Mission & Ministry - Book of the Month Review: CS Lewis in a Time of War

The Bishop's Institute Book of the Month

"C.S. Lewis in a Time of War" by Justin Phillips reviewed by The Rev. Steph Britt

     In the late Spring of 1940, the European Alliance Powers were losing the Second World War. The Soviet Union and Germany had cemented their alliance. Poland had fallen to Nazi troops. Finland had ceded control over its resources to Germany and the shore of Lake Lagoda to the Soviets. Denmark and Norway had surrendered; and France, overrun by axis troops, was on the verge of collapse. Arguably the most successful "battle" in the credit column on the Allies' ledger was Dunkirk - which really amounted to a successful retreat of more than 300,000 troops from certain defeat. 

     Thanks to Dunkirk, and Hitler's inscrutable pause that made it possible, over a quarter million trained fighters lived to fight another day. But where would they fight? What territory was left to defend? Only Britain. And Britain knew it. 

     Winston Churchill rarely used the radio. His obstinacy for old fashioned things put him in a constantly precarious relationship with Britain's new, but powerful BBC. But on the 18th of June, in an effort to state the case realistically to the British people, Churchill took to the airwaves. He gave one of the most remembered speeches of all time, calling on his people and their allies to fight and resist with such vehemence that generations to come would speak of it as "their finest hour."

     Virtually everyone learns or remembers that line. But what may often be lost in the shuffle is the opening of that monumental communication. Churchill begins by saying: 

          What General Weygand called the Battle of France is over. The Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. 

     Christian civilization. 

     And yet, was it a Christian civilization that was listening to their wireless sets that warm afternoon in 1940?

     James Welch was the Director of Religious Broadcasting at the BBC during the War years. He figured that "two thirds of the BBC listeners were leading their lives without any reference to God." (Phillips p. 39) Church attendance was down. Hope and faith seemed commodities in short supply. 

     It was the BBC, and more spcifically the men and women involved in its religious programming, that germinated the notion that for the Battle of Britain to be won, the Battle for the hearts and minds of the lapsed or nominally Christian men and women would have to be waged. And by a series of odd coincidences, fateful meetings and partings, and genuine desires to meet people wherever they may be, it turned out that the most valiant warrior of the defense of Christianity would come to be an obscure Oxford don by the name of Clive Staples Lewis. 

     Justin Phillips is the official historian of today's BBC. This position allowed him new and unique access to source material never before available to Lewis' many biograghers. By crafting together Lewis' own writings (particularly letters to friends) and the copies of the letters written to Lewis by his contacts at the BBC the whole story of Lewis' radio talks in war-torn Britain comes not just into the light, but into life as well. 

     Phillip's own writing is a prose that Lewis himself would be proud of; concise, full of imagery, and deeply engaging. The book will appeal not just to anglophiles, radio buffs, and World War II junkies, but to anyone who likes an engaging story. 

     And if you happen to be one of the millions of people who love and admire Lewis' work, you are in for a real treat. 

     Phillips book, it must be said, presupposes some knowledge of Lewis and his work. But with the Oxford don selling, even today, an estimated two million volumes a year, the work supposition is unlikely to be an imposition. Those with any knowledge at all of Lewis will find great value in the revelation of the wartime environment in which Lewis' Apologetics come to life. 

     In total Lewis did four series of talks for the BBC. These are later collected into his hugely important compilation, Mere Christianity. Phillips' book reveals how deeply the BBC wanted it to be more - wanted Lewis to become the kind of "radio star" that was first coming into being in those formative years. 

     Readers with deeper knowledge of Lewis will not be surprised that Lewis strongly rejected that notion of personal notoriety; though it will charm such readers to see the letters in which Lewis directs that his paychecks for the talks be directed to clergy widows and other souls in need. 

     Still, isn't it just like another Dunkirk for Lewis himself? He may have retreated from the celebrity that the BBC was offering and had in mind. But he wasn't done fighting. 

     Today, nearly 120 years after Lewis' birth in Northern Ireland, his unique defense of the Christian faith, communicated across his vast range of literary styles, still claims as captured or killed in tremendous numbers, apostasies, doubts, and fears. Lewis' victories continue to be reported in churches all over the world by grateful readers of the faith's now most modern guardian. 

C.S. Lewis in a Time of War is available for purchase on Amazon.com. Click here to see the page on Amazon.