It’s a sordid irony that C.S. Lewis will perhaps go down in history as one of the 20th century’s great intellectuals—sordid because none of his opinions in fact had much consequence on the period; ironic because he so disliked the fads and fashions that will live on with that age alongside his name.
Lewis was a Christian apologist when the religion’s creeds weren’t taken seriously by even its adherents. A literary critic who thought that books should be read before studied while others in the field wasted their time (and their readers’) speculating on the philosophical implications of authorship. And a scholar of medieval literature when the classical languages were being weeded out of schools and replaced with the more “practical” subjects. If, to his contemporaries’ ears, Lewis sounded out of touch with his time, it was only because he was trying to hold onto things he felt transcended it.
Recently showing at Butler’s Clowes Hall, Max McLean, the founder of the Fellowship for Performance Arts, takes on the story in the The Most Reluctant Convert. The play tells of how Lewis abandoned his faith shortly after his mother’s death from cancer, and how for almost 20 years he had to wrestle with various impulses before reclaiming it.
McLean portrays Lewis’s conversion story through a series of narrated vignettes of principal characters in Lewis’s life. There is his father, a lawyer prone to rhetorical flourishes who exhausts his two sons (C.S. and Warren) with his restrained affections and unrestrained expectations. Lewis’s private tutor, William T. Kirkpatrick, who teaches Lewis that his beliefs require justification and aren’t inherently interesting just because he’s the one who holds them. W.B. Yeats, whose poetry triggers Lewis’s innate desire in the occult and supernatural. George MacDonald and G.K. Chesterton, the former of whom wrote fantasy novels that Lewis delights in reading and the latter of whom wrote cheery defenses of Christianity that Lewis finds useful, if not always informative. And, finally, Owen Barfield, a friend Lewis meets while studying at Oxford and with whom he shares endless dorm-room debates on such lofty matters as God, evolution, and the material cosmos. There’s also a fleeting mention of J.R.R. Tolkien.
McLean gives an admirable and mostly accurate account of Lewis in the play. He wears horn-rimmed glasses and a professor’s tweed jacket, smokes a pipe and indulges in red wine, laughs loudly, and talks effortlessly. The simple elegance and sophistication of an Oxford don is captured the only way the theater knows how: with obnoxious mannerisms and pompous language. At moments McLean paces around restlessly to mirror the uneasiness of mind Lewis suffers when confronted with another impressive argument for theism. At one point, he flippantly remarks, “I was beginning to think Christianity sensible … except for the Christianity.”
The show’s material is based on Lewis’s memoir Surprised by Joy in addition to his Collected Letters, and it shares the same name as David C. Downing’s 2002 biography of the author. Sprinkled in the show are some of Lewis’s most well-known and formidable passages from other titles: his analogy of man’s search for God being the equivalent of a mouse’s search for a cat, his comparison of man’s chances of explaining the universe to that of a milk jug explaining how it came about if we’re truly just the result of atoms banging around in the void, and his ridicule of those who consider Jesus a great moral teacher but not a prophet (Jesus, Lewis said, is either the Son of God or he was a lunatic—there’s no neutral position).
Lewis was a talented writer and a careful scholar. As played by McLean, he’s also a great comedic character. It is said that “God works in mysterious ways.” Perhaps He can, knowing such solid and exact messengers as Lewis come about along the way.