October 4, 2011 by Steven Worden
It was eighty years ago today on September 22, 1931, C.S. Lewis set out on what can only be described as a remarkable motorcycle ride to the Whipsnade Zoo. Riding in a sidecar on his brother “Warnie” Lewis’s motorcycle, Lewis recalled, “When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did.” Few conversion experiences have had such ordinariness and yet, such momentous consequences.
This remarkable shift in Lewis’ cognitive map probably resulted from the cumulative weight of his discussions with his Oxford University colleagues and friends, Hugo Dyson and J.R.R. Tolkien, who later achieved fame as the author of The Lord of The Rings. As their earlier evening’s talk had stretched on into wee hours of 3 a.m. that very morning, no doubt his friends’ pro-Christianity arguments echoed still in his mind as he clambered into the motorcycle’s sidecar.
But, Lewis’ conversion had not simply materialized out of a late night “bull session” and a ride to the zoo. A Christian in his early youth, he went through the classic adolescent’s rebelling against the faith of his parents and dabbling in occultism. As he later said of his younger self, “I was very angry at God for not existing.” Later, he resentfully set aside his self-assured atheism and became something of an unenthusiastic Deist, petulantly accepting the existence of God: “That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”
It was only through the continued interactions with Tolkien and Dyson a few years later that Lewis was dragged into Christianity, as he described himself, “kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting my eyes in every direction for a chance to escape.” Despite such unpromising beginnings, this “kicking, struggling, resentful” convert went on to write works that explicitly defended Christianity as well as allegories with Christian themes that together sold in the hundreds of millions of copies.
In truth, Lewis’s conversion career seems to follow a relatively well-worn social psychological trajectory: he was given some formation in the faith as a young person, dropped it perhaps as an act of adolescent rebellion against a domineering father, only later to have his faith revitalized through continued interactions with solid friends. Further, this conversion experience would then be continuously sustained and maintained through his twenty year association with the “Inklings,” a literary club with some fellow Christian writers who met at a local Oxford tavern. His conversion “career” would have also been rooted even more deeply through his initial friendship and later marriage to Ms. Davidman, a radical Communist and atheist before her own conversion to Christianity years prior to meeting Lewis.
To analyze it sociologically, C. S. Lewis possessed both the “religious capital” from his childhood on which he could build his conversion experience and also the “social capital” in the form of a network of brilliant and persuasive friends with whom he could march along with in his journey in faith. And, of course, not to be dismissed is the power of the reaffirming of one’s own confidence as one attempts to persuade others through writing and speaking. One often might be the most enthusiastic listener in the audience to your own performance, the most jubilant member of the choir to whom you are preaching. Such is the mystery of persuading oneself as one persuades others.
Analyses aside, we should all hoist a glass to celebrate the eightieth anniversary of this remarkable motorcycle ride and hope that we all can similarly open ourselves to the “stabs of joy” that it gave rise to.