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The Most Reluctant Convert: Lewis, Theater, and the Friendship of Debate

May 19th, 2017 | 15 min read

By Susannah Black Roberts

It’s not that I ever pictured C. S. Lewis as a sixteen year old girl. It’s that when I was one, and reading Surprised by Joy for the first time, I thought of him as a peer. Was this because he had such a vivid memory, such accurate recollection of his own sixteen year old self? Or because, describing aesthetic experience, speaking to my reason in a rigorous and challenging way, he was my friend? Because this is how friends, how peers, speak to each other, as Lewis (of course) discusses in The Four Loves: They share a good, they share a pursuit, a quarry. Friends do not, or don’t exclusively, face each other. They face the world shoulder to shoulder.

Some of that world is the world of beauty, the heartbreaking place that I recognized when Lewis described it– he pointed towards a country that I had also seen and longed for, and I never knew that anyone else knew about. The thing he described as Joy, sehnsucht, I utterly recognized, though I’d found it just as often in New York City as in the country, and though my equivalent of Lewis’ biscuit tin and Chesterton’s toy theater had been the Maurice Sendak set of The Nutcracker at Lincoln Center.

But some of that world is the world of reason. I was a materialist when I first read Lewis; it was not a position I had reasoned my way into; it was simply how things were; it felt correct. The idea that you could get to reality by thinking carefully, challenging your own assumptions, giving and seeking reasons for beliefs, was something that I encountered for the first time in Lewis– well, perhaps not for the first time, but he was an early case. “It had never before occurred to me that my thoughts should be based on anything,” he said of his time with his tutor, Kirk, the Great Knock; it was the same with my own experience reading him.

In this way, as with beauty, Lewis stood shoulder to shoulder with me, directing my gaze not at him, but at the thing we were both looking at, whatever it was: at the idea of “ought,” at the word “nature,” at the structure of epic poetry, at the experience of friendship or of yearning for the Heavenly Country; at the claims of Christ. And sometimes –  shyly, awkwardly, almost as awkwardly as he talked about romantic love – at Christ himself.

And maybe that is why it was so very very disconcerting to be face-to-face with Lewis, in Max McLean’s one-man production The Most Reluctant Convert. The Acorn Theater is on 42nd Street, very far West. I was coming from Queens, so I took the the subway to Port Authority: there was a particularly good subway performance by the Showtime guys.

Kelly James Tighe’s set was a visual symphony of fan-service: a cluttered office, meant to be his room at Cambridge, probably: crammed with books and curios. A sculpture of a lion. On the wall, photos of Chesterton, of MacDonald with his beard. And–

“Look it’s the Dawn Treader!” I said to the friend I was with, pointing: a model ship in full sail. It came out as a squeal, I’m terribly afraid. “They know all my triggers.”

McLean entered, and the disconcertment began: Michael Bevins’ costume design and McLean’s own performance were, from everything I knew of Lewis, just exactly accurate; loud, blustery, extremely un-dapper, very male, tobacco-flecked; his manner was not at all donnish if by donnish one means tentative or meek. It was an 80-minute monologue, very well delivered; one felt a bit harangued, but one rather felt that one would have felt harangued– pressed, anyway; not let off the hook– by Lewis himself too, in person. For someone who was terrible at sports, he does seem to have been a bit of a bro.

And the arguments themselves: the joy of reasoning, the pointers towards what was true, which come through in such a non-haranguing way in Surprised by Joy and in his other books, came through in the performance as well. I ran into them as one runs into old friends: the argument from reason; from that-which-it-is-reductive-to-call-aesthetic-experience; the trilemma. The anecdotes, too, were friendly faces: buying Phantasties at the railroad bookstall, Addison’s walk, the ride in the side-car of the motorcycle on the way to the zoo.

The selection of material– and McLean spoke, afterwards, about the fact that it was, by necessity, a selection– was very apologetics-oriented: what were most present were the arguments, the philosophical steps. Surprised by Joy was not the only source– McLean had used the letters as well, and other bits and pieces– but it predominated. The gentler parts– the parts in Surprised by Joy that spoke so my story-loving sixteen-year-old self, the parts that talk about Joy directly– were not as prominent, though they were there; and it is such a strange and almost embarrassing thing to describe, that passion for Somewhere, that I’m surprised McLean was able to pull it off at all. It’s the kind of thing that works better in a play that is itself a story. (Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, oddly, calls this up, while attempting unsuccessfully to subvert it; the Joy of Arcadia is a strange phenomenon, because Stoppard the subcreator opens the window to that other place even as Stoppard the philosophe tries, though ambiguously, to shut it.) The phenomenon of trusting God, of knowing God to be the one who loves you, is likewise downplayed, but then Lewis downplays it rather in the book, though it comes out elsewhere–diffidently, occasionally.

Of course, the play was, as plays are, an imaginative experience, and the narrative of Lewis’ life was a narrative, not an argument, but it was not an immersive story in the way that, say, Narnia itself is. One was pulled along– but pulled along as one is in Plato, pulled along by argument, reason put in dramatic form. One of the key moments is Lewis’ conversation with Owen Barfield about the logical incoherence of materialism. Barfield, wrote Lewis,

convinced me that the positions we had hitherto held left no room for any satisfactory theory of knowledge. We had been, in the technical sense of the term, “realists”; that is, we accepted as rock-bottom reality the universe revealed by the senses. But at the same time we continued to make, for certain phenomena of consciousness, all the claims that really went with a theistic or idealistic view. We maintained that abstract thought (if obedient to logical rules) gave indisputable truth, that our moral judgment was “valid”, and our aesthetic experience not merely pleasing but “valuable”. . . . Barfield convinced me that it was inconsistent. If thought were a purely subjective event, these claims for it would have to be abandoned. . . . I was therefore compelled to give up realism. . . . I must admit that mind was no late-come epiphenomenon; that the whole universe was, in the last resort, mental; that our logic was participation in a cosmic Logos.1

McLean’s script traces this closely. And one is engaged.  An atheist who saw the play told him that as Lewis was grabbed by the force of this argument, she found herself thinking “We’re losing him!” Just so did I think “We’re gaining him!”

