As a child, I was aware of “The Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe” mainly through a cartoon film version. I never read the books.
It wasn’t until 18 that I, about to embark on the adventure of my adult life and looking for deeper meanings to guide me, bought and read “Mere Christianity.” I remember the cover, a cartoonish depiction of the nativity. Reading it, I found Lewis’s explanation of the Christian faith compelling, imaginative and engaging, and adult. I could engage with this, on my own terms. This was a break and a development from the learned Church going of my childhood. This included being a member of the choir, which I detested, all silly robes and bullying senor servers. At its best it was the ‘cultural Christianity’ of village churches that even Richard Dawkins feels to be part of his heritage. But I did not feel this could guide or sustain me as an adult newly launched on the world.
Lewis changed all that. In “Mere Christianity” he wrote of an adventure inseparable from daily lived reality, but underpinned by wonder. I can remember reading for the first time his culminating vision of the light breaking in, and being clothed in wondrous new forms. This felt like some kind of bookmark being placed in my soul, or a score being made in my mind.
Next I read “The Great Divorce,” Lewis’s vision of the after-life. Again I found the imagery to be logical and compelling, adult and not condescending. The story of a land where you become more real or solid as you journey on, so the grass no longer pierces your feet, stayed with me, as did the themes of personal responsibility and choice. People, of their own volition, refuse to leave the Purgatorial town where Lewis’s journey starts, preferring the known to the unknown. Or they get to the new land and flee. Rather than St Peter playing some kind of celestial bouncer, people do this for themselves by the choices they make.
“The Screwtape Letters” was probably my next read, but I can’t be sure. The ebullient comic tone and deadly seriousness of what is at stake (the fate of a soul) and the epistolary form, give an intensely readable dynamic. Stand out moments include the protagonist being encouraged by his demon to caricature his fellow Church goers by their appearance and by default the Christian faith, and the fate of unsuccessful junior demons to be lunch for their seniors.
In the next few years I took in “Prayers, Letters to Malcom,” “Reflections on the Psalms,” “The Four Loves,” “The Problem of Pain” and “Surprised by Joy.” All the while I enjoyed engaging with what Lewis had to say, and his skills as an apologist. But nothing quite had the same impact on me as “Mere Christianity,” and “The Great Divorce.” It was the feeling of breaking new ground, of a new adventure opening up. The gift Lewis gave me was to engage with the Christian faith for the first time as an adult, something I continue to do, and for that I am forever in his debt.
And I still haven’t read the Narnia books.