Narnia Born Again | The Nation


Narnia Born Again

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The farmer's wife from Washington who looks to Lewis for answers to all her questions also has recurring dreams in which she takes long walks with him and tells him about her problems. But every time, she confesses, she wakes up and thinks, "Would he even want to talk to me? I'm not that smart. But I did graduate magna cum laude. I did do that."

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Michael Joseph Gross
Michael Joseph Gross, a onetime seminarian and former speechwriter for Massachusetts Governor William Weld, is a...

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He's not dead yet, but the spirit of Ronald Reagan is omnipresent these days, and nowhere is it more damnably profane than in politicians' relentless invocations of the Almighty.

In the summer of 1963, a young man from Kentucky sold his most prized possession--a used Mercedes-Benz--in order to buy a plane ticket to England so that he could meet C.S. Lewis. Arriving in Oxford, Walter Hooper found Lewis's house and walked slowly up the long driveway, across nine acres of woodlands and orchards. When Hooper pressed his finger to the doorbell, he was plunged immediately into abject panic. "I remember this well--I'm not making this up--I saw myself as I really was. I thought, 'I am just a country bumpkin.' And I wished the ground would open up beneath me."

Lewis welcomed Hooper into his home, and they began a conversation that would reshape the course of Hooper's life. Hooper's description of this meeting has the rapturous feel of Dante's first encounter with Virgil: "He struck me as a godlike man.... He was six feet tall. And I've always loved tall men because they're so magnanimous." Hooper recalls that when Lewis shook his hand at the end of the evening, "Oh, my heart sank. I wished I had not come, because I had never met somebody I loved so much, and I wondered if I would ever see him again."

Hooper saw much of Lewis before he returned to the United States several weeks later. But the friendship was not to last long: Lewis died that November, on the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

Hooper returned to Oxford after Lewis's death to help Lewis's heirs manage the estate, and he eventually took a central role in shaping Lewis's legacy. Hooper says he saved scores of manuscripts from destruction in a bonfire. He also says he "raided the dustbins" to save watches, pipes and other effects, and he tracked down the nurse who took care of Lewis in his last days, from whom he acquired a lock of Lewis's hair. Today Hooper describes himself, proudly, as a "relic keeper."

Hooper has even fashioned himself into something of a relic. He has acquired a pronounced British accent, and his handwriting, remarkably, has come to resemble Lewis's. Since Lewis's death, Hooper has made Oxford his home. He serves as literary adviser to Lewis's estate and has edited many volumes of Lewis's posthumous works. He also serves as a consultant to the C.S. Lewis Foundation on the project of restoring Lewis's Oxford home, The Kilns.

The C.S. Lewis Foundation was founded in 1972, to encourage Christian faith-based scholarship in the secular academy. To this end, in 1988 the foundation assumed management of The Kilns, which it is converting into a "C.S. Lewis Study Centre" for Christian scholars.

Stan Mattson, the president and founder of the C.S. Lewis Foundation, sees the study center as one step toward his goal of founding a much larger institution. His biggest dream is to create a "C.S. Lewis College"--a Great Books school for Christians--on or adjacent to the campus of a major secular university. Mattson, who holds a Ph.D. in American intellectual history, believes such an institution is necessary because "Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man describes the closest thing to the position of the Christian academic today." Yet until he can persuade donors to endow the college, Mattson is concentrating on The Kilns as well as the summer conferences that convene every three years at Oxford and Cambridge. Last year, for the first time, the conference ran at Oxford for one week and moved to Cambridge for a second.

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