Narnia Born Again
The Oxford leg of the conference included afternoon tours of The Kilns. Mattson, standing in a blooming rose garden, told visitors that the place used to be a dump. "There were weeds up to here and vines growing into the windows. Hedgerows were over the dormers." Since 1993 he has recruited American volunteers to spend their summers at Oxford cleaning the house--removing layers of concrete and linoleum that covered the kitchen's quarry tile floor, reconstructing the wicker gate and birch arbors in the garden, sewing World War II-style blackout curtains for the living room and even applying a chemical to the ceilings to reproduce the nicotine stains left by Lewis's tobacco habit.
The purpose of the conference as a whole was, in an equally painstaking way, to reconstruct Lewis's vision of the world as a model for contemporary Christian scholarship. The conference's $3,000-a-head price tag included academic and inspirational lectures that explored every nook and cranny of Lewis's legacy. Speakers at Oxford and Cambridge included the fantasy author Madeleine L'Engle, Richard John Neuhaus (editor of First Things) and Charles Colson (Richard Nixon's special counsel during Watergate, who became a born-again Christian after reading Mere Christianity).
Hooper, too, was squarely in the spotlight. He gave the keynote address at a ceremony celebrating a new Royal Mail stamp depicting characters from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Hooper also stood with Mattson in the receiving line at the conference's formal banquet, which was held at Blenheim Palace, the ancestral home of the Marlboroughs and the birthplace of Winston Churchill.
Following a four-course meal, the banqueters solemnly sang "God Save the Queen" and raised their glasses in a Gaelic toast to Her Majesty before settling back for a series of after-dinner speeches. Mattson, Hooper and others spoke at length of Christian persecution in the secular world, especially the academy, and elevated Lewis as a model for academics today. Lewis's stepson, Douglas Gresham, called Lewis "a visible and muscular Christian in the academic world," who "knew that Christianity is not for wimps." He noted ruefully that Lewis left the university when he was snubbed for a professorship. "He was victimized in many ways for his Christianity," Gresham observed, "and this is a tradition that has not died."
Most speakers also suggested that contemporary scholars should emulate Lewis's "military heroism" on the battlefield of secular academia (he was wounded in World War I). "The watchword of courage is the legacy of C.S. Lewis," Gresham declared. "The courage to be a Christian. The courage to stand out against Satan and his minions. The courage not just to be a Christian, but a visible Christian. We can learn this courage from C.S. Lewis."
Walter Hooper and Stan Mattson looked relaxed and happy during the evening's final presentation, an actor's recitation of excerpts from Lewis's essay "Screwtape Proposes a Toast." The essay is an imaginary speech given by a demon in hell, describing how to use pride to lure people to damnation: "No man who says I'm as good as you believes it. He would not say it if he did.... The claim to equality, outside the strictly political field, is made only by those who feel themselves to be in some way inferior. What it expresses is precisely the itching, smarting, writhing awareness of an inferiority which the patient refuses to accept."
For many people, the conference was mainly a chance to talk with kindred spirits about their common interests. (George Marsden, a professor of history at Notre Dame who has written widely on fundamentalism and evangelicalism, groused that "it's like going on a cruise ship. It's not a scholarly conference and it's not a theological conference." But he found his time at Oxford worthwhile because he got to see a lot of his friends.) There is striking uniformity in Lewis enthusiasts' confessions about how their hero has changed their lives. They find a real presence in his books that engages and encourages their faith, and they speak of the author in terms usually reserved for personal acquaintance. Many call him their friend. Paul Michelson, who teaches a course on Lewis to undergraduates at Huntington College in Indiana, says, "Reading his books turns into a conversation--he writes in a way that invites dialogue--and I kinda feel like I know the guy." An American undergraduate describes the experience of reading the last pages of Lewis's novel Till We Have Faces: "It was like it wasn't the characters anymore, it was C.S. Lewis talking to me, and he said, 'This is what I need you to know.'" Don Yanik, restoration designer at The Kilns, says this quality of Lewis's writings is what draws people to the house as well: "People like to go to their friends' homes to learn more about how they live."