by Crystal Hurd
In the wee hours of September 23, I traveled five hours through the idyllic Kentucky countryside to Asbury University to hear Douglas Gresham, step-son of C.S. Lewis. Gresham had three speaking engagements at Asbury that day: “chapel” (the audience comprised mainly of students), a question and answer session in the media department discussing aspects of the first three Narnia films, and the final talk open to the general public about growing up with C.S. Lewis.
The first talk perhaps gave me the best first impression of Gresham. He was introduced by an Asbury student who had been writing to Gresham since she was fourteen. Nearly every day for the past five years, the student corresponded with Gresham and now considered him a dear friend and mentor (following in the footsteps of his step-father, Gresham answers every email he receives). Humbly, Gresham approached the podium in a white turtleneck, khaki vest, and brown riding boots and began to unravel the events which influenced his conversion to Christianity. He recalled the loss of his mother to cancer, of his father’s suicide, and of the equally painful loss of his step-father. These emotional tempests did much to tarnish his faith. However, the lessons Gresham learned while living at the Kilns with Lewis surely made an impression on him. He began to understand the importance of service as part of the body of Christ. “Faith, hope, and charity”, he stated, “and the greatest of these is charity”. Choosing the translation of “charity” over the popular preference “love” is, I believe, intentional. Charity is a state of “giving”, contributing tirelessly and generously even if it becomes inconvenient. Once Gresham made the leap, once “the armor was off” as Lewis so poignantly states in Surprised by Joy, he came to realize that there was nothing glamorous in Christianity; the glory belonged solely to God. As he spoke, I detected glimpses of his mother, the wisdom and whimsical wordplay of Joy Lewis: “A man who worships himself has a fool for a deity”. Later, Gresham remarked that Lewis taught him that life was not about “understanding more” but “misunderstanding less”. His jovial nature and gentle spirit were immediately evident when he spoke. As Lewis’s step-son, he could easily have developed into a pretentious, flamboyant personality, but true to Lewis’s example, Gresham was effortlessly humble and gracious. I was most touched at Gresham’s now unwavering devotion to Christ and his persistence to serve humanity. Gresham and his wife ran a successful ministry for nearly 30 years in Ireland.
C.S. Lewis display in Kinlaw Library featuring unpublished Lewis correspondence
The second session took place in a small “theater” located in the media building. Seats filled quickly, as did the floor space. To a full house, Gresham discussed aspects of producing the Narnia films. Students asked a range of questions from, “Do you think Lewis would like the films?” to “What is the deal with that kiss at the end of Prince Caspian?”(Just for the record, Gresham declined this alteration and the director ignored Gresham’s protestations). Gresham fielded each question with kindness and occasionally with humor. Gresham recalls being on set and rumors swirling that he was having passionate affairs with the female actresses. Gresham chuckled, “I didn’t have the time…or the inclination!”
It is significant to highlight Gresham’s dismissal of these fabrications because I think it truly illustrates something genuine and admirable about his character. Some Lewis scholarship has not been kind to Joy Lewis. Earlier this year, Alister McGrath painted Joy as a “gold-digger”, an ex-communist divorcee who “seduced” Lewis into marriage to obtain control over his finances. Don King, who edited Joy’s correspondence into a volume titled Out of My Bone: the Letters of Joy Davidman, claims, “For some time now I have been surprised at the negative attitude otherwise compassionate Lewis devotees adopt with regard to Joy; perhaps they are suspicious of her Communist background, embarrassed by her New York brashness, or upset by her winning Lewis’s heart. This negative attitude, combined with the fact that most of Lewis’s friends did not have many kind things to say about Joy, has relegated Joy to the status of an interloper in the minds of many” (xxx). Despite these calumnious indictments against Joy, Douglas Gresham remains undeterred by these accusations. He displays much affection for his mother, and focuses his energies on serving the Kingdom, rather than engaging in heated debates about his mother’s perceived personality flaws or motivations in migrating to England.
David Gresham with author Dr. Devon Brown
The final event of the day was “An Evening with Douglas Gresham”, a discussion led by Lewis scholar and author Devon Brown to celebrate the release of Brown’s new book C.S. Lewis: A Life Observed. Brown enthusiastically led Gresham in nostalgic recollections of his time at The Kilns. Perhaps most interesting was a picture of Lewis with Douglas and David Gresham as children.
The juxtaposition of the youthful Gresham, standing erect and smiling in his school uniform and the wiser gentleman seated now upon the stage was quite fascinating for the audience. Gresham fondly recalls various stories about his first meeting with Lewis, the kindling of friendship and love between his mother and Lewis, and the solemn weeks and months after his mother’s death as he and his step-father shared a deep, unrelenting grief. Gresham recalls Lewis’s funeral in which a solitary candle was placed on the casket and flickered fearlessly throughout the service. This, Gresham states, symbolizes Lewis’s continued contributions to Christian culture, an inextinguishable flame that counters our current darkness.
At day’s end, I recalled my experiences with great joy. Here is a man who has endured unspeakable heartbreak at the premature loss of his parents and who lived, day in and day out, with a literary giant. His complex, serpentine journey to faith paralleled that of his mentor, hero, and step-father. It was a pleasure to hear, in his own words, Gresham’s life experiences with such conviction and transparency. Perhaps most importantly, it was an opportunity to “misunderstand less” this intriguing and enigmatic figure.