A couple years ago at a wedding reception, I was asked what I write about and I mentioned that I had co-authored a couple books on CS Lewis. A woman at the table responded by asking me what I thought of his personal life. In particular, she wanted to know if I was bothered by the fact that he lived with a woman much older than he was, and likely had a sexual relationship with her.
The woman involved in this juicy affair was Mrs. Moore, the mother of an army friend of Lewis’s named Paddy Moore. He and Lewis made a pact that if either of them was to be killed in the war the one who made it out alive would take care of the surviving parent of the one who lost his life. Well, Paddy Moore was killed in the war, and true to his word, Lewis allowed Mrs. Moore to move in with him and he took care of her the rest of her life. She was at the time an attractive middle aged woman, and there is reason to believe Lewis had a romantic relationship with her, not unlike the notorious relationship depicted in “The Graduate” between Dustin Hoffman’s character and “Mrs. Robinson.”
The seamy side of Lewis’ life is hardly news to anyone who has ever read any of the several good biographies of him that are now available. Apparently, however, it is still news to enough of his readers that it carries a certain shock value in the popular media. One of the recent articles that appeared around the 50th anniversary of his death was entitled “The C.S. Lewis you never knew” by John Blake of CNN.
Blake’s article discloses in the very first paragraph not only the aforementioned relationship, but the even more spicy fact that Lewis had some sort of attraction to sadomasochism when he was young. Once at a party during his student days at Oxford when he was very drunk, he asked several people whether he could spank them.
The next few paragraphs go on to highlight the fact that Lewis loved his alcohol and his tobacco, and that his American publishers tried to hide this from his devout readers on this side of the Atlantic. The real Lewis, the article suggests, was rather different from his popular image.
There is truth in this claim to be sure. Moreover, I do not mean to suggest that this article paints a negative picture of Lewis. To the contrary, it also highlights many of his noble qualities such as his kindness and generosity. Lewis was so generous that he gave away the money he made on his Christian books, but he was still taxed for the income, and consequently was dogged by financial worries throughout his life. The author concludes on a positive note by suggesting that the reason Lewis still speaks to us is because we can see ourselves in his life.
Still, there is an undertone to this article that insinuates that Lewis’s personal life was at odds somehow with his public identity as a Christian apologist. In particular, the author writes that there is a “clash” between Lewis’s “sexual proclivities” and the “images of the reserved Englishman who touted the virtue of abstinence before marriage in Mere Christianity.” And near the very end of the essay, again, he contrasts the image of a “prim Englishman” with the “messy” reality of his personal life.
Well, yes, no doubt there is truth here as well. In fact, I’d hazard the wild guess that the personal lives of the vast majority of people are more complicated and “messy” than the picture you might get from their posts on Facebook.
But again, there is a difference between this platitudinous fact and the insinuation that Lewis lacked integrity, or that he did not sincerely practice what he preached. So just what is the alleged “clash” between Lewis’s life and what he “touted” in Mere Christianity?
For those familiar with the book, it is clear that Lewis is defending abstinence as a Christian virtue. He is not prescribing morality for those who are not Christians, nor describing what sort of behavior should be expected of them. In fact, he acknowledged in another essay that it is difficult to make a convincing case against fornication to those not committed to the Christian worldview, especially now that contraceptives can eliminate the practical threat of pregnancy.[i]
And indeed, even for single Christians committed to the ideal of abstinence, he recognizes that it cannot be achieved without God’s help, and even then only with difficulty. He wrote:
We may indeed be sure that perfect chastity—like perfect charity—will not be attained by any merely human efforts. We must ask for God’s help. Even when you have done so, it may seem to you for a long time that no help, or less help than you need, is being given. Never mind. After each failure, ask forgiveness, pick yourself up, and try again.
This “prim” Englishman certainly does not sound like someone who has his head in the clouds about the reality of sexual temptation and sin. Nor does he sound like someone who winks at sexual sin, or thinks it is not a serious matter. He continued a few lines later:
We learn, on the one hand, that we cannot trust ourselves even in our best moments, and, on the other, that we need not despair even in our worst, for our failures are forgiven. The only fatal thing is to sit down content with anything less than perfection.[ii]
So given what Lewis wrote, we should hardly have expected that he would have been committed to chastity before his conversion to Christianity, or that he achieved it perfectly the instant he was converted. I am left wondering where there is a clash between the “messy” facts about his personal life and his writings as a Christian apologist, whatever the case may be with respect to the “image” many people may have of him.
