Iain Benson assesses a significant influence on his own life.
The question of what C. S. Lewis and G. K. Chesterton’s contribution is to 20th century literature and thought is a huge question, and it’s one I’m delighted to make a response to, for this reason. The discovery, at the recommendation of one of my great teachers, David Jeffrey, who’s now at Baylor in America, I had him in the days he was in Canada – the discovery of Chesterton I owe entirely to him. I had come across Lewis a few years before as a teenager. I come out of a family, by the way, where I had a … what I might call a militantly atheist grandfather and a relatively atheist father so my tradition wasn’t Christianity. My mother took us to church, the United Church in Canada, which is a very … an amalgam of a series of Protestant denominations. Anyway, reading Lewis I came across arguments about the nature of right and wrong – his first chapter of his famous book Mere Christianity – and it ended up leading me in a very profound way towards embracing the Christian faith, and then in my thirties I became a Roman Catholic. But this is a pilgrimage that isn’t the key to the question. The question here about Lewis and Chesterton is this: they are the two greatest public apologists of the 20th century. In reverse order, Chesterton, who died in 1936, was a huge influence on Lewis, and Lewis acknowledges this in Surprised by Joy, his autobiography. He refers to Chesterton, Chesterton’s book The Everlasting Man, as laying out for the first time in a way he could understand it the Christian view of history, and that is what led Lewis into the Christian faith in a key way.
Lewis’ conversion, his placement at the time he was at Oxford, was very important not just in terms of Christian apologetics but in terms of literary criticism, literary history. His early books on literary criticism, whether it’s his essays on Renaissance/medieval literature or it’s his Allegory of Love, these were very important books in British academic history. But he’s writing at a period in Oxford dominated by an increasingly analytical philosophy that’s quite anti-religious. It’s no secret that Lewis was blocked from preferment at Oxford and went to Cambridge for his professorship because of the anti-Christian milieu at Oxford. Years ago Michael Farrer, who I knew when I was at Cambridge, told me that one of the great shames of his life was that when he was the Head of the Oxford Inter-Collegiate Christian Union or OICCU as it’s known, they refused to have Lewis as a speaker because they didn’t consider him sufficiently orthodox.
Now Chesterton on the other hand, Chesterton explodes into Christianity as this kind of firework of ideas. His only formal study at university, apart from taking some lectures on poetry from Housman at University of London, was at the Slade School of Art. So he was a cartoonist essentially, but he was also a genius, and everybody who encountered him knew he was a genius. And his life was extraordinary. Everything he wrote about, whether it was literary criticism, whether it was history, whether it was philosophy, had this deft touch and this wonderful sense of humour about it that made him much beloved by people who even many of whom didn’t agree with him, but they admired his mind and his spirit. He was a very loving and open man who was tremendously attractive.