Online Conversation | C.S. Lewis: The Most Reluctant Convert with Max McLean
What is it about C.S. Lewis’s story and writing that continues to resonate so strongly? Through his portrayal of Lewis in the recently premiered film, The Most Reluctant Convert, actor Max McLean explores C.S. Lewis‘s enduring legacy as he enacts Lewis’s journey from hard-boiled atheist to renowned Christian writer. On Friday, December 17th we hosted an Online Conversation with Max McLean to discuss Lewis’s influence on his thinking, art, and imagination and explore how Lewis’s life and practice hold continued relevance for us today.
Special Thanks to this event’s sponsors:
Kelly and Adrienne Johnston
Jeff and Deborah Upchurch
Online Conversation | Max McLean | December 17, 2021
Cherie Harder: Welcome to all of you joining us for our final Online Conversation of the year with special guest Max McLean on the most reluctant convert. I’d also like to add my own thanks to our sponsors whose generosity has helped make this program possible. Chris and Cheryl Batchelder, Keith Skogen, David Kiersznowski, Kelly and Adrian Johnston, Jeff and Debbie Upchurch, Don and Rita Walker, and John and Dorothy Castle. We so appreciate your support.
If you are one of those folks who are joining us for the first time or are new to the work of the Trinity Forum, we seek to provide a space for leaders to engage the big questions of life in the context of faith and to offer programs like this Online Conversation to do so and to come to better know the author of the answers. We are now deep into the season of Advent, a time of awaiting the Incarnation, as well [as]—as the word itself suggests—the beginning of adventure, the great story of God with us. And we thought it would be fitting to end this year with a story of one such adventure that came to an unsuspecting scholar who later described himself as the most dejected and reluctant convert in all of England.
Cherie Harder: And joining us, it’s hard to imagine someone who brings such stories to life with more eloquence, energy, artistry, or vision than our guest today, Max McLean. Max is an award-winning actor, producer, and the founder and artistic director of the New York-based Fellowship for the Performing Arts. The Fellowship for the Performing Art’s recent productions include The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, Paradise Lost, Shadowlands, A Man for All Seasons, Luther on Trial, and Mark’s gospel, which received a Jeff Award, Chicago Theater’s highest honor. Max himself has starred in several of these productions, including as Screwtape in The Screwtape Letters and as C. S. Lewis in The Most Reluctant Convert, which we’ve invited him to discuss with us today. This hit theater production, which was performed nearly 300 times in 64 cities or campuses, was recently adapted and released as a movie which launched at multiple theaters across the country last month and which is now available via premium video, a link for which we will post in the chat feature. In addition to his many acting and production credits, he’s also served as narrator of the Listener’s Bible and is the author of Unleashing the Word: Rediscovering the Public Reading of Scripture. Max, welcome.
Max McLean: Well, thank you. Cherie, great to see you again. Thank you for having me.
Cherie Harder: Absolutely. It’s great to have you here. So you have now starred in and produced several works that have brought Lewis’s thought to the stage and the screen and literally dedicated years of your vocational life to portraying him or his characters. So as we start off, I’d love to just hear from you how you discovered C.S. Lewis and what it is about him and his works that’s so captured your own imagination.
