THE MOST RELUCTANT CONVERT, C. S. Lewis's Journey to Faith, by David C. Downing. Downer's Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2002. 191 pages, index, bibliography, notes. Hardcover; no price shown.
"I believe in no religion." Clive Staples Lewis, 1916, age 17.
"Christianity is God expressing himself ... ." Clive Staples Lewis, 1931, age 32.
Born in 1931, I well could have said both statements at similar ages. I suspect I have read every published word Lewis ever wrote - many of them several times. In his book, SURPRISED BY JOY, 1955, Lewis himself speaks of his conversion, and it was that book, among others, that played an important part in my own understanding and embrace of the Christian message. So it was with great expectations and anticipation that I began this volume.
The author, a professor of English at Elizabethtown College, has written many articles on Lewis, as well as a book, PLANETS IN PERIL, which studies Lewis's famous Ransom trilogy. He dwells closely on Lewis's inner life, on the factors that influenced his spiritual journey, and on the issues that commanded the attention of his keen intellect along the way.
Lewis did not have a "Damascus Road" experience, of course; those who have had one are fortunate. The rest of us must come to Christ gradually, an unfolding (dare I say "evolutionary?") process. For (Jack) Lewis it was to take a fifteen-year quest, one that led him through strange pathways. Atheism in his youth turned to materialism, mind-matter dualism and the occult, then idealism and pantheism in the 1920s. In the summer of 1929, at age 30, Lewis had a "mystical experience" while riding on a bus (surely as prosaic a setting as one can conceive). In SURPRISED BY JOY, he describes his subsequent decision to "enter in" in these words: "In the Trinity term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England."
Lewis's 1929 conversion experience was, of course, to theism, not to Christianity. He began attending church worship services, but only because he thought he ought to make some overt gesture toward his new philosophical position. In 1929, his mind was taking him where his heart was reluctant to follow. Two years of his quest were to follow. David Downing describes these two years in chapter eight, and does so powerfully. Even knowing the result, I found myself caught up in the narrative, urging Lewis on, almost like watching a baseball game television replay. Two steps forward, one step back, and then, on September 28, 1931, while riding in his brother's motorcycle sidecar to Whipsnade zoo, it happened. In Lewis's own words, "I know very well when, but hardly how, the final step was taken. I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. " David Downing describes his vision of this day in three pages of inspired prose, and there, except for an epilogue, the book ends. But the epilogue, it turns out, has perhaps the strongest message of all.
In the epilogue, one more event in Lewis's life, as recorded by Downing, must be mentioned, for it places a capstone on this remarkable giant of a human being. Lewis was famous, of course, for his imagination. His writings abound with ideas, figures of speech, and stories seldom dreamed of by others. In July of 1963, sick with what would be his last illness, he was in a coma. Awakening, he asked for water. As his friend, Hooper, began to draw it, Lewis suddenly sat up in bed, staring intently at something across the room. He kept on looking, and then exclaimed, several times, "Oh, I never imagined. I never imagined." He then fell asleep with a rapturous expression on his face.
I hope that, at the last breath, we will all have this to say. Yes, this book is a "keeper." I recommend it highly to my ASA colleagues.
Published in PERSPECTIVES, Dec 2002
John W. Burgeson
IBM Corporation (retired)
Denver, Colorado, July, 2002