The Most Reluctant Convert

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As young C.S. Lewis' mother lay dying, he imagined God as a miracle worker who would cure his mother and then mercifully go away. As a teenager, Lewis decided God didn't exist altogether. "At 14, I ceased to be a Christian. At 14, one barely notices," says Lewis in the new play "C.S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert."

The piece, which premiered at the Lansburgh Theatre in Washington April 20, follows Lewis' shifting perceptions of God through the amusing wit of his older self. The show ends, "as he turns into the C.S. Lewis that we know," said Max McLean, actor of the one-man show.

Throughout the play, reading greatly influences Lewis' spirituality. His avowed materialism takes a hit when he starts to read the poems of W.B. Yeats, who rejected nonbelief for the possibility of the supernatural. For a brief time, Lewis became interested in the occult while still stubbornly holding onto atheism.

After reading G.K. Chesterton, a Catholic philosopher and fiction writer, Lewis considers him one of the most reasonable men on earth, apart from his Christianity. Lewis experiences mystical joy reading Phantastes by George MacDonald. "That night (I read Phantastes) my imagination was, in a certain sense baptized; the rest of me, not unnaturally, took longer," says Lewis in the play.

After fighting in World War I, Lewis returned to Oxford to study. "You'll make him a writer or a scholar, but nothing else," his tutor wrote Lewis' father. The number of practicing Christians Lewis met at the university convinced him that Christianity was not an untenable position. Slowly and painfully, Lewis began to open himself to God.

Lewis went searching for God, "as the mouse goes searching for the cat," he said. His theism led him to church, and eventually Christianity. "I was the most reluctant and dejected convert in all of England," says Lewis.

The play touches on the deep emotions and convictions that led Lewis to Christ, like his belief that logic, reason and imagination could not simply be the result of random atoms bouncing together in a skull.

Just as importantly, the play explores the intellectual underpinnings of his transformation. "No other moral teacher or prophet has ever claimed to be God," Lewis says. Either Christianity is vitally true or totally false, he says. "The one thing it cannot be is moderately important." The play ends as Lewis walks to his church and receives holy Communion for the first time as a true follower of Christ.

In a three-piece suit and round spectacles, McLean paces between a leather armchair and wooden desk in Lewis' Oxford office, reciting an impressive amount of material with ease. His monologue is broken up by short, musical interludes.

Behind him on the study wall hang old black-and-white pictures that grow in size as their subjects are discussed, be it J.R.R. Tolkien or his beloved tutor, W.T. Kirkpatrick. Through the back window different scenes of city and country flash, mirroring the action of Lewis' life.

Though the play's title suggests the piece is about his conversion, its conclusion might seem abrupt for longtime Lewis fans. While entertainingly telling the scope of his conversion, one wishes for the story to continue - to further explore his brilliant theological mind, or to hint at his famous fantasy world of Narnia.

The theater company, Fellowship for Performing Arts, aims to create engaging theater from a Christian worldview. The group has tackled many of Lewis' works, including The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce.

Their current play successfully brings together works of Lewis, such as his autobiography Surprised by Joy and other essays and letters, to create a picture of his early life. It may inspire viewers to dust off copies of other Lewis books to fill in the rest of the story.

"C.S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert" presents a humorous biography of Lewis' youth while simultaneously making a compelling case for Christ.

See the play:

"C.S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert" runs through May 8. Click here to buy tickets.

Di Mauro can be reached at zdimauro@catholicherald.com or on Twitter @zoeydimauro.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016