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EPISODE 44: The Importance of Friendship
In our technologically connected but personally lonely world, the antidote to loneliness is friendship. Joe Kohm shares insights he’s learned about friendship through his study of the lifelong connection between C. S. Lewis and his best friend Arthur Greeves.
The Unknown Garden of Another's Heart: The Surprising Friendship between C.S. Lewis and Arthur Greeves by Joseph Kohm (2022)
They Stand Together: The Letters of C.S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves (1914-1963)
A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken (2009)
Is God anti-gay? by Sam Allberry (2013)
Welcome to Questions That Matter, a podcast of the C.S. Lewis Institute, where we explore discipleship of the heart and mind. I'm your host, Randy Newman, and today my conversation partner is Joe Kohm, one of my fellow colleagues here at the C.S. Lewis Institute. Joe's the vice president for development and our city director in Virginia Beach, and he's written a new book about C.S. Lewis’s friendship with Arthur Greeves, and that's going to be the topic of our conversation today, about friendship and how it forms us and how it shapes us. Joe, welcome to Questions That Matter.
Thank you for having me, Randy. I'm honored.
Well, Joe, the title of your book is The Unknown Garden of Another's Heart, and the subtitle is “The Surprising Friendship between C.S. Lewis and Arthur Greeves.” Let me first start with why is it a surprising friendship? Why did you choose that word?
Well, because they are two dissimilar people. You have C.S. Lewis, the great apologist, Oxford don, professor at Cambridge, well known, cover of Time magazine. And then you have Arthur Greeves, who really lived a very quiet life. He was diagnosed with a heart condition when he was a young man, and he was basically a trust fund child and trust fund person, and he never really accomplished anything by worldly standards. So C.S. Lewis was friends with—we all know the Inklings and all the amazing people C.S. Lewis interacted with and was friends with. And yet my thesis is that Arthur was his very best friend. So, they're just two very dissimilar people. That's why it’s a surprising friendship.
And they had this lifelong friendship, right? For over 50 years, is that right? And hundreds of letters back and forth.
Fifty years. Yeah, we have 296 letters from Lewis to Arthur, and we just got a couple, really, from Arthur to C.S. Lewis. So, where the letters from Arthur to C.S. Lewis are, that's a story in itself, but these 296 letters span approximately 50 years of a friendship.
Amazing, amazing. What a gift! And I know that all of the letters have been collected together in a book called They Stand Together. You've read all of them and distilled and told us some things that we need to really grasp about their friendship. Where's the title come from? The Unknown Garden of Another’s Heart.
That is from a line from a poem that Lewis wrote for Arthur when they were young men. And, as you know, C.S. Lewis started out wanting to be a poet, and his first published work was a book of poetry. And Lewis, of course, wrote poetry throughout the course of his life. But he wrote a poem for Arthur and to their friendship, and that's a line from the poem that he wrote for his friend Arthur.
Now, you have a quote at the beginning of the book that includes that line. Is the quote the whole poem that you have there?
No. I have it in front of me. It's short. I can read it for you if you’d like.
I’d love it. I'd love it. I think our listeners would appreciate that.
It's short. “To the memory of Arthur Greeves.” “That we may mark with wonder and chaste dread / At hour of noon, when, with our limbs outspread, / Lazily, in the whispering grass, we lie / To gaze out fully upon the windy sky –/ Far, far away and, kindly, friend with friend, / To talk the old, old talk that has no end, / Roaming – without a name – without a chart – / The unknown garden of another's heart.”
So, what a nice picture of friendship, that you're so familiar with the other person that you can roam their heart freely. You know their heart so well, and each the other roaming each other's heart. So, it's a beautiful picture of friendship.
So, what was it about their friendship that drew you to this study on your own? Or—I'll give you a choice of questions. What was it that drew you to that friendship? Or what did you grow to appreciate about friendship in general by exploring their unique friendship?
