Archives For Theological Matters

C.S. Lewis and the Stage

December 6, 2018 — 7 Comments

mclean csl.jpg

Sadly, we can’t presently spend an evening with C.S. Lewis . . . but what’s the next best thing?

A week ago my wife and I joined some dear friends at the Seattle performance of C.S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert. It was riveting.

The presentation used Lewis’ own words—from a variety of his works beyond his autobiography—to explain his extraordinary faith pilgrimage. Lewis of course began as a simple, trusting child. Events and educational influences caused him to reject that youthful faith. For many years he was an outspoken atheist.

As God drew Lewis closer to himself, the future author of the Narnian Chronicles resisted fiercely. Eventually he surrendered to the evidence that there most certainly was some creative force. This did not make him a Christian, of course. It was merely a conversion to Theism.

Only later would Lewis recognize just what that creative force is. Not “what,” but more accurately, “who.”

Since the engaging drama focuses on Lewis’ conversion, it does not pursue other topics such as his marriage. (This is obviously due to time constraints, since a full telling of the author’s life would require meals and evening lodging.)

Max McLean himself, founder of the Fellowship for Performing Arts,  does an outstanding job as Lewis. The production team is also superb.

The proverbial icing on the cake comes with an informal discussion following the performance. McLean takes a seat on the stage and fields questions from the audience. Coincidentally, the previous performance location was in Berkeley, where they made the tickets so inexpensive for students that they comprised at least half the audience. McLean’s description of the play’s reception and the serious conversation which followed, was fascinating.

The Fellowship for Performing Arts is based in New York City, but fortunately tours each year. I have written in the past about their insightful performance of The Great Divorce,  which happens to be my personal favorite among Lewis’ amazing corpus.

I strongly encourage you to check out their future dates and locations across the country. Some venues will be treated to The Screwtape Letters this season.

In writing this piece, the question that came to mind was—what would Lewis have thought about having his life brought to the stage. Obviously, he was quite open and vulnerable in sharing his life with others. He made no pretense to holiness, beyond that which he received by grace as a child of God.

Still, having one’s words read is quite different than having yourself portrayed on stage or film. I suspect Lewis would have felt uncomfortable with the latter, and preferred that we stick to literary avenues for learning about him.

It’s not that Lewis was averse to the stage. In Surprised by Joy he describes how one of his favorite relatives assumed some responsibility for Jack and his brother Warnie after their mother’s death. Early exposure to the theater was apparently one element in his “civilization.”

Lady E. was my mother’s first cousin and perhaps my mother’s dearest friend, and it was no doubt for my mother’s sake that she took upon herself the heroic work of civilizing my brother and me.

We had a standing invitation to lunch at Mountbracken whenever we were at home; to this, almost entirely, we owe it that we did not grow up savages.

The debt is not only to Lady E. (“Cousin Mary”) but to her whole family; walks, motor drives (in those days an exciting novelty), picnics, and invitations to the theater were showered on us, year after year, with a kindness which our rawness, our noise, and our unpunctuality never seemed to weary.

We were at home there almost as much as in our own house, but with this great difference, that a certain standard of manners had to be kept up. Whatever I know (it is not much) of courtesy and savoir faire I learned at Mountbracken.

For those who wish to consider more deeply the relationship between C.S. Lewis and the theater, I recommend “Faithful Imagination in Theater.”  The author admits that “quality theatre presented from a Christian perspective is hard to find,” but offers hope from Lewis. The article concludes with a worthy challenge.

There is a great need for more imaginative engagement with “mere Christianity” in theatre. So let’s get to it.

A World Without Evil

October 9, 2018 — 6 Comments

illustration of a sheep with wolf shadow

A world without evil. Most people long for it. Some people pray for it. A few people are fooled into believing they have discovered it.

The good news is that one day evil will be eradicated, and redeemed humanity will enjoy the unmarred splendor of the world the Lord originally desired for us.

Until then, evil is ever-present. It existed before its entrance into our perfect world when our first parents disobeyed God in the Garden. The repercussions of that celestial rebellion continue to echo.

