The Life and Joy of C. S. Lewis

Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963) is known the world over for his contribution to Christian apologetics, popular theological writings, and his fantastic fiction, which includes the Chronicles of Narnia among many others. This blog post will explore the life and legacy of C.S. Lewis in three parts. First, Lewis’ evangelical credentials will be examined by briefly reviewing the major moments and consequences of his life.[1] Second, this blog post will examine the dominant idea of Joy that permeates his written apologetic ministry. Third, closing endorsements and cautions will be offered as we look forward to Lewis’ enduring role within the evangelical movement.

I

Lewis did not consider himself to be an evangelical Christian. Indeed, as the title Mere Christianity suggests, his popular writings intentionally seek to rise above the classification that normally brands certain kinds of Christianity. Even above the denominational fray, however, Lewis was much more embraced by Anglicans/Episcopalians and Catholics than by evangelicals during his own lifetime.[2] As Alister McGrath notes: “What evangelical would want to be associated with someone who smoked heavily, drank copious quantities of beer, and held views on the Bible, the Atonement, and purgatory which were out of place in the evangelical community of that age?”[3] It is, however, more or less irrelevant whether or not Lewis self-identified as an evangelical or if evangelicals appreciated him in his own day. The movement has adopted him posthumously so that even after death he has come forth from the evangelical womb as one of our most cherished twentieth century champions.[4]

From within the movement we can point to his widely publicised conversion,[5] his apologetic activism,[6] his love of the Bible as sacred writ,[7] or even to his creative embrace of the Cross to prove that he is one of us.[8] Perhaps, however, evangelicals have embraced Lewis simply because, in spite of our many differences, he has helped us to remember that our faith is reasonable, intelligent, and imaginatively potent.[9]

Lewis was the second of two sons born to Irish Protestant parents in 1898 Belfast. With a clergyman grandfather and a bishop for a great-grandfather (both of the Church of Ireland), he was of stout Protestant stock. When Lewis was seven (1905), his father moved the family to a warm cottage house affectionately named “Little Lea” in the Strandtown corner of Belfast. It was in this home that Lewis developed his love of literature and reading. Lewis’ older brother, Warren, was often away at boarding school and the weather was frequently inclement. To bide his time, Lewis consoled himself in the mountains of books that his father stacked haphazardly throughout the house.[10] This provided Lewis with both the desire and depth of reading that would serve as a strong foundation and aide him later in life.

It was not long thereafter that Lewis encountered a series of pains that shaped his early atheism. Three events stand out as particularly hurtful. The first occurred in August of 1908. Just three years after moving into Little Lea, Lewis’ mother died from cancer. The death of his mother destabilized Lewis’ childhood notion of security and order, as God slipped further and further away from him. Lewis reminisces:

When [my mother’s] case was pronounced hopeless I remembered what I had been taught; that prayers offered in faith would be granted… The thing hadn’t worked, but I was used to things not working, and I thought no more about it… I had approached God, or my idea of God, without love, without awe, even without fear.”[11]

The death of his mother did not rupture an existing relationship between Lewis and God. No such relationship existed and God was to Lewis more Magician than Saviour or Judge.[12] However, the unanswered prayers for his mother’s recovery further entrenched the unreligious trajectory of Lewis’ developing worldview.

The second blow to any theistic or Christian scaffolding followed quickly upon the heels of this bereavement. His father immediately whisked Lewis to England where he attended a series of boarding schools, all of which he loathed. His experience at these schools made an indelible mark on Lewis as he pined for Ireland and the comforts of home rather than the rough fagging of the older students.[13] To escape the tortuous antagonism of his peers Lewis spent long hours in the library, where he devoured classical literature. These great writings, much to Lewis’ delight, eroded most of what remained of his religious upbringing: “Lewis noted that [the religious ideas of Virgil and other classical authors] were treated by both scholars and teachers as ‘sheer illusion.’ So what of today’s religious ideas? Were they not simply modern illusions, the contemporary counterpart to their ancient forebears?”[14] The discovery of these pagan myths and religious systems led Lewis to the conclusion that Christianity was simply one option among thousands, all of which shared the same “endemic nonsense into which humanity tended to blunder.”[15]

The third strike to prick the quick of Lewis’ soul was the Great War. Facing almost certain conscription Lewis enlisted voluntarily through the Oxford University Officers’ Training Corps and was sent to the trenches of Arras, France, in 1917 as a second lieutenant in the Somerset Light Infantry.[16] Very little is known about Lewis’ experience on the front lines of World War I, save his service ending shrapnel injury received during a raid of Riez du Vinage. Other than an early collection of published poems called Spirits in Bondage,[17] Lewis chose not to write about his soldiering except to say that he had made a “treaty with reality”[18] in order to keep the horrors of the war from overtaking him:

I put the war on one side to a degree which some people will think shameful and some incredible. Others will call it a flight from reality. I maintain that it was rather a treaty with reality, the fixing of a frontier. I said to my country, in effect… ‘You shall have my body, but not my mind.[19]

It is interesting that in Lewis’ spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy, he offers three cumbersome chapters about his hatred of boarding school erstwhile skipping over the impact of the war almost entirely. Even the quote above is plucked from a broader rant about boarding school rather than a reflection on the war.

These three events conspired to cripple the Irish Protestant legacy that had been Lewis’ birthright. In addition to these three catastrophic experiences a fourth ingredient must be noted which also helped to establish Lewis’ atheistic convictions. In 1914 Lewis was rescued from Malvern College, the worst of his boarding school experiences,[20] when his father decided to install him under the tutelage of William Thompson Kirkpatrick (1848-1921). Kirkpatrick taught Lewis the art and science of rational thinking and he helped prepare Lewis for acceptance through scholarship at University College, Oxford. In Kirkpatrick’s teaching Lewis found confirmation of his atheistic inclinations.[21]

Lewis’ conversion to Christianity is muddled yet noteworthy. Two autobiographical books, The Pilgrim’s Regress and Surprised by Joy, the former allegorical and the latter reflective, give us insight into Lewis’ inner world as he transitioned from atheism to pantheism to general theism to Christian theism. The muddled aspects come from Lewis’ own chronological inconsistencies and glaring omissions, such as the role of WWI and important interactions with friends. Sufficient for the purposes of this blog post are the three details to follow.

