working on since the war. And it was in fact this world of Middle Earth and the mythologies behind it and the legends. Lewis thought it was the cat’s meow.

So he and Tolkien grew closer. And finally one night Lewis had invited Tolkien and another literary friend, Hugo Dyson, who was another Christian, who taught down the road at the University of Reading about 30 miles away. They came to dinner at Magdalen College. Now dinner at Magdalen in those days lasted several hours. One course after another and walk between the courses. And then after dinner to go into the senior commons room, that would be the faculty lounge, where they had port and smoked and talked some more. And so it would be 10 o’clock before you finally got away.

They went back to Lewis’s room, talked some more and then went out for a walk within the grounds of Magdalen. One of these grand old colleges with acres and acres of land inside the city within a wall. And as they walked and talked, they were back to this problem of mythology and Jesus. Well, that’s where Lewis had left when he was in middle school, the idea that the Bible is just mythology. And Lewis said, I love the story of the dying and rising God everywhere I find it, except the Gospels. And he said, it’s just that same old mythology that you find in every culture of Baal and Isis and Osiris and Balder the Beautiful and on and on and on.

And as he talked with Tolkien and Dyson. And again, they were taking their time. And by the end of the talk, Lewis said that he realized that the only difference between Jesus and all these other mythologies is that with Jesus, it was the myth that really happened. So in the others, it’s once upon a time. But with Jesus, it’s when there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. And this taxing first took place when Quirinius was governor of Syria. It didn’t happen once upon a time. It happened when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea. And it didn’t happen in some mythological otherworldly place. It happened on Golgotha’s Hill outside the city of Jerusalem.

And so he gave that some consideration. And a few days later, he was riding to the zoo with his brother, Warnie, in the sidecar of Warnie’s motorcycle. And he said when he left their home outside of Oxford, he didn’t believe Jesus was the Son of God. But when he arrived at the zoo, he realized he did believe that Jesus was the Son of God. And he said he hadn’t really been thinking about it along the way. And it was a bit like waking up. And so that’s the short version of the story of this conversion.

And it was one little step after another, after another. And different people played different parts in his conversion. It wasn’t this instantaneous, if you’ve only got one minute to convert somebody to faith, what would you do? That wasn’t what happened. It was a number of people coming into his life at particular moments, at the right moment, and bringing him one further step along.

SEAN MCDOWELL: There’s so many lessons like that that jumped out of your book. You said 1917 to 1931 I think that’s 14 years. It’s relationships. It’s patience. It’s amazing to see he goes from materialism to see cracks in his materialistic worldview. So he’s open to some immaterial reality. And then believes this is a personal being. And then ultimately concludes that personal being is found through Christianity and the person of Jesus in a step-by-step fashion.

Now, the way you told the story could make it seem like if just left there, Lewis’ experience is purely rational and intellectual. But there’s a lot more to it that he writes about and you talk about. In particular, this kind of surprise by joy experience he has multiple times. Talk about that experience and how it rocked him.

HARRY LEE POE: Well, to me, one of the important things is that he noticed it. I think it’s the sort of experience that everybody has from time to time. But we often simply dismiss it. And there was a period in his life during his 20s when he ignored it. He noticed it when he was a child. And when he went up to Oxford, he fell in love with psychology and psychoanalysis. And it was all the rage then. So Lewis was reading lots of psychology in his free time and psychoanalyzing himself. And so he dismissed his experience of joy as a projection. So that’s an important piece of it.

But he tells us that his first memory of it was when his brother took the top of a tin cookie box or the sort of tin can that fruit cakes come in. And he made a little miniature garden with it, with twigs and little pebbles and probably some moss and that sort of thing. And this just, it had an effect on Lewis. It was as though it touched him. And he experienced that sort of thing a number of times in nature. And then he experienced it when he was reading the Norse myths. And he called it joy. But it’s the sort of thing that’s a longing and a pang to it, a deep desire. So it’s not a satisfaction. And he said it’s more like a signpost. It’s pointing you elsewhere. It’s getting your attention. But it’s not the thing in itself. It’s the notification that there is something to long for. And the longing experience is not the satisfaction of that longing. It’s the call to the longing.