Okay, those are two good questions. Well, first, how it started, what drew me to the friendship. Like you, Randy, I’ve spent a lifetime reading, trying to read everything that Lewis has written. And in doing so, of course, his letters are collected together by Walter Hooper, thousands of letters, three volumes. And reading through those three volumes, one name kept popping up, and that name was Arthur Greeves. And I thought, “Wow! Who is this Arthur that Lewis is continually writing to?” And the more I learned about their friendship, the more interesting it became. Again, how I started off—you have two very dissimilar people, Lewis, the famous author of Chronicles of Narnia and the apologist, and Arthur Greeves, who really lived a very quiet life. And so, it's an amazing story of friendship. When they first met, Lewis was 15, Arthur was 18, and Arthur was home. He was sick in bed, and he lived just a street over from Lewis. And Arthur's family called Lewis’s home, and said, “Arthur would love a visit.”
And so, as you know, C.S. Lewis and his brother Warnie grew up together. They were very good friends, and they didn't want any interlopers into their friendship. They had resisted Arthur this whole time. Well, Warnie was away at school, so C.S. Lewis said, “Well, what do I have to lose? I'll go over.” And he walked in Arthur's bedroom, and Arthur was reading a book called Myths of the Norsemen. And C.S. Lewis looked at Arthur and said, “Do you like that?” And Arthur looked back at him and said, “Do you like that?” And of course, that was the spark that fanned into a flame, the friendship of fifty years. So they started writing to each other, and initially, their friendship was about books and music and things that most young teenagers and young men are interested in.
And, just reading about this friendship over 50 years, you see the trajectory of their faiths. Arthur started out as a very sincere Christian, and then over the course of his life, he drifted away from Christianity. And then you have Lewis, of course, who was a scoffer of Christianity as a young man, after his mother died. And we all know the story of Lewis’s conversion to Christianity, so their trajectories kind of cross. And there's another reason: Why would they be friends? Lewis, obviously, his faith grew, and Arthur walked away from the faith. So, it's a fascinating friendship.
And so, then you asked me what it says about friendship in our current age. And sadly, we are more connected than ever before through technology, right? We have so many ways to be in contact with people. We can text each other, we're on Facebook, we have “friends” on Facebook. We're more connected than ever, but in reality, we're lonelier than ever. The studies show people are lonelier than ever.
And the antidote to loneliness is friendship. True, sincere, deep friendships. And most people just don't have those friendships, and so what makes C.S. Lewis’s friendship with Arthur so special is no one knew C.S. Lewis like Arthur Greeves. And no one knew Arthur Greeves like C.S. Lewis. There was an unveiling between the two. Arthur was the repository of all Lewis’s secrets, who he was, what he struggled with, and vice versa, C.S. Lewis was repository for Arthur. So, there was this unveiling between the two that went on. And that's why their friendship, even though they were dissimilar in certain areas, that's why their friendship remained so strong over the years.
Lewis has this famous quote. I'm sure it's in his book, The Four Loves, about friendship, where he says, “Friendship begins when you meet someone…” I'm butchering the quote. I'm very sorry, but it's where you find someone and you say, “You, too? I thought I was the only one.”
And it sure seems to me that Lewis had that memory of walking into Arthur Greeves’ room, seeing him reading about mythology, and saying, “You, too? You like that, too? I thought I was the only one.”
So that's a big part of it. So, you find the commonality, but it's also their friendship, and those letters, it's a study of staying friends and holding on to friends and continuing to express concern and compassion even as paths drift apart...
Yes. Certainly, there’s undulation, of course, throughout the years of their letters. There’re periods of time when they're really writing to each other, and there's periods of time when they're not. And so, like, all friendships go through ups and downs. But Lewis has another quote from The Four Loves. It says, “Eros will have naked bodies, friendship, naked personalities.” And really that’s what you see here between Arthur and C.S. Lewis. That unveiling, the naked personalities. “You know everything about me, warts and all, and you're still my friend, and I know everything about you. And that's one of the things that unites us together is we know each other so well, and we still care about each other even through the good and the bad.”
