Transcript of Douglas Gresham Interview (Sept. 2013)
The following is a transcript of the interview I did with Douglas Gresham, stepson of C.S. Lewis. It was recorded on 9/24/2013 during his visit to Asbury University. You can hear the podcast interview here. Because about a week after this interview an announcement was made about the next Narnia film, I removed my questions and his comments related to this, as they are now obsolete.
O’FLAHERTY: While this is the 50th anniversary of Lewis’s death and his legacy has lasted this long, looking ahead, not to the present here but ahead, what do you think will be the most remembered about Jack 50 or maybe 100 years from now if you don’t mind speculating.
GRESHAM: I don’t think it’s going to change very much you know. I think Christianity worldwide is at an all-time ebb at the moment and I think it’s starting to gather pace to come back with huge force again, Jack is going to be at the forefront of that resurgence I think, his work will be.
Because Jack tells the truth, and I think truth is something that the human race is addicted to in a sense.
We do tend to recognize truth when we hear it, we get very tired of the opposite thing all the time. The lies and the dissimulations. Jack tells the truth and he tells it straightforward and very simply and his books are full of grace and he passes it on to you when you read them, so I think those books are going to be around forever as long as people read and read books, no matter what form they read them in, Jack’s going to be at the forefront of that movement.
O’FLAHERTY: You mentioned in a previous interview I was listening to from Focus on the Family radio drama about The Screwtape Letters that Jack used his time wisely. His idle time while traveling on the train was an example I believe that you gave. Are there any other habits that he did have that helped make him the great person that he was?
GRESHAM: Well… as far as a great scholar is concerned and a great writer, one of his habits was to read and I mean he would do it deliberately. He would select a book and he would spend so many hours a day reading it and thinking about what he was reading and of course occasionally someone would recommend a book and he would find it not to be worth reading and he would dismiss it. But usually he would read a book right through the end very carefully; so many hours of each day were spent in reading. Also of course he spent quote a lot of hours each day in writing and in writing letters to people. A great part of his ministry was answering all the letters he ever received except ones from obvious raving lunatics of course and we all get a few of those now and again. So I found him frequently writing letters and I must confess I’ve adopted the same policy. Jack taught me that if someone has done you the honor of writing to you, you must at least have the dignity to reply (except of course to the raving lunatics). But that was another part of his day and all of these things put together, his constant charity by answering every letter he received, his constant concentration on reading good works of literature wherever he could find them and finding out how other writers were using words in different ways than the ways he used them and whether they were better or worse than his and so on. He was also a constant student, he read the Bible every single day and he oscillate between one version and another. Often he would be reading the New Testament in the original Greek. Sometimes he would read the Latin translations and so on. So he studies at least a chapter of the Bible every day and sometimes more if he had the time. So his whole being was concentrating on words, their usage and their meanings and how you could convey the essential truth with them. One of the things he pointed out quite strongly was that we can never expect to learn to understand God. What we are here to try to do is to learn to misunderstand him a little less completely and I think that’s what Jack was trying to do and he was trying to enable other people to do it in his writings and it works. It really works.
O’FLAHERTY: Thinking about the Narnia books themselves, I know you’ve gone on record saying your favorite book is whatever you’re reading at the time but I want to take you back to when you were first a child reading them after you had read all seven, around that time what was your favorite?
GRESHAM: Again it’s a very difficult question to answer, I was completely enthralled with all of them. I think I loved The Horse and His Boy because I enjoy horses, I’ve had some very good friends who’ve been horses (and one or two enemies). But I usually get through to the enemies eventually and they become friends. So I loved horses and as a child and still do and some of the characters and one in particular in The Horse and His Boy resonate with me very strongly. I’m not going to say which one, it’s almost as if one of them was modeled after me, but I don’t think that’s the case. But I loved The Horse and His Boy for its deserts…you know basically I loved them all it’s so difficult to choose one. The Voyage of the Dawn ‘Treader’… I love the sea I love being at sea I love yachting and so on and sailing. There’s something for me in every single one of them, The Narnia Chronicles, I think you’ll find that’s probably true for all children who read them. They all find something special about each one of those books so it’s difficult to have a favorite. My least favorite though is The Last Battle and that’s only because it is the last Narnia chronicle and I was disappointed to know that was going to be the end of the series. Other than that it’s a wonderful book, of course.