Some, however, are capable of deluding themselves into believing they can experience some sort of perfection. That is at the heart of many cults.

Their false messiahs persuade followers that they are part of such communities. In order to do so, they often move their people far from the “contaminating” influence of other people. In addition to Jonestown in Guyana, there have been utopian-turned-deadly villages in a places like Waco (Branch Davidians) and San Diego (Heaven’s Gate). More recently we’ve seen eleven children rescued from a Taos compound where they were being groomed to become “school shooters.”

Rolling Stone (no conservative publication) reports, “those drawn to these idealistic communities typically enter with the best of intentions. ‘It’s abnormal for young people not to want to make the world a better place . . .’”

The 1840s was a heyday of American utopian communities—more than 80 were founded in that decade alone, including the Brook Farm Community, which existed in Massachusetts from 1841 to 1847, Fruitlands, formed in 1843, and the Oneida Community, which lasted from 1848 to 1880.

Even the open-minded Rolling Stone notes that innocuous communes can grow dangerous. After all, virtually every cult begins with the promise of some version of utopia on earth. And if they don’t turn violent, they eventually peter out and fade away once they realize earthly utopia is a dream.

Caterers of Evil

One does not need to scurry off to a cultic campground to encounter evil. It comes to us uninvited.

I am pondering evil’s intrusions after reading about a naïve American couple who, while bicycling around the world, were killed by an Islamic terrorist in Tajikistan.

It’s a sad story, but ironic due to their misperception of reality.  One had proudly written, “You read the papers and you’re led to believe that the world is a big, scary place. People, the narrative goes, are not to be trusted.”

The idealistic biker once named his scooter after his mentor, the French philosopher, Rousseau. Like Rousseau, he believed in the innate goodness of humanity and presumably in the jettisoning of Christian revelation as an arbiter of truth. This victim of terrorism went so far as to write, “Evil is a make-believe concept we’ve invented to deal with the complexities of fellow humans holding values and beliefs and perspectives different than our own.”

As one British theologian explains Rousseau’s position:

Of course, he does not entirely deny human fallibility, error and capacity for evil. But he treats it as inessential: something that can be understood and moved away from—through trust in the wisdom of the human heart.

The Problem

It is a good thing to remember that many (likely most) people have goodwill towards their neighbors. But minimizing the fact that there are millions of human predators is a dangerous denial.

With 4-6% of American men meeting psychiatric criteria for antisocial behavior, along with 1% of women, it’s a scarier world than even many cynics realize. (While most of the men are mere sociopaths, 1% of the population may actually be classic psychopaths.)

Talk about Naïve—and Ultimately Pessimistic

Last year Cory Doctorow, a celebrated Canadian-British writer penned an absurd article defending utopian thinking. He courageously, but foolishly, ignored traditional idealistic ground and argued that even disasters can have utopian endings.

In a diatribe against the prominent role of dystopias in modern literature, he argues that if we only had a positive view of humanity, we could avoid the collapse of society. “The belief in other people’s predatory nature is the cause of dystopia.”

Doctorow plays it safe by discussing short-term difficulties, without societal collapse. The point of most dystopian stories, however, is exploring what happens once we have exhausted the extra provisions we can share with others when store shelves are permanently emptied.

The idealistic notion is that the power of positive thinking will get us through any potential destructive force. He sounds quite optimistic, until the closing paragraph reveals his self-professed “techno-agnostic” pessimism.

Disasters are part of the universe’s great unwinding, the fundamental perversity of inanimate matter’s remorseless disordering.

Evil Does Exist

Contrary to the notion that “evil is a make-believe concept,” wise people recognize its reality. C.S. Lewis explains the existence of evil quite succinctly in Mere Christianity.

And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having.

For this reason, God allows the existence of evil for a season. In the end, it will be swept far away from the new heavens and the new earth into a dustbin called Hell.

It’s possible a Christian reading this column may feel some sort of pride in being on the “good” side of the equation. Because of this, we must remember it is only by the grace of God that there is anything praiseworthy about us. Let us reflect on C.S. Lewis’ caution about how we must keep our eyes focused on our Lord, lest we too become corrupt.