Yes. Well, let's explore this a little bit about why friendship is so important. You've already touched on that we live in a time of great technological connectedness and yet alienation and loneliness, and there's all sorts of stuff being written about how friendship is so crucial for mental health, for happiness, but how is it also important for spiritual growth, for our discipleship?
Yes, well, discipleship is what we do at the C.S. Lewis Institute, and one of the things I think we can all agree on is that discipleship cannot be done alone. It has to be done in community. And that's part of what makes a very good friend, is someone that's going to help you grow in your faith. And someone, when they see certain behaviors or activities that you might be exhibiting, they can come to you as a friend and say, “Hey, Joe. I saw this, and it's not very becoming to you,” or, “Hey, Joe. I just wanted to let you know I'm praying for you in this difficult time,” if I'm struggling with something.
So, all those things combine help us to grow in our faith. And those were elements that C.S. Lewis really tried to do with Arthur. As I mentioned earlier, Arthur drifted away from his faith, and C.S. Lewis was always trying to pull him back. They had differences theologically, and Lewis was very patient in answering Arthur's questions, and he was letting Arthur know, “I pray for you.” And that's what we need today in our friends to help us with discipleship, people that come along beside us, love us, and help us grow in our faith.
I subscribe to a number of different newsletters, and I read about what God is doing around the world. And frequently, repeatedly, I see and hear pleas for the need for discipleship all around the world. That is the crying need of our time, and that is the specific focus that God has placed on the C.S. Lewis Institute. So, we're so very grateful to be involved, and have been for decades, in something that could very well be the greatest need of our world today. So please consider becoming a financial partner with us. It would be at the very core and centrality of what God is doing in our world today.
As you're saying this, I'm realizing Lewis said that all of his writings, in some way, were evangelistic. And I'm thinking, these letters to Arthur Greeves, they're a picture of what it means to keep reaching out and keep connecting with nonbelievers, even if they're unresponsive or even if they are going in different directions, so not only do we learn about evangelism by reading Lewis’s Mere Christianity, but looking at those conversations. Were there any surprises for you as you dug into these letters and explored them?
I think, for me, this is both encouraging and a surprise. It's just C.S. Lewis's humanity. He struggled with the same things that we all struggle with. Most people think of C.S. Lewis: “Hey, he's the author of The Chronicles of Narnia. He's Mere Christianity. He's this great Christian thinker, apologist,” and all those things are true. But there were times in his life when he struggled with very real issues that all of us struggle with. You see his humanity. And Walter Hooper says, in the introduction to They Stand Together, he said, “Anyone that wants to know the real C.S. Lewis has to read these letters to find him.” And you see struggling with pride, lust, temptation, all the same things that we struggle with, and you see him overcoming them. And so, it's encouraging to have an example like that, of, “C.S. Lewis even struggled with things, and look what he did.” So that was a surprising thing, is to maybe examine some of Lewis's warts, warts that we all have, and to see how he dealt with them, and to see also that Arthur was the gatekeeper of all these secrets. And how that's part of their friendship. You need someone that knows everything about you, so that might have been a surprising thing for me.
Yeah. Well, when I read your book and then dug into some of the letters—I haven't read all of them in that collection of They Stand Together. But, yes, you're certainly right about Lewis's struggles. But there's also a whole period of time before he became a Christian when he wasn't struggling. He embraced sinfulness and sinful lifestyles and arrogance and pride. It was later, when he became a Christian, that he looked back at them and went, “Oh, my goodness! Look at what God has rescued me out of.” So that's a side of C.S. Lewis I think a lot of people don't want to know about. But you can appreciate the gospel so much more, though, when you see what it means to be saved out of those kinds of traps and sins.