O’FLAHERTY: And of course The Horse and His Boy was dedicated to your brother…
GRESHAM: Myself and my brother, that’s right.
O’FLAHERTY: In addition to this year 2013 being the 50th anniversary of Lewis’ death, the 75th anniversary of the publication of Out of the Silent Planet actually was happening yesterday at the time that we were recording this. Can you reflect first on some of the significance of the first story in the Ransom or some say Science Fiction trilogy…
GRESHAM: Yea I think that what Jack did with that whole series starting with Out of the Silent Planet was remarkable. Up to that period, all science fiction had been the case where man manages to get out one way or another into space to some other planet, finds evil monsters who are intent on killing all mankind and possibly eating them or whatever. Jack flipped that on his head and thought it was far more likely that man would go out into space and find pure creatures and be the evil monster who wants to devour and destroy and so he wrote this book Out of the Silent Planet illustrating how mankind will take his evil with him out into other planets out into other spheres of space and start to degrade and destroy and I think this is where Jim Cameron probably got his ideas for Avatar from because in that it’s the same thing that happens it’s man who goes out and is the evil destroyer. Again it’s a very pure and unfallen species and that’s what Malacandra is, along with Perelandra for that matter. It’s a place where human beings have not fallen, they are pure, sin free and of course the devil is trying really hard to get in there and he does it on in this case by sending two businessmen from here with the kidnapped Ransom along and his name is no accident either. And he of course manages to triumph through the power of the Holy Spirit over the evil, the evil of man that’s trying to be worked in these different planets, so I think it’s a hugely remarkable piece of work for the time that it was written. But Out of the Silent Planet is followed by Perelandra which is a very beautiful book from my way of thinking anyway. I love the stories and I love the descriptions and so on. But then That Hideous Strength is probably one of the most prophetic books ever written at that time of history. And if you look at what he wrote there and look around our universities and scientific laboratories and the various business enterprises that have got into the universities you can see that Jack knew exactly what was going to happen 50 years down the track. It’s happening right now all around us. And that’s pretty scary actually, but Jack was very accurate in his predictions. So I think that the science fiction trilogy is hugely significant. The trilogy needs to be read by far more people than it is I think.
OFLAHERTY: One of the things about the final book is, I didn’t realize when I initially read it that it was finished before the end of World War II and even if you just consider, it was almost as if it had already finished and people had reflected on it and gained all the wisdom and he seemed to have captured it before that actually happen.
GRESHAM: Yes he did, that’s exactly it. It was a prophetic work, a very powerfully prophetic work and it still is, I mean the things he talks about they are still happening in the world today as time goes by. So I think, or rather hope that his tomorrow where everything is one and everything is lost by the enemy will come to play, pass, as he described; it will be rather fun I think.
O’FLAHERTY: Thinking again more specifically to the first in the series Out of the Silent Planet, it was published a dozen years before any Narnia story was published and at this point, he later noted about the evangelical or how you can put Christianity in it…there’s the letter to Sister Penelope I believe where he talked about that and then how people are calling this out of the silent planet really his first imaginative apologetic work and of course some thought that Narnia was, but here we have 12 years before that he was already doing that naturally. Any reflections on how he integrated his faith so well within that story?
GRESHAM: I don’t think in a sense it’s a physical effort. I think if you have the sort of faith that Jack had, if you have the sort of writing talent that Jack had, when you write something your faith is going to sneak it as it were and in fact in Jack’s case, it’s going to go charging in to whatever you write. He was so wide open to the Holy Spirit of God and the inspiration from the Holy Spirit of God that everything he wrote had his faith vibrantly alive in it and I think any truly committed Christian who has submitted his life to Christ entirely finds that will happen to him. If he just relaxes and lets the Holy Spirit speak through him. I think that’s all Jack did in a sense. I mean I know that Jack wrote the Narnia Chronicles down on paper, but I’m perfectly convinced that the Holy Spirit of God is the genuine author of them and the same would be true of Till We Have Face and indeed of the science fiction trilogy. I mean it’s very difficult for a man to have the gift of prophecy so powerfully as Jack exhibits and I think there’s quite a lot of prophecy in the Narnia Chronicles as well, it’s rather more covert and it’s there and if we look deeply enough and study we will find it. We will see things that Jack, sort of almost promises us in the Narnia Chronicles coming to life around us.