And so he would say that he did not have an emotional conversion. That is the kind of dramatic conversion at a revival meeting. But rather it was intellectual in terms of he was thinking through things. But we shouldn’t take from that that his emotions were not involved in it. Because Lewis was a whole person. This is something he was very much concerned with. How do our emotions relate to our intellect? And he wrote an entire series of lectures on that that he published as The Abolition of Man. What’s the relation between the belly and the head? And the necessity of the chest as the intermediary. And there he was using old medieval allegorical language for the intellect and the emotions. And between them is the character, one’s character.

So he was very much concerned for how it all fit together. And a critical part of his conversion came in the mid-1920s. When he decided that Freud was wrong about projecting God on the universe. Because he’d intellectually come to the point of view that there is something other than the material. And that those are not projections. Therefore, he was beginning to realize that his own experience was something outside of himself coming to him. He wasn’t working up those experiences. They suddenly came upon him. And when he tried to work up the experiences, he couldn’t. He never succeeded in creating one of those experiences. They always took him by surprise. And that’s the title for his spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy.

SEAN MCDOWELL: Now you talk quite a bit in the book about his father. And I had no idea that Albert Lewis and he had at least a 14-year plus just broken relationship. So his mom passes away when he’s nine. Talk about this relationship with his father. And one biographer suggested that he kind of became a Christian at the time his father died. And they were connected. Is that true?

HARRY LEE POE: He became a Christian a couple of years after his father died. He became a theist the year after his father died. But I don’t think his father’s death played any part in his conversion. After his conversion, he felt just awful about the estrangement with his father and the part he had played in that. The fact is, C.S. Lewis was not a very nice person before he was a Christian. He was a lovely person after he was. And that’s sort of the proof of the conversion that his character changed.

But before his conversion, he was arrogant. He was patronizing. He was insulting. He thought he was better than everybody else because he was so smart. And on and on and on, he would make fun of people, ridicule people. He was just an awful person. And he had been lying to his father from his teenage years. You know, he just learned the art of how to pull the wool over his father’s eyes, that sort of thing. And he and his brother, Warnie, had been making fun of their father for a long time.

Their mother had great ambitions for the boys, which could never be realized as long as they had an Irish accent. And that’s why she insisted on sending them to England for education, to knock the Irish accent out of them. And hers was an upwardly mobile family. They had well, her cousin was married to a baronet. And so she had great aspirations.

So that’s why once she died, Jack and Warnie were doomed to stay at the English boarding school because Albert Lewis could not go against his wife’s dying wishes, no matter how awful the boarding school might be. But I’ve rambled off away from your primary question, Sean.

SEAN MCDOWELL: That’s OK. It was about his father and the influence his father had on him.

HARRY LEE POE: So the boys then, as their English improved, began making fun of their father behind his back because he had the standard Northern Irish accent. And even they mimicked the way he pronounced potato. And he pronounced it po-day-da, a po-day-da with D’s rather than T’s. And so they started calling their father behind his back the po-day-da bird, the po-day-da. And they would say, you know, and this was in their letters to one another for years until Albert Lewis died. So it was a bad situation.

It came to a head when his father found out just what contempt young Lewis had for him. Came to a head in 1919. Lewis was back from the war and Lewis was taking care of Mrs. Moore, who was the mother of one of his friends from Officer Training Corps just before the war. And he would take care of her, the rest of her life until she died in 1951. Only Lewis didn’t want his father, Albert, knowing the extent of that relationship. And so Albert was sending Lewis money every, you know, every month to sustain him there in Oxford. And a young Jack Lewis was using that money to sustain Mrs. Moore. And he got in a little bit of a financial difficulty.

