Britain has not always been a relative basket case. It was indeed a great nation not all that long ago. During the Second World War it produced gallantry, bravery and heroism. Not only leaders, such as Churchill, stood tall, but the common Brit, faced with huge challenges and dangers, managed to rise to the occasion.
Seventy years ago Germany invaded Poland, putting Britain on a wartime footing. Kids were shifted out of London, rationing and hardships ensued, and the Battle of Britain was soon underway. Especially severe was the terror of The Blitz, the intense and sustained eight-month bombing campaign by the Nazis which the nation endured. The character and resilience of the British people during this difficult period was a glowing example of English greatness.
Winston Churchill was certainly a lion-hearted stalwart during this period. His many speeches were stirring stuff indeed. One of his speeches, broadcast on the BBC on 18 June, 1940, was a tremendous rallying cry to the nation. In part he said:
“The Battle of France is over. The Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization… Cold fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war… Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth lasts for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour’.”
Churchill was not the only one to use the airwaves to mobilise and embolden a nation. Oxford don C.S. Lewis also famously made use of the BBC to present a number of riveting talks during the war. His religious talks, which were eventually turned into one of his most famous books, Mere Christianity, were a turning point for religious broadcasting in the UK.
The whole story of his wartime talks is nicely presented in Justin Phillips’ C.S. Lewis in a Time of War which I just picked up the other day (HarperCollins, 2002). In it the radio talks which galvanised a nation are set in their proper context, and refreshing new glimpses into the man and his mission are gleaned.
The BBC back then was a different kettle of fish than it is today (now it is much more secular, with a Muslim recently appointed head of its religious programming). It featured copious amounts of religious – that is, Christian – broadcasting back then, and saw it as part of its duty to do so.
Lewis had just penned The Problem of Pain in 1940. BBC’s religious broadcasting director James Welch was quite taken by the work, and determined to get Lewis to use broadcasting as the nation grappled with issues of war and suffering.
Welch wanted something new – not just the usual clerics, but a layperson who could deliver popular theology and speak intelligently and forcefully to the issues of the day. Of course while Lewis was a well-known and much respected university lecturer, the transition to radio would be a big jump.
Lewis took some convincing, but eventually agreed to do the talks. Debate over just what would be covered and how took place, but eventually a series of five fifteen minute talks were delivered in August and September of 1941. Entitled “Right and Wrong: A Clue to the Meaning of the Universe,” the talks were an instant hit.
The great success of the talks can be measured by the amount of correspondence he and the BBC received. And Lewis was the sort of person who sought to answer every single letter – even that of his critics. His letters to just one person – Arthur Greeves – fills a volume of 600 pages.
Three more series of talks were delivered over the next three years. Each set of talks were soon turned into booklets, but it was 1952 when Mere Christianity appeared, containing all the talks, with few extra changes or additions. That book has gone on to become one of the great works of Christian apologetics of the past century.
The BBC was eager to have Lewis do many more talks, but a busy university commitment, along with other tasks, kept Lewis far too busy. But the broadcasts turned Lewis into a well-known figure. Indeed, his books and broadcasts turned Lewis into an international figure.
His books – theology, apologetics, children’s stories, and literary criticism – sold exceedingly well. A year 2000 estimate put the number of his books sold worldwide at over 200 million copies in over 30 languages.
The number of people who became Christians as a result of Lewis’ radio talks and books, and who were strengthened in their faith – intellectually as well as spiritually – would be impossible to determine. But Lewis would surely be one of the most influential Christian apologists of the past century.
Of course not everyone liked his broadcast talks. Some believers objected to his “mere Christianity,” and skeptics and rationalists turned him into public enemy number one. The free thinker magazines poured contempt on the man, but most Brits found him to be a voice of wisdom and common sense.
As Phillips says of his legacy, “Lewis restored an intellectual respectability to Christianity in a culture which thought it had rejected it and left it behind. He rendered complex doctrine and ideas comprehensible. He demonstrated that Christian teaching and values were still relevant to the most complex ethical dilemmas. . . . Through Lewis, a Christian orthodoxy that is non-denominational yet true to biblical Christianity has permeated far and wide.”
Of course he was not alone here. J.R.R. Tolkien and Dorothy Sayers were some of the other influential British Christians who made a real impact on wartime and post-war Britain, and the rest of the world. “Lewis and the other Christian writers had rehabilitated the Christian faith and given it a massive intellectual thrust into British culture as a whole.”
While political leaders of the stature of Churchill were indispensable to help the Brits get through the difficult days of the war, so too was the moral, spiritual and intellectual leadership of Lewis. It is often the case that when times are the bleakest, God raises up vital leaders to see people through the darkest of hours.
Providentially, CS Lewis was raised up, and his BBC talks, along with his books, have made a tremendous difference, in both difficult times and in times of peace and security. May many more Lewis’s be raised up for the days ahead.
(Justin Phillips’ C.S. Lewis in a Time of War is available in Australia at Koorong Books)