The Devil is the Don: Critiques of C.S. Lewis in Time, 1947

On September 8, 1947, C.S. Lewis graced the cover of Time Magazine, "Don v. Devil"a kind of Christian celebrity showcased in an article called “Don v. Devil”—a play on his status as an Oxford don (like a university lecturer) made famous by The Screwtape Letters. The article is generous though mildly critical, capturing much of what Lewis thought and wrote about in the 1940s. In its jocular tone, it cuts an endearing look at someone who doesn’t at all seem to be a rising celebrity, but rather a quiet intellectual who prefers his books and tea in his “handsome office” at the Coll.

While this article sealed in Lewis’ fame in England and expanded his growing influence in America, the reaction was not universally positive. The letters to the editor of September 22, 1947 include positive notes:

Sir:

Kudos to TIME for proclaiming the eminence of C. S. Lewis, a “Christian Revolutionary” [TIME, Sept. 8] of portentous stature destined to rank, perhaps, with Chesterton.

R. T. MALONE Lincoln, Neb.

This sentiment, however, was not universally shared. For some, the sexycritique was in Lewis’ own portrayal of the Devil, presumably in The Screwtape Letters:

Sir:

. . . The Devil you depict could not seduce even Lena the Hyena. Nothing like him was ever kicked out of Heaven. Fact is the Devil is good-looking … he has a Clark Gable mustache and a widow’s peak like Robert Taylor. . . .

CHARLES OVERILL San Diego, Calif.

There was a lot I had to look up in this letter. “Lena the Hyena” is a cartoon character in 1946, evidently the ugliest sexywoman in the world. We all know Clark Gable—apparently Mr. Overill is lost in 1940s Movember candidates—but I also had to google “widow’s peak.” I didn’t see that one coming, but apparently a little triangle at the top of the brow is alluring to Mr. Overill of San Diego, California. I suspect that the temptations of Screwtape—to become fashionably sceptical, refined, clever, and uniquely critical of others while completely un-self-critical—might lack the sultry movie star quality of the letter writer’s evident weakness, but are no less seductive.

But my favourite letter is less invested in Hollywood and cuts to the heart of what the Time article saw as Lewis’ strengths:

Sir:

If only Christ had had the C. S. Lewis brand of Christianity! What an easy life He could have led! Instead of going out among the poor and lowly, preaching the brotherhood of man under the Fatherhood of God … He could have stayed comfortably in the temple discussing intricate points of theology with the rabbis and answering the not-very-bright questions of the students.

Had Christ followed such a course, His career would not have included the bitter agony of Calvary. No doubt he would have lived to be a wealthy, opinionated “Christian” of the C. S. Lewis type.

ANNE CONNERY Great Neck, N.Y.

By all accounts, C.S. Lewis didn’t seemed fazed by the response to the article. For Lewis, it was the original article that he hated. On April 8, 1948, in a letter to a Miss Fuller, he called the article “ghastly.” His response lacks Screwtape’s (critiqued above) subtlety:

“Yes, the Time article was ghastly: but I suppose no one of sense believes such things. I wouldn’t hand a dog on a journalist’s evidence myself. Who said I disliked women? I never liked or disliked any generalization.”

I like that last line (specifically, not generally).

On January 19, 1948, about a letter-writing cycle after the Time piece was released, Lewis warned a Mr. Harrington:

“And don’t, on your life, draw on the article in Time: which went near to curing me of ever replying to such questions at all.”

While Time continued to cover Lewis until long after his death, he avoided media for the most part–even though his fame only grew through his publication of the Narnia series, which has since topped 100 million copies in print.

 

Would love your comments below, particularly anything else you’ve heard about the Time piece and the response to it.
An alternative title to “Don v. Devil”–the digital edition available to subscribers–is “Oxford’s C.S. Lewis. His Heresy: Christianity,” which is the title on the cover of Time.

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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4 Responses to The Devil is the Don: Critiques of C.S. Lewis in Time, 1947

  1. Pingback: Hitlerian Haunting in Screwtapian Logic | A Pilgrim in Narnia

  2. Louise says:

    Here’s the link to the audio of a delightful C. S. Lewis conference held last month in Minneapolis.
    http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/conference-messages/national-conference-rebroadcast

    Like

  3. anniemaeblog says:

    Thank you SO much for posting. I am very excited to read the full article.

    Liked by 1 person

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