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The Fellowship: Lewis, Tolkien and The Inklings

January 9, 2019 Speaker: The Rev. Brian K. McGreevy Series: The Fellowship: Lewis, Tolkien And The Inklings

Topic: Christian Education

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QmHXYhpEDfM

75 Years Ago: C.S. Lewis Speaks to Britain about Christianity on the BBC—A Chronology

AUGUST 5, 2016  |  Justin Taylor THE GOSPEL COALITION

 

Seventy-five years ago C. S. Lewis (then a 42-year-old bachelor and an Oxford don) began a series of radio addresses on Christianity, broadcast to the United Kingdom during World War II.

In his recent book C. S. Lewis’s “Mere Christianity”: A Biography, George Marsden narrates how this came about:

[O]n February 7, 1941, the Reverend J. W. Welch, director of the Religious Broadcasting Department of the BBC, wrote what would prove to be a momentous letter to C. S. Lewis. While immediate invasion seemed less likely, the devastating bombing was continuing. By that time, the imposing BBC building, Broadcasting House, in the heart of London, had been hit by bombs on two occasions, once when they could be heard during a broadcast. It was from the roof of that building that Edward R. Murrow made his famous eyewitness reports describing the Blitz to American audiences. Welch was situated in Bristol, where he also had a narrow escape as bombs were falling during a Sunday evening religious broadcast.

Welch had never met C. S. Lewis, but he had been greatly impressed by the Oxford don’s recent and timely apologetic work, The Problem of Pain. He thanked Lewis for that book and asked him if he might be willing to help with religious broadcasting. “The microphone,” Welch explained, “is a limiting and often irritating instrument, but the quality of thinking and the depth of conviction which I find in your book ought surely to be shared with a great many other people; and for any talk we can be sure of a fairly intelligent audience of more than a million.”

Lewis responded positively to Welch almost immediately (in a letter dated February 10, 1941), and beginning in August of that year he began a series of live talks over the airwaves, each 10 to 15 minutes in length. He would eventually agree to do four series, from August of 1941 to April of 1944. All told, he gave 25 addresses, which adds up to nearly six hours of audio. One broadcast had at least 1.5 million listeners.

Marsden explains how it came about that the BBC wanted to broadcast Christian teaching during the war: The BBC was a noncommercial company serving the British people under a royal charter. It included a substantial religious dimension. Great Britain was officially a Christian nation, and the company leadership took that more seriously than did most of the British public. For instance, until World War II, Sunday programming not only included church services and religious programs, but also had to be tasteful, so that there was no jazz or comedy shows on Sundays. During the war, when the BBC had a monopoly on broadcasting, those rules were relaxed a bit for the sake of the troops. But the religion department oversaw quite a few weekday religious programs as well as Sunday broadcasts.

Lewis fit their purposes well. Because of the war, they did not want anything controversial. And Lewis’s talks could be of interest to people of all sorts of Christian backgrounds.

Unfortunately, the only surviving audio from these address is the clip below from the final talk his final series (the date on the YouTube video is incorrect).

 Lewis had the first two sets of talks published in a little paperback called simply Broadcast Talks (1942). The following year, an American edition appeared with the more engaging title, The Case for Christianity (1943). 

 

The third and fourth sets of talks (with some additional chapters) were also published as paperbacks: Christian Behaviour (1943) and Beyond Personality (UK: 1944, US: 1945).

Finally, in July 1952, Geoffrey Bles published the three books together, with Lewis’s light editing and a preface explaining what he meant by his new title: Mere Christianity. Four months later, Macmillan in New York published the American edition in November 1952.

Below is a chronology of the talks. I am indebted to Joel Heck’s indispensable and exhaustive (but not exhausting) Lewis chronology website, which contains much more information on how the BBC talks came about.

SERIES 1 (1941)

The first five lectures were broadcast from London each Wednesday from August 6 to September 3, 1941, from 7:45 to 8:00 pm. They later became the first part of Broadcast Talks / The Case for Christianity and Book I of Mere Christianity (called “Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe”).

1.1. August 6, “Common Decency” (later titled, “The Law of Human Nature”)

1.2. August 13, “Scientific Law and Moral Law” (later titled, “The Reality of the Law”)

1.3. August 20, “Materialism or Religion” (later titled, “What Lies Behind the Law”)

1.4. August 27, “What Can We Do About It?” (later titled, “We Have Cause to be Uneasy”)

1.5. September 3, “Listeners’ Objections” (later titled, “Some Objections”)

SERIES 2 (1941)

The second set of five talks were broadcast each Sunday afternoon  from August 6 to September 3, 1941, from 4:45 to 5:00 pm. They formed the second half of Broadcast Talks / The Case for Christianity and Book II of Mere Christianity (called “What Christians Believe”). In this series and the one that follows, the broadcast scripts are untitled, so I’ve included the titles as they were published in written form.