If the Divine call does not make us better, it will make us very much worse. Of all bad men religious bad men are the worst. Of all created beings the wickedest is one who originally stood in the immediate presence of God. (Reflections on the Psalms)

Finally, although evil does indeed exist, we should not fear it or dwell upon it. Yet it is important that we be forewarned, so that we do not become vulnerable to destructive situations or people. Holding ourselves apart, while keeping our eyes open. As Jesus advises:

“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10:16)

false humility

Normally, whenever writers approach a publisher (or an agent) with a book suggestion, the authors have to prepare a formal book proposal. A key element of the document—especially for nonfiction—is often called “about the author.”

This element is not “biographical;” it is a description of your particular experience or credentials that qualify you to write this book. This is also where you typically share your “platform,” media outlets, etc. where you can promote your literary endeavor.

Publishers don’t expect us to have credentials like those of C.S. Lewis. After all, not everyone becomes a professor at a prominent university.

But what potential publishers do hope, is that we know what we’re writing about, and that we can help them sell it, assuming they opt to invest in the project.

This is a logical consideration for publishing houses, who have more publishing “failures” than bestsellers. That’s not the problem.

The problem is that we are all conditioned not to brag about our accomplishments. In general, that’s a wonderful thing. (Who loves a braggart?) The difficulty is that this natural modesty becomes a terrible handicap when we are in situations where we are required to promote ourselves.

C.S. Lewis builds on the Christian witness that we must avoid pride at all costs.

According to Christian teachers, the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind. (Mere Christianity)

So, we may feel ourselves between the proverbial rock and a hard place. We genuinely desire to be modest, but certain circumstances (job interviews, anyone?) demand that we “toot our own horn.” There is, of course, one thing worse than bragging . . . pretending false humility.

A Real-Life Dilemma

A fair number of Mere Inkling’s readers also blog. Most blogging software sets up sites with a default page built in to share something about the website and its author(s). On my About page, I’ve remained anonymous. It simply describes the reason for the site’s name. The only “personal” note in the original version came in the final sentence.

Accordingly, many of the posts in Mere Inkling will be about writing and Christianity. History and humor are also keen interests of the writer of this column, so they will most certainly be encountered with regularity as well.

Now, however, I’ve discovered that we who’ve used this less personal tack have undermined the visibility of our posts.

I just learned something important on the blog of a Lutheran theologian I respect. He writes as part of the Patheos web community. They boast eleven faith channels, two of which are Nonreligious and Pagan. My friend, of course, blogs on the Evangelical channel.  I want to pass on the opening of yesterday’s column.

Google has some new algorithms, so Patheos told its writers to bolster the E.A.T. factor (“Expertise. Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness”) for our posts. One way to do that is to beef up our biographies on the “About” section of our blogs.

Professor Veith changed his biographical page accordingly. And after reflecting on the matter, I’ve decided to do the same.

Thus, I have added a section on my About page that lists some of my credentials. I am doing this not because of personal vanity, but due to my desire to reach the widest possible audience with a message that not only points to the preeminent Inkling, but also beyond Lewis, to the Lord he served.

You may wish to consider a similar modification, if you have ignored the E.A.T. Factor in the past. And don’t be intimidated by bios such as mine, just as I am not daunted by the summits attained by Lewis. After all, he and I have had long lives during which we experienced these things.

Don’t ignore the fact that a large part of what people accomplish—academic degrees included—is due to opportunity and persistence rather than to innate giftedness. Remember as well we all have unique vocations, and not everyone is called to highly visible positions. I doubt I will be contradicted if I say that in the eyes of God, being a devoted parent is more noble than becoming some nation’s head of state.

Expanding your About page may not be the right course for you, but I believe it is the proper one for me.