First, Lewis may have been persuaded by the Oxford Realism of the 1920s, which espoused a belief in sensory knowledge only, and then Absolute Idealism, which moved closer to the platonic deistic philosophy of the ideal Logos, but both worldviews remained for him unsatisfactory.[22] He longed for a richer, more imaginative and aesthetic reality that he might embrace:

Such, then, was the state of my imaginative life; over against it stood the life of my intellect. The two hemispheres of my mind were in the sharpest contrast. On the one side a many-islanded sea of poetry and myth; on the other a glib and shallow ‘rationalism’… Hence at this time I could almost have said with Santayana, “All that is good is imaginary; all that is real is evil.”[23]

The eventual reconciliation of these two hemispheres of his mind led to his full conversion and ultimately to his giftedness as a Christian apologist and writer.

Second, Lewis did not perceive himself to be pursuing God. Rather, God was pursuing him. The analogy woven throughout Surprised by Joy is one of a game of chess. One piece at a time God outmaneuvered Lewis until at last He accomplished His checkmate.[24] In his earlier work, The Pilgrim’s Regress, the allegory is one of a journey full of false starts and dead ends until the one true desire is finally achieved.[25] In both books, Lewis communicates that he was seeking after his deepest desires and longings, though he was not intending to find God, let alone Christ, at the end. Put another way, every intellectual move Lewis made failed to satisfy until he finally moved, rather reluctantly, toward God in 1930.[26] More will be said about Lewis’ “Argument-from-Desire”[27] in the next section of this blog post.

Third, Lewis’ conversion to theism was not initially a full move into Christian theism. Before he could embrace Jesus as God and Saviour, Lewis required a convincing solution to the problem of pagan mythology. In a phrase, this problem was the reality that thousands of myths, Christianity included, were competing for hegemony as the truth. This problem was compounded by Lewis’ observation that many pagan myths were closely “mimicked” by the Gospel. The final barrier was removed on September 19, 1931 during an evening conversation about the nature of myth with Hugo Dyson (1896-1975) and J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973). Tolkien helped Lewis to see that myths were stories that revealed deep meaning about reality and humanity.[28] In this regard, the Christian Gospel is the preeminent myth because it most fully unveils both truth and meaning about life, death, sin, redemption, heaven, hell, God, the devil, and humanity. Where pagan myths reveal the meaning of some of these truths, and then only in part, the Gospel uncovers them all.[29] What’s more, as Lewis commended to his close confident Arthur Greeves in a personal correspondence dated October 18, 1931: “The story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened” (emphasis original).[30] Finally, the wall that separated Lewis’ intellect from his imagination had come down.[31] He was able to embrace the truth of theism by reason and the meaning of the Gospel by imagination. For the first time in his life, the two ceased to be combatants and were married: “Reason and imagination alike were thus affirmed and reconciled by the Christian vision of reality. Tolkien thus helped Lewis to realise that a ‘rational’ faith was not necessarily imaginatively and emotionally barren.”[32]

In 1933 Lewis published The Pilgrim’s Regress, an allegorical retelling of his own journey to faith in Christ. This proved to be the beginning of a long and prolific career as a Christian writer and apologist. World War II provided the context by which Lewis would rise to international fame as someone who could articulate the fundamental aspects of the Christian faith to a popular audience. The British Broadcasting Corporation asked Lewis if he might bolster the faith of the nation by explaining the Christian religion in a series of talks in 1942. These talks were later collected and lightly edited to become Mere Christianity (1952). Though Lewis enjoyed a long career as an Oxford don (1923-1954) and Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge (1954-1960), many in the academy derided him on account of such popular Christian works as The Problem of Pain (1940), The Screwtape Letters (1942), The Great Divorce (1946), the Space-Trilogy (1943-1945), Miracles (1947), and the seven Chronicles of Narnia (1950-1956). Nevertheless, Lewis persisted in his popular writing, fighting his own temptations to be fully welcomed into the “inner ring” of academia.[33]

Late in life, Lewis agreed to a civil union (April 23, 1956) with a Jewish-American divorcee named Joy Davidman who had been aided by Lewis’ writing in her own conversion to Christianity. This union was initially intended as a favour in order that Davidman might be able to maintain her residency in the United Kingdom. However, soon after their civil union Davidman struggled with cancer and nearly died. This experience strengthened their bond and they were wed in a marriage ceremony on March 21, 1957.[34] Though Davidman’s cancer had gone into remission, it returned shortly thereafter and she died only three years hence on July 13, 1960. Lewis was devastated and his faith in God was tested like never before. During these days of grieving Lewis resumed keeping a journal and these passages were later published as one of the most intimate and honest portrayals of faith and grieving in A Grief Observed (1961). For example, he writes:

Where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms [of grief]. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him… you will be ­ or so it feels ­ welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting inside. After that, silence… Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is coming to believe such dreadful things about Him.[35]

This extended quote is included to showcase the honest vulnerability of the man behind the writing. As an apologist Lewis had opened the doors of faith for many. Even still, he was a man who struggled to live the ideas he cherished and espoused.

