[This first appeared two years ago as a guest post I wrote for Jennifer Neyhart’s blog.]
Is it cliché to say that C.S. Lewis had a formative influence on my understanding of what it means to belong to Jesus? Not that it matters if it is cliché.
An Atheist Reads a Devil’s Letters
The Screwtape Letters came to me as a gift, both literally and figuratively. I was an atheist traveling around England on Christmas break in 1983 and a couple of young Christian women I met thought I might like Lewis’ epistolary novel of temptation and faith.
Screwtape advised his nephew Wormwood how to capitalize on his target’s petty jealousies of others.
I recognized petty jealousies in my own life.
Screwtape spoke of leveraging the target’s smug self-satisfaction.
I recognized smug self-satisfaction in my own life.
Screwtape spoke of building on the resentment the target had toward those who put demands on him.
I recognized resentment in my own life.
In almost every letter Screwtape wrote Wormwood, I recognized myself. And Lewis was so darned clever about it all too. His writing is masterful and if I didn’t know better I would have thought this was a set of letters found in a Senior Devil’s attic.
It was in the middle of reading this book, while sitting in an empty railway car traveling south out of London, that I lost my atheism forever:
I was alone and picked up the book Louise bought me to read along the way. The train stopped at a couple stations, and I was just settling in to read some more when I found I could not concentrate very well. I kept reading the same paragraph over and over. I had a feeling like you get sometimes in a library or other quiet place that someone must have walked in when you weren’t looking. I figured someone must have gotten on at the last station without me noticing. So I stood up and looked around. No one in the railway car but me.
I sat back down and opened the book again. Now I found myself reading not the same paragraph but the same sentence over and over again. The feeling that someone was there with me was overwhelming, not allowing me to concentrate at all, so I started to get up to look again. Then I told myself, We haven’t stopped at a station since the last time you looked, Tim. There’s no one here. I sat back down and completely unbidden came a question I would never have imagined coming from my lips. Out loud. In an otherwise empty railway car.
“OK God, what do you want?”
The details of where it went from there are in My Salvation Story, but suffice to say that I went from atheist to theist to Christian in fairly short order at that point. And C.S. Lewis was with me on the way.
I found a little Christian book store in Brighton, about an eight minute train ride from where I was studying at the University of Sussex. I looked for more by Lewis and found Mere Christianity, a collection of essays adapted from radio talks Lewis gave during World War Two.
In those essays he wrote of the basics of what it means to belong to Christ.
Lewis wrote of the law of right and wrong.
I discovered I had a conscience and it is a gift from God.
Lewis wrote of what it means to believe in Jesus as God.
I discovered that faith in anyone or anything else precludes faith in Jesus.
Lewis wrote of behavior as signifying who we follow.
I discovered there were things I did that I’d be better off not doing.
In other words, I learned the basics.
The Challenges of a Thoughtful Faith
There was more Lewis in my future, and I read everything I could get my hands on: fiction, essays, sermons, allegories. Most of it I’ve read more than once. Lewis taught me not only the basics and the nuances of the faith, but that being thoughtful and cerebral are as valid a way of growing in Christ as being hands-on in fellowship and ministry with others. Lewis advised both.
His writing has spoken to me at crucial times over the years, as in that railway car more than thirty years ago. It’s as if he read me and then wrote for me.