Absolutely. The other thing is you can really track the trajectory of Lewis's conversion in these letters. And I have a chapter called “The Dry Tree.” It's three letters that he wrote to Arthur as he was recovering from his wounds from World War One. He's over in the hospital, field hospital in France, and he's just seen the worst that combat has to offer. And he starts writing a letter to Arthur about beauty, the concept of beauty. Here he’s just seen the ugliness of humanity, and now he's writing to Arthur about beauty. And Lewis is wondering, where does that come from? Where does beauty come from? And Lewis, the strict materialist, now has something outside his worldview, kind of knocking on the door. Beauty. Where do I get that? It's spiritual. And so, over a course of three letters, you see Lewis explicate this out, and so you, as the master, for me, evangelist, you've seen this type of conversion before, and it’s so interesting to watch Lewis go through it.
And then finally, years later, after Addison's Walk, you know that famous night in Oxford, where he and Tolkien walk along Addison's Walk, he writes Arthur another series of three letters outlining his conversion, how he came to know that Jesus was his Savior, Jesus is Lord. And so, you see Lewis in both these places. You see the trajectory of his conversion. It's just fascinating. Really, he explains it there like he does nowhere else in all his other writings.
Isn't that something? Yes. Because it's so unguarded in the personal letter. When he tells the story in Surprised by Joy, his book about his early life and his coming to faith, well, that's a polished writer, looking back at its years later, at the conversion. But in those letters, we're getting it in time.
Real time, yes. And isn't it in a letter to Greeves where he says, “I've just crossed over from atheism to theism. The long conversation with Tolkien and Dyson had much to do about it.” But wasn't that in one of those letters?
Yeah. That's the series of three letters that he writes to Arthur, and the third one is the culmination saying, “When I got in the sidecar to the zoo, I didn't believe Jesus was God, and when I got to the zoo, I did believe.” That was the culmination of those three letters.
One of the most anticlimactic and entertaining statements of a conversion ever.
Well, there is another aspect about this friendship that we need to explore. Not to make this a major topic, but Arthur Greeves was a homosexual man, and there are some letters early on when Arthur comes out or expresses this to Lewis. And at first, I think, if I'm remembering correctly, Lewis has some sort of affirming things that I think some people want to say, “Aha!” today. We want to say, “Ah, see? C.S. Lewis is an affirming person of gay, lesbian, et cetera.” But that's not the full picture, is it?
It's not. Arthur does come out to Lewis sometime in the ‘20s. I can't remember exactly what year it is, and Lewis says congratulations on coming to this conclusion. But at that time, Lewis was not a follower of Christ. Lewis was a worldly person. And it's dangerous for Arthur also to come out to Lewis like that, because at that time, homosexuality was still a criminal activity in the UK. And so, he is entrusting Lewis with this secret that could essentially land him in jail.
But later on, in his life, we see Lewis communicating with Sheldon Vanauken. If you know Sheldon Vanauken, A Severe Mercy, and he was teaching at Lynchburg College here in Virginia at the time, and he wrote to C.S. Lewis about the issue of homosexuality. And so, you see, Lewis’s worldview in terms of human sexuality explained very well in his responses to Sheldon Vanauken, and he does say that homosexuality is a sin but everyone struggles with their own sins. Unfortunately, sometimes the church has elevated that sin as a super sin above other sin. But Lewis says it's a sin that, as long as it's not acted out on, and that it's no different, also, for unmarried heterosexual people. We’re all under the same standard. Sexuality is reserved for marriage between one man and one woman. So, Lewis… Those that are using his early statements to Arthur as affirming are not telling the whole story, because after Lewis's conversion to Christianity, he has a very orthodox biblical view of sexuality. And that can be found in his letters to Sheldon Vanauken.