Max McLean: Yeah, yeah, wow. Lewis goes back a ways. I’m an adult convert to Christianity, and at that time, I was in my early 20s, my girlfriend at the time—she’s now my wife—gave me a copy of Surprised by Joy. So the only thing I’d read that was Christian was I’d read the New Testament; I had read The Brothers Karamazov, which really impacted me, but I didn’t know why. And I think I saw the film A Man for AllSeasons, which had an indelible impression on me. But this was God speaking to me, but not me responding. I had an experience where I met the Lord in the summer of ’76. And anyway, as a result of that experience, I was very interested. So my girlfriend at the time gave me a copy of Surprised by Joy. I read it and didn’t understand a word of it. Went by me like a freight train. But I finished it, and I said, “I’m not sure if this is the one.” And then she gave me a copy of Screwtape Letters and on page one, you know, the man in the British Museum, that story where he was about to have a very profound experience and then Screwtape says to him in his ear, whispers in his ear, “Isn’t it just about time for lunch?” And it pops him out. And then he leaves the museum, grabs lunch, grabs the newspaper, catches a number 73 bus, and then Screwtape says proudly, “He is now safely in our father’s house.” And I go, “Whoa, I know this guy.” So that was my first experience with Lewis.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. Lewis, of course, has many fans—I would count myself one—many readers, many scholars. You’re fairly unique in that you have actually sought to quite literally inhabit Lewis in some ways and portray him, embody him. And I’m sort of curious how embodying the character of Lewis for stage and film has shaped your understanding of his character that might be different from scholars. And also whether there has been a difference for you doing it on stage versus on film.
Max McLean: Hmm. The idea of inhabiting Lewis was a daunting one, you know, because he’s an iconic figure and just the idea of trying to do it, there would be so much of a microscope on how it was done. Was it credible? That sort of thing. So there was a lot of pressure to do it at least reasonably well. So what I ended up doing with Screwtape Letters, you know, that was a little bit simpler because it was, you know, detached. But doing actual telling his story—and, of course, telling his story came from having adapted Screwtape Letters, having adapted The Great Divorce, because each of those tell aspects of his own conversion story, aspects of his resistance to Christianity. So that prompted me to go to tell his story, his own story. And that is encapsulated in his memoir, Surprised by Joy. So what I ended up doing with Surprised by Joy was actually transcribing it, you know, just rewriting it word for word so that I could understand some of his choices of why he decided to go this way and this way, and getting his sense of humor, his self-deprecating sense of humor. So I really got to understand him in that way and that just kind of fed me in terms of how he talks, got a sense of how he moves. And of course, there’s some tapes on the Web that, you know— I think the BBC has some tapes that you could hear his voice. Not that I tried to imitate him. In fact, he sounds a lot like to me, he sounds like Alfred Hitchcock. You know, “I’d like to talk to you about Proust,” and I thought that would be a little too plummy for the stage. So what I try to do is get a dynamic equivalent, what I thought would be a dynamic equivalent.
So that was sort of the technical side. But then of course, when you’re just breathing those words, you know, he’s become this spiritual guide. He gives me an understanding of Christianity in a way that I just wouldn’t have— bigger than I would have understood it. In fact, you know, the big knock against Christianity is how can an obscure, crucified first-century Jew be the supreme God of this entire universe? You know, that’s just not credible. And Lewis’s writings make that much, much more credible.
Cherie Harder: You know, I had the pleasure of getting to see you several times play Screwtape, and I know that you not only have played Screwtape, a demon, with great relish and verve, but you’ve also produced Paradise Lost, where the devil is sort of famous for being the most interesting character.
Max McLean: Right.
Cherie Harder: And I thought about the quote by Simone Weil, who talked about how imaginary evil is romantic and varied, whereas real evil is not. And imaginary good is quite boring, whereas real good is anything but. And I was sort of curious as a producer of theater and film showing the battle between good and evil, which is necessarily in the realm of the imaginative, how do you keep good from seeming boring and evil from seeming much more enticingly spicy?
Max McLean: Yeah, well, first of all, you quote Lewis’s words, so that makes it a lot easier. He did all the heavy lifting. The way we attacked The Screwtape Letters theatrically—and, of course, what makes it interesting is the conflict—we saw Screwtape as a predator/prey story, Screwtape as the predator; the patient, the object of his attack, this unsuspecting human on Earth, is the prey. And so the premise of our stage play is, “Will the predator get its prey?” And you know, the predator in this case is this master-of-the-universe character who loves the way he looks, loves the way he talks, loves the way he dresses, smartest guy in the room. He’s pure pride. And we want to know if he’s going to get his prey. And then the patient— You know, it’s interesting that Lewis uses the term “patient” because we think of a patient as someone in need of healing. [Screwtape] thinks of a patient as someone in need of corrupting, of bringing him towards damnation. That’s his objective. And the patient’s journey, he begins the play as spiritually indifferent. And at the end of the play, he’s really quite devout, in spite of all the efforts of Screwtape trying to destroy him. And this, of course, is because of the existence of Screwtape’s enemy— which he calls him that, the “enemy”—God.