O’FLAHERTY: Thinking of Jack’s life as a whole, he’s known for all his successes, yet he did experience failure quite a bit. If I’m not mistaken his first attempt at getting Spirits in Bondage his first book published was rejected which was a poetry book and that’s an area that he was wanting to be known for so he somewhat failed in that area.
GRESHAM: Well he failed in lots of areas, but the interesting thing about it was he always realized when he made a failure of some sort it was because God had something better for him. He was wanting to be the great lyric poet, the next Lord George Byron or someone like that. It just didn’t happen and it didn’t happen because quite frankly he wasn’t good enough at it. So he turned to prose and prose turned out to be his absolute genius because God knew that he wanted him to write prose rather than poetry. So when he turned himself over to Christ and let Christ run his career and his life, the whole thing snapped into sharp focus as happens to so many of us.
O’FLAHERTY: You almost anticipated my next question, and there may not be anything further you want to add, but if there is it would be great; that is, you know even other failures like Out of the Silent Planet, which we just mentioned, was rejected twice if I’m not mistaken.
GRESHAM: Don’t forget, the rejection by a publisher of a book that you’ve written is not a failure. It’s a failure on the publisher’s part if that book goes on and makes millions and millions of dollars. For example The Lord of the Rings was turned down by about four or five publishers. But that was not a failure on the part of the writer, it was a failure on the part of the publisher and they’ve probably been kicking themselves in the backside ever since. Now the failures Jack suffered was he just couldn’t write really good lyric poetry that people would get a grab hold of and run with. But I think it’s also partly the time because the lyric poetry of the great poets of that previous era was [when Jack started writing] past history. It’s all pop stars now it’s a bit crazy for someone to try and start something in a fashion that’s gone out of fashion which was just about when Jack was doing it, he loved the poetry so much and he wanted to do the same thing, not taking into account that it was already passe.
O’FLAHERTY: Even though it maybe wasn’t a failure per say for him there was discouragement. Are there any maybe further lessons other than what you may be noted, commented already that he learned from those different challenges or perceived failures?
GRESHAM: I think he learned never to give up, one of the most important lessons in life. Winston Churchill used to say never give up, never give up, never, never give up. And if you want to publish something and your first publisher says no and your second publisher says no and your third publisher, keep trying there are lots of publishers out there. Sooner or later one of them is going to be smart enough or stupid enough depending on the quality of your work to publish it for you. Never give up; and Jack kept on sending stuff out and of course eventually he became well known and his stuff was sort of sought after. Than he didn’t have to peddle it anymore. He had a literary agent who just said this would suit so and so and send it to them and it was published. But that’s the state a writer gets to when he’s already successful.
O’FLAHERTY: An area that we could spend hours talking about but we only have a few minutes left here is Lewis’s shorter works or his essays you may say generically. Are there any essays whether it be articles sermons other published talks that are maybe are not as well-known as some of his other writings that you wish more people would read?
GRESHAM: I think most of his essays, most of his sermons or things like that are less well known than his apologetic novels for example or his fictional works, but that’s as it should be. These are works for scholarly people, these are works for people who have the intellect and thought processes to deal with them. But we try as a company to keep everything Jack wrote in the public eye all the time, available to the public all the time and one of the things that’s going to help us with that of course is the advent of the electronic publishing. We will be able to move ahead in the electronic areas with lots of things we still want to keep in front of the public but not necessarily want to stock on bookshelves all over the planet. So these things are…this whole new technology’s making life a lot easier in that respect. So we will keep everything Jack wrote that we can fine or know about or keep getting our hands on available to the public; I think that’s an important thing to do.
GRESHAM: Wait for it to come out, Walter will do a wonderful job it’s the sort of thing Walter’s very good at and he’s been doing it for us for a long time editing books of various different esoteric pieces and genre and I’m sure it’s going to be a wonderful volume.