At the end of the performance, McLean comes back out on stage, out of character, and takes questions. He tries, he said in a followup interview, to go into these sessions without an agenda, without points he is hoping to make: “that would tend to shut me down, make it harder to have a conversation, make it harder to actually listen to what someone is asking.”

The conversational tag on the play works particularly well because the drama of the play itself, and of Lewis’ conversion, is driven by a series of conversations: Lewis and Dyson, and Kirk, and Tolkien, and Barfield. One might also point out that conversations themselves– the phenomenon of being able to exchange reasons and to share experiences– are things that are impossible in a purely materialist and determinist universe.  

And the open-endedness implied by conversation is important. Christianity, real Christianity, is not a series of deliverances which shut down thought. Conversion does not happen like a closing-off to the world, to discovery: my own conversion, at least, began with a “what if” that felt like a window opening on fresh air. What if the universe was not in fact closed, was not in fact a locked-in machine after all?  What if aesthetic experience did in fact point to truth? One doesn’t need to jump straight to Christianity: but the door is open, the wind is blowing, the quarry has broken cover. There is something, here, to be pursued. There is something here, too, that is good: the news from a far country that all this implies is good news. It matches who we are, it brings us to life, and does not shut us down.  

Curious, I went back to Surprised by Joy to see whether seeing and hearing McLean as Lewis would change the way I heard Lewis’ voice: whether an old friend would have become strange.

He had not. Rather, that quality of friendship lept out of the pages: Lewis describes Warnie –his brother Warren– straight off in a way that shows the pattern that he would later find with his friendships with Tolkien, with Hugo Dyson, with Charles Williams: “Though three years my senior, he never seemed to me to be an elder brother; we were allies, not to say confederates, from the first.” This taste for alliance, for confederacy, is blended in Lewis– and blended throughout Surprised by Joy— with the delight of discovering that there is another person who shares one’s private landscape, an experience which, at least for some, has been a clue that there may be something else to the world beyond bare materialism: “How far the story matters to anyone but myself,” wrote Lewis,

depends on the degree to which one has experienced what I call ‘joy.’ …I have been emboldened to write of it because I notice that a man seldom mentions what he had supposed to be his most idiosyncratic sensations without receiving from at least one (often more) of those present the reply ‘What! Have you felt that too? I always thought I was the only one!’  

This may not be everyone’s path to God. Lewis talks about his parents’ obliviousness to “the horns of elfland;” even Warnie, who also became a Christian, didn’t share Lewis’ love of all that’s called up by, (to use Lewis’ example) the mere phrase “the Well at the World’s End” – whether or not William Morris’ actual novel delivers it. And what, precisely, is the relationship between a sense of beauty, a sense of the numinous, a love of a certain kind of story, and the hope of the New Jerusalem– I don’t know. Not all Christians love the Arthurian mythos. Not all Christians love talking through arguments for the existence of God from the immateriality of thought, either.

These are not necessary, and they are not sufficient, conditions for conversion. Struggling against the vice of Lewis-fans, I am not in fact arguing that a taste for speculative fiction is universally coextensive with the activity of God’s grace in the world. I can well imagine an “access” to joy that has nothing to do with spec fic and Arthuriana and so on, though it is harder to imagine one that has nothing to do with nature, or with stories at all.

I can even imagine a Christian life that has little of the numinous about it at all, which is anchored in in a more “political” desire for justice and shalom; in solid care and the good of practical love of one’s family, in everyday friendship and the “thisness” of the world; in the love of doing good work or of hospitality; in a naturalist’s curiosity about the world, or an historian’s; in an experience of rescue from addiction. Indeed most paths will eventually, I think, tend to include all these things, though some are more central than others. Some have simply, and primarily, known they needed forgiveness, and found it here, with no accoutrements or fanciness.  There are many ways in. I do not know them all. Jesus loves those who do not share my tastes; his Kingdom is far bigger, stranger, and more varied than I know, and God is not an Englishman. The measure of Lewis’ experience, or mine, is not the measure of the universe.

But for those who do share Lewis’ path, what McLean’s production does is to make all of us confederates, to bring all who will– the audience members, the performer, Lewis himself– into the kind of shared friendship that, with boisterous and astringent discussion, points towards something that is first experienced so privately– the longing for that other country. And it points towards it using the inherently social, inherently public tools of reason and argument. The tension between these two– between what Lewis called, in The Pilgrim’s Regress, Reason and Romanticism– is the strange perennial attraction of Lewis’ writing. And it’s a tension that McLean’s production grasps, and offers to share.

The Most Reluctant Convert will run in New York City through May 21. Runs in Charlotte and Atlanta will follow. Go here to buy tickets, to sign up for notifications of future performances of this production, and to get information about other productions of the Fellowship of the Performing Arts.

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Feature image via Jeremy Daniel

Susannah Black Roberts

Susannah Black Roberts is senior editor at Plough. She is a native Manhattanite. She and her husband, the theologian Alastair Roberts, split their time between Manhattan and the West Midlands of the UK.