Professor came late to his love of C.S. Lewis’ works
By Doug Carroll
GCU News Bureau
As an undergraduate at Wheaton College in the mid-1970s, Dr. James Helfers refused to be impressed by the writings of C.S. Lewis, even though everyone else seemed to be.
“My first impression, because I’m a sarcastic guy, was: How can he be all that great?” Helfers recalls, adding that he was a fan of author J.R.R. Tolkien instead. He didn’t read any of Lewis’ works during his first two years at Wheaton, a Christian liberal-arts college in suburban Chicago whose alumni also include evangelist Billy Graham.
Finally, in his junior year, Helfers read Lewis’ “The Abolition of Man,” then “Mere Christianity” — and he was hooked. Today, as a humanities professor at Grand Canyon University, he is a Lewis scholar who serves on the editorial board of Sehnsucht: The C.S. Lewis Journal, a publication of the Arizona C.S. Lewis Society.
Lewis died in 1963 on the same date (Nov. 22) as President John F. Kennedy. As part of its Marian E. Wade Center, established two years later, Wheaton College has one of the world’s largest collections of the papers of Lewis, Tolkien, G.K. Chesterton and other writers who profoundly influenced 20th-century evangelical thought.
Lewis’ popular children’s novel “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” will play in dramatic form to a sold-out Ethington Theatre for the second consecutive weekend starting Friday night. Helfers is scheduled to lead a brief discussion about Lewis after Saturday night’s performance.
“He’s perhaps the seminal Christian thinker of the 20th century,” Helfers says. “He moved from atheism to Christianity as an adult. He’s one of a number of British writers — W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh — who did that, and there’s an untold story there.
“Lewis is the most versatile writer of those, and one of the deepest thinkers. His ideas continue to have resonance.”
Helfers says he initially came to appreciate Lewis for his intellect as a Christian apologist. He didn’t read “The Chronicles of Narnia,” a series of seven novels that includes “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” until his early 20s and still finds it “strange” that Lewis would write children’s stories.
“He got an idea and just dashed it off,” Helfers says. “He was facile. He could blast stuff out real fast. It took him five years to write ‘The Chronicles of Narnia,’ but it took Tolkien 16 years to write ‘The Lord of the Rings.’”
The creative tension between Lewis and Tolkien, who were friends and rivals, was touched on by “An Evening With C.S. Lewis,” the one-man show of British actor David Payne that came to GCU Arena last October. The works of Lewis have received a new wave of attention in the 50th anniversary of his death.
Helfers says “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” which centers on the lion Aslan as a Christ figure, is “technically not an allegory,” although it usually is described as one.
“Aslan is Jesus in another universe,” Helfers says. “It’s a supposal: What would God do in this world?”
Helfers, who has been at GCU since 1992, has attended Lewis conferences at Oxford University and has met Douglas Gresham, Lewis’ stepson. He notes that the fascination with British children’s fantasy begun by “Narnia” has been extended by J.K. Rowling in her “Harry Potter” series and by the “Lord of the Rings” films.
“It’s no accident that Disney decided to take over the ‘Narnia’ series,” Helfers says. “When ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ film came out (in 2005), it reawakened an interest in Lewis.”
Including, he says, his own.
Contact Doug Carroll at 639.8011 or firstname.lastname@example.org.