In their few years together, Davidman reignited Lewis’ creative strength motivating him in the final years of his life to write and publish his most mature pieces: Till We Have Faces (1956), Reflection on the Psalms (1958), and The Four Loves (1960). These three works stand apart from his other writing for two reasons. First, Till We Have Faces is a mature reworking of the classic myth of Cupid and Psyche. It showcases brilliant subtlety and mature themes that would be expanded upon in The Four Loves. Second, the latter two are examples of Lewis post-apologetics. In this final stage of his writing Lewis no longer attempted to convince unbelievers either by argument or by fiction (both children’s fiction and science fiction). In these final books Lewis is writing for Christians, as he makes very clear in the opening of Reflection on the Psalms: “Finally, as will soon be apparent to any reader, this is not what is called an ‘apologetic’ work. I am nowhere trying to convince unbelievers that Christianity is true. I address those who already believe it.”[36]

C.S. Lewis died of an enlarged prostate and renal complications, which caused heart failure, just hours before John F. Kennedy was shot and killed on November 22, 1963. Though he was converted from atheism within the context of the Anglican Church, and though he lived and toiled his entire Christian life within an Anglican parish, Lewis has touched Christians of all denominations, evangelicals included.[37] There is no simple explanation for why Lewis has enjoyed such prominence among evangelicals since his death. It may be that in the years following his death evangelicals came to appreciate the pride of place that Lewis gave in writing to his own conversion. Or, it may be that evangelicals have intentionally inherited the important apologetic mantle that Lewis assumed from 1940-1954. Or, it may simply be that deep in the heart of the evangelical movement is a desire to affirm that our faith is reasonable, intelligent, and imaginative. Lewis delivers on all accounts and therefore takes his place among the most important “evangelical” figures of the twentieth century.

II

The writing ministry of C.S. Lewis is far too broad to capture in the space afforded by this blog post. However, this section will focus on a dominant aspect of his writing that set him apart as a successful apologist for the Christian faith. Lewis’ concept of Desire, which he often also called Joy, was pivotal for his own conversion and this informed the full breadth of his apologetic ministry. We will begin by defining Desire/Joy and then explore the overarching influence of Lewis’ “Argument-from-Desire” in the body of his apologetic writing.[38]

This notion of Desire/Joy is one of the most profound and winsome of Lewis’ foundational ideas.[39] A quote from Mere Christianity provides us with a basic orientation to his Argument-from-Desire: “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”[40] In other words, Lewis argues that the sheer existence of the human desire for heaven suggests that there is a heaven.[41] Contrary to the Hegelian notion of wish fulfillment popularized by Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872), Karl Marx (1818-1883), and Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), which suggests that religious ideas are illusory fantasies we create because we wish certain things to be true, Lewis doggedly protests that it makes better sense to understand the relationship between Desire and reality the other way around.[42] That is, certain things are real; otherwise our desires have no grounds for existing:[43]

Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists…. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy [my desire], that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.[44]

Though this train of thinking seems novel on Lewis’ pen, this idea dominated much of medieval theology,[45] as well as Romantic reactions against the Enlightenment. Considering Lewis’ literary devotion to the medieval period, it is easy to spot these important influences.

Once identified, one cannot help but recognize Lewis’ Argument-from-Desire as the theological backdrop for all of his writing, not to mention the many prominent moments in the foreground of his most influential works.  Indeed, Joy has many cameos throughout the Lewis corpus.

It is significant that The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933), Lewis’ first publication after his conversion, is built around this Argument-from-Desire. In the preface to a later edition Lewis tries to clarify what he means by Desire/Joy: “The experience is of intense longing… This hunger is better than any other fullness; this poverty better than all other wealth… If the desire is long absent, it may itself be desired, and that new desiring becomes a new instance of the original desire.”[46] Launching from this definition, the premise of the book is that Lewis’ alter-ego, John, has a definite fear of the Landlord (God), who lives in a castle in the east, and an unquenchable Desire for the Island that is in the sea in the west (though he has never been west and does not even know for certain if the Island exists). Driven by Desire, John sets out on his quest either to find the Island or to uncover its nonexistence. Along the way John discovers a grand canyon that prevents him from proceeding westward. As he looks for a pathway across the canyon he stumbles into all manner of characters, each of them representing a philosophy or worldview that provides only a partial and passing pleasure, if any pleasure at all. Ultimately John discovers that he must dive into a pool at the bottom of the canyon and swim through a tunnel at the bottom of the pool in order to come up on the other side. This he does and when he sets his sights on the Island from the west side of the canyon he discovers that the Island he was seeking is actually the other side of the castle that he had been fleeing. Since the sea between John and the Island is impassable, John must retrace his steps back to the castle as his only point of entry to his deepest Desire. During this regression John sees the world with new eyes and encounters new challenging obstacles.[47] This allegory is of Lewis’ own conversion. Within this allegory, the Island is “the symbol of desire, and desire itself properly understood is the longing for God which is common to all and pursued by some.”[48] Lewis uses his own intellectual and imaginative journey toward faith in Christ as an apologetic map for other potential sojourners. He attempts to explain allegorically why every other worldview and philosophy failed to satisfy until he finally converted to Christianity.

Many years later, Lewis retells the same story by a different genre. Surprised by Joy (1955) is a reflective autobiography by which Lewis identifies this same deep longing for Joy, which God uses to draw Lewis to Him. Lewis identifies three profound experiences of Joy that he had experienced as a young boy (beholding a tin toy garden, reading Beatrix Potter, and stumbling upon the proclamation from Tegner’s Drapa that “Balder the beautiful is dead”).[49] Though inconsequential to the outsider, these passing moments of Joy remained with Lewis, constantly eluding his ability to grasp or hold on to them: “In a sense, the central story of my life is about nothing else… it is of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.”[50] The rest of the book charts Lewis’ progress from these moments of intense longing through his search for satisfaction in atheism, pantheism, theism, and finally to his discovery that God in Christ was their true source and end. Again, this is a powerful testimonial apologetic, as Lewis puts himself forward as a guide for those who are seeking satisfaction for their unquenchable Desire.