Yeah, great, great. Yeah. And I don't think Lewis ever said it this way, but for some reason I feel, from reading other things that Lewis says about our Christian beliefs, I'm struck with… The Christian view about… Christian views, plural, about sexuality are so out of step with the culture around us. They always have been. The Christian view of morality and sexuality has always been the minority opinion. It's always been considered ridiculous. It's always been on the wrong side of history, if I can use that phrase. John the Baptist had his head chopped off for speaking out about adultery. So we shouldn't be surprised that the biblical view about sexuality is so restrictive, if I can use that word, of everybody, regardless of what kind of desires they have.
Well, we've said that we live in this world that's hyper connected technologically, but not very connected, really. So how do we do that? How can we develop the kinds of friendships that really forge the kind of bonds that Lewis and Arthur Greeves had? That can be evangelistic friendships and also great Christian friendships that help us grow? What are some practical steps we can take about friendship?
Well, friendship takes work. It takes effort. You have to take affirmative steps to be a friend. So, if you want a friend…. My mom used to say, “If you want friends, you have to be a friend.” That's really good advice for us today. We have to try to befriend people around us, and not just people who think like us, but people who are not like us. Maybe people who—you were talking about evangelistic friendships, maybe people who don't believe the way we do, people that don't think the way we do, people that don't vote the way we do. Those are the evangelistic friendships. Those are our neighbors and people that we work with. And that means taking affirmative steps to be a good friend to them.
And then you mentioned the deeper friendships, and that comes with just being authentic. When I look at Facebook, people's Facebook posts, it's so inauthentic, right? They're trying to present this image of, “This is my best life. I'm living it now. I don't have any problems.” But in reality, a true friendship, like the one C.S. Lewis and Arthur Greeves had, is, “You know my struggles. You know what I'm struggling with, and I know what you're struggling with, and I'm praying for you, and I'm here for you, and I'm giving you Godly Christian advice if you ask for it.” And so, the deep friendships are the ones where we are vulnerable with each other, and that's hard for a lot of people, because when you're vulnerable, it means that you're giving off the appearance of some sort of weakness. In our culture today, nobody wants to appear weak. They want to appear that they have it all together, when in reality, none of us have it all together. We're all struggling with something.
Are you a fisher of men? Do you want to be a fisher of men? Do you struggle with this call that Jesus places on us to be fishers of men? Discipling others is also a significant part of that whole enterprise, and it's a way to abide in Christ. It's a way for us to know Christ more fully, become more like Him, and participate in His work of building His kingdom. So, as we disciple, we become coworkers with Jesus. As He helps us mature, He allows us to help Him mature others and nurture them towards reproduction and expanding of His kingdom. And so, we have many free small group resources on our Website, many different things to help you in this discipleship process, both to grow as a disciple and to disciple others. So please check out our Study Courses.
And as you're talking, I'm thinking also a really crucial part is really, really good, non-distracted conversation. Lewis really loved conversation. He loved private, one-on-one conversation alone in his study. He loved conversation with fellow academics, either at the pub or other places. I'm sure Lewis would be horrified about cell phones, and he would have banished them from anywhere within 100 miles of him. We can’t really do that, but we can turn our phones off, or we can have times when we say, “You know what? This is going to be a conversation without phones.” I think on this podcast I've mentioned it quite a few times, there's a great book called Reclaiming Conversation by Sherry Turkle, who did research, and she found that even having the phone out on the table stifled conversation. And so, people would do well of saying, “We're going to have a phone free conversation. We’re going to keep the phones in our pocket or in our purse and just really listen carefully and choose to focus on the other person. And we can reclaim conversation. But it does take work, like you say, and it does take listening and caring.
Maybe this isn't related, but this is just one of the places where I resonate well with Lewis. Lewis hated noise. He hated it. There's this one place in The Screwtape Letters where he just goes crazy about noise, and the devil is making the world noisier all the time. But it’s said that Lewis wrote all of his books out by hand, rather than typing, because he hated the sound of the typewriter, and it made it difficult for him to concentrate on his thought, with all that noise of the clanking keys. Now, that's a typewriter, not computers that we have today. But I do think focused conversation without distraction may be one of the most important tools in developing friendship.
