Autumn at home iii – Telling an untold story

November has been remarkable this year. For one thing, the foliage on the trees, now just beginning to gather in drifts by the roadsides here in Ulster, and along the hedgerows, seems to have been painted in more vivid hues than those we have admired in previous years. I can’t find words beautiful enough to describe the colours in this palette. I might begin by reaching for topaz, or turmeric, garnet or cumin, vermillion, or gold. Even these fall short. Still, there are the leaves in all their splendour each morning when I draw back the curtains to let in the light.

C. S. Lewis wrote in The Weight of Glory that ‘These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but … they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.’ When we notice beauty each day in the world around us that we can see, we are being pointed towards hope, towards even greater Beauty and towards better days to come.

November has also brought to our shores a new film about C. S. Lewis’s life, The Most Reluctant Convert The Untold Story of C. S. Lewis. Directed by Norman Stone and featuring American actor Max McLean, Nicolas Ralph, and, importantly, Lewis scholar Michael Ward, the new film is a screen adaptation of a play by Max McLean, described as ‘a truthful, richly textured and witty account of religious conversion.’

The Most Reluctant Convert, which opened in Belfast, the city of Lewis’s birth, on Sunday 14th November, traces Lewis’s spiritual biography. His conversion to Christianity was fundamental to the development of his life and writing, and merits our attention. The journey takes Lewis from an Ulster Protestant upbringing to atheism at age 14, to theism, and ultimately to faith in Christ. Clive Staples Lewis, born in Belfast in 1898, was to become one of the Twentieth Century’s most well known Christian thinkers and apologists.

The film draws deeply on Lewis’s own words. He told the story of his conversion in his book Surprised by Joy, and wrote of it elsewhere. As a young academic in Oxford, Lewis encountered Christ in Scripture and in the lives of colleagues and friends. He pointed, for example, to a long conversation with J.R.R Tolkien, creator of Lord of the Rings, and Hugo Dyson; discussions that lasted long into the night. Eventually, Lewis came to see that, in Christ, all of the shadows of truth reflected in the pagan myths he had been reading had achieved full reality. He came to see, as he wrote to his childhood friend Arthur Greeves, that the ‘story of Christ is simply a true myth…but with this tremendous difference that it really happened.’ Christianity, for Lewis, was God expressing Himself in a language that is adequate to our human condition, a language of real things: the actual incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.

Lewis’s wife Joy once described him as a ‘tough Ulsterman…half Scot, half Welsh’. His deep affection for Ulster, with its towns and villages, seascapes and landscapes, infuses his writing. He wrote that for him, Heaven would be lifting Oxford out of England and setting it down somewhere in County Down or in Donegal! Lewis would bring his wife Joy on honeymoon to Ulster in July 1958, and she loved seeing with him ‘the blue mountains, yellow beaches, dark fuchsia, breaking waves…peat smell, and the heather just beginning to bloom’. Joy died of cancer just two years later.

Lewis was born into the ‘Protestant Ascendancy’, Ulster families who had gained prosperity through industry, ship building and linen production. Lewis’s mother Flora, who attended Methodist College, and later the Queen’s College, now Queen’s University, in Belfast, was a daughter of the rector at St Mark’s Church, Dundela in East Belfast. His father Albert, who attended Lurgan College, was a lawyer. Albert and Flora were well read, and counted a number of cultural figures and educationalists among their friends, including the McNeill family associated with Campbell College, and William Patterson who complied ‘A Glossary of Words and Phrases used in Antrim and Down’, published in 1880.

C.S. Lewis lost his mother when he was just 10, and afterwards was sent to boarding school in England. His father died some years later in 1929. However, he remained close to his brother Warnie who came to live with Lewis in Oxford, and his childhood friendship with Arthur Greeves one of his neighbours, a Plymouth Brethren family in East Belfast, would last a lifetime. Arthur’s family owned the linen mill at Conway Street in West Belfast. The two exchanged letters from 1914 until the closing days of Lewis’s life in 1960. Their correspondence includes a lovely mix of local gossip, family and neighbourhood updates, and multiple references to reading. But Lewis and his friend Greeves explored more personal issues too, like bereavement and spiritual matters, including Lewis’s conversion to Christ, the topic addressed by the film.

Lewis’s letters to Greeves reveal that he read widely and voraciously, and in several languages. Certain formative influences emerge, most notably Scottish writer George MacDonald. Lewis loved MacDonald’s work, as he explained to his friend Arthur in Belfast, because of its fairy tale quality, its melodrama, and what he called the ‘direct preaching’. Being from Ulster, Lewis also felt at home with the Scottish language in the dialogue MacDonald used. But perhaps most importantly, MacDonald’s work bridged, for Lewis, the worlds of the imagination and of the Christian faith. In fact, reading Phantastes, he said, ‘baptised’ his imagination even if the rest of him took a little later to follow.

According to Alister McGrath, ‘Lewis was quite simply a champion of literature and its place in human culture and learning’. It is my privilege to read Lewis’s work with my students at Stranmillis University College in Belfast. They are student teachers, and we have enjoyed exploring together not only The Chronicles of Narnia, but also Lewis’s thinking about the role of the imagination, and the power of reading and writing. Most recently we spent valuable time in analysis of the Epilogue from ‘The Weight of Glory’.

Although it was Cambridge University my own alma mater that would make Lewis a professor in the end, and although he wrote very successfully there, he made his home in Oxford. It is the ancient city of Oxford, the place of Lewis’s conversion to Christ, in which the new film is largely set. For me, the most memorable moments in the film bring Lewis’s words to new life. For example, his powerful and poignant statement on the value and significance of each and every individual human being and his or her potential for good or evil:

‘There are no ordinary people. You have never met a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.’

C.S. Lewis. The Weight of Glory.

In bringing us closer to Lewis’s inner world, the film does not disappoint. His spiritual story lifts hearts and minds from the vicissitudes and darkness that we often experience in our contemporary world. Under the shadow of conflict and personal loss, as the film recalls, Lewis’s own day was troubled also. But his story directs our attention to ‘news from a country we have never yet visited’.

It is important for us that this story is told, not only in London and Oxford and Cambridge and New York, but here in Belfast, the city of Lewis’s birth. It is a homecoming that we treasure.

Thanks to artist and sculptor Ross Wilson for his permission to use this image of his sculpture ‘The Searcher’ that stands in East Belfast, close to
C. S. Lewis’s family home.

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