Wednesday, July 06, 2005

C. S> Lewis at the BBC -- A Review

C. S. Lewis at the BBC by Justin Phillips (London: HarperCollins, 2003. 298 pages of text)

Review by Richard Kew

Of the writing of books about C. S. Lewis it sometimes seems there is no end!

Our younger daughter, Dr. Lindy Kew, has developed quite a taste for Lewis over the past couple of years, and the other day when we were helping her prepare her possessions to be shipped back to the USA from Scotland, this book was one that tumbled from her shelves. She loaned it to us (no doubt recognizing that if we carry it home it is one less things she has to pay shipping costs for). After driving back from Glasgow to Birmingham I picked this book up a couple of evenings ago out of curiosity to scan it. I ended up reading it from cover-to-cover.

While some works about Lewis are pretty blah, this book was a labor of love and it comes over as such -- and as a result I just romped through it. The author, Justin Phillips, was a BBC journalist who liked to define himself as a "card-carrying Christian." He completed the manuscript just before Christmas 2000, then died suddenly and unexpectedly of a massive asthma attack on Boxing Day (December 26th) that year. After his death, one of his daughters prepared the manuscript for publication.

What Phillips does is chart the way in which Lewis's relationship with the BBC developed, and then the manner in which it soured, much as a result of BBC wanting to over-milk it. The book provides a fascinating portrait of the wartime development of the organization that has become one of the most significant voices in broadcasting ever since then, as well as a cameo of the great man, his relationship with the BBC, where it came from and how it soured. Essentially, you might say that this is a book about the writing of "Mere Christianity," for that very influential book was, in fact, the end-product of four series of talks that Lewis did during World War Two.

Lewis had never spoken into a microphone until he was approached in 1941 by Rev. James Welch, Director of Religious Broadcasting at the BBC, wondering whether he would be willing to do some fifteen-minute talks. Welch had read Lewis's recently published "The Problem of Pain," and hunched that this then almost completely unknown Oxford don might have what it takes to address the faith to people in the midst of war. It is hard for us who know the outcome of that great cataclysm to under-estimate the anxieties of the British as they faced all that the Nazis could throw at them.

As an aside, this week, the midway point between VE Day and VJ Day, Britain is being celebrated as the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. A "living museum" has been set up in St. James's Park, London, of what it was like in those days. One of the most chilling components of that is an old German tank parked on the grass near Buckingham Palace as a reminder of what might have been. Of course, the inhabitants of the Palace would not have been George VI and his family, but his elder brother who abdicated in December 1936, and who with his American wife had well-developed Nazi sympathies.

The first series of Lewis's talks was entitled "Right and Wrong: A Clue to the Meaning of the Universe," five talks that were aired in August and early September 1941. Early the next year were five more talks called "What Christians Believe," and then later that year were twelve slightly shorter talks given the name "Christian Behaviour" went out on the Forces network. The final series went out fairly late in the evenings in February and March 1944 and is called "Beyond Personality: The Christian View of God." These series were all quickly published as short booklets, and then in 1952 were bound together to become "Mere Christianity."

If they could have had their way, the BBC would have kept Lewis on the radio all the time with talks, panel discussion shows, and so forth, but once he had gotten over the novelty of being able to address the gospel to millions of people, Lewis found dealing with editors, producers, and an organization as frustrating as the BBC increasingly onerous. Besides, as the war drew to a close the student body at Oxford began to grow as fighting men returned, making a much larger work load for those teaching there. Various minions of the 'Beeb' bombarded Lewis with invitations until his replies began to take on the flavor of what is it about NO that you don't understand!

There are many charming components of this book, but best for me is embedded within them the reminiscences of Jill Freud, theatrical entrepreneur, and wife of Clement Freud, a well-known media figure in Britain, and formerly a Member of Parliament. As a teenager, Lady Freud had been an evacuee from London who lived at The Kilns with the Lewises for several years prior to going to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. Here are the fascinating insights of a young girl into Jack and Warnie's household, her being entirely unaware for the longest time that her host was none other than the eminent C.S.Lewis whose radio talks were occurring such a stir!

Lewis's talks on the radio turned him into a national figure, and almost immediately he found himself inundated with a huge correspondence that started pouring in, while his books were guaranteed publication and readership. It was at this time that Warnie, his elder brother, retired for health reasons from the army, and began helping him with his "fan mail." Warnie estimated that by the time of Jack's death in November 1963 he had helped his brother write over 12,000 letters. Lewis read all the letters he received and preferred to send a personal reply.

Phillips also points out that Lewis's speaking played a significant part in the development of religious broadcasting in England, as well as providing shape for the future of broadcasting. "In accepting the invitation from James Welch, (Lewis) was not to know that the broadcast talks would themselves transform his reputation. Nor could he have known how the correspondence they would generate would change his life. Just as he would play an integral part in transforming religious radio in those crucial war years, he too was changed irrevocably, to the point where popular success began to impinge on the rest of his life" (page 289).

What I have appreciated about reading this book is being reminded afresh of the power that there is in Lewis's logical, consistent, and unembellished presentation of the essence of what it means to be Christian. Yet as Phillips says, "There is a direct honesty of approach established by Lewis which remains compelling in today's culture. However, as soon as that theology is applied to issues of churchmanship and women's ordination, he reverts quickly to being a man of his own time" (page 286).

What Phillips does is outline the manner in which a rather old-fashioned bachelor layman who taught English literature at Oxford received the public exposure which in turn helped him to become (and remain) so influential a figure. Like so many good books about Lewis, this volume makes the reader want to pick up certain of C. S. Lewis's works all over again and re-read them -- probably much to one's intellectual and spiritual benefit.

1 comment:

Rich Molumby said...

I have a Turnkey Royalty Free site/blog. It pretty much covers making money on the web.

Come and check it out if you get time :-)