But the underlying attitude that gives this article bite with many people may run a little deeper. The author cites a most revealing story told by A.N. Wilson in his biography of Lewis. A priest once wrote Lewis expressing his doubts about whether there was a loving God and Lewis agreed to meet with him to discuss his doubts. Wilson described the encounter as follows: “The priest, who had expected the author of The Problem of Pain to look pale and ethereal, was astonished by the red-faced pork butcher in shabby tweeds he actually encountered.”
This, perhaps, is the underlying issue. Many people think anyone who is spiritual, or seriously Christian is “pale and ethereal.” A beefy red-faced man simply does not fit the image for many people, especially if he has a hearty laugh and savors physical pleasures.
Lewis was sharply critical of this misguided sort of piety and “spirituality” and strongly emphasized that a vital theology of salvation requires a vital theology of creation. Listen to these words:
They [Christians], of all men, must not conceive spiritual joy and worth as things that need to be rescued or tenderly protected from time and place and matter and the senses. Their God is the God of corn and oil and wine. He is the glad Creator. He has become Himself incarnate. The sacraments have been instituted. Certain spiritual gifts are offered to us only on the condition that we perform certain bodily acts….To shrink back from all that can be called Nature into negative spirituality is as if we ran away from horses instead of learning to ride.[iii]
No doubt some of Lewis’s admirers are in the cold grip of this ghastly notion of spirituality, and would be shocked if they knew he did not fit their stereotype of Christian piety. Some of them, apparently, do not think he was a real human being. Indeed, I have heard it seriously suggested that Lewis did not even have sex with his wife Joy, who he married late in life.
Now it is one thing to find it surprising that Lewis was a party animal and committed some rather colorful sins before he was even converted, but it is another altogether to think his spirituality precluded his enjoying normal conjugal pleasures as a married man. The idea here is that Lewis’s marriage to Joy was similar to the marriage many Christians believe obtained between Joseph and Mary. They lived together as man and wife but the marriage was never physically consummated.
Again, what lurks here is a “pale, ethereal” version of spirituality. Lewis was so Godly and pious, the thought goes, that he lived with his wife without ever “knowing” her in the Biblical sense, or “having” her, as Paul put it (I Cor. 7:2).
This pious notion, however, “clashes” sharply not only with Lewis’s views but also with the facts of the matter. For instance, consider this passage in A Grief Observed, where he reflects on the fact that his experience of marriage destroyed for him the theory that religion is a substitute for sex concocted by persons who are sexually starved and frustrated.
For those few years H [Helen, her first name] and I feasted on love, every mode of it—solemn and merry, romantic and realistic, sometimes as dramatic as a thunderstorm, sometimes as comfortable and unemphatic as putting on your soft slippers. No cranny of heart or body remained unsatisfied. If God were a substitute for love we ought to have lost all interest in Him.[iv]
There is nothing “pale or ethereal” about this passage. These are the words of a red-faced man with red blood running through his veins. It is also worth noting that his wife was not healthy enough at this point in her life to bear children, so it is doubtful that either of them was entertaining the possibility that procreation was in any way likely as they “feasted” on love.
Anyone who can’t conceive of CS Lewis having sex for the joy of it has no sense of who he really was. Worse, they have a profoundly unbiblical view of spirituality.
To be sure, there are people who are called to a life of celibacy as a matter of religious vocation, or to remain celibate for any number of other good reasons. But if they choose to follow a life of celibacy, it is not because they are too spiritual to have sex.
The God of corn and oil and wine is the God who became incarnate. The Word was made flesh, with real muscles, real bones, real blood, and real hormones. Sexual feelings and temptations were no less real to him than hunger, thirst, and weariness. A Jesus who was never aroused by a woman is not a Jesus “who was tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).
As Lewis reminded us, our salvation is possible because the Son of God was the “perfect penitent” who resisted every temptation and gave to his Father the perfect obedience that we failed to give to Him. Moreover, he is committed to transforming us and empowering us to do the same.
The Word was made flesh not to save us from our flesh, but to save our flesh, and to redeem it. The sanctification of our sexuality is not its eradication, but its true liberation and celebration under biblical direction.
So back to the question I was asked at the wedding reception. We should hardly be bothered by the fact that Lewis likely had an immoral relationship with Mrs. Moore. He was at the time an atheist who had little regard for traditional morality. It is no big surprise that he acted like the Bible says impenitent sinners are inclined to act, nor that he had some unsavory, even perverse, dispositions and attractions that required sanctification and healing. Nor should we expect that he would achieve Christian maturity and sanctification without the sort of growth and progress on the road to moral transformation that he describes as the typical Christian experience. And unless we are in the grip of an unbiblical, ethereal view of spirituality, we should not imagine he was too holy to enjoy his wife’s feminine charms as a married man. He was not, after all, one to run from horses.
In short then, “The CS Lewis you never knew” is really very much like the CS Lewis we have known all along.