Previous to Surprised by Joy, Lewis developed his Argument-from-Desire significantly in his most renowned sermon, The Weight of Glory (1941).  In this sermon-turned-essay, Lewis argues that our aesthetic encounters with beauty in this world arouse a deep Desire for transcendent beauty that we have not yet experienced but instinctively suspect exists: “We cannot tell of [this secret desire for our own far-off country] because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it.”[51] He continues to explain that beauty cannot truly be found in this world. Rather, beauty comes to us through this world, and its source is God. Therefore, God is the telos of humanity’s Desire. Glory, a principle subject in this sermon, is the fulfillment of this Desire, which is to be found in God’s presence:

Apparently, then, our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation. And to be at last summoned inside would be both glory and honour beyond all our merits and also the healing of that old ache (emphasis added).[52]

Lewis takes us one step further by concluding that not only will the Christian behold the source of beauty, but we will be joined to Him forever to “drink joy from the fountain of joy.”[53] In this sermon Lewis leads us from Desire awakened by natural beauty to the promise of eternal fusion with God, the fount and consummation of all beauty everywhere. It is a comprehensive vision of the Christian faith and remains arguably one of Lewis’ most powerfully persuasive apologias.

In a chapter of his fictional Letters to Malcolm (1963), Lewis explains the very same thesis put forward in The Weight of Glory. That is, earthly beauty and pleasures ought to draw us into worship and adoration of God.[54] As a tip of the hat to The Pilgrim’s Regress Lewis acknowledges the “grand canyon of anguish which lies across our lives”[55] but insists that “our moments of permitted festivity,”[56] which distract us from time to time, remind us of a greater reality where anguish is not and festivity is the norm: “Joy,” Lewis concludes, “Is the serious business of Heaven.”[57]

Hell, on the other hand, as portrayed in The Great Divorce, is that place where Joy is impossible and where the clutching of all false satisfaction leads: “If we insist on keeping Hell (or even Earth) we shall not see Heaven: if we accept Heaven we shall not be able to retain even the smallest and most intimate souvenirs of Hell.”[58] In other words, when earthly pleasures are seen as a picture and guide-posts for true heavenly satisfaction then they will draw us to the source of all good things, which is God. On the other hand, when earthly pleasures are pursued as ends to be possessed then they become idols, they corrupt in our possession and, failing to satisfy, they lead us in the other direction away from God. The irony explored in The Great Divorce is the common rebellious refusal of proudly self-sufficient people to release their grip on earthly pleasures even though they lack any lasting satisfaction.[59]

In The Problem of Pain, Lewis addresses this irony directly suggesting that Pain is the great anti-Joy that God uses to awaken humanity from these ill-conceived rebellions, self-sufficiencies, and empty satisfactions.[60] For Lewis, Joy and Pain are thus the proverbial carrot and stick used by God to draw a rebellious humanity back to Him so that we might enjoy the real pleasures of heaven and not the counterfeit pleasures of hell.[61] Paradoxically, therefore, whereas earthly pleasures can distract us from the source of all Joy, Pain is a mighty tonic that can limit and arrest our intoxication and thus refocus our attention on the Transcendent.

Lewis also subtly weaves this idea of Joy into his fiction. In Till We Have Faces, Lewis contrasts the protagonist Oruel with her youngest sister Psyche. Whereas Oruel personifies cold rationalism and manipulative perversions of love,[62] Psyche is the exemplar pilgrim of Joy who is able to embrace death on account of her “dream of [the] gold and amber palace on the Mountain… and the god…”[63] Psyche’s longing for this mountain palace and for the god who lives there are Lewis’ trademark twin symbols for Desire/Joy. The novel is an account of Oruel’s gradual coming to see what Psyche was able to see from the very beginning. It is Joy, the longing for something greater to satisfy our deepest desires, and not rationalist philosophy, that opens the door to the greater realities of life and love. The power of this mature novel is that it weaves the most important of Lewis’ apologetic brilliance into an ostensibly pagan non-Christian myth. At its heart, the book is about our need for Joy, which demonstrates the pride of place this idea held in Lewis’ own understanding of reality and his embrace of the Christian faith.

Of course a survey of Lewis’ apologetic impact would not be complete without some comment on The Chronicles of Narnia.[64] Once alert to the ascendency of Joy in Lewis’ thinking, it is not difficult to spot its presence throughout this beloved series. Much could be said about this theme as it relates to these books but for the purpose of this blog post, let it suffice to notice the way in which Lewis introduces this idea in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe:

At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump in his inside. Edmund felt a sensation of mysterious horror. Peter felt suddenly brave and adventurous. Susan felt as if some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music had just floated by her. And Lucy got the felling you have when you wake up in the morning and realise that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer.[65]

Lewis has nuanced his understanding of Joy to include Fear/Awe (Edmund), Virtue/Impulse (Peter), Aesthetic Pleasure (Susan), and Nostalgia/Anticipation (Lucy).  This variety within Lewis’ concept of Joy is a new innovation in his attempt to articulate what Joy is. In The Chronicles of Narnia, therefore, Joy is directly focussed on the inevitable response to the transcendent reality of the Person of God, whatever that response might be.

This introduces an interesting development in Lewis’ articulation of Joy. Throughout the Lewis corpus it is difficult to discern whether Joy is a longing for the Place of God (i.e. heaven) or the Person of God. [66] A careful analysis of The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933), The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-1956), and Till We Have Faces (1956) helps us to resolve this seeming inconsistency. In the Narnian series Aslan is the Christ-figure and is, therefore, akin to the Landlord in The Pilgrim’s Regress and the mountain god in Till We Have Faces. Likewise, in the Narnian series Aslan’s country is the picture of heaven and is, therefore akin to the Island in The Pilgrim’s Regress and the mountain palace in Till We Have Faces. In The Pilgrim’s Regress Lewis privileges Joy’s draw to Place. That is, John’s original Desire is for the Island and not for the Landlord. In fact, John’s fear of the Landlord is only resolved at the end, when John comes to realize that the Landlord and the Island are united as the same destination. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe Lewis inverts this relationship. The children respond first to the Person of Aslan. Desire for Place, which is called Aslan’s country, is then added to this Desire later in the series. The point is subtle, but it does reveal maturation in Lewis’ own thinking. Whereas Lewis’ own experience of Joy, as described in The Pilgrim’s Regress and Surprised by Joy, originated with Place and eventually grew to embrace Person, in his Narnian series the order is the other way around. Might this be an attempt by Lewis to correct what he came to see as an erroneous view? Perhaps. However, in Till We Have Faces, the last of these three works, Lewis goes one step further by merging Place and Person from the outset. That is, Psyche’s original Desire is for both the mountain palace and the god who dwells there.[67] It seems, therefore, that these three literary works mark an evolution of Lewis’ own understanding of the relationship between God and heaven. Throughout his writing Lewis was convinced that Desire/Joy draws us to both. Initially Lewis privileged Place. Later he privileged Person. Finally he unites the two as inseparable.

