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EPISODE 74: Hal Poe and C. S. Lewis’s Early Life
We keep finding out more about C. S. Lewis from his diary, letters, and reports from people who knew him. So a recent 3 volume biography shines more light on aspects of Lewis that we didn’t know before. Hal Poe discusses his recent work and how it has encouraged him.
Welcome to Questions That Matter. This is a podcast of the C.S. Lewis Institute. I have the great privilege of being the host. My name is Randy Newman. And my conversation partner today is Harry Lee Poe, or Hal Poe, Charles Colson Professor of Faith and Culture at Union University, and the author of a three-volume biography of C.S. Lewis. We’re going to talk about that and how that has affected him and his own spiritual growth. Hal, welcome to Questions That Matter.
Thank you, Randy. It’s good to be with you.
Well, I'm sure some people are wondering right away about, “Okay, this guy wrote a three-volume biography of C.S. Lewis. What more needed to be said? Because we already have quite a few biographies.” I immediately grabbed them and started sensing, right from the very beginning of the first volume, “Oh! There is more that we hadn't discovered yet or uncovered.” So tell us about how this biography came to be.
Well, first of all, I had not planned on writing a three-volume biography of Lewis. I'd really only planned on writing about his teenage years. I realized that so much of what animated Lewis in his adult life was fixed by the time he entered Oxford in 1917, and it had largely been left out of biographies simply because of space requirements. There wasn't room to really discuss it. And I think most biographers have wanted to talk about his adult years and his contribution to apologetics and those sorts of things, his children's stories, his science fiction. So I thought it was time to do a book just about Lewis growing up. Why was he an atheist as a teenager? And what started to move him out of that? But his preferences for life were really established then. He could not have become an English professor at Oxford if he'd had a different kind of pleasure reading when he was a teenager. He had planned on being a philosopher, but he couldn't get a job when he finished his college work. He just couldn't get a job. And he decided to stay on at Oxford one more year and do a second degree in English. Now, when you think about it, to do a college degree in one year at Oxford University is a bit of a stretch, even if you're a very smart person, which Lewis was. But the reason he could do it is because he had done all the reading of what was called the syllabus during his years living with his tutor, W.T. Kirkpatrick, down in Surrey, so he read about 200 books between the ages of 16 and 18, and those just happened to be the books he needed to be able to do an Oxford degree in English.
So those sorts of things, but also the kind of story that he fell in love with, that happened when he was living with Kirkpatrick. He loved Norse mythology. I think probably most of your listeners will know that. He just fell in love with Norse mythology and would devour anything he could find about it. He came across William Morris, who was a great leader of the art world and the literary world in the late 19th century. Morris had written several things on Norse mythology, and so Lewis would read anything that Morris wrote, and he came across Morris’s novel, The Well at the World's End. And this story really gripped him, and it's a familiar story. It’s the hero who goes off on a quest that takes him to the end of the world in search of “the great it,” whatever it is, the prize, the gold bug, the great thing, the pearl of great price. And it's sort of thing… you give up everything for it. You dream the impossible dream. You go where the brave dare not go. You march into hell for a heavenly cause. That song from The Man of La Mancha, Don Quixote, when Cervantes wrote that famous novel, he was talking about this bygone age that Lewis was just beginning to discover. And so the hero finally gets to his quest, but along the way, he's rescued the damsel in distress and done everything necessary. And once having achieved his goal, he returns home a changed person. That is, in the midst of the journey, he becomes a different person.
Lewis was deeply moved by this story. And then he decided he'd find out where Morris got it from. And it was the medieval romance, which is an allegory of the salvation story. And he found it in Malory’s story of the quest for the Holy Grail. He found it in Edmund Spencer's The Faerie Queene. And then he found it in a more recent story written by a Scot named George MacDonald. And the name of the story is pronounced different ways, Phantastes, but it's this same same plot. So that's what he's falling in love with as a teenager. And those of you who've read the fiction of Lewis know that it's the plot for all seven of The Chronicles of Narnia. And it's the plot for all three of Lewis's science fiction stories. It's also… well, the journey story then becomes the big plot. And I would argue that Lewis infected his friend, J.R.R. Tolkien, with this plot. And we find it in the subtitle to The Hobbit, “There and Back Again.”
Yeah, yeah, right. Yes.
It’s also the plot to The Lord of the Rings. Frodo goes to the end of the world, and he comes back a different person. And so this sort of thing is why I thought Lewis's teenage years needed to be examined more closely. There's a lot more than just those, but those are some important ones.
