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An Excerpt of From Atheism to Christianity: The Story of C. S. Lewis

Written by Dr. Joel Heck, professor at Concordia University Texas, From Atheism to Christianity: The Story of C. S. Lewis is the spiritual homecoming story of Clive Staples Lewis, a careful and thoughtful scholar who spent fifteen years journeying the long road from atheism to theism and, eventually, to Christianity. The following excerpt from Chapter 3 details the beginning of Lewis’s long journey back to faith in Jesus Christ.

In Surprised by Joy, Lewis describes the major moves that God made against him in three imaginative ways: as a fishing expedition, a fox hunt, and a chess game. Each of these analogies, of course, implies that God was active in searching for Lewis, chasing him, arguing with him, cornering him, reeling him in, and eventually capturing him. In Lewis’s final and most elaborate comparison, the chess game analogy, God cornered Lewis primarily in four chess moves, but certainly with many other moves. Since Lewis called the second move the equivalent to the loss of one’s remaining bishop,[1] the first move, by implication, was the loss of the first bishop. This chapter will cover the years 1916 to 1922, the years leading up to those first two chess moves, including his entrance to Oxford University, his service in World War I, and his adoption of an essentially atheistic version of materialism.

1916: Phantastes

World War I began in June of 1914, and Lewis went to study with Kirkpatrick on September 19, 1914. He decided to shield his thinking from thoughts of war, making what he called a treaty with reality. He would eventually enlist in the war effort, the war being the major reality, but until then he would be his own man.[2] One book changed these plans, challenging this treaty with reality by showing him another dimension of reality through the lens of fantasy.

Lewis’s return to belief in God began with the discovery of George MacDonald’s Phantastes: A Faerie Romance,[3] on a chilly Saturday afternoon, March 4, 1916, at the Leatherhead Train Station, a two-and-a-half-mile walk from Great Bookham. The book affected him so profoundly that he recalled the precise location where he purchased it, the crisp weather of that day, and the approximate time of day. In the summer he had frequently walked to Leatherhead and taken the train back, chiefly because of the opportunity to go swimming at Leatherhead. In the colder months, however, he went to get his hair cut or to browse through the book selection. On this particular day in March, books were the attraction. After purchasing a used copy of Phantastes, he was so captivated by the book that he read much of it at Kirkpatrick’s home that first night, finished the book three days later, and wrote to Arthur Greeves about it for the next three weeks and then again in June and July. This book, he stated, baptized his imagination,[4] starting him on an entirely new path. Baptism always means the end of one way of life and the start of a new one. As Lewis himself indicates, this baptism prevented his imagination from wandering into the evil forms of Romanticism, to which he was drawn by the occult writings of Yeats, even while his intellect remained closed to such ideas.[5]

Prior to this discovery and for several years afterward, his imagination and his intellect stood opposite one another,[6] as though he had erected a wall in his mind between them, the former rich and fruitful, the latter insincere and unproductive. His intellect was the friend of his atheism, but it had allowed him to take brief and tentative excursions into magic[7] in his search for something more. His imagination enjoyed Phantastes without allowing his intellect to be affected.[8] His intellect understood truth—factual, rational, logical, ordered statements—while his imagination understood love. He did not think that the things his imagination loved were actually true, but Phantastes began to change his mind.

[1] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 221.
[2] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 158.
[3] The Greek word Phantastes means “fantasies.”
[4] Lewis, George MacDonald, xxxiii.
[5] Lewis, All My Road Before Me, xxxvii. See also Surprised by Joy, 176
[6] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 170.
[7] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 178; “Early Prose Joy,” 22.
[8] Lewis, George MacDonald, xxxiii.

Excerpt from From Atheism to Christianity: The Story of C. S. Lewis, pages 47–49 © 2017 by Joel D. Heck. Published by Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.


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