When I went to see the play, The Most Reluctant Convert, I knew next to nothing about its subject. Other than that C.S. Lewis was the author of one of my favorite books when I was a child, his spiritual life was a mystery to me. As a sensitive and imaginative pre-teen, I was set alight by The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, the first volume in Lewis’s “Chronicles of Narnia.” I was utterly aware at the time of Narnia’s sacramental undercurrents, that Aslan (a major character in the Chronicles and also known and The Great Lion) represented a sacrificial Christ figure or that Lewis was a ‘Christian apologist’ (as he has been dubbed). None of that holy apparatus mattered to me then. Yet, it is intimately relevant to me, now, as is the subject of this new play: religious conversion.
How does a diehard atheist become, in effect, one of the most successful evangelists of the twentieth century? Remarkably, Lewis’s inner life and spiritual pilgrimage serve as the plot, action and characters of this extended monologue, executed with wit and great feeling, by award-winning actor Max McLean. There is no set change in this one man play, we mostly see McLean — who is also the playwright and director of this ambitious work — standing, center stage, and reminiscing. Nor does he ever leave throughout the performance the book-lined room meant to represent Lewis’ study at Oxford, in 1950—an academic position he assumed at the age of 26 . Only rarely will McLean-as-Lewis stroll across this stage–on one end to light a pipe, on another to fix a drink.
Notably, there was also no intermission during the 80 minute, sold out performance I attended in Fort Lauderdale’s Parker PlayHouse theater (the play is, currently, touring the country). Yet, despite its demanding subject matter and simple stage set, there was never a dull moment. In fact, it’s been years since I’ve attended a play where the audience (in this case, some 1,200 souls) seemed to be active participants in the play, punctuating the text with hearty laughter and, occasionally, sighing meaningfully. It’s a testament to McLean’s charismatic stage presence, intimate knowledge of the material and droll delivery that he manages to hold our attention, and capture our imaginations for as long as he did with as little distractions as he had.
McLean as Lewis cuts a commanding figure and seems to embody the brilliant Oxford Don through his journey from staunch materialist to one of the most beloved Christian authors. The Lewis we first encounter, speaking in his own words (mostly taken from his autobiography, Surprised by Joy and augmented by his letters) is an arrogant young intellectual. A scientifically-minded, voracious reader he contemptuously rejects the Christian tradition of his father, and presents himself as mocking of faith, lusty, and beyond guilt. In one of the many memorable pronouncements throughout this play, he declares: ‘Cowardice drove me to hypocrisy, and hypocrisy to blasphemy.’
As an ex-agnostic, myself, a student of Existentialist philosophy maddened by my own music and mistaking the totality of my mysterious being for the limitations of my mind, I recognized my college self in this early portrait of the author. Thus, I joined the audience in the laughter of recognition, as Lewis lambasted the vanity of his former self. I knew all too well from my own recent history the futility of persuading such a short-sighted, argumentative creature that they could be wrong, or that there might be more to the story than their ‘logical’ and spiritually-immature self can comprehend.
To assist in this story of a man telling himself his life, the back of the stage is composed of a series of projected photographs depicting key characters in the development of the author, which become larger and seem to come alive as Lewis recollects their significance. After our young atheist has spent a good half hour ranting about the horror of the Christian Universe, with its lack of an Exit Door or treaty with reality, the passionate bibliophile encounters Yeats. The Irish poet — not a Christian, but one who rejects materialist philosophy — offered Lewis a Perhaps, a world beyond that of his senses. With it, Lewis confesses to experiencing a desire for the occult, the supernatural, a spiritual lust that takes him “from eccentricity to perversity”. The fact that the occult was scorned by atheists and rationalist, alike, appeals to the rebel in Lewis, and leads him astray, to flirt with diabolical fantasies.