One reason I had previously left my page vague is because I intentionally wished to avoid the appearance of bragging. So, as I proceed with this revision for the reason above, I will simply confess to the sin of pride (tempered over the years by God’s grace), and say along with Lewis,

I wish I had got a bit further with humility myself: if I had, I could probably tell you more about the relief, the comfort, of taking the fancy-dress off—getting rid of the false self, with all its ‘Look at me’ and ‘Aren’t I a good boy?’ and all its posing and posturing. To get even near it, even for a moment, is like a drink of cold water to a man in a desert. (Mere Christianity)

Soli Deo Gloria.

xmas cards

Fortunately, Christmas cards are not yet obsolete. Surely, many have substituted electronic alternatives, but even children of the digital age recognize that a personally scribbled note conveys a rare message—

You are worth the timeit takes me to choose a card, inscribe it, address the envelope and send it on its (dare I say, “merry”) way to you.

This pre-Christmas post is appearing so early because many of us are already addressing our Christmas greetings during the Advent season. And so it goes that Christmas cards and paraphernalia will soon usurp the place of other products in our local stores.

Whether you purchase your cards each winter, or wait until those amazing after-Christmas sales to buy them at 70% off, please keep this advice from C.S. Lewis in mind when you choose them.

Send cards that are appropriate for your recipients.

As a rule, if you are a Christian, you should send a card that celebrates the true meaningof the holy day. Naturally, this can be waived if it would cause genuine offense. However, if someone genuinely practices a different faith, why would you send them a Christmas card in the first place? A Hanukkah card, or a secular New Year’s Day or Thanksgiving seasonal missive would probably be more appropriate.

But my opinion is that for those who would not be overtly offended, a true Christ-mass card is appropriate. After all, many cards are quite gentle and inoffensive. For instance, the genre that picture a star (we recognize that celestial light as a Christian symbol during this particular season), along with words like “may you experience the joy and peace ushered in by this holy season.”

What I would encourage you to avoid sending during this time when we focus on the Incarnation miracle, is the sort of pastoral scenes with their innocuous tidings. For example, the happily sleighing family traveling in a conveyance very few of us will ever see. Send them at some other time, if you will, but they have little or nothing to do with the Nativity.

Now it’s fine if you think I’m old fashioned like the dinosaurs we recently considered.

But if you dismiss my opinion, please consider that of C.S. Lewis.

Lewis’ opinions about the commercialization of the Christmas season are well known, and we have discussed them here at Mere Inkling in the past. He, of course, abhorred the secularization of a sacred event. How sad he would be today to witness how Santa has continued to supplant Jesus.

Some will point out that Lewis himself included Father Christmas in his Chronicles of Narnia. This is true, but it is distinct from the modern secular excesses. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Father Christmas more closely resembles Saint Nicholas, in giving gifts and proclaiming the arrival of the King. It’s not accidental that he begins and ends his visit with the children by pointing to Aslan.

“I’ve come at last,” said he. “She has kept me out for a long time, but I have got in at last. Aslan is on the move. The Witch’s magic is weakening. . . .” Then he cried out, “Merry Christmas! Long live the true King!” and cracked his whip, and he and the reindeer and the sledge and all were out of sight before anyone realized that they had started.

C.S. Lewis was a truly devoted correspondent. He wrote back to the many fans who sought him out, and offered thoughtful responses to even the most frivolous queries. The writing was burdensome, and only the assistance of his brother Warnie for many years kept him from being forced to cease his generous practice.

Some of his correspondents were, or became, his friends. In December of 1955, he thanked one of these for the Christmas card he had sent. The friend was Peter Milward, a Jesuit priest. Lewis’ comments are still timely for Christian readers today.

Thank you for y[ou]r letter of Nov. 17. The enclosed card was one of the v[ery] few I have been pleased at getting.

Christmas cards in general and the whole vast commercial drive called ‘Xmas’ are one of my pet abominations: I wish they could die away and leave the Christian feast unentangled.

Not of course that even secular festivities are, on their own level, an evil: but the laboured and organised jollity of this—the spurious childlikeness—the half-hearted and sometimes rather profane attempts to keep up some superficial connection with the Nativity—are disgusting.

But your card is most interesting as an application of Japanese style to a Christian subject: and, me judice [in my opinion] extremely successful.

I hope you will reflect on Lewis’ thoughts on this subject. Christmas is too precious a time to be “entangled” with secular and pagan baggage.

If you send any holiday communiques—even of a digital nature—choose them wisely.