And so his teenage years would be the rails along which the rest of his life emerged. And also it would become the track for his conversion, because, in reading these stories, he fell in love with these ideals, these things like truthfulness and duty and courage, and these values which did not fit into his atheist view of the world. As a materialist, and nurtured in this by W.T. Kirkpatrick, Lewis believed that there are no values. In a brute universe of energy and matter, there’s only what is, just brute fat, atoms and subatomic particles, and there are no values. There are preferences that society establishes, but those shift with the wind.
But he came to realize, no, there really is right and wrong. And so if there's a right and wrong, where does it come from?
You'll find him exploring that in detail in his first radio broadcasts, which he named “Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe,” which is the first section of his book, Mere Christianity. And so it's critically important, this relationship between what he was reading and what he was thinking and his spiritual journey and what became his career.
So now let me let our listeners know these three volumes: The first one is Becoming C.S. Lewis, and it's really the first 20 years of his life. And then the second volume is The Making of C.S. Lewis, and the subtitle is, “From Atheist to Apologist,” and then the final volume, The Completion of C.S. Lewis: From War to Joy. Here's what I'm wondering, because I saw that in the first volume, where you say these values that he got from reading all of these books before he became a Christian shaped the rest of his life. Now in Mere Christianity, Lewis says when we're longing for these things in the stories or the Norse mythology or the music or the art, you either keep searching, keep searching, keep searching, or you become a cynic and a crank, like, “Oh, yeah. I used to go chasing after that.” Or you become a Christian. Did Lewis ever have a period of disillusionment before becoming a Christian where, “Why am I so into these stories? They're just chasing after the moon.” That kind of thing? Did he ever have that? Or was it longing, longing, longing, longing, and, “Oh, wait a minute! Here's the ultimate. This is the fulfillment I'm looking for.”
Yes. It’s an interesting thing. He mentions it in his spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy, that goes up through his conversion to faith in Christ. And he says of this period, everything that he believed to be true was essentially just dry as dust. But everything that he loved, he believed to be an illusion and not real at all. So he was committed to his materialism, and he spent about ten years trying to prove that these values have their origin in matter, that is that they are confined to this universe, this world, and they somehow emerge without what he called the Promethean fallacy. That’s an intriguing term. He referred to… his options were that the values either arise within the world of matter or they come from outside the world of matter. And if they’ve come from outside, he called that the Promethean fallacy. Prometheus was one of the Titans in Greek mythology before the reign of Zeus and his brothers and sisters began. And Prometheus was the one who gave the gift of fire to humans. Until then, fire had belonged exclusively to the gods, and humans didn't have fire. And so it's the idea that fire comes from the world of the gods. And Lewis just hated the possibility that right and wrong came from God, rather than just emerging from matter. And in the end, after trying for ten years to prove the Promethean fallacy wrong, he embraced it.
So yes, there was that bitter struggle between the things he loved and the things he believed to be true, and they were at odds with one another.
I've always just wondered…. We get a whole lot of glimpses from his letters and things about what he was like personality wise. And of course, my mind always imagines him in the pub, with his friends, laughing, and he even said…. There's that famous quote, “I love the sound of male laughter.” But at the end of the second volume, you say this, and I thought, “Oh, this is a glimpse I hadn't seen before.” You wrote… and so now this is the volume on him becoming a Christian, and then there's a tremendous amount of difficulty in his life. All the way through his life, he had difficulties. But on the last page you write, “In the face of all he went through, maintaining an ordinary routine that might lead someone to discouragement if not despair, Lewis did not become a complainer. In fact, he stopped being a complainer. In his pre-conversion letters to his brother and to Greeves, Lewis complained about almost everything with ease. It almost appears that he complains simply to stay in practice!” So I can see that his brilliant, very thorough mind, if not pointed in the direction of joy and the Lord, yeah, it would be pretty miserable. I’d imagine he could complain with the best of them.
Yeah. And it really is fascinating. I don't think I would have liked Jack Lewis before his conversion.
Oh! Say more.
He was arrogant. He was obnoxious. He was patronizing. He was judgmental. He was a… did I say a snob? He was just someone that I'm repelled by. And after his conversion, his whole character changes. And all of that snobbery, that sense of superiority…. He knows he's smart. And he always says that pride is his greatest temptation. A temptation to pride. He knew. So he had self awareness. That's the way we talk about it today. The biblical way to talk about it is to say that he had experienced the conviction of sin.
And so what I like about Lewis is—as you say, his letters and his diary give us a good picture of him, but they also show how the Holy Spirit was working in his life and changing him, as Paul says, from glory unto glory.