And while he was home for vacation in summer of 1919, Albert Lewis, who was a little bit nosy, was going through Jack’s papers, his bank account. And lo and behold, he discovered he was overdrawn in his accounts at the bank and Lewis had told his father he was fine. So they had a huge row in which the son pointed out all the failings of the father. And it just devastated Albert Lewis, who assumed that he was his son’s best friend and they would rather enjoy his company than the company of anyone else in the world. And so it was it was devastating.

SEAN MCDOWELL: How do we see his life change after? You mentioned the way he was just arrogant and pompous and mocked people and self-absorbed before? Are there really tangible ways we see Lewis’s character change after becoming a Christian?

HARRY LEE POE: Well, yeah, we have all the accounts of what he was like before. And we have his diaries in which we know his inmost thoughts and attitudes towards other people. And the terrible things he would say about, oh, for instance, he was on a committee that meant that he had to visit Cambridge University. And he said, oh, the professors at Cambridge aren’t gentlemen. This is rabble. And so you’ve got all of that account.

But then we have all the accounts of Lewis after his conversion. And they’re two entirely different people. But here’s the thing. We from — we also know what he struggled with. And for him, his greatest temptation was always pride. And he writes about that in some of his public writing that that pride is the great sin. He mentions that in Mere Christianity. But so much of what you see coming out in The Screwtape Letters is Lewis’s self-examination of himself and his own temptations. And you can look back and see what he was like in the 20s when he took up a new crowd. And that’s one of the episodes in The Screwtape Letters and his attitude towards his mother. And from his letters and his diaries, we know he’s really talking about Mrs. Moore. A very difficult woman. A very difficult woman.

SEAN MCDOWELL: I thought it was really interesting. You mentioned that was the hardest book for him to write because it took a lot of self-reflection on his failures and his regrets, to get in the mind of a demon how to cause pain and misery and temptation in others. I thought that was fascinating.

Now there’s a few lessons that come out of this. One, give people time. Number two, there’s a lot of relationships in Lewis’s life. That you go into depth. They shape his thinking. They shape his character just one step along the time. We can’t get into all of them. But he had this ongoing conversation with Owen Barfield. That if I understood it correctly, they called it like the Great War. Explain what that was and how it shaped Lewis’s thinking.

HARRY LEE POE: Lewis called it the Great War in retrospect. But it was an ongoing conversation that lasted from, oh goodness, in conversation and in letters probably from about 1922 until about 1930. It was this transition period. Lewis, of course, had a Christian background. He’d been to church all his life. He knew the Bible very well. Didn’t believe it, but he knew the information in the Bible.

Barfield, on the other hand, had a secular background. He didn’t know anything about Christianity. Didn’t know the Bible. Never been to church. But they were both coming out of atheism. Barfield got swept up in theosophy, which is an evolutionary theology. It’s not a biblical theology, but there were several evolutionary theologies and philosophies that developed in the early 20th century off of Darwin. This one was developed by Rudolf Steiner. It includes the idea that the whole human race is evolving spiritually and that it involves reincarnation. It involves the group imagination of humanity.

Though Barfield would see the Bible as evidence of earlier spiritual experience, he didn’t see it as definitive, normative, or final. One of his criticisms of Lewis in later years was that Lewis was so tied to the Bible, whereas Barfield was more interested in all the heresies. So Arianism, the Pelagianism, the Cathari, the Gnosticism, all of that. Those were more his cup of tea.

But Barfield’s great contribution to Lewis was what Barfield called chronological snobbery. It’s the idea that our current time is the final word, the last word, and all the old stuff is wrong and bad. That’s sort of a trend of the 20th century and the 21st century. Lewis had fallen into that view that old ideas were bad ideas, obsolete, passe, have no value.

