Portrayal Captures the “Larger Than Life” C.S. Lewis
Rather, the journey of professor/author C.S. Lewis from atheism to the Christian faith was a 23 year process. It eventually led to his standing as one of the chief Christian apologists of the 20th Century.
The transformation is carefully and wonderfully portrayed in the one-man play "C.S. Lewis On Stage: The Most Reluctant Convert" by actor-playwright Max McLean, coming to Grand Rapids' DeVos Performance Hall on June 16.
"This play has 11 scenes and each one represents a particular moment in his journey that was quite revolutionary," said McLean. "There are events that moved him away from Christianity as well as toward it. That's the trick of this production – to tell key events of his life to weave into a story."
Lewis' early life was emotionally difficult. His mother died when he was just nine years old. And his relationship with his father was difficult and distant. His experience fighting in World War I and the carnage of trench warfare contributed to a pessimistic and atheistic world view.
TURNING THE CORNER
Events which led him to embrace the Christian faith were also episodic.
"It had a lot to do with the books he read, the people he met and the thoughts he was considering," said McLean.
Lewis' "conversion" may be considered complete when he received Christmas communion at age 32.
The works of Scottish minister-author George MacDonald had a huge impact, according to McLean. So did his friendships and the faith of fellow academics-authors J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson.
Compiling a 30+ book catalog of heavyweight titles such as "Mere Christianity" and "The Abolition of Man," the prolific Lewis also delved into other literary genres.
"It's fascinating to see how a mind comes alive to a spiritual and supernatural reality when it was once deadened to it," McLean said of Lewis' new outlook.
"He was a larger than life figure – the best lecturer and popular teacher from an Oxford –Cambridge student point of view, but among faculty he was controversial," McLean observed.
Some of his colleagues looked askance at his spending time writing children's books (such as the "Chronicles of Narnia" series). Others said that Oxford professors (shouldn't) go on the radio and talk about religion, which he did on a popular BBC program aired during the dark days of World War II.
Lewis continues to be a compelling figure more than 50 years after his death and his books are read by Christians and non-Christians alike. "He never forgot what it was like not to be a believer," McLean noted. "He understood the resistances to faith, therefore he wrote to that whether in his philosophical, literary or fantasy writing."
In many years his books outsell their previous year's totals. Several of his titles (including "The Great Divorce" and "The Problem of Pain") were re-published in 2017 with new editions. "As Christianity gets more watered down, people are going to Lewis and saying, 'Give me a hard hit,' because he recognizes it as it is," said McLean.
"He had an extraordinarily deep mind. He lived in his head...he read everything and remembered almost everything he read."
A STUDY IN CHARACTER
The 1993 feature film "Shadowlands," offered the story of C.S. Lewis with award-winning actor Anthony Hopkins portraying the venerable scholar. Although McLean said the film understated Lewis's self-assuredness and his wide-ranging influence, it better depicted another watermark of his life – his relationship with American writer Joy Davidman Gresham. He first met her in 1952 when she visited England. They eventually married.
Gresham is mentioned in the acknowledgements of Lewis's autobiography of his early life "Surprised By Joy." But their love and her death from cancer inspired later books such as "The Four Loves" and "A Grief Observed."
A PERSONAL TOUCH
Lewis' story and writing have influenced McLean, who was also an adult convert. "It was important for me to integrate my faith and my work, and I try to tell stories that would be of interest to people that may not share my worldview." He is founder and artistic director of the New York-based Fellowship for Performing Arts. McLean said he is aware of West Michigan's own Master Arts Theatre which has a similar mission.
McLean adapted the Lewis fantasy "The Screwtape Letters" for the stage, and performed the production in Grand Rapids six years ago. "He was a larger than life character," said the actor.
Lewis died at a fairly young 64 years of age. His death was easily overlooked, as his final breath came on Nov. 22, 1963, the same day as the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy.
"C.S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert," a stage play by writer/actor Max McLean
4pm Sat. June 16, 2018
DeVos Performance Hall, downtown Grand Rapids
(see a 60 sec. promotional video at https://fpatheatre.com/tour/grand-rapids-mrc-2018/)
Tickets range from $39 to $89. A special $30 ticket for patrons 30 years old and under ("$30 under 30") will be available at the DeVos Hall box office (ID required). Reserved seats available at Ticketmaster outlets, online or phone 800-745-3000. For group rates of 10 or more call 888-294-1733.
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