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C.S. Lewis, Wartime and Britain

Aug 30, 2009

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.

Image of C.S. Lewis In A Time Of War
C.S. Lewis In A Time Of War by Justin Phillips Amazon logo

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)

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12 Responses to C.S. Lewis, Wartime and Britain

  • You may have noted it in the past but it’s worth noting again that Lewis died peacefully in the UK on the same day that JFK died violently in Texas.
    John Angelico

  • Several years ago, a small band of us founded Perelandra College, so named in honor of C.S. Lewis. Our programs in Writing seek to promote the gifts of imagination, reason, and honest compassion Lewis embodied.

    So I thank you for the wise and informative post.

    Ken Kuhlken

  • 1. Bill when you write articles like this one that gives goose bumps on top of goose bumps you may not be aware of the chain of events that are set in motion. In looking for the above mentioned book I have just bought a CS Lewis Signature Classic (7-1). Lucky for me we are living in an age where we don’t have to take responsibility for our own actions so I’m sending you the bill for this emotionally motivated purchase. I just need your address please.
    I was born in the UK just after the war and moved here in 1962 with the family. My dad had little pride for England but appreciated Churchill’s leadership. He loved Australia though and would have been prepared to give his life for this country. I remember as a youth in England, she was not thought of in terms of greatness by the common folk. In the 50’s people seemed to be depressed, at least where I was and there was little sense of pride. There was little interest in Christianity and people were very cynical towards politics. Two world wars must have taken their toll on moral. But England needed people like CS Lewis and Reece Howells as well as Sir Winston. What courageous people Britains were in the face of pending disaster. Despite being saved from a military disaster though England seemed to turn her back on God and her polities dealt treacherously with Israel. I wonder if she will ever recover.
    P.S. I’ve courageously decided to take responsibility for my purchase decision Bill. Thanks for a stirring article.
    Keith Lewis

  • Thank you, Bill, for this astounding account of C S Lewis.
    Is it a summons to pray for such national leadership?
    Martin Lloyd Jones graduated from medicine to influence UK for God. Hudson Taylor went to China to lay the structure for the present awakening.
    India ‘s Bahkt Singh taught vast numbers, including 2 million at his memorial service.
    Romania produced Richard Wurmbrandt. Who prayed?
    Chuck Colson (White House) structured Prison fellowship, remodelling lives in Christ. Bill Bright’s missionary vision was vast, while Ralph Winter gave a new concept of missionary enterprise. Billy Graham reached more than any other for Christ. Luis Pulau touched the Hispanic world for his Lord. Edwin Orr (3 earned doctorates) researched 300 areas of actual revival. Falwell and Kennedy can also be mentioned.
    Harrold Steward

  • Thanks Keith

    Hey, any time you buy a C.S. Lewis book it is money well spent!

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • I was at the Nunawading Library and was in the religious section. A woman asked for assistance from a librarian, as she was apparently doing an essay on the non-existence of God. The librarian pulled out a book which was about christian responses to hitchens or dawkins and said ‘don’t get me started on christianity”. After she had left i said to the woman “after you have done that, read CS LEWIS’S Surprised by Joy to get a another perspective”. She looked quite shocked and mumbled “thanks”. That book was helpful to me in my formative years when I was questioning my faith. I also like the fact that it’s title is also a tribute to his wife Joy Grescham who he married and nursed when she was dying of bone cancer.
    Wayne Pelling

  • I have recently received this alert from Steven Green of Christianwatch.

    “The BBC’s Songs of Praise is ‘Music and worship, featuring members of the public in song in churches and chapels across the UK.’ It is the BBC’s flagship Christian programme, and is at its best edifying and uplifting.
    Despite the BBC’s perverse appointment in May this year of Muslim programme maker Aaqil Ahmed to be Head of Religion and Ethics, Songs of Praise has kept its format of hymns and interviews with local Christians as it moves around the country.
    On Sunday 6th September, Songs of Praise comes from Southwark Cathedral and presenter Diane-Louise Jordan visits the area. Of all the people the producers could invite on to the programme, they have chosen the dreadful Jo Brand ‘who reveals an unexpected spiritual side’.
    From what I have seen and heard of her, Jo Brand is a foul-mouthed, self-absorbed, anti-Christian comedienne who came to fame with jokes about menstruation in an act laced with anti-male bile. She is crass and crude, but the BBC think she is ‘edgy’, so they regularly put her on programmes like ‘QI’, ‘Have I got news for you’ and ‘Never mind the Buzzcocks’.
    Ten years ago, in The Independent, she characterised Christians as either psychotic or smug, which is ironic considering that while her own misandry may not stretch to madness, she fairly reeks of self-satisfaction. If Labour Party stalwart Jo Brand has a spiritual side it will be remarkable if it boils down to anything other than a feminist/socialist manifesto.
    In fact, a far better work is being done quietly just yards from Southwark Cathedral than all Jo Brand’s potty-mouthed oeuvre. At St Thomas’ Hospital, surgeons and nurses are trying to save the lives of babies with heart conditions. The struggle for life and the tragedy of death are daily realities. How does a surgeon cope knowing that many of his patients will not survive? How does a nurse tell parents their baby is dying? How does the hospital chaplain help the bereaved face the future?
    These questions and the responses would surely have provided a far better testimony on Songs of Praise than giving a platform for the ramblings of a fashionable non-believing celebrity.
    God is a God of miracles. After twelve years of marriage and now having two young daughters, perhaps she has repented of her sins and turned to the Jesus whose followers she ridiculed that time in the Indy. Sorry, but I am not counting on it. Call me lacking in belief, but my faith stops at walking on water, raising the dead and feeding the five thousand. Still, perhaps I shall be pleasantly surprised.

