Becoming a Man with C.S. Lewis: Lessons from His Teenage Wanderings – Harry Lee Poe

Becoming a Man with C.S. Lewis

Parenting teenagers is not for the faint of heart, and parents often feel discouraged that their children seem down on themselves in the seventh and eighth grades, rebellious in the ninth and tenth grades, and unsure of their direction in life in the eleventh and twelfth grades.

In each of these stages, parents can fear that they have done something terribly wrong, and they often struggle to know how to “fix” their teenagers when, in fact, they are actually going through the God-ordained stages of growing up (Genesis 2:24; 1 Corinthians 13:11).

The father of C.S. Lewis worried terribly about his son, who showed all the signs of becoming a monster. Young Lewis went through what we might call the three major stages of young adolescence, middle adolescence, and late adolescence that can prove so disruptive to what had been a happy family. He took up smoking, lied to his father, became an atheist, and otherwise seemed to be drifting. But in the end, he became the twentieth century’s greatest defender of the Christian faith.

Disagreeable Beginnings

Few people who knew young Lewis in 1910 or 1912 would have said they wanted to be like him. Clive Staples Lewis grew up in a prosperous suburb of Belfast in Ireland, where he was known to his family and closest friends as Jack.

His mother died of cancer when he was 9 years old, at which point his father shipped him off to Wynyard School, a boarding school in England, for a proper education. To the English, however, anyone from Ireland was considered inferior. The other boys shunned Jack and his older brother, Warnie, or they actively picked on them.

The headmaster of the school (who it turns out was insane) led the way by casting slurs against the boys because they were Irish. He also beat the boys with a cane to help them learn. Unfortunately, he was a minister, and the school was a Christian school, which contributed to young Lewis not having a favorable view of Christianity.

First Friendship

One of the great developmental tasks of young adolescence is to have a healthy attitude about oneself. It is a faith proposition to truly embrace the idea that we are wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14). The primary relationship for this time of life is parents.

With his mother dead and his father across the Irish Sea, young Jack had no one to help him feel capable and cared about. He had no friends except for his older brother, who was sent to another school for older boys. In a situation like that, people tend to turn in on themselves and grow more isolated from others.

When Jack’s first school closed, he was sent to a succession of boarding schools in Ireland and England. Life at the all-male schools revolved around sports, but Jack had a congenital deformity of the thumbs that made it difficult for him to catch a ball, throw a ball, or hit a ball with a cricket bat. This awkwardness contributed to a general clumsiness such that he could not use scissors or do any number of ordinary tasks that require manual dexterity. In his day (as well as ours), boys who could not play sports did not count. Jack was ridiculed and became the brunt of abuse in the school, where the boys ran the houses in which they lived. He had no friends.

In this situation, Jack’s father and brother worried that he would grow more and more isolated. He hated school and everybody connected with school. While home on Easter vacation, however, he was asked to visit a sickly boy who lived down the street and who was ill in bed. By this time in his life, Jack had withdrawn into his own world of books and imagination. He particularly loved the stories of the Norse gods.

When he entered the bedroom of Arthur Greeves, he saw lying on the table next to the bed a book of Norse mythology. He found someone who had the same interests as himself, and they began a friendship that lasted the rest of their lives. Arthur was a few years older than Jack, and not as bright as the brilliant boy. He also differed from young Lewis in one other respect: he had a personal faith in Jesus Christ.

Cold Hard Facts

One of the primary tasks of middle adolescence is to learn to be appropriately independent. It is a necessary step toward growing up and being on one’s own, in the way God intends. In some families, however, adolescents learn in a stormy way, accompanied by all manner of rebellion against parental authority. They need not, but they often do.

Jack’s step into the mid-teenage years involved his decision that God does not exist. In studying Latin in school, his teachers had told him that the stories of the Greek and Roman gods were just made-up tales. He decided that all stories about gods were made up, including the stories in the Bible. In later life, Lewis would become a world-class literary critic and expert on mythology who took the view that the old myths were not made-up stories so much as they were corruptions of the one true story. For teenage Jack, however, being an atheist formed part of his independence and newfound “sophistication.”

At the age of 16, just after he began his first real friendship with Arthur Greeves, Lewis left school and went to live with Mr. Lewis’s retired schoolmaster, who gave him a private education far from the sports and bullying of Malvern College. W.T. Kirkpatrick trained Jack’s mind and impressed upon him the importance of logic and reason. Kirkpatrick also was a committed atheist who allowed his philosophical assumptions about reality to filter into everything he taught. Jack acquired Kirkpatrick’s assumption that physical matter is the only thing that exists. Lewis always credited Kirkpatrick with preparing him to win a scholarship to Oxford, but he also recognized afterward that teachers can slip all sorts of ideas into their teaching without the student ever realizing that it has happened. He would discuss this problem in The Abolition of Man.

Escaping a Brute Universe

Because of his love of literature, Jack began to feel himself torn between Kirkpatrick’s world of cold hard facts, and the world of noble deeds, courage, loyalty, truth, and beauty that he found in the old medieval romances about knights who gave up everything for the great quest that took them to the end of the world. All along the way since childhood, Lewis had experienced something strange from time to time. It was a feeling of longing and desire, as if he wanted something desperately but did not know what it was. The longing itself was not the object of his desire, but he valued those fleeting experiences beyond words.

Jack wrote to Arthur every week, and those letters tell how Jack battled against faith and tried to lead Arthur in his path, but Arthur remained faithful and true. In the end, Jack realized that the values he prized most could not emerge or evolve in a brute universe of fact. In a brute universe, nothing is right or wrong. Nothing is beautiful or ugly. Things just are. Values come from outside the universe. Thus, as he left Kirkpatrick to seek his fortune at Oxford and in the army during World War I, Jack found himself on a path that would take him to the source and creator of goodness and beauty, Jesus Christ.

The last task of the teenage years, then, we might say, is to establish one’s identity. Lewis struggled with this task for several years, but finally he found his identity in Christ. A brute universe has no purpose or meaning, but the search for meaning, purpose, and identity points to the fact that we are made with a purpose (2 Corinthians 5:5; Ephesians 1:9–10).

Into Adulthood

As an adult, Lewis would be known for the value he placed on friendship. During his teen years, he learned to find friends who built him up instead of tearing him down. He learned the damage that a clique or a gang, what he called the “inner ring,” can do to people. They not only damage the ones on the outside whom they ridicule and hurt, but they also do terrible damage to the people who belong to the clique.

Lewis had a group of friends at Oxford who called themselves the Inklings, and they encouraged each other in their writing. The most famous member besides Lewis was J.R.R. Tolkien, who wrote The Lord of the Rings. These friends had in common their love of stories and their love of Jesus Christ.

It would have been easy for Lewis to become an arrogant snob at Oxford. Having been bullied by the boys who were good at sports, he might have taken it out on the talented athletes who came as students to Oxford. Instead, he opted not to become the bully. He became an encourager. It all began from being bullied by others in school, and from finding a friend who encouraged him.

The case of C.S. Lewis serves as an encouragement to parents who might fret about their teenage children and the struggles they face, for God can use those struggles, and often does, to prepare them for life and to lead them to a relationship with him. In the teenage search for identity and independence, many wander for a season, even for years. And God can make that wandering the very path to himself.

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