In arguing with Barfield, he decided that there might be old ideas that were good ideas that were discarded for all the wrong reasons. And so this idea that our time is the final time and now we’ve got the real ideas is a mistake. We’re just a blip in time. And so that caused him to rethink old ideas. But that was essentially all that he got from Barfield. Because Barfield, though the dialogue, the argument really, the argument they went into, Barfield trying to convince Lewis of his conception of what God must be like. In listening to that, of course, Lewis wasn’t defending biblical theology. He was just critiquing Barfield’s theology.

And so in critiquing Barfield’s theology, he decided Barfield was wrong and it was pushing him more toward theism. When Lewis did become a theist, he discontinued his dialogue with Barfield. And after he was a Christian, he never again discussed theology with Barfield.

And it was the part of it was just the difficulty of talking to Barfield because Barfield, it was a literary man. But had no philosophical training and yet spoke extensively on philosophical subjects. And it was a mayor’s nest. Lewis just — he couldn’t he couldn’t straighten Barfield’s logic out. It was impossible to talk to him. And of course, Barfield didn’t realize that. But it was driving Lewis just stark raving. It was — the logic was just scattered all over the place.

SEAN MCDOWELL: And so one of the just fascinating things about Lewis is he made genuine academic contributions. He wrote popular works like Mere Christianity. He writes novels, of course, a range of them like Narnia. But he also wrote on kind of relational issues, philosophically speaking, on love. It seems like not only beauty and morality, but this idea of love, what it is and how it fit within a materialistic universe was one of the other things that bothered him. So what were some of his reflections on love that brought him out of materialism and ultimately to become a Christian?

HARRY LEE POE: Well, it was love along with good and evil. It was it was all the same thing. It was all one piece. And so with him, friendship was so important. In 1960, he would publish a book, The Four Loves, and he mentions the erotic love between a man and a wife. He mentions the love between friends, philia. He mentions storge, which is that affection that you have for someone. It’s sort of a parent’s love. But his greatest experience of love in the 20s was friendship. These friendships he had with a number of people. And. He’s studying at this time the medieval literature and writing his great academic book, The Allegory of Love. In that book, he is discussing — he’s exploring this whole phenomenon of love in all its different forms.

And there toward the end of the book, when he’s discussing Spenser’s Faerie Queene, he mentions the fact that Spenser identifies three loves, storge, philia and eros. Well, he’s going to discuss those ideas in several different passages over the next 30 years, but he adds to those agape. That is this selfless, divine love that motivated God to take on flesh and dwell among us and bear our sins. And it’s different from the human loves. It’s different from the natural loves. All the natural loves are corruptible. But agape is incorruptible. First Corinthians chapter 13.

There you go. So yes it was with good and evil. It’s one of those things that you really can’t explain. And to give some context, because we don’t usually look at his academic books. The Allegory of Love is looking at a major problem. On the planet Earth marriage is a business deal. It involves the exchange of property, might be goats, might be chickens, might be Eleanor of Aquitaine’s county in France. Exchange of property. And even today in the 21st century, that’s still how half the marriages on Earth take place.

And in the 11th century, something happened that Lewis says is absolutely extraordinary. And it was the development of romantic love as a positive thing that the troubadours sang about and the development of the love story. And how over the next 500 years in Europe, you went from love, romantic love being mocked and ridiculed as ridiculous to being the object of great stories like Romeo and Juliet. And when he started working on the book in around 1925, 1926, he was still wavering in his materialism. Some days he was an idealist. Some days he was a materialist. Some days he was pushing the envelope towards some sort of deity. It’s not quite as neat as we often make it out. He was wavering back and forth.

But when he began that book, he was definitely not a theist. And in the writing of that book, he became a Christian. So that’s sort of what was his daily work that he was doing. And he was exploring that problem of love. Love is a tremendous problem if you’re an atheist.

SEAN MCDOWELL: Gotcha. Now one of the stories I had heard before reading your book, but didn’t really have the context for it, was this interaction with Thomas Weldon. A professor who, if I understand correctly, was an atheist and makes a statement about the Gospels that just stood with Lewis and was significant in his conversion. Talk about that a little bit.