And it's a real—you can see it. I mean, it's just an objective reality that people can see about him. And yes, in his early years, everything was easy. He really had life on a silver platter and complained. But after that, once he was a Christian… he became a Christian right at the beginning of the depression. And he believed in God probably the latter part of January, 1930. And then September of the next year to early October was his final coming to faith in Christ. But this is the beginning of the depression. It was difficult days, and yet his complaining pretty much goes away. We see a little bit of it in the austerity after World War II, which is in volume three. There just wasn't any food. It's one thing if you don't have it during the war. But when the war's over, things are supposed to change, and so he was just disgusted with the government. But otherwise he was not a complainer. He was not a complainer.
The pieces that you brought to the writing of these three volumes, was it more research about his letters and his diary and personal aspects of who he was? Are those some of the new ingredients that we find out now?
Yes. Thanks to Walter Hooper, his diary from 1922 to 1927 is in print, available. You don't have to go to Oxford to see it. All of his letters, three volumes of letters, each volume, I think, running over a thousand pages. But also letters of people who knew him: Ruth Pitter, Dorothy L. Sayers, Charles Williams, J.R.R. Tolkien, so all the letters. The primary documents. There has been a tradition of how you write a biography of Lewis, and all of these primary materials were not readily available until the early part of this century. They were coming out between 2004 and around 2007, the letters. So, Alister McGrath's biography is the first one that makes use of those letters.
Okay, okay. Yes.
But he had space limitations. So, his is a one-volume biography, and he focused on the things that he wanted to focus on. And it's a fine biography. But it is the limitation of space that not all the story can be told. And he focused on a few things. He had two chapters on The Chronicles of Narnia.
So there's a tradition, as I was saying, about how a biography of Lewis is written, and up until recently, the first biographical notice was written by Helen Gardner, who had been offered the Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge when Lewis turned it down the first time. And then she heard he changed his mind, so she gave it up and let him have it, which was an incredible gesture on her part. Anyway, she wrote a biographical notice for the literary guild when he died. Then his brother, Warnie, wrote a biographical piece when he published the first of Lewis's letters, and then Roger Lancelyn Green, who was a close friend of Lewis and Joy, was the one who encouraged Lewis in the writing of The Chronicles of Narnia when the Inklings essentially fell apart and weren’t interested in The Chronicles. He and Walter Hooper wrote a biography together, which was the first full-blown biography in the mid seventies. Then George Sayer, who was a close friend of Lewis, one of his students. Lewis spent weekends with Sayer and his wife at Malvern, where Sayer taught, which is ironic because Lewis hated the school but loved the town. But anyway, so he wrote a very important biography called Jack.
And all of these people knew Lewis personally, which is both an advantage and a disadvantage.
Ah, yes. Indeed.
And each of them wrote about the Lewis they knew. It's like Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. And you get different pictures of Jesus from the different writers who knew him in different ways. But nobody knew what he was saying to somebody else.
Yeah, right. So you got to eavesdrop in on all of those conversations and then weave them together.
Yes. And then you've got a lot of legend about Lewis that isn't necessarily so, but it's nice. And so one thing everybody knows is that Lewis was very secretive and private, and we don't know about how he felt about Mrs. Moore and that sort of thing. And how do we know that? Well, we know what he said about her. And you know, wait a minute, that doesn’t make sense. The way you know he wasn’t saying something was because he said it. And so, with the letters, we find that he would talk to some people about some things and to other people about other things. He just didn’t…. He was an Edwardian, remember. He was not a modern person, and he did have that reserve, and you just don't talk about everything. I remember when I was a little boy, a little boy, I asked my mother, “Are we rich or poor?” I have this firm memory. And my mother said, “Hal, nice people don't talk about money.” And that was the tradition.
Now everybody talks about money, but that…. And so he was raised a certain way, that you talk about some things and don't talk about other things. And it wasn't a particular… he wasn't being sneaky. But we find that he told all sorts of private matters to his American correspondents, because Americans are that way.
Oh! Right! Yeah, that’s right. How intriguing.
And he told all about how he was feeling about Mrs. Moore to an Anglican nun that he corresponded with.
Almost as a confession.
Yeah. Just, well, “Please pray for me. She’s driving me crazy!”
Yeah, yeah. Well, let me point this in a different direction, because the C.S. Lewis Institute is all about discipleship and spiritual growth. You've taught about Lewis as a separate class for over twenty years. You've talked to who knows how many hundreds, thousands of students. But how has all of this shaped your own spiritual growth? How has thinking, writing, teaching about Lewis, and then in particular the writing of this biography, how has that affected you and shaped you in your growth?