No doubt. And Lewis, he loved taking walks with people, with his friends. They would go on overnight walks. They'd walk to the next town over, stay overnight at the pub, and walk back the next day. And like you said, it eliminated distractions. We're just out walking in the woods and chatting. Or, like you said, Lewis loved to be around the fire with his friends, with a pint, just chatting. And of course, that's what the Inklings groups were made up of, right? They would just sit around and read to each other things that they were working on themselves. And there's one quote that I think sums it up, where Lewis says, “Friendship is the greatest of worldly goods. Certainly, to me, it is the chief happiness of life.” And that is Lewis. You know, some people collect baseball cards, some people collect stamps. Lewis collected friends, because friends made him happy.
Yeah. And we should explore that, too, in that they certainly were not like him. There were some really strong disagreements about things. I mean, he had a strong friendship with Tolkien, but, boy, they disagreed about some things. And he was certainly in a very different theological place from Charles Williams. By the way, the bit about taking long walks together, I want to think about that a little bit, because there is, again, there's a place where Lewis talks about how, in a love relationship, in a marriage, people are facing each other, but in a friendship, they're both facing out in the same direction. So, it's not so much we're looking at each other and admiring each other, we're both looking at the path we're walking on or a book that we're reading or something that we're looking out. And I will also add, I think there's something about walking side by side that enables a kind of honesty, because it's less intimidating than facing each other face to face.
I’ve got to be careful. I don't want to read too much into Lewis on that. But I know from my experience, I've had some really great, more in-depth conversation when I'm in a car sitting next to someone, and we're both facing out the windshield, rather than facing each other. And I think there's a kind of level of honesty, and like you said before, vulnerability or authenticity, that can happen when we're facing the same direction.
Yeah. No, I think you're right, and I think you see that in Lewis's writings as well, that walking side by side. There's a quote from Surprised by Joy, and it comes from his time in school. When he first went to school, he had Robert Capron the first school he went to, was the very abusive schoolmaster there that would hit the boys and beat the boys. And Lewis, he wrote this: He said, “We stood four squares against the common enemy. I suspect this pattern has unduly biased my whole outlook. To this day, the vision of the world which comes most naturally to me is one in which we two, or we few, stand together against something stronger and larger.” I think that's what you're referring to, Randy, is two people, when you're walking side by side together, you're looking out into the world, and you're standing against something stronger and larger. And that's what we need today. That's what we get with our friends. Hey, the world is a tough place, and it will humble you and beat you down, and you have to have someone that will stand next to you and help you through difficult times.
Yes. Well said, well said. Well, we're going to wrap this up, but if there's any other things you want to say about this friendship that you grew to really love and appreciate, now's the time. I found your book to be so encouraging to me. Again, I learned a whole lot about Lewis, and I learned about Arthur Greeves, but I learned about the nature of friendship, and I found myself more hungering for and committed to developing these friendships. So, any last thoughts you want to leave us with?
Here's the last thought, and I think you would concur with this. Keep reading Lewis. Everyone keeps reading Lewis, because he's still instructing us today, all these years after his death. He's been my mentor and my teacher these many years, and that's why we have the C.S. Lewis Institute today, in his image and his reflection of Lewis, we’re trying to do what he did. So, keep reading Lewis is what I would tell everyone listening today.
That's great. That's really great. Well, Joe-
And I'm glad you are my friend, Randy. Let me say this. I have friends, and I count you as one of them. And I'm grateful that you are my friend.
Oh, that's nice. I wish we lived closer together. We need to figure out a way to take some long walks together.
I’d love that.
Well, thanks so much for your time, Joe, and thanks to our listeners for listening in on this conversation. Like all of our resources here at the C.S. Lewis Institute, we hope this helps you love the Lord more deeply, more lovingly, more gratefully, and that all of our resources help you grow in both heart and mind discipleship. Thanks.