And then, of course, in Screwtape’s case, he starts as this master-of-the-universe character, and at the end of the play, he’s a defeated devil. You know, he has an arc. He’s going somewhere. And that, too, is due to the presence of his unseen enemy. So actually, in Screwtape the unseen protagonist is God. And there’s that conflict between God and Screwtape, which I think is beautifully rendered in the very last scene when Screwtape is just so in despair about losing his patient. He’s describing where the patient is. But of course, we know Screwtape is not finished. You know, he’ll go on, and he eats Wormwood instead of the patient. I don’t know if that answers your question, but whenever I think of the Screwtape story, I think of it in theatrical terms.
Cherie Harder: Yeah. You know, I want to ask you about there’s this wonderful scene in The Most Reluctant Convert where you, as Lewis, recount the story of first encountering George MacDonald’s book Phantastesand the effect that it had on the imagination. And I thought we might take a look at that clip in the film together and then discuss it.
Max McLean: Good.
Cherie Harder: We’ll take a look here.
McLean (as C.S. Lewis): I was in the habit of walking a few miles to Leatherhead station and taking the train back to Kirk’s. While waiting for the train, I rummaged in the second-hand bookstore and picked out an unusual title, Phantastes by George MacDonald. It looked a little unusual. I hadn’t the faintest notion of what I’d let myself in for.
As I began to read my new book, I was electrified. I felt like a miner who had struck gold. In those pages I met all that had charmed me in Yates and others, yet everything was changed. The bright shadow coming out of this book transformed everything, and it would affect my own writing forever. It was as if I died in the old country and come alive in the new, all my occult and erotic fantasies began to feel sordid, disarmed. What I really wanted was just out of reach, not because of something I could not do but because of something I could not stop doing. Oh, if I could only let go, unmake myself. I did not know the name of this new quality, though I do now: holiness.
That night, as I read Phantastes, my imagination was baptized. The rest of me took a little longer.
Cherie Harder: It’s a great wrap up to that scene, and there’s so much about it that I’d love to ask you about. I mean, your vocation is in the realm of the imaginative, and as you’re portraying that, what did it mean to you for Lewis to have a baptized imagination? Like, what does that mean?
Max McLean: Yeah, he said it was the central story of his life was finding it. You know, there was this thread that was leading him beyond himself. You know, as a teenager he said he was as nonmoral as a human creature could be. Of chastity, truthfulness, self-sacrifice, he thought as a baboon thinks of classical music. You know, he had a pretty hard feeling about himself, and so to think of somebody tender and inquisitive and really thoughtful and to write the sort of things he did, that had to be unlocked. And God did that.
[Lewis] said this experience that—I think he recounted it earlier—with the experience of when Warren brought in the lid of a biscuit tin; he’d garnished it with moss and twigs and flowers to make a toy garden. And he said it was the first beauty he’d ever seen. The experience, it was an experience of desire, of want. But before he knew what he desired, the desire was gone, withdrawn. The world turned common again. And he said he kept chasing that, in every book he read, every piece of music he listened to, every walk he took. And, you know, he called it “joy.” Joy—which is to be distinguished very sharply from happiness or pleasure. And he said anyone who’s ever tasted joy would not exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. And there’s a scene there that led him to another world beyond this world.