I suppose, in answering that question, it would be important for everyone to know that I don't primarily think of myself as a C.S. Lewis scholar. I’m the Charles Colson Professor of Faith and Culture, and I’m concerned with how the gospel addresses the deep questions of every culture, so the idea that God has placed a question in every heart that only the gospel answers, and the task of Christians is to listen for the question. And so I write on science and religion. I write on faith and politics. Literature is one area. Film is another, art and faith. So it's that intersection that is my concern. And so what I discovered was that Lewis had something helpful to say about virtually everything I was concerned about. Lewis was broadly interested in the world. Yes, he was a specialist in medieval, allegorical, courtly love poetry. But you look at his essays, and he wrote very broadly and very helpfully. So Lewis, for me, devotionally, is extremely helpful in thinking through the questions of life that I come up against.
And so that's how I began to focus more and more attention on Lewis and saw him as someone who was helpful to people today. Yes, he wrote for his own generation, but he was incredibly insightful into the direction in which the culture was marching and in anticipating issues that were going to arise in our time. And he's just been very helpful in that sense. And he's so grounded in scripture and prayer. He had a vibrant devotional life. So every day he read the Bible. He always read a Psalm every day. And he prayed. He prayed for people. He understood that discipline, and from time to time it was a duty.
But most of the time it was a pleasure.
And I think Lewis understood that remarkable thing that the apostles talk about, that we almost skip over when we read the New Testament. You know, in the Old Testament, you get to the begats, and our mind goes into idle, and you just sort of get through the begats, not paying attention to, “Why are they there?” In the New Testament, there's a little phrase we tend to just sort of skip over. “Oh, it’s nice.” In Christ. In Christ. The apostle Paul can hardly write a paragraph, well he can hardly write a sentence without including that little propositional phrase, “in Christ,” and it’s at the very nature of what it means to be saved. I am in Christ Jesus, and He is in me. And that is, I think, what most animated Lewis after his conversion, that relationship with Christ.
Oh, that’s beautiful. That’s beautiful.
And so his is a testament. He's a faithful witness. He’s a faithful witness.
I'm very excited to tell you about a new resource we’re working on at the C.S. Lewis Institute. It's going to be a series of relatively short articles that answer challenging questions to the Christian faith, so less than a thousand words, which is like the front and back of one piece of paper, maybe even less than that. Of questions like, “Why does a good God allow evil and suffering?” and, “Isn’t Jesus just like all the other religious people?” and, “Aren’t all religions the same?” and the questions that people are likely to ask us if we get into some really good, deep conversations with them. And it's going to be a growing resource. There'll be a new topic and piece of paper, basically, for you to read and share with nonbelievers. So check it out. If it's not already, it will be at cslewisinstitute.org/resources-category/challengingquestions. Or, if that's just crazy, go to cslewisinstitute.org and search for questions. I sure hope that'll help. Thanks.
Boy! There are so many questions I want to ask and go after. This may be a question that only I’m interested in, but hey, I'm the guy hosting the podcast, so [CROSSTALK 30:28] listeners who are not interested in this next question, I promise we won't stay on it very long, but there's this story that Lewis and Tolkien were talking about the kinds of books they like to read, and supposedly Lewis said, “Tollers, they're just not writing the kinds of books that you and I like to read. We’ll just have to write them ourselves.” And so I've always wondered, okay, so what were the kinds of books or what were the books that people were writing that they thought, “Nope. These aren't the ones!” Do you know? What were some of the books that they were reacting against or trying to propose better alternatives?
Yes. They were reacting to the literary trend after World War I, and I've argued that the arts are like the canary in the mine. In the old days, they’d take a canary down into the mines, and if there was a noxious gas, the canary would die first, telling me and you to get out. There’s a problem.
And after World War I, the arts suddenly fragmented. It happened in painting, in sculpture, in orchestral music, in poetry. Lewis just had utter disdain for T.S. Eliot, who changed poetry with his poem “The Wasteland.” And poetry no longer had meter and rhythm and rhyme. Not only did it not have those, it had no meaning. And you didn't even know what on earth is he writing about? And so you wound up with novels like the kind that James Joyce was writing.
Yeah. Yeah, yeah.
And that whole trend. These novels that are bold, earthy, only they just don't have a plot. Nothing happens.
Right. Brave enough to make the statement that life is meaningless.
And Lewis is looking [CROSSTALK 32:43] that doesn’t seem right.
He just couldn’t stand that stuff.
[CROSSTALK 32:44] meaning. Yeah. Okay.
So they were saving the novel.
But that is so interesting that it happened, certainly in literature, but you're right. It’s also in music, and it's in visual arts.
Yes, in music, orchestral music became dissonant.
And it was wrong to have a melody.
And it was wrong to have pretty music. And in art, it's wrong to represent the world of form as it's seen.