HARRY LEE POE: Thomas, known as Harry Weldon, nickname, was one of the young fellows at Magdalen College with Lewis. And they hung out together those first couple of years. But Lewis was moving in a different direction. And Weldon was not on that journey at all. Weldon was a virulent atheist. He took great pleasure and joy in ridiculing faith and people who believe such ridiculous things. He was cynical. He was not a pleasant man. He was also one of those people in an academic community who was always aiming at power within the academic community. Lewis wrote about that in his last science fiction book, That Hideous Strength. He wrote about the politics in a university.

Henry Kissinger said that academic politics are so. Oh, what did he say? What did he call them? Not violent, but that idea wicked. So because the stakes are so low. But anyway, Weldon would drop by Lewis’s rooms at night and have a drink and they would drink and talk. And he dropped by one night in the 20s and he said, rum thing about the Gospels. It’s as though this dying and rising business actually happened once. And that blew Lewis apart because coming from Weldon, he was the last person on earth to make a statement like that. But Weldon was recognizing there is something different to the quality of those stories. It’s different kind of writing than mythology. And so that got Lewis’s attention.

You know, all the years we live, we don’t remember very many things that happened to us. But along the way, we remember those significant spiritual experiences. You know, just an odd dropping by in the evening and an odd remark. And yet there it’s emblazoned in the brain. So one more takeaway would be that the primary actor in apologetics and evangelism is the Holy Spirit. He makes sense of things.

SEAN MCDOWELL: It’s amazing, Lewis’s life — He uses somebody who is in theosophy, uses an atheist, uses all sorts of people to ultimately bring him to Christ. But one of the people that I think intrigues most people because they recognize the name Tolkien was the relationship that they had together. Now you hinted at this earlier, but talk a little bit about the role that Tolkien played in his relationship with Lewis and maybe his conversion and or just his later apologetics.

HARRY LEE POE: Well, I think we think of that critical conversation that took place in September of 1931. But that conversation took place at the end of a relationship that had been building for six years. And there had been many conversations. One thing about Tolkien and his faith was he was consistent and his lifestyle mirrored his faith. There was no discontinuity. It wasn’t disjoint. He wasn’t talking one way and acting another. There was a consistency there.

And I think it’s important to add that there were two others who were critical. One was Nevill Coghill, also in the English department. And the third one is Hugo Dyson. And those three men would continue to be close friends of Lewis up until his death. And yes, they were important for his conversion. The first one was really Coghill. And Lewis was surprised by Coghill. Here was a man who was clearly one of the cleverest men in the English program with him. And yet he was noble. He was noble. And that struck Lewis when he was dealing with his idealism. And it was lived out on a day-to-day basis in his graciousness and his kindness and his thoughtfulness. And you contrast that with somebody like Harry Weldon with his cynicism and his power politics and all of that sort of thing.

So they were important in his conversion. But also in the years after his conversion, there’s the term accountability group. There’s a sense in which they were his accountability partners. They met together once a week for years. And they would discuss all sorts of things, all sorts of questions of life. Ostensibly, they were a writing club, the Inklings. And they’d read what they were writing, but then they’d talk about most anything. And so it’s important to have Christian friends who live out the life of faith with you.

SEAN MCDOWELL: That’s another great lesson. I love how in the book you’ll tell the story about C.S. Lewis and then draw out just a philosophical or practical or really an apologetic point. Once Lewis became a Christian, did he decide instantly, ooh, I want to be an evangelist. I want to be an apologist. Because earlier on, as I understand it, he wanted to be a poet and be famous for it. He keeps writing. How did it change the way he thought about his profession moving forward?

HARRY LEE POE: Well, I don’t know that his conversion made him think one way or another about these different things we think about him for. What he did realize was, I have to go back to Magdalen College and be a professor as a Christian. I have to live out the rest of my life. He read The Pilgrim’s Progress four or five times before his conversion. He loved The Pilgrim’s Progress. Again, it’s another one of those stories where you’re changed in the course of the journey.