As it turns out, this dabbling in the occult does not last long and soon comes to seem sordid to this unconscious seeker, who confesses shortly after that his “imagination was baptized.” But, after a taste of this numinous new desire he experiences, it also proves short-lived, the ‘world turned common, again’ and he is frightened by his greed to have it, once more.
I admit, I was more than a little surprised to learn of the name Lewis assigns to this elusive desire: Joy. As a questing young man, in my late teens / early twenties, I had come up with a similar formula, which I thought original and included it in my first book of aphorisms, Signposts to Elsewhere:
“Pleasure may be snatched from life’s clenched fists, joy granted”
It was humbling to hear that, once again, truth agrees with itself, and Lewis had used more or less the same wording to describe his yearnings, recognizing that while pleasure is in our power, Joy never is (and must be Divinely granted).
Arriving at Oxford University, at eighteen, the once-atheist finds the remnants of his old word view assaulted from all sides. The first chink in his armor takes the form of reading Christian writer, Chesterton, which was followed by the conversion of his intellectual sparring partner, Owen Barfield, from materialist to theist. This leads Lewis to question the reliability/supremacy of his mind, and to come at the realization that ‘rock bottom reality had to be intelligent.’ As he encounters more Christian writers, the young reader admits to a wider disturbance and Lewis declares, mock-dramatically, ‘all my books were turning against me!’
A central figure in the conversion of this book-based seeker to Christianity is George McDonald, Scottish poet, fantasy writer and Minister. At this point, Lewis amusingly confides to the audience that ‘Christianity was beginning to sound more sensible, apart from its Christianity’ and, in contrast, Voltaire and company to seem more thin. Yet, he still cannot utter the word God (‘I called Him Spirit).
All this dramatization of Lewis’ spiritual biography occurs before the theologian-to-be and literary scholar turns 26 years of age. In spiritual time, in the words of Lewis, it is before ‘God closed in on him’. At this decisive moment, our protagonist feels he was offered a moment of free choice. He thought he wore a suit of armor and he could, now, unbuckle it. The Spirit had become personal for him.
The audience might have collectively gasped at this change of heart and I found myself in tears, recalling my own embattled relationship with organized religion, growing up as a cultural Muslim, and a skeptic for far too long. In turn, I remembered, how deeply I’d been moved, just a few years ago, by a poem that my wife’s high school religion teacher shared with me, Francis Thompson’s Hound of Heaven. Permit me to quote the opening of his prayer-like verse for those unfamiliar with it:
‘I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbèd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat—and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet—
‘All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.’
After such a transformation, Lewis confesses (in words that continued to resonate deeply with the arc of my own spiritual awakening) that he could play at philosophy no longer, the Absolute had arrived. Having been broken open this way and humbled, we find him undergoing profound soul-searching: “What I found appalled me—depth after depth of pride and self-admiration—a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of hatreds. My name is legion.”
Even though Lewis had given in and prayed, recognizing that the ‘hardness of God is kinder than the softness of man’ his journey Home is not yet complete — for he has only converted to theism, he tells us, and not fully to Christianity. Yet, he we curious and longing to learn more about the Lord from any source, he says. Likening paganism to the childhood of religion, he was keen to learn where it had achieved maturity. It’s at this stage, that another important figure in Lewis’ conversion story enters the picture, English writer and fellow Oxford teacher, J.R.R. Tolkien. In a heady conversation with Tolkien, on the truth of myths and the prison of rational materialism, his slightly older friend finally convinces Lewis of Christianity with the following words: ‘Christ is a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened.’
Before Lewis’ ultimate surrender to Christianity, we are confronted with (for me) the one unsavory moment in McLean’s play, or the return of the unbecoming contempt of earlier-Lewis. In embracing Christianity as the-myth-that-really-happened, he recognizes that the Incarnation of Jesus is the main point separating Christianity from other religions. In contrasting its claim that God became a man, we hear Lewis’ rightly says this would be considered as blasphemous to other faiths, such as: Judaism, Islam, Buddhism. Yet, he is not content to leave it at that, and uncharitably ridicules Prophet Mohammed, for cheap laughs from the audience. Given the current state of Islamophobia, I winced at McLean’s inclusion of this low blow directed at the messenger of Islam and his clumsy characterization of the faith. My hope is that the more mature Lewis, as a practicing Christian, did not permit himself such rigidity and intolerance.
