Oxford and Cambridge professor Clive Staples Lewis (@CSLewis) died in 1963, yet he remains today a celebrated novelist and world renown Christian apologist. [See all his books.] For an introduction to Lewis’s thinking, we invite you to sign up for our free email devotional newsletter, C. S. Lewis Daily.
Bible Gateway interviewed Oxford professor Dr. Alister McGrath (@alisteremcgrath) about his book, If I Had Lunch with C. S. Lewis: Exploring the Ideas of C.S. Lewis on the Meaning of Life (Tyndale House, 2014).
What role did the Bible play in C. S. Lewis turning, as you say, from “an angry atheist in his youth” to the devoted follower of Christ he’s known for today?
Dr. McGrath: The Bible didn’t have a major direct impact on Lewis’s conversion. But he had clearly absorbed a lot of biblical ideas, and these were building up in his mind to bring about a radical change of heart and mind. What is interesting is that Lewis’s own account of his conversion in Surprised by Joy draws on the imagery of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15). Lewis seems to have realized that there was good biblical precedent for what was happening to him!
Did Lewis, who was a scholar in ancient mediaeval literature, view the Bible more as a centuries-old sacred relic or as a living text that speaks to the issues of the modern reader?
Dr. McGrath: Lewis saw the Bible as a living text that spoke to its readers powerfully, reliably, and realistically about the deepest matters of live—such as God, salvation, and heaven. But as a literary scholar, Lewis also had a strong sense that the Bible used literary forms—such as poetry—to communicate God’s truth. For Lewis, understanding how literature worked could help us get a deeper appreciation of some aspects of the Bible, especially parts of the Old Testament. Lewis’s late book Reflections on the Psalms makes this point well.
The Bible is filled with stories. How did that influence his view on the importance of story in a person’s life?
Dr. McGrath: This was really important. Lewis’s conversion took place in two stages: first, from atheism to believing in God, and second, from believing in God to believing in Christianity. The Bible—especially the gospel stories about Jesus—played a critical role in this second part of Lewis’s conversion. Lewis realized that Christianity told a story—a true story—which made sense of every other story that people told about themselves. That had a major impact on the way that Lewis did apologetics. He would retell the story of Jesus in a way that connected up with the culture of his own day and age. Lewis realized that his own story had been totally transformed and redirected when it became part of God’s story, and wanted to help others realize that their lives could be changed as well.
Did Lewis base the character of Aslan (from The Chronicles of Narnia series), especially in being portrayed as a lion, from biblical imagery?
Dr. McGrath: Absolutely. Aslan is the “Lion of Judah,” and Lewis makes it clear that he based this idea on the book of Revelation. Aslan is a “Christ-figure”—a character who evokes ideas about Jesus Christ. At point after point, Lewis uses biblical imagery in his depiction of Aslan, especially his encounters with the children. One of the things that I have noticed in my conversations with people outside the church is that I can use Aslan as a way of introducing people to Jesus, and picking up on some of the themes of the gospels.
What do you mean when you say, “One of Lewis’s great achievements in Narnia is to help us understand that we live in a world of competing narratives”?
Dr. McGrath: When the four Pevensie children enter Narnia in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, they are told different stories about the kingdom. One story they hear tells them that the White Witch is the real ruler of Narnia. It is her kingdom, and she is entitled to rule it. But they also hear another story—that Narnia is the realm of the noble lion Aslan, and the witch is a usurper. When Aslan returns, he will overthrow her and restore the kingdom. Both stories can’t be true! Gradually, the children realize that the second story is right. Lewis wants us to realize that we live in a world shaped by stories. Some are told to deceive—for example, the story that this world is an accident, and that we have no meaning. Lewis wants us to search for, and discover, the true story that makes sense of the world and our lives—the Christian story.
As an example of Lewis’s inclusion of biblical principles in his novels, explain how the “undragoning” of Eustace Scrubb (in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader) relates to the power of divine grace.
Dr. McGrath: Lewis was deeply aware of the power of sin to entrap. He had clearly read Paul’s letter to the Romans, and realized how important this theme was to his own conversion, when God set him free from his slavery to sin. But how could Lewis help others to see this great biblical truth? Lewis decided to tell a story. It’s the story of Eustace Scrubb, a greedy boy who turns into a dragon. (Lewis saw dragons as symbols of greed). Eustace discovered that he didn’t like being a dragon, and frantically tries to become a boy again. He tries to scratch away his dragon skin, but it doesn’t work. Lewis’s point is that sin has so deep a hold on us that we can’t break free. Then Aslan bounds in, and his sharp claws tear away the dragon skin. Finally, Eustace is set free. Lewis wants us to realize how Christ, and Christ alone, is able to break us free from the power of sin. It’s a great example of Lewis’s love of telling stories to make biblical points.
You write Lewis believed Christianity “is at its best when it is rooted in the past and engaged with the present.” What did he mean?
Dr. McGrath: Lewis was worried that some Christians had a very shallow faith, and wanted to help them deepen their understanding of their faith, and their love for God. One of the ways in which he did this was to encourage them to read some of the great works of the past, which he considered to be wise and helpful. This was not about running away from the present, but allowing the wisdom of Christians from the past help us to live better Christian lives today. I think it’s a fair point. Others have read the Bible before us, and applied it to their walks of faith. And we can learn from their wisdom and experience!
Bio: Alister McGrath (ThD, Graduate Theological Union) is Professor of Theology, Ministry, and Education at King’s College London and head of its Center for Theology, Religion and Culture. Before moving to King’s College, he was Professor of Historical Theology at Oxford University and is currently Senior Research Fellow at Harris Manchester College at Oxford. Dr. McGrath is a bestselling author of more than 50 books and a popular speaker, traveling the world every year to speak at various conferences.