2.1. January 11, “The Rival Conceptions of God”

2.2. January 18, “The Invasion”

2.3. February 1, “The Shocking Alternative”

2.4. February 8, “The Perfect Penitent”

2.5. February 15, “The Practical Conclusion”

SERIES 3 (1942)

The third set of eight talks were broadcast on Sunday afternoons, between 2:50 and 3:00 pm, on the BBC’s General Forces Programme for the armed forces. Originally written to be 15 minutes in length, Lewis had to cut them down to the ten-minute timeframe (but restored the excised material when he published it in written form). These talks were published as Christian Behaviour, which became Book III with the same title in Mere Christianity (along with additional chapters).

3.1. September 20,  “The Three Parts of Morality”

3.2. September 27, “Social Morality”

3.3. October 4, “Morality and Psychoanalysis”

3.4. October 11, “Sexual Morality”

3.5. October 18, “Forgiveness”

3.6. October 25, “The Great Sin”

3.7. November 1, “Faith”

3.8. November 8, “Faith”

SERIES 4 (1944)

Lewis’s final series of talks was broadcast at 10:30 pm (the late time in the evening was much to Lewis’s consternation, who had to travel to and from London) from February 22 to April 4, 1944, and published as Beyond Personality and then as Book IV with the same title in Mere Christianity. 

4.1. February 22, “Making and Begetting”

4.2. February 29, “The Three-Personal God”

4.3. March 7, “Good Infection”

4.4. March 14, “The Obstinate Toy Soldiers”

4.5. March 21, “Let’s Pretend”

4.6. March 28, “Is Christianity Hard or Easy?” (prerecorded)

4.7. April 4, “The New Men” (prerecorded)

Sources:

 

