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Probe Ministries > Culture and Society > Culture > C.S. Lewis, the BBC, and Mere Christianity


C.S. Lewis, the BBC, and Mere Christianity Print E-mail


Michael Gleghorn

Written by Michael Gleghorn

Introduction

One can rarely predict all the consequences which will follow a particular decision. On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland. Two days later, France and Britain declared war on Germany. World War II was officially underway. Back in England, C. S. Lewis was “appalled” to find his country once again at war with Germany. Nevertheless, he believed it was “a righteous war” and was determined to do his part “to assist the war effort.”{1}

Download the PodcastAt this point in his life, Lewis was already a fairly successful Oxford don. “His academic works and lively lectures attracted a large student following.”{2} Although he published a number of academic studies, Lewis also enjoyed writing popular literary, theological and apologetic works. In 1938 he published the first volume of his science-fiction trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet. And in 1939, as the war began, he was working on The Problem of Pain, a thought-provoking discussion of the problem of evil and suffering.{3}

It was this latter work which attracted the attention of James Welch, the Director of Religious Broadcasting for the British Broadcasting Corporation, or BBC. Welch and his assistant, Eric Fenn, were both committed Christians who firmly believed that Christianity had something vital to say to the men and women of England as they faced the horrors and challenges of war. According to Welch:

In a time of uncertainty and questioning it is the responsibility of the Church – and of religious broadcasting as one of its most powerful voices – to declare the truth about God and His relation to men. It has to expound the Christian faith in terms that can be easily understood by ordinary men and women, and to examine the ways in which that faith can be applied to present-day society during these difficult times.{4}

After reading The Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis, Welch believed that he had found someone who just might meet his exemplary standards of religious broadcasting. He wrote to Lewis at Oxford University in February 1941, and asked if he might consider putting together a series of broadcast talks for the BBC.{5} Lewis responded a couple days later, accepting the invitation and indicating a desire to speak about what he termed “the law of nature,” or what we might call “objective right and wrong.”{6} Although Lewis could hardly have known it at the time, this first series of talks would eventually become Book I in his bestselling work of basic theology, Mere Christianity.

Right and Wrong

Mere Christianity originated as a series of talks entitled Right and Wrong: A Clue to the Meaning of the Universe. Lewis pitched his idea to James Welch, the Director of Religious Broadcasting at the BBC, in the following terms:

It seems to me that the New Testament, by preaching repentance and forgiveness, always assumes an audience who already believe in the law of nature and know they have disobeyed it. In modern England we cannot at present assume this, and therefore most apologetic begins a stage too far on. The first step is to create, or recover, the sense of guilt. Hence if I gave a series of talks, I shd [sic] mention Christianity only at the end, and would prefer not to unmask my battery till then.{7}

In certain respects, this was a rather difficult time to be involved in religious broadcasting. Most of the talks were not pre-recorded, but were given live. And because of the war, the British government was anxious to insure that no information that might be “damaging to morale or helpful to the enemy” end up in a broadcast.{8} As Eric Fenn, the BBC’s Assistant Director of Religion, who worked closely with Lewis in the editing and production of his talks, later recalled, “. . . every script had to be submitted to the censor and could not be broadcast until it bore his stamp and signature. And thereafter, only that script—nothing more or less—could be broadcast on that occasion.”{9}

Lewis not only had to contend with these difficulties, however, he also had to learn (as anyone who writes for radio must) that this is a very precise business. Since “a listener cannot turn back the page to grasp at the second attempt what was not understood at the first reading,” the content must be readily accessible for most of one’s listening audience.{10} Additionally, the talks must fit within a narrowly defined window of time. In Lewis’s case, this was fifteen minutes per talk – no more, no less. As one might well imagine, Lewis initially found it rather difficult to write under such constraints.{11}

Eventually, however, the combination of Fenn’s coaching and Lewis’s natural giftedness as a writer and communicator paid off. The talks were completed and successfully delivered. The BBC was pleased with its new broadcasting talent and quickly enlisted Lewis for a second series of talks.{12}