Aside from this unnecessary and distasteful moment, we see Lewis back on track, recognizing he has taken the last and necessary step, comparing his conversion to awakening and a search for Joy. In the ecstatic closing scene, Lewis declares a series of epiphanies: ‘I was made for another world… We are to drink Joy at the fountain of Joy… We are at present at the wrong side of the door… There are no ordinary people, all are immortals… only humility… I, now, Believed.’ With that, the lights dim and only the face of Mclean’s Lewis is illumined, before a background of the vast universe.
I thought it a fine decision to end with the birth of Lewis, so to speak, as a Christian and author who would go on to make his mark on the world. When I gathered my wits, wiping more tears from my face, I joined in the enthusiastic standing ovation and applause. In focusing on the reluctant religious passage of one famous atheist, the play had succeeded in delivering a communal spiritual experience, in its own right, giving shape and language to the ineffable power of revelation and submission. C.S. Lewis On Stage is a powerful work of (he)art with something to say to all of us today, whether we belong to the doubting, cynical camp or, at the other end, the spiritual-but-not-religious group.
 Because I thought Islamophobia unworthy of the integrity of this play, I sent the following letter its playwright:
Dear Max McLean,
I thoroughly enjoyed C.S. Lewis On Stage: The Most Reluctant Convert and, in turn, I hope you will appreciate my review.
Yet, I’m also deeply disturbed by your reluctance to remove the ignorant and hateful line re: Prophet Mohammed “cutting off the head” of someone who asked him if he was Allah (Despite the emails you admit to receiving, which encourage you to take the offensive line out, I don’t understand why you’ve defiantly decided to keep it in).
Buddha and Socrates when asked the same hypothetical question, regarding Brahma or Zeus politely laugh it off, finding it ludicrous. Yet, it is Mohammed who has the hysterical and murderous response—tearing his clothes, first—thereby reinforcing discriminatory views of Islam as savage and bloody.
Your justification, Sir, for keeping the unfortunate line in are equally inadequate and revealing.
- You tell us Lewis said it.
So what? Lewis said a lot of other things, too; but creating thoughtful art is about selection and omission.
- Theater is provocative.
Meaning what? Does you not realize it is irresponsible and dangerous to enforce such fear and loathing, at a time when Islamophobia and attendant hate crimes are on the rise?
- The historical record supports it.
False. Mohammed got along and even protected those of different faiths, such as Jews and Christians. Also, he was known to be kind and forgiving to those who insulted him.
A rare instance of prosecution for blasphemy in the Muslim historical record was of a Christian accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad.
It ended in an acquittal in 1293.
That said, ultimately, do you find it fitting in a play of such a spiritual nature to make this type of low blow, for cheap laughs, at another (much beleaguered) faith?
Is really necessary to pit the world’s second largest religion, nearly 2 billion souls, against Christianity—in order to present the latter as the One True Way?
As the founder and artistic director of the Fellowship for the Performing Arts (FPA), surely, this does not fall under your noble mission to produce ‘compelling theatre from a Christian worldview that engages a diverse audience.’
This is beyond ‘political correctness’ as you brush it off in your written defense; this is more about moral integrity and respecting people of all faiths.
It is my hope, dear Sir, whose one-man-show this is, that you will reconsider removing this problematic line, which only sullies an otherwise inspiring, sophisticated work of art and faith.
Yahia Lababidi, Egyptian-American, is the author of seven books of poetry and prose, most recently the collection of aphorisms, Signposts to Elsewhere:
Image: C.S. Lewis Memorial Sculpture, Belfast by Paul Bowman via Flickr (cc).