To summarize, Lewis’ concept of Joy is difficult for readers to pin down because it was difficult for Lewis himself to it pin down. The more he thought and wrote about it, the more nuanced it seems to become. Nevertheless, this concept of Joy remains one of the most pervasive themes throughout Lewis’ writing and one of his most important contributions to Christian apologetics. In short, Joy is the longing for God and heaven that is buried in the heart of every man, woman, and child. We often substitute Joy by all manner of pleasures, seeking satisfaction where we cannot ultimately find it. As Lewis himself ruminates, all earthly pleasures (sex included, much to the chagrin of the Freudians)[68] are unqualified stand-ins for God, who is the source and goal of all true Joy. By charting his own encounters with Joy and by imbedding Joy in his fictional writing, Lewis invites his readers to identify their own encounters with Joy and in so doing to find a pathway to God in Christ just as he had.

III

Having explored the skeletal shape of Lewis’ biography, examined his evangelical credentials, and described the dominant idea of Desire/Joy throughout his apologetic canon, we are now poised to make a few evaluative comments and suggest his place in the future of the evangelical movement. We will begin with three reasons to celebrate Lewis’ legacy, followed by two cautions for evangelicals.

As this blog post has endeavoured to demonstrate, there is much about C.S. Lewis, both the man and the apologist, that is beneficial for the evangelical movement. First, Lewis dared to share the intimate dimensions of his own faith journey, including his own conversion from atheism. Second, Lewis learned to speak the dialect of the masses, both Christian and non-Christian. Third, Lewis illustrated that the imaginative power of pagan and modern mythology need not be shunned by Christian men, women, and children. Let us look at each of these, in order and in more detail.

First, at the heart of evangelicalism is the conviction that we are born as depraved sinners who must be born again into a living hope in Christ Jesus. Furthermore, the personal testimony has always enjoyed an important place in the life of evangelical faith communities. With very few exceptions in the twentieth century, Lewis is the most prolific writer to consistently appeal to his own conversion and personal testimony in both fiction and non-fiction publications. As we have seen in this blog post, Lewis’ personal faith cannot be separated from his public apologetics. In Lewis, therefore, we have both a model and a guide. His personal approach to apologetics (and evangelism) ought to inspire us to greater personal transparency and creativity. Moreover, the insights that he has gleaned from his own life and shared with the world ought to cause us to reflect on the ways in which our own journeys might match or depart from Lewis. Where we identify similarities we can also receive powerful techniques that will help us to present the hope we have in Christ with a world that is languishing without Him. Where we find differences we can carefully reflect on how Lewis might have presented a like experience in a way that is both palatable and inviting.

Second, Lewis’ brilliance can be attributed to his ability to convey his thoughts to a wide audience from all walks of life and levels of education. The main theme explored by the second section of this blog post was Lewis’ concept of Desire/Joy. The reason that this idea is so inviting is that it is not Lewis’ own creation. Lewis’ contribution was not the invention of the occurrence, but rather the articulation of it presence. In this sense, the core of Lewis’ apologetics has near universal appeal. Lewis gives words to that which is common to human experience, but which is seldom fully identified. Moreover, Lewis provides a context from which these encounters with Joy make sense.

We can easily appreciate Lewis’ success when we compare Lewis’ Christian apologetic presentation of Joy with William James’ psychological presentation of a similar observed phenomenon. McGrath has noted that the more Lewis continued to explore his notion of Joy, the more Joy seems to resemble “what Harvard psychologist William James referred to as ‘mystical experiences.'”[69] James attempts to characterize the phenomena of mystical experience with four necessary components: Ineffability (impossible to fully describe), Noetic Quality (revelatory and imparting a sense of significance and weightiness), Transiency (short and impossible to fully remember or reproduce), and Passivity (beyond the control of the subject).[70] Though Lewis never mentions any awareness of James’ work, it seems likely that the two scholars are identifying the same kind of experience. However, whereas James’ psychological publications are virtually unknown to the popular masses, Lewis has brought this relatively common encounter into the popular conversation. More than that, Lewis has provided a Christian worldview that imparts meaning to these “mystical experiences” so that they are more than mere phenomena leading nowhere. For Lewis, and more importantly for Lewis’ readership, these encounters with Joy strongly suggest that there is a God in heaven and that He alone can satisfy our deepest longings. Such conclusions are outside of James’ methodology and framework. As evangelicals, therefore, we should affirm Lewis’ attempt to identify and explain common experience from within a faith perspective. Lewis does not stand on the outside trying to describe something from cold observation. Rather, he makes himself the object of study for the benefit of others, showing how the Christian faith helped him find meaning in what he experienced. There is much here for evangelical scholars to learn and imitate.