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C.S. Lewis, the BBC, and Mere Christianity
Michael Gleghorn explains how a series of radio talks during WWII became one of Christianity’s most cherished classics.
One can rarely predict all the consequences which will follow a particular decision. On September 1, 1939, Germany
invaded Poland. Two days later, France and Britain declared war on Germany. World War II was officially underway. Back
in England, C. S. Lewis was “appalled” to find his country once again at war with Germany. Nevertheless, he believed it was
“a righteous war” and was determined to do his part “to assist the war effort.”{1}
At this point in his life, Lewis was already a fairly successful Oxford don. “His academic works and lively
lectures attracted a large student following.”{2} Although he published a number of academic studies,
Lewis also enjoyed writing popular literary, theological and apologetic works. In 1938 he published the
first volume of his science-fiction trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet. And in 1939, as the war began, he was
working on The Problem of Pain, a thought-provoking discussion of the problem of evil and suffering.{3}
It was this latter work which attracted the attention of James Welch, the Director of Religious Broadcasting for the British
Broadcasting Corporation, or BBC. Welch and his assistant, Eric Fenn, were both committed Christians who firmly believed
that Christianity had something vital to say to the men and women of England as they faced the horrors and challenges of
war. According to Welch:
In a time of uncertainty and questioning it is the responsibility of the Church – and of religious broadcasting as one of its
most powerful voices – to declare the truth about God and His relation to men. It has to expound the Christian faith in
terms that can be easily understood by ordinary men and women, and to examine the ways in which that faith can be
applied to present-day society during these difficult times.{4}
After reading The Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis, Welch believed that he had found someone who just might meet his
exemplary standards of religious broadcasting. He wrote to Lewis at Oxford University in February 1941, and asked if he
might consider putting together a series of broadcast talks for the BBC.{5} Lewis responded a couple days later, accepting
the invitation and indicating a desire to speak about what he termed “the law of nature,” or what we might call “objective
right and wrong.”{6} Although Lewis could hardly have known it at the time, this first series of talks would eventually
become Book I in his bestselling work of basic theology, Mere Christianity.
Right and Wrong
Mere Christianity originated as a series of talks entitled Right and Wrong: A Clue to the Meaning of the Universe. Lewis
pitched his idea to James Welch, the Director of Religious Broadcasting at the BBC, in the following terms:
It seems to me that the New Testament, by preaching repentance and forgiveness, always assumes an audience who
already believe in the law of nature and know they have disobeyed it. In modern England we cannot at present assume
this, and therefore most apologetic begins a stage too far on. The first step is to create, or recover, the sense of guilt.
Hence if I gave a series of talks, I shd [sic] mention Christianity only at the end, and would prefer not to unmask my
battery till then.{7}
In certain respects, this was a rather difficult time to be involved in religious broadcasting. Most of the talks were not prerecorded,
but were given live. And because of the war, the British government was anxious to insure that no information that
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might be “damaging to morale or helpful to the enemy” end up in a broadcast.{8} As Eric Fenn, the BBC’s Assistant
Director of Religion, who worked closely with Lewis in the editing and production of his talks, later recalled, “. . . every
script had to be submitted to the censor and could not be broadcast until it bore his stamp and signature. And thereafter, only
that script—nothing more or less—could be broadcast on that occasion.”{9}
Lewis not only had to contend with these difficulties, however, he also had to learn (as anyone who writes for radio must)
that this is a very precise business. Since “a listener cannot turn back the page to grasp at the second attempt what was not
understood at the first reading,” the content must be readily accessible for most of one’s listening audience.{10}
Additionally, the talks must fit within a narrowly defined window of time. In Lewis’s case, this was fifteen minutes per talk –
no more, no less. As one might well imagine, Lewis initially found it rather difficult to write under such constraints.{11}
Eventually, however, the combination of Fenn’s coaching and Lewis’s natural giftedness as a writer and communicator paid
off. The talks were completed and successfully delivered. The BBC was pleased with its new broadcasting talent and
quickly enlisted Lewis for a second series of talks.{12}
What Christians Believe
This second series would be titled What Christians Believe. Since these talks would require Lewis to more directly
communicate some of the core truths of the Christian faith, he sent “the original script to four clergymen in the Anglican,
Methodist, Presbyterian and Roman Catholic Churches for their critique.”{13} Although Lewis was a brilliant and well-read
individual, he was nonetheless a layman with no formal training in theology. Since his desire was to communicate the
central truth-claims of Christianity, and not just the distinctive beliefs of a particular denomination, he wanted to be sure that
his talks were acceptable to a variety of Christian leaders. Although a couple of them had some minor quibbles with certain
things that Lewis had said, or not said, they were basically all in agreement. This was important to Lewis, who later tells us,
“I was not writing to expound something I could call ‘my religion,’ but to expound ‘mere’ Christianity, which is what it is
and was what it was long before I was born and whether I like it or not.”{14}
The BBC was elated with this second series of talks, liking them even more than the first. According to Justin Phillips, who
wrote a book on the subject, it was this second series of talks which most closely fulfilled James Welch’s original vision as
Director of Religion for the BBC “to make the gospel relevant to a people at war. It speaks of the core doctrines of
Christianity and explains them in plain English to the general listener.”{15}
Eric Fenn, who helped with the editing and production of the talks, wrote appreciatively to Lewis afterwards to tell him he