It must be garish to get to the truth. And on and on and on, all of these cliches as things that reflected the hopelessness after World War I. Gertrude Stein said of that generation of expatriates in Paris, “You are a lost generation.”
Yeah. Yeah. Isn't that something that she coined that phrase? Wasn’t she kind of part of it?
Yeah. She was part of it. She was part of it. But remember, C.S. Lewis was part of it, too.
Right. Right. So for [CROSSTALK 34:06]-
In Surprised by Joy, he calls it, “the new look.”
Yeah, yeah. Oh, this is fascinating. Well, we need to draw this to a close. But I said to you before we started recording that I know that you've also done a tremendous amount of research and writing about Edgar Allen Poe because I believe you're related to him.
He's a cousin.
He’s a cousin. I want to invite you back to talk about Edgar Allan Poe and some of the things you've written there, but just give us a little flavor. What's some of the fascination for you, besides the fact that he's a cousin, about his writing.
Well, I mentioned that I work in science and religion. And, in 1848, Poe wrote a treatise on the physical and the spiritual universe, in which he's trying to work out whether or not God exists. His conclusion is that God does exist. But in that treatise, he proposed really to overthrow Aristotle's understanding of the universe. Aristotle said the universe is eternal in duration—it has always been—and it is infinite in size—it goes on and on forever. And Poe said, “No. The universe had a beginning. It's very big, but it is limited in size,” and he proposed what we now call the big bang theory. He said that the universe emerged from a primordial particle and that this was the plan of God. So it's very theological all the way through, but in it he proposes the big bang theory. He proposes what we now call the theory of relativity. He proposes what we now call chaos theory. He proposes all the big ideas in physics of the 20th century, because they've all got to be in place in order for that kind of universe to work, which, in fact, turns out to be the kind of universe we have.
But what he was trying to deal with was the problem of suffering. Okay, now remember Lewis, that was Lewis's big issue. And a lot of people have that issue. Most people ask that question. Only, for both Lewis and Poe, it was personal. “Why did my mother die?” And both of them had that experience. Their mothers died when they were children. And for Poe, he looked at the universe in a literary sense. He said that looking at different scientific explanations of the way the world works, he had been critiquing the problems with American drama. And in the early 19th century, the plays that were being written in the United States were just awful, gosh awful. And he was explaining the way plot works. And he said, “The universe is a plot of God. The universe is the perfect plot.” And his conclusion about, “If there's a God, is He fair?” and his idea was, “Well, we're not at the end of the story yet. It's at the end of the story that all things are resolved.” And so it's a combination of an exploration of love being the motive behind the universe, reconciliation of the problems of suffering. It's a fascinating thing. But his conclusion: “Yes. There is a God.”
Hm. I am fascinated with this.
And then, six weeks before he died, he went forward at a Sons of Temperance revival meeting in Richmond. And the difference between Poe and Lewis is that Lewis wrote almost everything he wrote after his conversion. Poe wrote everything he wrote before his conversion.
How interesting! Oh, my goodness! Did he write anything-
So, that’s what got me interested in Poe.
And the business of right and wrong as a clue to the meaning of the universe, this was what started Poe off. You may remember that Poe invented the mystery story, and he was exploring these spiritual questions. And the thing about the mystery story, it only works if the audience brings to the story the concept of justice.
Yeah, yeah. Otherwise, there’s no need for the resolution.
The audience has to care who done it. The audience has to want the innocent person set free. The audience has to want to know the truth. And the problem with truth is it's a value. Either somebody did it or they didn't do it.
So what is the truth behind it all? And on and on. There are just a lot of questions related to right and wrong that are tied up in the mystery story. But it's an element of what Poe was concerned with.
Did he write anything after his conversion? Poe?
Oh. Okay. So it’s all the questions being asked and the tension being drawn to a fever pitch.
And so this fits back in with our apologetics. Often, we come up with interesting arguments and persuasive ideas, but apologetics only works if you're answering the questions people are asking.
Yes. And resolving the tension that they feel.
Yeah. And so Poe and Lewis are examples of people asking questions. And so that's my interest there.
I love it! Well, that seems like a perfect commercial to bring a podcast to an end that's called Questions That Matter. Sorry, I know that's tacky, but, Hal, I really appreciate all your work. And I do look forward to more conversations, but for this one, I'm going to draw things to a close. To our listeners, we want to say thank you for listening. Please rate us and say positive things about us if you like us on all those platforms where people check out podcasts. And please also visit our website, cslewisinstitute.org, for lots of resources to help you grow in your love for the Lord. May it be that you would love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind. Thanks.