What Christians Believe

This second series would be titled What Christians Believe. Since these talks would require Lewis to more directly communicate some of the core truths of the Christian faith, he sent “the original script to four clergymen in the Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian and Roman Catholic Churches for their critique.”{13} Although Lewis was a brilliant and well-read individual, he was nonetheless a layman with no formal training in theology. Since his desire was to communicate the central truth-claims of Christianity, and not just the distinctive beliefs of a particular denomination, he wanted to be sure that his talks were acceptable to a variety of Christian leaders. Although a couple of them had some minor quibbles with certain things that Lewis had said, or not said, they were basically all in agreement. This was important to Lewis, who later tells us, “I was not writing to expound something I could call ‘my religion,’ but to expound ‘mere’ Christianity, which is what it is and was what it was long before I was born and whether I like it or not.”{14}

The BBC was elated with this second series of talks, liking them even more than the first. According to Justin Phillips, who wrote a book on the subject, it was this second series of talks which most closely fulfilled James Welch’s original vision as Director of Religion for the BBC “to make the gospel relevant to a people at war. It speaks of the core doctrines of Christianity and explains them in plain English to the general listener.”{15}

Eric Fenn, who helped with the editing and production of the talks, wrote appreciatively to Lewis afterwards to tell him he thought they were excellent. He then asked if Lewis might consider doing yet another, even longer, series sometime in the near future.{16} Lewis would agree to the request, but he was beginning to get a little disenchanted with some of the unanticipated consequences of his success. Already a very busy man, with a variety of teaching, writing, and administrative responsibilities, Lewis now found himself, in addition to everything else he was doing, nearly overwhelmed by the avalanche of mail he was receiving from many of his listeners. This Oxford don was clearly making a powerful connection with his audience!

Why Was Lewis So Popular?

According to Justin Phillips, “Even though Lewis was a prolific correspondent himself, even by his standards it was all becoming a bit too much to cope with.”{17} Indeed, were it not for the able secretarial support of his brother Warnie, Lewis may not have been able to keep up with it all.

Jill Freud, one of the children evacuated from London at the start of the war, lived with the Lewises for a while. She recalled just how much help Warnie offered his brother, whom they called “Jack”:

He did all his typing and dealt with all his correspondence which was considerable – so huge it was becoming a problem. There was so much of it from the books and then the broadcast talks. And he was so meticulous about it. Jack wrote to everybody and answered every letter.{18}

Indeed, Warnie later estimated that he had pounded out at least 12,000 letters on his brother’s behalf!{19} So what made Lewis so popular? What enabled him to connect so well with his readers and listeners?

In the first place, Lewis was simply a very talented writer and thinker. When it came to communicating with a broad, general audience, Lewis brought a lot to the table right from the start. But according to Phillips, the BBC should also be given some credit for the success of the broadcast talks. He writes, “The attention given to Lewis’s scripts by his producers in religious broadcasting made him a better writer.”{20}

Ironically, even Lewis’s rather volatile domestic situation may have contributed to his success. Lewis was then living with his brother, who had a drinking problem, a child evacuee from London, and the adoring, but also dominating, mother of a friend who had been killed in World War I. Phillips notes:

All this helped to ‘earth’ Lewis’s writings in the real world. . . . It took him out of the seclusion of the Oxford don . . . and gave him a real home life more like that of his listeners than many of his professional colleagues.{21}

Finally, Lewis combined all of this with a rather disarming humility in his presentations. He wasn’t pretending to be better than others; he was only trying to help. And his listeners responded in droves.