And so when he was converted, the next summer on his summer vacation, he went back to Ireland to see his friend, Arthur Greaves. In that two-week vacation, he wrote The Pilgrim’s Regress. Fourteen days, he wrote it out. It’s an allegorical telling of his personal testimony. It’s not readily accessible to the average person who hasn’t studied allegory. But the point is, he called it The Regress, not because he lapsed, but because when you become a Christian, you don’t go straight to heaven. You have to go back to the world in which you’ve been living, and you have to live out your faith. For Lewis, I think that was the big thing, that whatever it meant, he was going to live out his faith as a Christian. He was going to live his life, and what he did was an offering to Christ.

SEAN MCDOWELL: Did he suffer at all in the sense of professionally for writing popular works like Mere Christianity or The Speaking Tour when he became famous? Some of these theological popular books, because I’m in academia, I know in certain circles these can be looked down on. I can only imagine in Oxford and Cambridge at this time, there was maybe some jealousy or ways he suffered because of that. Am I reading into it, or are there ways that that’s true?

HARRY LEE POE: No, that’s true. Harry Weldon wasn’t the only one. There were lots of them. Lewis was hated by many people after the war. It’s an odd thing. Lewis did not undertake to write his religious books. He was asked to write The Problem of Pain. He was asked to do the radio broadcasts.

Dorothy L. Sayers said we need a book on miracles, so he did the book on Miracles. Those things that upset people the most were not things that he undertook on his own, but he considered them his duty. This goes back to those values that he found in those medieval journey stories. It was his duty. He had to do it. He was asked to do it, and he would do his duty. He called it his war work.

Yes, I’ve looked at the documents we have related to some of those academic chairs that came open right after the war. The committee rejected Lewis. The idea was, well, he hadn’t done enough important writing. By this time, Tolkien had his second academic chair. He was now the Merton Professor of English, which is more money, more prestige, that sort of thing. But Tolkien hardly did any writing at all. Virtually none. He wrote a couple of very small articles. He did a glossary of terms. He co-edited a book. He didn’t do enough to earn tenure here at Union University. But they criticized Lewis for not doing much when his Allegory Of Love and his Preface to Paradise Lost and his Ballard lectures at Cambridge, all before this professorship came up, are monumental. Allegory of Love, still in print. Preface to Paradise Lost, still in print. And you know as an academic, you’re lucky if your book stays in print for three years. You sell 500 copies to a library and that’s it. Sayonara.

But because he did the definitive treatment. And even if you disagree with him, you have to interact with him this many years later. And so, yeah, they did a number on Lewis. It was most unfair. But he moved on. He didn’t hold a grudge.

SEAN MCDOWELL: You see really early coming through in your book that Lewis is constantly changing his ideas. He defends ideas. He changed them about literature, about theology, philosophy. There seems to be a rooted in commitment to truth to him and a willingness to change his beliefs even if it costs him something. And that really stood out to me even long before he’s a Christian. Does he waver at all after becoming a Christian and second guess his beliefs? And in particular, although you don’t go into this in the book, you talk about problem of pain. When it comes to A grief observed, sometimes I’ve heard the story told that, well, he kind of abandoned his faith and questioned things as he got older and experienced grief on a deeper level.

HARRY LEE POE: Well, that part of his story I tell in the third volume of the biography. I finished writing it. It’s with Crossway now. But it won’t come out until next year.

But, yes, A Grief Observed is the bookend to the problem of pain. In The Problem of Pain, he says upfront, now, I’m not exploring at all what grief feels like. I’m looking at it rationally. I’m looking at the problem of pain rationally. We’re thinking about it. And it’s the idea of thinking about it on a sunny Tuesday afternoon, not in the midst of despair. So you’ve got two ends, The Problem Of Pain and A Grief Observed.