The third reason to embrace Lewis’ approach to apologetics is that it intentionally incorporated the power and drama of ancient and contemporary mythology. Rather than arguing systematic dogma or providing mere rational proofs for the existence of God and the Christian faith, Lewis engaged the imaginative depth of all manner of myth. Indeed, for Lewis, pagan myths were themselves proof of the veracity of the Gospel. For example, in an essay from God in the Dock Lewis writes:

Now as myth transcends thought, Incarnation transcends myth. The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact… By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle… Those who do not know that this great myth became Fact when the Virgin conceived are, indeed, to be pitied. But Christians also need to be reminded that what became Fact was a Myth, that it carries with it into the world of Fact all the properties of a myth. God is more than a god, not less; Christ is more than Balder, not less.[71]

It is here that many evangelicals balk at Lewis and close their book and decide to stop reading him once and for all. However, the point that Lewis is trying to make here and in many places, through both the message and the medium of his writing, is that pagan mythologies carry semblances to the Gospel and that in some respect they too bear witness Jesus Christ, though imperfectly and only partially.[72] The broader thesis of the essay from which the above quote was taken is that the Incarnation of Christ illuminates all of reality, including pagan inclinations captured by mythology and religion. It was this embrace of myth, not as fictional fairy tale but as human quest for reality and meaning, that opened the door for Lewis’ conversion and inspired him to write his most cherished pieces. His mythological epics, such as The Chronicles of Narnia, are modern myths informed by the full doctrine of Christianity. This move into myth has broadened Lewis’ appeal and enabled him to reach people who might otherwise disdain the Christian message.[73] In this regard, the evangelical movement would do well to consider how a similar embrace and employment of mythic apologetics might assist us in our desire to share the Gospel effectively.

Having explored ways in which Lewis towers as an example to be emulated, it is important to offer a pair of balancing cautions. The first caution is that we recognize that Lewis is not always clear with his readers about what he is doing. Regarding his use of myth, for example, Lewis’ hidden intentions have resulted in many evangelicals rejecting him out of hand while, at the same time, many non-Christians have missed the point entirely. Here we observe Lewis’ greatest strength as a creative writer doubling as a very real weakness. As evangelicals we might mitigate this weakness by providing clear commentary on Lewis’ writing in order to help ourselves and others to bridge the apparent gap between Lewis and Scripture.

The second caution is closely related to the first, but is directed mainly at believing Christians. For much of Lewis’ career his intended audience was those who have not yet fully embraced Christianity. Accordingly, his use of Scripture is slim and his proclivity to what we might call speculative theology is apparent. His arguments are based on a powerful mix of common experience, reason, and imagination. Since Lewis is, by and large, considered a “safe” author by many Christians it is commonplace for his books to be widely read and digested. When this happens, Lewis has a powerful ability to frame Christian thinking. However (though this should be obvious, it must be said), Lewis’ canon should never supplant the Christian Scriptures as the bricks and mortar of the Christian worldview.[74] If we are to gain from Lewis we must first root ourselves in the Bible for it alone claims authority as the Word of God.

As we look to the future of the evangelical movement C.S. Lewis remains an important champion that should be embraced and emulated. His writings have the capacity to give colour to our faith and to assist us in our call to share the Gospel with others. It is to our advantage to read and understand Lewis so that we might share him with others. His writings may just constitute the bridge from which many will come to faith in Christ. More than that, as evangelicals it is essential that we continue what Lewis started by writing personal, intelligent, witty, and imaginative works that both explain and inspire. Above all else, may we, with Lewis, see in Jesus Christ the greatest source and goal of every myth and experience of true and lasting Joy.

Endnotes:

[1] Many good biographies of Lewis exist. Though I have relied most heavily on the most recent biography published (McGrath, Lewis), I also recommend the biographies by Green/Hooper (Lewis), Jacobs (Narnian), and White (Lewis).

               [2] McGrath, Lewis, 365; Joseph Pearce (Catholic Church, 168) explores Lewis’ Anglican, Protestant, and Roman Catholic credentials, concluding: “Lewis, it seems, has been abandoned by his own church but embraced by Catholics and evangelical Protestants. It is, therefore, a little ironic that his ‘mere Christianity’, intended as a via media or centre ground of traditional Christianity, is embraced by two such diverse theological traditions. Since Lewis insisted on the sacraments and the Creed as being necessary parts of ‘mere Christianity’, it is clear that Protestants have to reach beyond their own beliefs if they are to embrace fully the beliefs of Lewis. In order to become ‘mere Christians’, in Lewis’ sense, they need to become more Christian. Catholics, on the other hand, are faced with the absence in Lewis’s ‘mere Christianity’ of certain doctrines that are central to the faith as taught by the Church. In other words, for a faithful Catholic, Lewis’s ‘mere Christianity’ is deficient; it is less Christian than the Church.”

               [3] McGrath, Lewis, 365.

               [4] McGrath, Lewis, 371.

               [5] Kort (Then and Now, 21-28) examines Lewis’ conversion and notes that it does not conform to the standard understanding of evangelical conversion.

               [6] Kort (Then and Now) takes a look at Lewis’ impact in his day and suggests that Americans must emulate Lewis’ desire and ability to engage with culture.

               [7] Lewis (“Literary Impact,” 144) writes: “Unless the religious claims of the Bible are again acknowledged, its literary claims will, I think, be given only ‘mouth honour’ and that decreasingly. For it is, through and through, a sacred book. Most of its component parts were written, and all of them were brought together, for a purely religious purpose. It contains good literature and bad literature. But even the good literature is so written that we can seldom disregard its sacred character… In most parts of the Bible everything is implicitly or explicitly introduced with ‘Thus saith the Lord.'”

               [8] Bebbington (Evangelicalism, 2-17) identifies conversionism (the need for personal repentance and new birth), activism (the impulse to share the gospel and serve society), biblicism (the integral role of Bible teaching for faith and practice), and crucicentrism (the centrality of the substitutionary atonement of Jesus on the Cross for salvation) as standard and necessary characteristics of the evangelical movement.

               [9] Lewis bucks the trend of anti-intellectualism within evangelicalism identified by Noll (Evangelical Mind and Life of the Mind); McGrath (Lewis, 367-369) suggests that fortuitous publishing campaigns, philosophical societies dedicated to Lewis, and the success of the writings of Lewis’ friend, J.R.R. Tolkien, also played a significant role in Lewis’ rise within the evangelical community.

               [10] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 9-10.

               [11] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 21-22.

               [12] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 22.

