Important lessons from Lewis and Sayers:
If you are like me you may at times have wondered if you are making an impact for Christ and the Kingdom. You may have despaired of the darkness descending all around us, and wondered if your efforts are worth very much, as evil seems to gain the upper hand. Sometimes all we can do in such a situation is to plead with God: ‘Come quickly Lord Jesus.’
Certainly many of the great saints who have made such a lasting impact would have had similar concerns and similar doubts. Some of them too would have wondered if what they were involved in was really making a difference. A while ago I wrote about A. W. Pink who seems to have had a minimal impact during his lifetime, but after his death he has become hugely influential: billmuehlenberg.com/2021/07/23/notable-christians-a-w-pink/
When I think of great Christians of the past who have influenced me greatly, I sometimes wonder if they had the same sort of doubts about what they were doing as believers. Here I want to discuss two of them: C. S. Lewis and Dorothy Sayers. Early on as a new Christian I was introduced to Lewis and Francis Schaeffer. I soon bought all the books I could find by the pair.
A bit later on I discovered Sayers. Here I wish to speak about a new book and something that struck me while reading it. The book is Dorothy and Jack: The Transforming Friendship of Dorothy L. Sayers and C. S. Lewis (Baker, 2020). Written by Gina Dalfonzo, it looks at the 15-year friendship of these two heavyweight English Christian writers of last century. The friendship ended when she died in 1957.
If you love Lewis and Sayers, you will love this book. I – like millions of other Christians – am of course a massive Lewis fan. Sayers, although perhaps less well known to some evangelicals, was also a very influential Christian, who may be better known for her works of detective fiction, which rivalled those of Agatha Christie.
Dalfonzo notes how on the one hand the two were quite similar: both lived during the same period; both were Oxford educated; both were known as great writers; and both became noted Christian apologists in their latter years. But there were also differences: he had a short but happy marriage, while she had a quite strained marriage; their personalities and temperaments were rather different; when he did become a Christian he was quite eager to share his faith while she shied away from evangelising, etc.
When they did discover each other they became very close friends, although it was mainly carried on through their correspondence. Dalfonzo has gone through these letters and put together an endearing and informative look at the two, and how they encouraged and influenced one another.
Of course if you are familiar with The Four Loves by Lewis, you will see this cross-sex friendship as one of ‘affection’. She was married most of this time while he was a bachelor. But their appreciation and respect for one another is a model of such friendships. Let me offer just one quote on how much she had meant to him:
Jack Lewis’s stepson Douglas Gresham recalls that the first time he ever saw Jack cry was when he heard about Dorothy’s death. . . . Over the years they had helped, educated, guided, teased, critiqued, chastised, defended, consoled, and laughed with each other. He had treasured their correspondence, delighted in their meetings, and after many years had learned to share with her his deepest feelings. In some ways, though he may not have realized it, she had taught him aspects of friendship that even this man who was so rich in friends had not fully understood; by the end, for instance, she had shown him that friends did care something about each other’s personal affairs, after all.
But to return to my opening paragraphs, something in particular struck me rather vividly as I was reading this book – something that I wish to dwell on as it is the inspiration for this article. It involves an incident from 1953 when an angry atheist penned a book attacking the pair and some other notable Christians.
The volume was The Emperor’s Clothes: An Attack on the Dogmatic Orthodoxy of T. S. Eliot, Graham Greene, Dorothy Sayers, C. S. Lewis, and Others by Kathleen Nott. She had written the book to “register her dismay” at the influence of these Christian writers. What especially stood out to me was what Dalfonzo said about this:
“While Jack, Dorothy, and other Christians may have believed that Christianity was on the wane among intellectuals in the 1950s, Nott and many of her fellow atheists saw things very differently. They thought that Christian belief was on the rise – and that this was a dangerous and pernicious trend.”
Militant misotheists like Richard Dawkins have been preceded by folks like Nott. And while believers might think that the light of faith is flickering out in the West, these folks still think it is on the ascendancy, and it must be challenged.
It is good to know that our opponents seem to think we still have so much influence. Dalfonzo goes on to discuss a debate that Nott was to have had with Eliot, Lewis and Sayers at the Socratic Club at Oxford. Eliot could not make it so Nott pulled out, but her friend G. S. Fraser did debate the pair. She discusses the debate and then writes:
There seems to have been a general sense among their audience that Jack and Dorothy came out of the debate triumphantly. But in a larger sense, neither was feeling particularly triumphal. Neither was convinced, as Nott and her allies were, that Christianity was resurgent among the intellectual classes (or anywhere else, for that matter). Instead, both had the sense that they were standing for truths that, while still as true as they ever had been, were falling into obscurity – not just spiritual truths either, but truths of all kinds.
That is exactly how I feel today, and that is why I talked about darkness descending in my opening lines. I too sense a spiritual and epistemological blackout occurring all throughout the West, and wonder if my efforts and those of others are doing much good in turning things around.
Lewis and Sayers felt the same way 70 years ago. One moral of the story is this: the battle for the faith must be fought afresh in each new generation. We all need to keep defending the faith and standing up for truth anew, since the attacks of the other side will keep on coming.
Whether it is an Ingersoll or a Nott or a Dawkins or a Hitchens or some other God-hater, there will always be challenges to the Christian faith, and there will always be the need for apologists and others to take a stand, mount the parapet, and contend for Christ and his truth.
And there will always be the tendency to think that our efforts are not good enough, that the darkness continues to roll in, and that the faith is nearing extinction. Sure, we all know and believe that the gates of hell will not prevail against Christ and his church, but one can become despondent that the tide is turning, that the faith is under real threat, and that all our efforts may not amount to all that much.
But of course everything that we do in Christ’s power and for Christ’s glory IS effective, IS worthwhile, and WILL have an impact. And if hardcore Christian apologists and thinkers like Lewis and Sayers can sometimes wonder if they are on the losing side, then that should encourage all of us.
They may have feared for the way things were unfolding, but if they were with us today, they could take terrific comfort in one fact at least: their writings and their efforts have influenced and blessed countless millions of people. So much of the world is in their debt. Yet folks like Nott are long gone and long forgotten. What lasting impact did she have in contrast to this pair?
So we keep on keeping on. Yes the days are dark indeed, and we can question whether what we are doing is having much of an impact. But we are simply called to be faithful, and to leave the result up to God. That is what Jack and Dorothy did, and that is what we should do as well.