A Grief Observed, he wrote right after his wife died. He wrote it over a two to three week period. Some people have the idea that this is ruminating that’s going on for years and years. It’s the immediate experience of her death. She died the end of July 1960. And one of his friends came to see him at the end of August. And Lewis showed him the manuscript of the book. So it’s his immediate reflection, the shock of the death and those fears that he had. And he never doubted the existence of God. He wondered, oh, goodness, is God really a mean God? And so he’s working through all of that in the midst of the shock.

But a couple of weeks after her death, it’s mellowing out. He’s always going to miss her. He’s always going to be sad that she’s gone. But he’s going to be okay.

SEAN MCDOWELL: That’s really powerful to see that in his life, philosophically wrestled with this. But his willingness, kind of like the Psalms, to just cry out to God in a very raw, real way. And like you said earlier, you just see that in Lewis. He’s such a whole human being. He’s got rationality and imagination and relationships and creativity. And it’s just a fascinating story you tell in this book.

A couple of last questions and we’ll wrap up. Why do you think Lewis has such a lasting legacy? When I look in the top evangelistic and apologetic books, I mean, Mere Christianity, other writings are consistently up there. What do you think it was that set him apart and he continues to have such appeal today?

HARRY LEE POE: I think some apologetics is simply done in the study. People think about ideas and come up with arguments. What Lewis talks about in The Problem of Pain and Mere Christianity and Miracles are from his own experience. Yes, they’re rational, logical presentations. But as I mentioned earlier, they’re really testimony.

Peter said, always be ready to give a reason for the hope that’s in you. And I think his writings have a validity that is particularly powerful because they are rooted in his own spiritual experience. The same can be true of The Abolition Of Man. That one begins with a discussion of a waterfall from a passage in the English poet Coleridge. One tourist says the waterfall is pretty. The other one says it’s sublime. And what’s the difference? The prettiness is your interpretation of something, your regard for something. But the sublime is something that actually grabs you. It’s something that elicits from you awe and wonder. It works upon you.

And this was such an issue with Lewis because that had been his experience of joy. He knew from his own experience that something had grabbed him from the outside. And that values were real. And that they came from some place. And so whether it’s Abolition of Man, Problem of Pain, Mere Christianity or Miracles, they’re all related to how he logically thought about his own experience and his own conversion.

SEAN MCDOWELL: I have so many more questions for you. But let me just ask this last one. As I read your book it really brought some pieces together in terms of evangelism and apologetics. The importance of time, 14 years. The importance of relationships. You just see these patient loving relationships with Lewis. The role of the Holy Spirit. Are there any other just evangelism or discipleship or apologetic lessons that jump out of this? That you want to really just hammer home for people to hear and take from the life of C.S. Lewis?

HARRY LEE POE: I think you’re careful reading. The book has pulled them all out. I mean that over time we have opportunities with people we’re related to. But it’s important that we know our own story. We know our own experience with the Lord. And to realize that it is the Holy Spirit who convinces. And that takes all the pressure off us really. We don’t have to make something happen. That in His time He uses us in ways we don’t even recognize at the moment. And so that can make it a joyous experience for us. A gift to us really. When we’re willing to talk about our faith.

SEAN MCDOWELL: That’s a great way to look at it. I really want to commend your book The Making of C.S. Lewis. I think anyone who’s in apologetics like myself should read it to learn these lessons. Anybody who’s interested in literature and just this person C.S. Lewis. One of the most influential Christians over the past century. I can’t imagine how many hundreds if not thousands of hours it took you to write a 300 page plus book. Just carefully methodically and graciously about his life. I enjoyed it immensely and will be recommending it for a long time.

For Further Reading:

The Trinity Is Not A Problem with Dr. Fred Sanders (Transcript)

Morality, The Lord of the Rings, and Awkward Jokes: Dr Peter Kreeft (Transcript)

At a Crossroads: Jordan B. Peterson 2022 Commencement Address (Transcript)

The 10 Books Nobody Should Be Allowed to Die Without Reading: Dr. Peter Kreeft (Transcript)


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