               [13] McGrath (Lewis, 33) notes that “fagging” was the accepted systematic practice of forcing the younger students to serve as errand boys for the older. It was normal for corporal, emotional, and sometimes sexual abuse to be inflicted by older students in the name of the rites of initiation.

               [14] McGrath, Lewis, 30.

               [15] McGrath (Lewis, 30) quoting Lewis (Surprised by Joy, 71).

               [16] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 183.

               [17] For a candid view of Lewis’ postwar atheism, read especially “Ode for New Years Day” (Lewis, Spirits in Bondage, 13-15) which was written while sustaining enemy fire in January 1918.

               [18] McGrath (“New Look,” 39-42) explores Lewis’ treaty with reality in greater detail.

               [19] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 183-184.

               [20] McGrath, Lewis, 31-37.

               [21] McGrath, Lewis, 41.

               [22] McGrath (“New Look”) provides a detailed overview of Lewis’ intellectual transitions as part of his journey of faith toward conversion.

               [23] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 197.

               [24] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 247-266.

               [25] McGrath (“Arrows of Joy,” 115-117) aptly demonstrates that Lewis finds God (the Person) by first finding Heaven (the place) as the ultimate telos of his desires.

               [26] Though Lewis (Surprised by Joy, 266) dates this conversion to the Trinity Term in 1929, McGrath (Lewis, 141-146) argues convincingly from Lewis’ personal correspondence, that it was actually 1930 when these events transpired.

               [27] I am not sure where this designation originated. I am borrowing it from Beversluis (Rational Religion, 8) who seems to claim original authorship: “I call it Argument-from-Desire.”

               [28] McGrath, Lewis, 149.

               [29] For more on Lewis’ understanding of myth, read: McGrath, “Gleam of Divine Truth.”)

               [30] McGrath (Lewis, 149) citing Lewis (Collected Letters, 976.)

               [31] Smith (Patches of Godlight, 135-164) has a great chapter on the role of imagination in Lewis’ faith, understanding, and apologetics.

               [32] McGrath, Lewis, 151.

               [33] For a full reflection on this inner battle, read Lewis, “Inner Ring.”

               [34] As I write this it is March 21, 2014, which would have been their 57th wedding anniversary!

               [35] Lewis, Grief, 5-6.

               [36] Lewis, Psalms, 7.

               [37] McGrath (“Lewis’s Religious Identity”) writes a fascinating appraisal of Lewis as a denominational enigma within the Church of England.

               [38] Beversluis (Rational Religion, 8-31) explores Lewis’ notion of Joy and its role in his faith and apologetics.

               [39] For detailed essays on this topic, read Kreeft, “Riddle of Joy”; McGrath, “Arrows of Joy”

               [40] Lewis, Mere Christianity, 136-137.

               [41] Lewis further articulates his notion of Desire/Joy in Surprised by Joy (82): “Joy is distinct not only from pleasure in general but even from aesthetic pleasure. It must have the stab, the inconsolable longing.” In a private correspondence dated November 5, 1959 (Letters of C.S. Lewis, 289), he puts it this way: “All joy (as distinct from mere pleasure, still more amusement) emphasises our pilgrim status; always reminds, beckons, awakens desire.”

               [42] McGrath, “Reason, Experience, and Imagination,” 141-142.

               [43] Lewis (“Dymer,” 4) writes in 1950: “From at least the age of six, romantic longing — Sehnsucht — had played an unusually central part in my experience. Such longing is in itself the very reverse of wishful thinking: it is more like thoughtful wishing.”

               [44] Lewis, Mere Christianity, 136-137.

               [45] McGrath (“Arrows of Joy,” 106-108) makes mention of Anslem of Cantebury (Prayer and Meditations, 94-95), Bernard of Clairvaux (see: Casey, Thirst for God), and Julian of Norwich (Showings); See also: Leclercq, Love of Learning.

               [46] Lewis, Pilgrim’s Regress, 7-8.

               [47] McGrath (“Privileging of Vision”) has an fascinating essay about the role of ocular imagery in Lewis’ apologetics.

               [48] Lewis, Pilgrim’s Regress, 24 (editor’s note); McGrath (“Arrows of Joy,” 115-117) makes the crucial distinction between Lewis’ desire for a Place (heaven) and his desire for a Person (God). He makes a compelling argument to suggest that, especially in The Pilgrim’s Regress, it is Lewis’ desire is for heaven that leads him to God. At its root, therefore, our deepest desires are for God, which cannot be easily disconnected from our desires from heaven. God and heaven are intrinsically linked..

               [49] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 16-18.

               [50] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 18.

               [51] Lewis, “Weight of Glory,” 30.

               [52] Lewis, “Weight of Glory,” 42.

               [53] Lewis, “Weight of Glory,” 44.

               [54] Lewis, Letters to Malcolm, 88-93.

               [55] Lewis, Letters to Malcolm, 91.

               [56] Lewis, Letters to Malcolm, 92.

               [57] Lewis, Letters to Malcolm, 93; Vaus (Mere Theology, 208-224) explores Lewis’ understanding of Heaven in much greater detail.

               [58] Lewis, Great Divorce, viii-ix.

               [59] Vaus (Mere Theology, 197-203) explores Lewis’ understanding of Hell in much greater detail.

               [60] Lewis, Problem of Pain, 86-118.

               [61] Kilby, World of C.S. Lewis, 37, 66-70

               [62] Oruel is much like Pam, the Ghost of a woman, who would rather drag her son to Hell to be with her than to release him to the joys of heaven, or even to go to heaven to be with him (Lewis, Great Divorce, 97-104).

               [63] Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 109.

               [64] For a many faceted look at Lewis’ imaginative theology as expressed in his Narnia series, read Bowen (Spirituality of Narnia).

               [65] Lewis, Lion, Witch, Wardrobe, 141.

               [66] McGrath (“Arrows of Joy,” 115-117) introduced this distinction between Lewis’ Desire for a Place (heaven) and a Person (God). However, more work needs to be done on this issue, which merits its own blog post.

