Shadowlands is a 1993 British film that tells the story of the doomed love affair between the 20th century’s most popular Christian author (and my favorite) C. S. Lewis, and Joy Gresham, a divorced American poet. The movie contains no car crashes, shootings, nudity, or crude language, so it was not a huge money maker at the box office. But it was more successful than many people thought it would be, and those who did see it, liked it. The Rotten Tomatoes website ‘Tomatometer’ indicates a 97% approval rating by the critics, citing the great performances by Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger.
The story behind the film was true—but not all that exciting. C.S. Lewis was an English intellectual who did not lead a very exciting life. He taught, read, wrote, and debated. He hardly ever travelled, and for excitement he went for walks. That’s about it. He wrote some incredible books and articles, but his life did not appear to have the potential for a major motion picture.
The movie tells the story of his brief marriage, and even that was more odd than exciting. Lewis was a bachelor until he was 57 years old, and then he married a women he did not love. Joy Gresham was a close friend, but Lewis was not at that point interested in love or marriage; he married her only as a favor to her in a practical matter. Gresham was an American citizen and wanted to stay living in England with her two boys. However, she was having trouble extending her residence permit and was going to have to leave the country. By marrying an English citizen, she could stay as long as she wanted.
So they were married at the court house—‘technically,’ Lewis insisted. They remained friends, but stayed living at their own separate places. The odd part was, all Lewis’ friends gossiped about Lewis and Joy being not married but having an affair, and all the while they in fact were married, and not doing anything at all. This is not how things usually go in the movies.
Anyway, after about a year of this odd arrangement, Joy was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Lewis, by this time, had begun to fall in love with her. She had always loved him. So Lewis asked her to marry him in the eyes of God, and not just ‘technically.’ She said yes, and they were married again; in the hospital because she was dying, but now publicly and by the Church.
Then Joy’s cancer miraculously went into remission for a while, and for two years they lived together as husband and wife, and grew very close. Then the cancer returned, Joy died, and C.S. Lewis was devastated.
C.S. Lewis was at this time a professor of literature at Cambridge University. Since becoming a Christian in his early 30’s, Lewis applied his towering intellect to explaining and defending the Christian faith. It was this aspect of C.S. Lewis that gives the story another interesting twist.
You see, it is not uncommon for people to ask, “Where is God?” when tragedy strikes. When one is in deepest sorrow and grief, it is quite common for God to seem far away and uncaring. These are the emotions that C.S. Lewis deals with in Shadowlands, and that, I suspect, is why the movie was so well-received by so many people, whether or not they were Christians. The feelings and questions are some we all have had at one time or another. The questions in C.S. Lewis’ life were especially significant for him because in the 30 years before that he had spent so much time answering the difficult questions and explaining the mysteries of the faith. But now the questions and doubts hit him personally like a ton of bricks. Lewis struggled intensely and he now had no answers.
C.S. Lewis was an atheist until he was 33 years old. Then, after an intense emotional and intellectual search and struggle, he became a Christian. In the academic community where he worked, many of his friends remained atheists, and they could not imagine Lewis becoming a Christian. He therefore had many challenges to his faith and spent much time defending it. He did so with such intellectual power and eloquence that his debates turned into books, which turned into best-sellers. Most of his books are still best-sellers, 55 years after his death.
One of Lewis’s early books was called The Problem of Pain. In this book he deals with the problem of suffering, and how a loving God can allow such pain in his world. This kind of defense of the faith is called a ‘theodicy’ and this is one of the best theodicies ever written. It is logical, biblical, persuasive, challenging, and well written. When reading it, one can even begin to think they fully understand this great mystery. And the book certainly does help, giving us some helpful handles. But complete understanding of this mystery is beyond our limited understanding. That is what C.S. Lewis found out when his wife died. This logical, intellectual giant who had all the answers, was emotionally devastated by his personal grief. He found himself hanging onto his faith by a thread. God, who at one time seemed so close, now seemed very far away. During this time he wrote another book called A Grief Observed, in which he writes of this struggle to believe again.
Lewis did survive, and his faith endured. In fact, some of his best work was done after this crisis. (The movie, sad to say, doesn’t make this as clear as it should.) But the questions raised and the grief Lewis faced are, at one time or another, faced by us all. And Lewis’ story provides an opportunity for us to think about these things. (continued…)
From A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis:
“Feelings, and feelings, and feelings. Let me try thinking instead. From the rational point of view, what new factor has (Joy’s) death introduced into the problem of the universe? What grounds has it given me for doubting all that I believe? I knew already that these things, and worse, happened daily. I would have said that I had taken them into account. I had been warned – I had warned myself – not to reckon on worldly happiness. We were even promised sufferings. They were part of the program. We were even told ‘Blessed are they that mourn’ and I accepted it. I’ve got nothing that I hadn’t bargained for. Of course it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not in imagination. Yes; but should it, for a sane man, make quite such a difference as this? No. And it wouldn’t for a man whose faith had been real faith and whose concern for other people’s sorrows had been real concern . The case is too plain. If my house has collapsed at one blow, that is because it was a house of cards. The faith which ‘took these things into account’ was not faith but imagination. The taking them into account was not real sympathy. If I had really cared, as I thought I did, about the sorrows of the world, I should not have been so overwhelmed when my own sorrow came. It has been an imaginary faith playing with innocuous counters labelled ‘Illness’, ‘Pain’, ‘Death’ and ‘Loneliness’. I thought I trusted the rope until it mattered to me whether it would bear me. Now it matters, and I find I didn’t.”