Orthodox America

  Family Films "Shadowlands"


(C.S. Lewis through the) Shadowlands; The BBC and Gateway Films, 1985;

directed by Norman Stone, screenplay by William Nicholson; starring Joss Ackland and Claire Bloom; available from Vision Video.

In theory, death ought to be a Christian's happiest moment, the passage from temporal life in the mere shadow of divine illumination to eternal life in God's brilliant presence. In practice, Christians often sorrow over death as much as do nonbelievers. They have some good precedents. Saint Simeon aptly predicted to the Theotokos that "a sword will pierce your heart'; Jesus "groaned in the spirit" when He learned of the death of His dear friend Lazarus. It is difficult enough to face one's own death, but the death - especially the painful and premature death - of a loved one can challenge the faith of even the most committed believer.

Such was the experience of Clive Staples ("Jack") Lewis, when cancer claimed the life of his beloved wife, Joy. Lewis, the 20th century's best known English-language apologist for traditional Christian faith, was so shaken by the cruel end Joy met that he had to plumb the very depths of his soul to reclaim the faith on which his adult life rested. His candid and heart-wrenching thoughts were recorded in journals published as A Grief Observed, and that work has twice inspired cinematic interpretation: Hollywood cast Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger as Jack and Joy, while the BBC and Gateway Films collaborated on the version (greatly preferred by this viewer) we are considering today.

C.S. Lewis's writings inspired voluminous response from around the world. Some of these correspondents came to know Lewis personally; one of them married him.

American Joy Davidman Gresham, a Jewish convert to Christianity, mother of two, and wife of a successful but hopelessly immature novelist, travelled to England to visit Lewis in the mid-1950s. They struck up a warm, platonic friendship. Mrs. Gresham returned to America to divorce her violent and philandering husband, but later returned to England and resumed her chaste relationship with the world famous writer and lay theologian. She and her children faced eventual deportation, so Lewis stepped in and entered into a purely legal and pragmatic marriage to ensure her and her sons the right to stay in their adopted homeland.

We see Lewis the keen mind at work, articulating and defending the faith so in disfavor among post-War intellectuals. On one broadcast, Lewis describes how he disabused himself of certain secularist assumptions, such as the view that Christ was merely "a good moral teacher."

I discovered that Christ denied there was any truth in my arguments. What is more, He said He was the Son of God. Here I was in trouble. A man who is merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said wouldn't be a great moral teacher at all. He'd either be a lunatic - on the level with a man who says he's a poached egg - or else he'd be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice: either this man was and is the Son of God or else  a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool; you can spit at him and kill him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But don't let's come up with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He hasn't left that open to us. He didn't intend to.

Joy was the perfect soulmate for this philosopher; she was witty, highly intelligent, and did not suffer nonsense gladly. Lewis began to know fulfillment he had never known before. When Joy's fall in her kitchen revealed a left femur eaten through by a malignancy originating in her breast, it shattered his bliss.

Lewis visited his agonized nominal spouse in the hospital, frightened at least as much as she, and determined to bind himself to her in true Christian wedlock. "Oh, Joy," he implored, "will you marry this foolish, frightened old man who needs you more than he can bear to say and who loves you, even though he hardly knows how?" Her grinning response through pain-clenched teeth spoke volumes about Joy's indomitable spirit: "Okay. Just this once."

After much difficulty, a priest was found who would marry Lewis and the divorcée, a situation at that time frowned upon by the Anglican Church. The priest also laid hands upon Joy and prayed for God to heal her.

Joy indeed went into thorough remission; for almost two years she and Jack had an idyllic Christian marriage. But cancer returned with a vengeance, and Lewis found his prayers unanswered. This would prove the ultimate test of his vaunted faith. A friend reminded Lewis that the latter had once asserted that prayer always gets results, but not always the results desired. He continued, "I haven't seen you really want something  before. I was wondering what you'd say when you didn't get it." Lewis himself had confided to Joy during her seemingly miraculous remission, "I'm frightened of loving God for giving you back to me when I could just as easily hate God later." Joy wisely replied,"Don't be so hard on yourself. Love God now and let later come later."

Later does come with dread finality. After the funeral, when Jack's friend Rev. Harry Harrington utters some well-intentioned bromide about faith alone making sense of such tragedy, Lewis snaps, "No, it won't do, Harry - this is a mess, and that's all there is to it." He has reached the end of his spiritual rope, only to find a noose.

Lewis does learn to rebuild his faith, in part by sharing his grief with the more sensitive of the two sons - Lewis had lost his own mother at about the same age - and about this time his faith is built on a much firmer foundation than mere intellect could provide. It is comforting for the viewer to be reminded that even a man of deep faith can look for God and find Him apparently missing - the Psalms speak eloquently of such experience - but it is more comforting to see Lewis' pain point the path home. This BBC-Gateway Films video will more likely be available from a Christian bookstore or library than a standard video rental/purchase outlet. It is recommended viewing for Orthodox Christian families, although it may be too emotionally intense for young children and for those who have lost a loved one in the past few weeks. (Beyond that time, it could be an excellent aid in identifying and confronting grief.) Viewers should also read the brief volume that inspired it. The opening sentence of that book - quoted in the video - will ring bone-chillingly true for anyone who has ever lost someone especially dear: "No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear."

 Reader Michael R. Sullivan

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