The Impact of the Broadcasts

The BBC eventually got a total of four series of talks out of Lewis. Each of the series was so successful that the BBC continued, for quite some time, to entreat Lewis to do more. But according to Phillips, Lewis was becoming increasingly disillusioned with broadcasting. The BBC issued one invitation after another, but nearly eighteen months after his fourth series concluded Lewis had turned down every single one of them.{22} Although he would eventually be tempted back to the microphone a few more times, the days of his broadcast talks were now a thing of the past. While he was glad to be of service in this way during the war, Lewis never really seemed to care that much for radio. Indeed, in one of his less serious moods, he even blamed the radio “for driving away the leprechauns from Ireland!”{23}

In spite of this, however, the impact of the broadcasts has been immense. Since first being aired on the BBC, these talks have generated (and continue to generate) a great deal of interest and discussion. Mere Christianity, a compilation of the talks in book form, continues to show up on bestseller lists even today.{24} And Phillips, speaking of the cumulative impact of all of Lewis’s writings, observes that while numbers vary, “in the year 2000 some estimates put worldwide sales of Lewis’s books at over 200 million copies in more than thirty languages.”{25}

As the origin of Mere Christianity shows, however, we cannot often predict how it may please God to use (and perhaps greatly multiply) our small, seemingly insignificant, investments in the work of His kingdom. Lewis was simply trying to do his part to be faithful to God and to help his countrymen through the horrors of World War II. But God took his humble offering and, like the story of the loaves and fish recounted in the Gospels, multiplied it far beyond anything Lewis could ever have reasonably imagined.

This should be an encouragement to us. As we faithfully exercise our gifts and abilities in the service of Jesus Christ, small and inconsiderable though they may seem to be, we may one day wake to find that incredibly, and against all odds, God has graciously multiplied our efforts to accomplish truly extraordinary things!

Notes

1. Justin Phillips, C. S. Lewis in a Time of War: The World War II Broadcasts that Riveted a Nation and Became the Classic Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2002), 4.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. James Welch, BBC Handbook 1942, 59; cited in Phillips, C. S. Lewis in a Time of War, 78.
5. Phillips, C. S. Lewis in a Time of War, 80-81.
6. Ibid., 82.
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid., 33.
9. Interview with Eric Fenn by Frank Gillard for the BBC Oral History Archive, 4 July 1986; cited in Phillips, C. S. Lewis in a Time of War, 33.
10. Ibid., 88.
11. Ibid., 87-88.
12. Ibid., 134-35.
13. Ibid., 142.
14. C. S. Lewis, "Preface," in Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1960), vii.
15. Phillips, C. S. Lewis in a Time of War, 153.
16. Ibid.
17. Ibid., 155.
18. Interview with Jill Freud, 19 November 1999; cited in Phillips, C. S. Lewis in a Time of War, 157.
19. Walter Hooper, C. S. Lewis: A Companion & Guide (London: Harper Collins, 1966), 33; cited in Phillips, C. S. Lewis in a Time of War, 158.
20. Phillips, C. S. Lewis in a Time of War, 165.
21. Ibid., 183.
22. Ibid., 268.
23. C. S. Lewis, Letters to an American Lady (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967); cited in Phillips, C. S. Lewis in a Time of War, 276.
24. See, for example, www.bookvideoawards.com/bookstandard/images/BestSellersAwards_Program.pdf and peopleofthebook.us/2007/02/.
25. Phillips, C. S. Lewis in a Time of War, 279.

© 2009 Probe Ministries

Related Articles:

C.S. Lewis: His Enduring Legacy [Todd Kappelman]
C.S. Lewis and the Riddle of Joy [Michael Gleghorn]
Lessons From C.S. Lewis [Rick Wade]

About the Author

Michael GleghornMichael Gleghorn is a research associate with Probe Ministries. He earned a B.A. in psychology from Baylor University and a Th.M. in systematic theology from Dallas Theological Seminary. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in theology from Dallas Theological Seminary. Before coming on staff with Probe, Michael taught history and theology at Christway Academy in Duncanville, Texas. Michael and his wife Hannah have two children. His personal website is michaelgleghorn.com.

What is Probe?

Probe Ministries is a non-profit ministry whose mission is to assist the church in renewing the minds of believers with a Christian worldview and to equip the church to engage the world for Christ. Probe fulfills this mission through our Mind Games conferences for youth and adults, our 3-minute daily radio program, and our extensive Web site at www.probe.org.

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