For more on C.S. Lewis and Christmas, read “A New C.S. Lewis Christmas Gift.”

 

prayer

I just added a rare C.S. Lewis book to my library for a very reasonable price, and you can too. But you might want to hurry, since this volume will probably never be reprinted.

The small book is entitled Beyond the Bright Blur. It’s contents will be familiar to you if you have read Lewis’ final book, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer. That is because the former is a prepublication printing of chapters fifteen through seventeen from Letters to Malcolm.

It was published under unique circumstances, and it is thought that only 350 copies were printed in 1963 by Harcourt, Brace & World.

The title of Beyond the Bright Blur is taken from what would appear as letter fifteen in the complete volume. The “bright blur” to which Lewis refers is our imperfect, abstract and remote impression of “God.” He argues that to engage in genuine conversation with our Creator, we must dispel this fabrication.

What happens to me if I try to [approach prayer] “simply,” is the juxtaposition of two “representations” or ideas or phantoms. One is the bright blur in the mind which stands for God. The other is the idea I call “me.”

But I can’t leave it at that, because I know—and it’s useless to pretend I don’t know—that they are both phantasmal. The real I has created them both—or, rather, built them up in the vaguest way from all sorts of psychological odds and ends.

Very often, paradoxically, the first step [in genuine prayer] is to banish the “bright blur”—or, in statelier language, to break the idol.

Lewis’ candid sharing about his personal pilgrimage in prayer is just part of the treasure that is Letters to Malcolm. It is must reading. But, its priceless message is not the subject of this post.

Beyond the Bright Blur, this modest yet sturdy (hardback) tome, stands complete as it is. And it was expressly designed for a small audience. As the flyleaf states, “This limited edition is published as a New Year’s greeting to friends of the author and his publisher.”

The complete book would not be published until 1964, after Lewis had joined his wife Joy in the presence of our Lord. It is quite fitting that the final pages describe the author’s thoughts about the nature of heaven. It concludes with his final glorious epiphany that “Joy is the serious business of Heaven.”

Consider Adding this Gem to Your Own Library

I know that most readers of Mere Inkling share my affection for literature . . . along with my own affection for literature incarnated in its own natural state, physical books.

The wonderful thing is that adding this particular treasure to your personal collection is within your reach. While the price varies due to the respective booksellers and the condition of each copy, AbeBooks.com often include copies for less than forty dollars.

Occasionally an inscribed volume appears on the market, with a corresponding surcharge in the price. As I write this, the copy presented to the poet John Ciardi (1916-86) is available for purchase. While he’s most famous for his translation of The Divine Comedy, he also co-authored a collection of limericks with Isaac Asimov!

The posting says the volume includes his signature on the front end paper and “a paragraph [underlined] in the text in red ink.” Still, a truly unique volume such as this is quite a bargain at less than two hundred dollars—especially if you are a fan of Ciardi.

I suspect Ciardi received his copy as a gift from the publisher. I haven’t found any evidence that he and C.S. Lewis were acquainted. I did, however, uncover one utterly trivial connection between the two. It appears the two shared an illustrator for some of their American editions. Roger Hane, the cover illustrator for the 1970 Collier-Macmillan edition of the Chronicles of Narnia, also illustrated Ciardi’s undated The Morality of Poetry.

 

C.S. Lewis’ Hypocrisy

August 2, 2018 — 5 Comments

hypocrite

If you think the title of this column indicates what follows will be an attack on C.S. Lewis, you are wrong.

On the contrary, the incident described below actually emphasizes the integrity which guided Lewis’ life.

Hypocrisy afflicts us all. It’s hold is strongest, it seems to me, on those who claim they are completely free of the flaw. To paraphrase Jesus’ words recorded in John’s Gospel, “Let he who is without hypocrisy among you cast the first stone.”

It’s quite possible for our own flaws to be invisible to us. However, one of the requirements of being a moral individual is self-examination. The more honestly we can explore and assess our own actions and nature, the healthier we will be.

Some hypocrisy seems rather innocuous. For example in All My Road Before Me, Lewis describes a day in 1922 spent canoeing with his close friend Arthur, and Veronica FitzGerald Hinckley. Veronica was a recent graduate of Oxford.

