Our main teacher during the week at the C. S. Lewis Foundation seminar, Earl Palmer, is one of those teachers you love to listen to. His words are chosen carefully, and he speaks as a “fellow traveler” in contrast to one that always seems to have gotten there ahead of you. For those of us who love The Lord of the Rings, Palmer is a Gandalf-like figure, sent onto our path to help light the way. It was a joy to engage him on the work of Lewis and Tolkien for a week.
I have to admit that when I read the New Testament, I am one of those persons who identifies with the disciples. When Jesus encourages the children to come close, I am thinking, “Why? This is really adult business here; send them away!” Like the disciples (at least in heart), I am always surprised to hear Jesus say that the children are always welcome.
Pastor Palmer led us to a book early in the week that is rarely read – C.S. Lewis’ Letters to Children. I am sure that many believe that they would learn little from a book that is intended for children. Earl reminded us that, like our Lord, you can often tell the heart of a person by the way he or she treats children – interesting.
C.S. Lewis was an academic – an English professor. He was not just any university teacher either; he was assigned to Magdalene College in Oxford. He was part of one of the most important learning communities in the world at the time – rarified air, so to speak. In my own experience, I do not remember top-level professors at major universities being very accessible. They guard their time very carefully because they have important work to do.
Lewis answered almost every letter he ever received. Most importantly, he personally answered letters that came from children – many written commenting on the Chronicles of Narnia series. Professor Palmer drew us to numerous passages in Lewis’ letters that illustrated how seriously Lewis took the comments and suggestions of children. Perhaps Lewis never forgot what it meant to be a child. When once asked why he wrote to children in the manner he did, he said, “You never look down at a child – you look at them straight across.”
In the forward to Letters to Children, Lewis’ stepson, Douglas Gresham, wrote: “Jack was the exact opposite of all the “step mothers” in the fairy tales; he was kind, jolly, and generous . . . We explored the woods together and went for walks. Sometimes Jack would give me some pages of things he was writing and ask if I liked them. I usually did, but if I didn’t, he was the kind of man who would listen to what I said.”
That sense of Lewis taking the suggestions and opinions of children seriously is evident throughout Letters. In a letter to Joan in 1954, he wrote, “You are lucky that at your age you are having such lovely dreams, and how very well you describe them. This, I may add, is not just compliment, I really mean that what you write is good. I do see your Coloured Mountains.”
Perhaps my favorite letter, and also one of Pastor Palmer’s, is one Lewis wrote to a mother who had confided in him that her son Laurence felt that he was “loving Aslan more than Jesus,” and he feared reading the Narnia books further. Lewis showed his sincere concern for Laurence and wrote:
“But Laurence can’t really love Aslan more than Jesus, even if he feels that’s what he is doing. For the things he loves Aslan for doing or saying are simply the things Jesus really did and said. So that when Laurence thinks he is loving Aslan, he is really loving Jesus . . . If I were Laurence I’d just say in my prayers something like this: ‘Dear God, if the things I’ve been thinking and feeling about those books are things you don’t like and are bad for me, please take away those feelings and thoughts. But if they are not bad, then please stop me from worrying about them. And help me every day to love you more in the way that really matters far more than any feelings or imaginations, by doing what you want and growing more like you.’ That is the sort of thing Laurence should say for himself; but it would be kind and Christian – like if he then added, ‘And if Mr. Lewis has worried any other children by his books or done them any harm, then please forgive him and help him never to do it again.’”
It is hard to imagine an Oxford Don writing a note like this to a parent or a child. I suppose that Lewis tried to live out his belief that “every person is sacred” and a unique creation of God. This is not to say that he did not have high standards or demand a great deal of his students – he did. At the same time, he tried to see the unique value of every person.
As president of George Fox, I am very proud of our faculty. I know that there are many who, like Lewis, treat every person special and seek to bring Christ into the lives of the students they meet and work with.
For Father’s Day, my daughter Rebekah bought me a book this year – C.S. Lewis’ Letters to Children. She did not know it would be one of the featured books in my seminar later in the summer. It was another reminder of the wisdom and thoughtfulness of my children. It is a book of Lewis’ that I had never intentionally picked up but now regard as one of the most valuable.