               [67] In Til We Have Faces, Lewis sets Psyche and Oruel as contesting protagonists. Psyche sees through the empty flattery of earthly desires and thus finds satisfaction for Desire in wedlock to the mountain god in the palace on the mountain. Oruel, by contrast, is tutored in Greek philosophy and cannot see the palace. She clutches to the shallow pleasures of her kingdom, though they are abusive and hellish. However, through much Pain Oruel comes to understand her mistakes and is reunited with Psyche. Lewis’ concepts of Joy and Pain work throughout this novel to brilliant effect.

               [68] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 196-197.

               [69] McGrath, “Arrows of Joy,” 110.

               [70] McGrath (“Arrows of Joy,” 110) citing James, Religious Experience, 379-429.

               [71] Lewis, “Myth,” 66-67; Lewis (Miracles, 181) also writes: ” In this descent and reascent everyone will recognize a familiar pattern: a thing written all over the world. It is a pattern of all vegetable life. It must belittle itself into something hard, small and deathlike, it must fall into the ground: thence the new life reascends. It is the pattern of all animal generation too. There is descent from the full and perfect organisms in to the spermatozoon and ovum. And in the dark womb a life at first inferior in kind to that of the species which is being reproduced: then the slow ascent to the perfect embryo, to the living, conscious baby, and finally to the adult… Death and Rebirth — go down to go up — it is a key principle… The doctrine of the Incarnation, if accepted, puts this principle even more emphatically at the centre. The pattern is there in Nature because it was first there in God. All the instances of it which I have mentioned turn out to be but transpositions of the Divine theme into a minor key… The Christian doctrine [of the Incarnation] makes itself so quickly at home amid the deepest apprehensions of reality which we have from other sources… For there have, of course, been many religions in which that annual drama [of death and rebirth] (so important for the life of the tribe) was almost admittedly the central theme, and the deity — Adonis, Osiris, or another — almost undisguisedly a personification of the corn, a ‘corn-king’ who died and rose again each year. Is not Christ simply another corn king?”

               [72] McGrath, “Gleam of Divine Truth,” 65-69; In a letter to Arthur Greeves (Collected Letters, 977) Lewis writes: “The Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things.'”; Walsh (C.S. Lewis, 95), the first to critically write about Lewis, even while Lewis was alive, reminds us that Lewis did not believe that everything pagan came from God: “The mythology of Paganism, Lewis has come to believe, is always a heterogeneous mixture. It embodies real messages from God intercepted at a very remote distance and serving to prepare the way for Christianity, which is the consummation of all that is best in Paganism; intermingled with flashes of divine truth are diabolical elements — cruel and obscene rites; the third ingredient is just plain human invention — people making stories.”

               [73] For more on Lewis’ understanding and use of myth read McGrath, “Gleam of Divine Truth.”

               [74] Smith (Patches of Godlight, 225-226) writes a similar caution: ” Like Plato, he could have held that the truth can be perceived, so far as any human being can apprehend the absolute, by sensitive, persistent inquiry, not special revelation… With some justification the reader of Lewis’s works may conclude that Lewis came close to holding a two-tiered philosophy of religion: an orthodox Christianity that met the needs of his piety and upon occasion served as a refuge from insoluble intellectual problems, and a near-Platonic mystical religion that he shared with a handful of aesthetic and spiritual adepts.”

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Bebbington, D. W. Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A history from the 1730s to the 1980s. London: Routledge, 2002.

Beversluis, John. C.S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985.

Casey, Michael. A Thirst for God: Spiritual Desire in Bernard of Clairvaux’s Sermons on the Song of Songs. Kalamazoo: Cistercian, 1988.

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———-. “Dymer.” In Narrative Poems. Edited by Walter Hooper. New York: Harcourt, 1966.

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———-. “The Inner Ring.” In The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, 141-158. The First HarperCollins Edition. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2001.

———-. Letters of C.S. Lewis. Edited by W.H. Lewis. New York: Harcourt, 1966.

———-. Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer. New York: Harcourt, 1992.

———-. “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” In The Chronicles of Narnia, 107-198. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1998.

———-. “The Literary Impact of the Authorised Version.” In Selected Literary Essays, 126-145. Edited by Walter Hooper. Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1979.

———-. Mere Christianity. HarperCollins Edition. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2001.

———-. Miracles. HarperCollins Edition. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2001.

———-. “Myth Became Fact.” In God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, 63-67. Edited by Walter Hooper. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970.

———-. The Pilgrim’s Regress. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1958.

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———-. Reflections on the Psalms. San Diego: Harcourt, 1958.

———-. Spirits in Bondage: A Cycle of Lyrics. New York: Cosimo, 2005.

———-. Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life. C.S. Lewis Signature Classics Edition. London: HarperCollins, 2002.

———-. Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold. New York: Harcourt, 1956.

———-. “The Weight of Glory.” In The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, 25-46. The First HarperCollins Edition. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2001.

McGrath, Alister. “A Gleam of Divine Truth: The Concept of Myth in Lewis’s Thought.” In The Intellectual World of C.S. Lewis, 55-82. London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014.

———-. “A ‘Mere Christian’: Anglicanism and Lewis’s Religious Identity.” In The Intellectual World of C.S. Lewis, 147-161. London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014.

———-. “Arrow of Joy: Lewis’ Argument-from-Desire.” In The Intellectual World of C.S. Lewis, 105-128. London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014.

———-. C.S. Lewis: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet. Carol Stream: Tyndale, 2013.

———-. “The ‘New Look’: Lewis’s Philosophical Context at Oxford in the 1920s.” In The Intellectual World of C.S. Lewis, 31-54. London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014.

———-. “The Privileging of Vision: Lewis’s Metaphors of Light, Sun, and Sight.” In The Intellectual World of C.S. Lewis, 83-104. London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014.

———-. “Reason, Experience, and Imagination: Lewis’s Apologetic Method.” In The Intellectual World of C.S. Lewis, 129-146. London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014.

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———-. The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994.

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