In light of Lewis’ eventual life’s work, this diary entry is rather ironic:

[Veronica] made one good remark—that an educational career is a school of hypocrisy in which you spend your life teaching others observances which you have rejected yourself.

While academia does host its share of hypocrites, this vice also flourishes elsewhere. Tragically, of all the myriad contexts for hypocrisy, religious hypocrisy is the most ill-begotten.

Naturally, we would assume that basically “good” people are relatively free of hypocrisy. This is true. However, the key to uprooting these sinful influences begins with recognizing them.

In his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, Lewis acknowledges one of his most shameful acts. That it happened before his conversion to Christianity doesn’t lessen for him the wrongness of what he did.

And what was this great crime? It was on the occasion of his confirmation in the Anglican Church. Confirmation is a religious rite in which young people (particularly those in denominations which practice infant baptism) publicly profess, or confirm, their Christian faith. The problem arose because Lewis’ childhood faith had already been extinguished.

My [strained] relations to my father help to explain (I am not suggesting that they excuse) one of the worst acts of my life.

I allowed myself to be prepared for confirmation, and confirmed, and to make my first Communion, in total disbelief, acting a part, eating and drinking my own condemnation.

As Johnson points out, where courage is not, no other virtue can survive except by accident. Cowardice drove me into hypocrisy and hypocrisy into blasphemy.*

It is true that I did not and could not then know the real nature of the thing I was doing: but I knew very well that I was acting a lie with the greatest possible solemnity.

It seemed to me impossible to tell my father my real views. Not that he would have stormed and thundered like the traditional orthodox parent. On the contrary, he would (at first) have responded with the greatest kindness. “Let’s talk the whole thing over,” he would have said. But it would have been quite impossible to drive into his head my real position.

Lewis is sharing with us a sad episode of his life, to encourage us to confess our own transgressions and find forgiveness. After all, the last thing that God desires is people who just go through the motions—hypocrites who are “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power.” (1 Timothy 3:4-5)

A Final Warning

In The Screwtape Letters, we find the mature (and Christian) C.S. Lewis describing the sort of religious hypocrisy to which we fallen creatures are prone. Screwtape, the devil, is here advising his understudy on fostering hypocrisy in his “patient.” He has been telling Wormwood that he should nurture a sense of superiority in the person he has been assigned to tempt.

I have been writing hitherto on the assumption that the people in the next pew afford no rational ground for disappointment. Of course if they do—if the patient knows that the woman with the absurd hat is a fanatical bridge-player or the man with squeaky boots a miser and an extortioner—then your task is so much the easier.

All you then have to do is to keep out of his mind the question ‘If I, being what I am, can consider that I am in some sense a Christian, why should the different vices of those people in the next pew prove that their religion is mere hypocrisy and convention?’

You may ask whether it is possible to keep such an obvious thought from occurring even to a human mind. It is, Wormwood, it is! Handle him properly and it simply won’t come into his head.

He has not been anything like long enough with the Enemy [i.e. God] to have any real humility yet. What he says, even on his knees, about his own sinfulness is all parrot talk. At bottom, he still believes he has run up a very favourable credit-balance in the Enemy’s ledger by allowing himself to be converted, and thinks that he is showing great humility and condescension in going to church with these ‘smug,’ commonplace neighbours at all. Keep him in that state of mind as long as you can . . .

Hypocrisy is a powerful foe. But once it is recognized as the damning lie it is, hypocrisy loses its control over us. We are freed to rebuke it, repent of it, and be healed.

—-

* “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

“Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged.” (1 Corinthians 11:23-31)

C.S. Lewis at Belsen

July 26, 2018 — 4 Comments

belsen school

Boarding schools are somewhat rare in the United States. And that is a good thing.

C.S. Lewis attended three, and he considered two of them to be torturous. The first he came to refer to as Belsen, in reference to the deadly Nazi concentration camp. His older brother, Warnie, had moved to the same school when he too was nine, three years earlier.