thought they were excellent. He then asked if Lewis might consider doing yet another, even longer, series sometime in the
near future.{16} Lewis would agree to the request, but he was beginning to get a little disenchanted with some of the
unanticipated consequences of his success. Already a very busy man, with a variety of teaching, writing, and administrative
responsibilities, Lewis now found himself, in addition to everything else he was doing, nearly overwhelmed by the
avalanche of mail he was receiving from many of his listeners. This Oxford don was clearly making a powerful connection
with his audience!
Why Was Lewis So Popular?
According to Justin Phillips, “Even though Lewis was a prolific correspondent himself, even by his standards it was all
becoming a bit too much to cope with.”{17} Indeed, were it not for the able secretarial support of his brother Warnie, Lewis
may not have been able to keep up with it all.
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Jill Freud, one of the children evacuated from London at the start of the war, lived with the Lewises for a while. She recalled
just how much help Warnie offered his brother, whom they called “Jack”:
He did all his typing and dealt with all his correspondence which was considerable – so huge it was becoming a problem.
There was so much of it from the books and then the broadcast talks. And he was so meticulous about it. Jack wrote to
everybody and answered every letter.{18}
Indeed, Warnie later estimated that he had pounded out at least 12,000 letters on his brother’s behalf!{19} So what made
Lewis so popular? What enabled him to connect so well with his readers and listeners?
In the first place, Lewis was simply a very talented writer and thinker. When it came to communicating with a broad, general
audience, Lewis brought a lot to the table right from the start. But according to Phillips, the BBC should also be given some
credit for the success of the broadcast talks. He writes, “The attention given to Lewis’s scripts by his producers in religious
broadcasting made him a better writer.”{20}
Ironically, even Lewis’s rather volatile domestic situation may have contributed to his success. Lewis was then living with
his brother, who had a drinking problem, a child evacuee from London, and the adoring, but also dominating, mother of a
friend who had been killed in World War I. Phillips notes:
All this helped to ‘earth’ Lewis’s writings in the real world. . . . It took him out of the seclusion of the Oxford don . . . and
gave him a real home life more like that of his listeners than many of his professional colleagues.{21}
Finally, Lewis combined all of this with a rather disarming humility in his presentations. He wasn’t pretending to be better
than others; he was only trying to help. And his listeners responded in droves.
The Impact of the Broadcasts
The BBC eventually got a total of four series of talks out of Lewis. Each of the series was so successful that the BBC
continued, for quite some time, to entreat Lewis to do more. But according to Phillips, Lewis was becoming increasingly
disillusioned with broadcasting. The BBC issued one invitation after another, but nearly eighteen months after his fourth
series concluded Lewis had turned down every single one of them.{22} Although he would eventually be tempted back to
the microphone a few more times, the days of his broadcast talks were now a thing of the past. While he was glad to be of
service in this way during the war, Lewis never really seemed to care that much for radio. Indeed, in one of his less serious
moods, he even blamed the radio “for driving away the leprechauns from Ireland!”{23}
In spite of this, however, the impact of the broadcasts has been immense. Since first being aired on the BBC, these talks
have generated (and continue to generate) a great deal of interest and discussion. Mere Christianity, a compilation of the
talks in book form, continues to show up on bestseller lists even today.{24} And Phillips, speaking of the cumulative impact
of all of Lewis’s writings, observes that while numbers vary, “in the year 2000 some estimates put worldwide sales of
Lewis’s books at over 200 million copies in more than thirty languages.”{25}
As the origin of Mere Christianity shows, however, we cannot often predict how it may please God to use (and perhaps
greatly multiply) our small, seemingly insignificant, investments in the work of His kingdom. Lewis was simply trying to do
his part to be faithful to God and to help his countrymen through the horrors of World War II. But God took his humble
offering and, like the story of the loaves and fish recounted in the Gospels, multiplied it far beyond anything Lewis could
ever have reasonably imagined.
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This should be an encouragement to us. As we faithfully exercise our gifts and abilities in the service of Jesus Christ, small
and inconsiderable though they may seem to be, we may one day wake to find that incredibly, and against all odds, God has
graciously multiplied our efforts to accomplish truly extraordinary things!
Notes
1. Justin Phillips, C. S. Lewis in a Time of War: The World War II Broadcasts that Riveted a Nation and Became the Classic
Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2002), 4.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Jame s Welch, BBC Handbook 1942, 59; cited in Phillips, C. S. Lewis in a Time of War, 78.
5. Phillips, C. S. Lewis in a Time of War, 80-81.
6. Ibid., 82.
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid. , 33.
9. Interview with Eric Fenn by Frank Gillard for the BBC Oral History Archive, 4 July 1986; cited in Phillips, C. S. Lewis in
a Time of War, 33.
10. Ibid., 88.
11. Ibid., 87- 88.
12. Ibid., 134-35 .
13. Ibid., 142.
14. C. S. Lewi s, “Preface,” in Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1960), vii.
15. Phillips, C. S. Lewis in a Time of War, 153.
16. Ibid.
17. Ibid. , 155.
18. Interview w ith Jill Freud, 19 November 1999; cited in Phillips, C. S. Lewis in a Time of War, 157.
19. Walter Hooper, C. S. Lewis: A Companion & Guide (London: Harper Collins, 1966), 33; cited in Phillips, C. S. Lewis in
a Time of War, 158.
20. Phillips, C. S. Le wis in a Time of War, 165.
21. Ibid., 183.
22. Ibid., 268.
23. C. S. Lew is, Letters to an American Lady (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967); cited in Phillips, C. S. Lewis in a Time of
War, 276.
24. See , for example, www.bookvideoawards.com/bookstandard/images/BestSellersAwards_Program.pdf and
peopleofthebook.us/2007/02/.
25. Phillips, C. S. Lewis in a T ime of War, 279.
© 2009 Probe Ministries