C. S. Lewis in a Time of War
Justin Phillips. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 2002. 324 pages.
In the midst of the fluff which has appeared in print to capitalize on the movie versions of the Narnian chronicles, it is encouraging to see that substantive contributions to our understanding of C. S. Lewis and his writings are continuing to be published. Justin Phillips’ book is one of the latter. Phillips was a radio journalist for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) for over twenty years. He was given access to all the correspondence between the BBC and Lewis between 1940 and 1963—much of which is carefully quoted in the book—in addition to in-house memos, recordings, and other documentation related to Lewis’s work for that organization. The book is written from a broadcaster’s perspective and tells “a story of wartime broadcasting—at times heroic in proportion and at others times bordering on the farcical” (x). Phillips began his investigation in the summer of 1997 and died in 2000 just after finishing his book manuscript, which was subsequently edited by his daughter and released in early 2006.
Phillips’ work is really three books in one, with each as interesting to this reviewer as the others. Roughly eighty pages are devoted to the first two of these. He begins in September 1939 with an introduction to life in Britain just preceding and during the outbreak of World War II. The fear and uncertainty, the preparations made for food and other essentials, and the decisions made about entertainment and media make for intriguing (and sobering) reading. Second, Phillips explores the early days of religious broadcasting and the variety of philosophies which vied for its harnessing. Particularly the employment of radio for news and public morale, and the strategies for religion in the service of the nation come under Phillips’ careful scrutiny and balanced presentation.
Third comes the focus reflected in the book’s subtitle: the interaction and collaboration between Lewis and the BBC to produce the succinctly-worded scripts which were later published and finally combined into one of Lewis’s most popular works, Mere Christianity. Phillips makes clear, not inappropriately, that the BBC’s religion directors were partly responsible for Lewis’s style as well as for honing his ability to say much in a short space, since they were constrained to hold him to strict time limits. Part of the book’s humor concerns the communication and miscommunication between Lewis and the BBC over the length of time allotted for subsequent series of talks after the success of the first. And, in addition to Lewis, the book provides insight into the broadcasting efforts of other significant Christian writers and thinkers, such as Dorothy Sayers.
Phillips includes summaries of the talks and helpful appendices with details on the date, subject, and length of each talk, as well as its relationship to the original and ultimately published forms. Theological and philosophical critique is not Phillips’ concern, though he is helpful in describing the religious diversity through which the BBC and Lewis navigated. In addition to the four series of broadcast talks of primary focus, Phillips describes subsequent work Lewis did for the BBC, such as an introduction to his book, The Great Divorce, an adaptation of his Cambridge lecture “The Great Divide,” critiques of work by Charles Williams, and talks on Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.
Phillips’ book is well written and highly recommended for those interested in World War II Britain, the early history of religious broadcasting (particularly in time of war), insight into the process and content of Lewis’s World War II broadcasts, or some combination of these.