An elderly academic falling in love with a younger woman who is dying of cancer is an eminently suitable raw material to be processed into a carefully crafted appeal to a sentimental section of the public.
C. S. Lewis was an Ulster Protestant whose father was a member of the Church of Ireland. He turned for a time to a very arid and negative atheism, a rationalist creed that was not wise enough to see that not everything can be broken down into analytical categories. Lewis was persuaded back to Christianity by J. R. R. Tolkien. Tolkien was in fact a Roman Catholic, his mother having been a convert who was rather cruelly ostracised by her Church of England relations. But though it was Tolkien who restored Lewis’s faith, he chose to return to the Anglican tradition by joining the Church of England. And with the zeal of a convert, he immediately became a voluble and rather successful apologist for Anglican Christianity.
People make a big fuss over Lewis, treating him as a sort of latter-day prophet. I’ve always found him a very interesting writer, but also not at all likeable either as a person or a thinker. In him there was very little humanity, and not much humility either. He knew that these were Christian virtues that he was supposed to have, but they remained alien to him.
In works like The Screwtape Letters, he shows much too much enthusiasm over the impending damnation of all of the people he disapproved of. Read as fiction, it is ingenious. But if one were to seriously think that things did happen as he describes them, God allowing personal devils to tempt us into eternal damnation, how could one find this acceptable?
(I wish I could say that such fantasy-vengeance was alien to the true Christian spirit. Unfortunately it is right there in the New Testament, along with many other much more admirable emotions. Christianity is much too open to rival interpretations. I suspect that we Europeans might have been much happier if we’d all become Buddhists instead.)
Shadowlands, originally a play and now a successful Hollywood film, deals with Lewis’s unexpected late romance. But this actually involved a serious ethical problem. The woman he loved had been divorced, and her ex-husband was still alive. Even though it was created to facilitate a divorce, the Church of England has never properly accepted remarriage. By the strict rules of his religion – rules that he had been happy to try to impose on others – Lewis should not have married her.
Alternatively he could have argued for a wider view within the Christian tradition – the Orthodox Church will accept remarriage, after all. But in fact he fudged the issue, did what he wanted without regard for the rules. The play of Shadowlands rather evaded this issue. And the film, of course, ignores it completely. Christianity is a highly marketable commodity, but not if you make life tough for people.
‘Rules must be obeyed – except by me and my friends’. Lewis was indeed a very appropriate Christian prophet for modem times.
This first appeared in Newsnotes for May 1994, in Issue 41 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs. You can find more from the era at https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/ and https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/m-articles-by-topic/.