(Photo by John Chillingworth/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

C. S. Lewis: The making of a reluctant Christian superstar

Rev. Steve Morris identifies Lewis’s experience at a remote World War Two airbase as defining the way of talking to regular people about the spiritual life

Artillery Row

On 8 September 1947, C.S. Lewis, Oxford don, author and broadcaster graced the cover of Time magazine with a featured article called “Don v Devil”. It certainly was a turn up for the books. It was an acknowledgement of his fame as a Christian celebrity; a fame that caused Lewis no end of misery.

In 1941, Lewis’ ubiquity seemed a long way off indeed. He had been taken on as an itinerant speaker traveling around RAF bases, explaining the Christian faith. Lewis said it was his “war work”. It was very demanding work with a great deal of travel and many bumps along the way. Early in that ministry, a chaplain at two bomber squadron aerodromes in Norfolk wrote a letter asking if he would come and speak at the bomber aerodromes he was looking after.

The RAF chaplain was Stuart Barton Babbage, who went on to a very successful career in the church and in theological education. But this was early in Babbage’s ministry and I don’t imagine he expected to get a reply from Lewis. But Lewis did write back, on a torn scrap of paper, and offered to come.

It certainly wasn’t an easy place to get to. It involved rail travel, third class and in with the regular troops, and took a good deal of time and effort. Traveling across those desolate fens during wartime wasn’t a recipe to raise the spirits. What’s more, Lewis was walking into a situation of great peril and anxiety for those air crews.

In 1941 they were taking very heavy casualties bombing heavily fortified targets in Germany and France. On average, a man would be killed or lost in action before the end of his 13th raid. What’s more, the men were well aware that they had little chance of surviving the conflict. Babbage explained the conditions at the aerodrome. The aircrew were well aware of what they were facing and desperately wanted to “live and know what it is to be loved and to love”.

Lewis was unsurprisingly nervous. He was used to “the cut and parry of prolonged and fierce masculine debates” with fellow academics and thinkers. But he had little experience speaking to, and communicating with, the common man, although he wasn’t of particularly elevated birth.

Lewis became the second most recognised voice on the BBC radio during the war

He arrived on a Saturday morning and Babbage took him over to one of the aerodromes. Lewis was to speak at a parade service, something he grew to hate. The parade service sometimes had 1,000 men, all of whom had to attend. Although he used simple words and good examples the men, we are told, were “not turned on”. It was a very tough audience, the men were standing in the open air – the acoustics were poor, and they didn’t want to be there. After the parade service, Lewis was miserable. He felt that he had failed and that this wasn’t playing to his strengths. He must have very much wished that he was back in his beloved Oxford.

Lewis and Babbage had some strong debates around how to handle the whole issue of death; with the chaplain going for something that was a little twee while Lewis felt that that the horror of death should be tackled straight on.

Thankfully the tide was about to turn.

Lewis’ accommodation was in the officers’ mess where he had a small room. It was an awkward place to be. The men were quiet and preoccupied. Babbage described them as “clammy and full of dread”. Lewis would have experienced the sense of doom around him. He must have been touched by it. Remember that he had served and been wounded in World War I so he knew something of the terrors of the battlefield. It may have brought back some horrible memories of his own wartime experience.

I wonder in what frame of mind Lewis was when he was taken to the small and beautiful timbered small chapel where he was to address the evening service? The chapel was interesting because the lectern was made of wood that had bullet holes in – the result of a German strafing of the base. That lectern was deeply symbolic of the suffering and pain that the men were going through.

In the lonely wastes of Norfolk, Lewis began to find his voice

Babbage told him that it was very difficult to get the men to come to services and talks of their own volition. The problem was that for the working-class men there was a great stigma, even taboo, about going to church and many felt they couldn’t express their faith. The majority of people at that chapel service in the evening would have been officers, but not exclusively. For the non-officers in attendance, it probably meant a hard time when back in barracks. Lewis said to Babbage in a quiet voice, “It might be helpful if I told them something of what it has cost me to be a Christian.”

Lewis stood at the lectern. He looked dishevelled in his baggy suit with his dumpy frame, bald head and red nose. He didn’t look much, but his talk that evening was electric. He explained to the listeners that he had had to endure ridicule and ostracism from his friends and colleagues at University for his Christian faith. They were happy for him to be a Christian, but much less happy for him to talk about it and live it out.

Lewis was deeply wounded, even lonely. Lewis spoke about Jesus and the humiliation of the cross, the flies and the beatings. He spoke about the cost of faith and encouraged the men to keep going and not give up. Babbage said it was one of the “most personal and intense and passionate talks” that he’d ever heard.

We don’t know much about whether Lewis repeated this approach very often on the airbases. What is clear, however, is that in the lonely wastes of Norfolk and in this tiny chapel, Lewis began to find a voice that would take him from obscurity to being the second most recognised voice on the BBC radio during the war, behind Winston Churchill. Lewis, laymen and don, defined the way of talking to regular people about the spiritual life. You can still hear some of his electrifying talks or read them in Mere Christianity.

Lewis had learned how to speak to everyday people on those remote windswept airdromes

The story of the agony of fame is to be told elsewhere. By the late 40s Lewis was exhausted and was hospitalised for a while in order to recover. His friends were worried about him. He was deluged by letters and calls and sometimes discouraged by hostility. The Time front cover hides a multitude of sins, but it signalled that Lewis had arrived, his time had come, and that he had learned how to speak to everyday people on those lonely windswept airdromes deep in the heart of Norfolk.

Returning to Oxford, cattle class, tired and feeling hemmed in, he could never have imagined his rise to prominence. But it was meeting those men and hearing their stories that made him determined to find a new way of speaking of what makes for the good life. As Lewis reported:

I remember once when I had been giving a talk to the R.A.F., an old, hard-bitten officer got up and said, ‘I’ve no use for all that stuff. But, mind you, I’m a religious man too. I know there’s a God. I’ve felt Him: out alone in the desert at night: the tremendous mystery. And that’s just why I don’t believe all your neat little dogmas and formulas about Him. To anyone who’s met the real thing they all seem so petty and pedantic and unreal!’

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