    Whenever I complain to the BBC ( whilst at the same time praising it for its good programmes such “Coast”), concerning its blatant gay and atheist propaganda, the stock answer is that they have to cater for the masses and that if I don’t like what is on the box I can always turn it off. Recently I was told in so many words that the views of the elderly ( anyone over 60) were no longer of any relevance and that perhaps I should just listen to the radio!

    In the reception area of BBC Broadcasting House there hangs a commemorative plaque that reads:

    This temple of the arts and muses is dedicated to Almighty God by the first Governors in the year of our Lord 1931, John Reith being Director-General. And they pray that good seed sown may bring forth good harvest, that all things foul or hostile to peace may be banished thence, and that the people inclining their ear to whatsoever things are lovely and honest, whatsoever things are of good report, may tread the path of virtue and wisdom.

    This is obviously inspired by Philippians 4:8 and whenever I have point this out to them they have no answer.

    http://www.christianvoice.org.uk/

    David Skinner, UK

  • The Office of Communications (Ofcom) is the UK regulator for both broadcasting and telecommunications. It is the body to which consumers can appeal if they think that the media are abusing their power or breaking laws.

    Thursday, September 3rd, the public, via the group of lawyers who defend Christians being discriminated against, called Christian Concern For Our Nation (CCFON), were warned to fill in a consultation form that had to be in by 5.00 p.m. on the following day, the 4th September.

    The CCFON asked us urgently to respond to the Ofcom Broadcasting Code Review on “Sexual Material” Rules. Their message was,

    “In our opinion, the primary aim in the broadcasting of sexual material should be to protect children and those under 18 years of age. In order to provide adequate protection for children and the under 18’s, neither “strong” sexual material, nor “adult-sex” material should be broadcast on television. Whilst as Christians we do not believe that such material should be broadcast at all, as a minimum protection they should be reserved for adult channels which have mandatory access restrictions such as encryption or pin codes. We apologise for the short notice of this request, but we only recently became aware of the consultation. It is important to respond to this consultation in order to prevent young minds and hearts from being polluted.
    We would appreciate your taking the time to respond, in order to try to make a difference to the type of sexual material that is broadcast daily. The Ofcom Code plays an important role in what is allowed to be broadcast on TV and radio. The deadline for submitting responses is Friday, 4th September at 5 p.m.”

    Listen up folks, whenever the government kindly invites us to respond to a “Consultation” you can bet your bottom dollar that this is merely a Public Relation exercise and that it has already decided what it will do, regardless of any “Consultation.”

    Realistically how many of the public who are already stressed out, distracted and confused, concerning life in general, are going to put themselves through reading reams of legal abstractions, especially if they are asked to do it within 24 hours?

    The Consultation can be found here:

    http://www.ofcom.org.uk/consult/condocs/bcode09/main.pdf
    For comparison purposes, Section One of the current Code can be found here:
    http://www.ofcom.org.uk/tv/ifi/codes/bcode
    The current guidance notes can be found here:
    http://www.ofcom.org.uk/tv/ifi/guidance/bguidance
    Please see how to respond to an Ofcom consultation here:
    http://www.ofcom.org.uk/consult/condocs/bcode09/howtorespond
    In order to respond to this consultation using the online form, please go to:
    http://www.ofcom.org.uk/consult/condocs/bcode09/howtorespond/form

    I can think of one appropriate response to this so – called consultation process; it is not filling in a form. I wonder how C.S. Lewis would have responded.

    David Skinner, UK

  • I couldn’t stand a bar of Lewis when I was young. Now I admire him and read him fairly often. Another broadcaster-intellectual that I disliked was C.E.M. Joad, an atheist who converted to Christianity. It is interesting to re-read authors from one’s youth to see how one’s feelings have changed. Nietzsche is now an abomination, and Santayana still spends pages saying very little but saying it beautifully. Frustrating as ever. Then there is Chesterton. Indispensible.
    John Snowden

  • Yes, this is a good book, which I came across a while ago. The BBC was, indeed, a truly great, civislising, enlightening (in the best sense) organisation – once.
    John Thomas

  • I saw a book called Joy and C.S. Lewis: The Story of an Extraordinary Marriage by Lyle W. Dorsett in a 2nd hand book store. It was only $1, so I grabbed it! I’m half way through.

    On the back cover, it mentions a film called Shadowlands which retells the unlikely love story.
    I expect you’ve seen the movie – do you recommend it? A quick check tells me my public library has it.

    Annette Nestor

  • Thanks Annette

    Actually there is more than one version of the film. The 1993 Hollywood version starring Anthony Hopkins is not as good in demonstrating his Christian faith during this ordeal. The older 1985 BBC film, Through the Shadowlands, starring Josh Ackland, was much better. See here, eg:

    http://www.amazon.com/C-S-Lewis-Shadowlands-Joss-Ackland/dp/B0002US528/ref=sr_1_2?s=movies-tv&ie=UTF8&qid=1326947641&sr=1-2

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

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