O’FLAHERTY: Now another Narnia question, I didn’t know the other day I was reflecting with a friend about the Susan issue and thinking about with having read the different biographies this past year it helped me to you know recall what’s already, clearly stated, Lewis had come to faith during his preteen or teen years then he left it and then he later came back as an adult, is maybe Susan, modeled after this…was this maybe in the back of his mind?
GRESHAM: Well the whole point is you’re not supposed to know. It’s a mystery what happened to Susan and what’s going to happen to Susan. We must all try to learn as we read Narnia, we must try to learn it’s one of the reasons for Narnia, if we had time; to look at time as a piece, all of time. We can take the seven volumes of the Narnia Chronicles and look at them all as a piece that’s all one, that’s the time from the beginning of creation of Narnia to the end of Narnia all happens in the one group of books. So we can look at it that way and looking at it that way of course we have to remember that the life of Susan and eventual eternal life of Susan is also part of one piece. I mean let’s just leave it where Jack left it.
O’FLAHERTY: Right and in the story she did not die on the train because she wasn’t on the train so she’s still alive and has an opportunity…
GRESHAM: That’s right, in fact she may be a great grandmother somewhere around Asbury, I don’t know. I know the actress very well that played her, mind you.
O’FLAHERTY: You commented about Mere Christianity and recommended it along with another work when you were speaking at Asbury. You said in reply to some that asked what you would recommend to their friend that is an atheist. You recommended Mere Christianity and also to follow it up with A Grief Observed. Could you just briefly comment on that?
GRESHAM: Well Mere Christianity obviously is one of the finest works of apologetics ever written in any century anywhere on this planet and probably any other. It’s a work which so simplifies all of the difficult questions and makes it so obvious to people why those of us who do, worship Christ. It’s a wonderful book, it’s entrancing to read, it’s fascinating to read, and it makes difficult things very easy. What it does is it shows you why people turn to faith. Whether you want to or not but you can understand why other people do if you decide not to having read Mere Christianity. It also then shows you one of the greatest challenges that your faith can be put to and that is the grief of losing someone you love and how a man who is committed to Christ in a very big way dealt with it. He goes to the edge of losing his faith, not in God existing, but in the nature of God and pulls himself back by his knowledge of earlier life and all sorts of other facets. It’s a book that shows you a man walking to the very edge of the pit of despair and the hell lies beneath it and then turning around and coming back to God and it explains why. I think the two books, in a sense a pair and they show the beginnings of faith and why of the beginnings of faith and then they show you the dangers that happen and how to avoid them. But I think they’re both just very valuable books for people to read.
O’FLAHERTY: Now focusing on Mere Christianity, I’ve had some Christians when they approach it since it is actually, not fully aware that it’s three separate books, four separate broadcasts, that they say that I don’t really struggle about doubting and I’ve recommended that they start with book three, Christian Behavior. I didn’t know if you’ve have any comments about that?
GRESHAM: People who say to you I don’t really doubt, one of two things, quite bluntly they’re rather a liar or a fool. All of us doubt. Every single Christian on earth is beset by doubts. Whenever things go bad, when a great friend of yours is dying in great agony you think how could there possibly be a God while this is happening and then you have to revert your mind back and think well of course there’s a God, He tries to protect us against these things but the devil inflicts them on us and we try to make the best we can of them, but He will bring great good of it if we allow Him to and we stand back and watch it happen. We are always beset by doubts, if anyone says I haven’t got any doubts about Christ, they’re either a liar or self-deceiving. So that’s the first part. I think people should just pick up the book and read it from wherever they feel like reading it, but after chopping into it and having little bits here and there, go back start at the very beginning and read the whole book if you can sit in one place read it from beginning to end. When you’ve done that, take a week off come back and read it again. Do that about three times and you’ll really start to get the gist of it because it’s a book that’s very dense with meaning. Like Till We Have Faces, I’ve read it 15 times at least and I’m still finding levels of new meaning in it. So in Mere Christianity is a book that needs to be thought about. One of the problems I have with modern education in America is that people are trained rather than educated in many cases. As Jack put it, education is for free men, training is for slaves. People in America are taught to look at things, but we need to be taught to look into them.
O’FLAHERTY: I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that you have two books yourself Lenten Lands and Jack’s Life, could you briefly tell us about them?