The headmaster of Wynyard School in Hertfordshire was an Anglican priest named Robert Capron who was quite unhinged. In fact,

The school that [his father] Albert Lewis, after careful study and deep reflection, chose for his sons was run quite autocratically by a man who had already been prosecuted for cruelty to his students and who, within a very few years, would be certified as insane. (The Narnian)

Honestly, there is a proper place for boarding schools—as long as they are not operated by lunatics.

As I finished seminary, a window opened for my wife and me to serve on the “mission field.” After serious prayer, we told the missions agency that “we will happily serve in any nation, discharging any type of ministry duties . . . so long as our children can remain with us.”

Some people are willing to make even that sacrifice. And they not limited to those in ministry. When I was stationed in the United Kingdom, the United Stated Department of Defense operated its own boarding school for military dependents at RAF High Wycombe. (Canadians attended as well.)

Leaving a Mark

It’s no surprise boarding schools left a deep imprint on Lewis’ psyche. For seven-plus months of the year, they controlled nearly every aspect of his life, from “reveille” to slumber.

He wrote about the repercussions in a variety of places, most notably his autobiography,  Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life. During a recent rereading of the collection of essays in Present Concerns, I enjoyed “My First School.”

The essence of the essay is anticipation—anticipation of good events, such as holidays, and ominous occasions (in this case, the return to the schoolhouse). Before exploring that subject, Lewis sets the stage by briefly describing the grim environment at Belsen.

The Head [Rev. Capron] had, indeed, a grown-up son, a smooth-faced carpet-slipper sort of creature . . . a privileged Demi-god who ate the same food as his father though his sisters shared the food of the boys.

But we ourselves were . . . Beaten, cheated, scared, ill-fed . . .

Later, as a Christian adult, Lewis was able to glean some good even from these demoralizing days.

Life at a vile boarding school is, in this way, a good preparation for the Christian Life, that it teaches one to live by hope. Even, in a sense, by faith; for at the beginning of each term, home and holidays are so far off that it is as hard to realize them as to realize heaven. (Surprised by Joy)

It teaches one to live by hope.

In 1911 Lewis would be sent to a far better school, Cherbourg House in England. It was a prep school for Malvern College where he would follow his brother as a student. Although this school was healthier, it possessed its own shortcomings.

Cherbourg House was the tragic place where Lewis lost his childhood faith.

The chronology of this disaster is a little vague, but I know for certain that it had not begun when I went there and that the process was complete very shortly after I left. I will try to set down what I know of the conscious causes and what I suspect of the unconscious.

Most reluctantly, venturing no blame, and as tenderly as I would at need reveal some error in my own mother, I must begin with dear Miss C., the Matron. No school ever had a better Matron, more skilled and comforting to boys in sickness, or more cheery and companionable to boys in health. She was one of the most selfless people I have ever known. We all loved her; I, the orphan, especially.

Now it so happened that Miss C., who seemed old to me, was still in her spiritual immaturity, still hunting, with the eagerness of a soul that had a touch of angelic quality in it, for a truth and a way of life. Guides were even rarer then than now.

She was (as I should now put it) floundering in the mazes of Theosophy, Rosicrucianism, Spiritualism; the whole Anglo-American Occultist tradition. Nothing was further from her intention than to destroy my faith; she could not tell that the room into which she brought this candle was full of gunpowder.

I had never heard of such things before; never, except in a nightmare or a fairy tale, conceived of spirits other than God and men. I had loved to read of strange sights and other worlds and unknown modes of being, but never with the slightest belief . . .

But now, for the first time, there burst upon me the idea that there might be real marvels all about us, that the visible world might be only a curtain to conceal huge realms uncharted by my very simple theology. And that started in me something with which, on and off, I have had plenty of trouble since—the desire for the preternatural . . . (Surprised by Joy)

In closing with Lewis’ sad slide into atheism, this brief look at his experience in boarding schools affords us a sobering reminder.

Christian parents (indeed, all parents) are quite wise to be cautious about where they have their children schooled. After all, educators also expose their students to their particular worldviews.


I have written previously about education in the column “Were All Valedictorians!

For a brief consideration of Belsen’s influence on the Chronicles of Narnia, turn here.