And I think in terms of my own particular vocation and life work, I think he says in Mere Christianity, that “I made it my duty to press on to that other country and to help others do the same.” That became his life’s work. And in some ways, you know, certainly on a much lesser scale, I think it’s my life’s work, too.
Cherie Harder: Yeah, that’s beautiful. One of the things that seems to come up quite a bit in Lewis’s works is that he does seem to regard the imagination, especially his baptized imagination, as a way of knowing. I think he called it at one point “a truth-bearing faculty.” And, you know, we’re kind of at an interesting time in that there are sectors, you know, kind of across society that sort of push against that idea, that sort of regard the empirical as the most reliable forms of knowledge. And you even see strains of that within Christendom, that are negatively predisposed towards the theater, non-representational art, and the like. And I would be curious, having made this your life’s work, what is lost when we devalue imaginative and artistic ways of knowing?
Max McLean: Lewis, I think he wrote—and I got this from Michael Ward—he said that the imagination is the organ of meaning, where reason is the organ of truth. And what I think Lewis meant by that was that the imagination serves up the raw material of what we think about. And so if an idea doesn’t capture the imagination, doesn’t hit it in a kind of an electric way, like how he described Phantastes, then it’s not going to summon up the desire, the will, to apply our rational thoughts.
You know, in my college years, I imagined me being a fantastic lawyer, you know, winning every case.
Cherie Harder: I’m sure you would have been, Max, without a doubt.
Max McLean: Right. Well, but then all of a sudden I saw what a law book looked like. And I wasn’t ready to dig in and work the hours. So my imagination was one thing, but it didn’t apply to my rational thought. It didn’t go that way. But it was interesting; it might have. But I think that’s sort of how it works. And so in many ways, I think in terms of what we do in theater is we feel like if we can engage people’s imagination to look at some ideas that people have already preconceived, that they know, they understand, you know, “been there, done that,” to relook at it, relook at the Christian view of the world through new eyes, that they may discover something. And the way to do that, of course, is that you have to spark something. And there’s some consolation of ideas that hit you, some emotional connection that says, “Wow, you know, I want to go there a little bit.” And I think Lewis is the master of doing that.
Cherie Harder: Yeah. One of the things that has struck me about your productions is that they hew very closely to the original text. There’s a great deal of artistry, but the license is not with the text itself usually so much as, you know, the portrayal of it. And I wanted to ask you both about that and, relatedly, the fact that you’ve actually written a book on the public reading of scripture and you have made it a practice to both commit to memory and recite long text. And so given this attention to text, I wanted to ask you both about why you have, far more than many of your peers, hewn to the original text, but then also what one learns from reading aloud or recitation aloud that might not be accessible to just sort of reading silently to yourself?
Max McLean: Yeah, it’s interesting that Paul says, I think in Romans 10:17, that faith comes from hearing the message. The message is heard through the word of Christ. So there’s something about—I think you were talking about the vocalizing of it, but of course, the other side of it is the hearing of it too. So you need both sides. And, you know, the written word is newer. People spoke and there is this articulation. You know, the whole act of speaking: an impulse comes into your head; it goes into your diaphragm; it comes up all these vocal chords into the articulators, and it comes out as speech. And all of that happening. And then there’s so much you can manipulate doing that in terms of moving a thought to the left or to the right, to something high, something low, to change the meaning. One of the things I know is a technique—and it’s particularly helpful with Lewis—and it is helpful with scripture too—is that when you want to convey meaning, you really hit the articulator; you really hit the consonants. If you want to go to a more emotional expression, you hit the vowels. And you know, it’s like singing, you know; it comes out. So those sorts of things help you. And then of course, it has to happen in the moment. One of the things about reading is, you know, you can always go back to it. And of course, the other thing you can do about reading is you yourself can interpret. You can say, “If I was going to say this, I would say it this way, and I wouldn’t say the way Max says it.” But what I’m doing, I’m making an immediate decision for the immediate moment to try to get something in your heart and mind. And so there’s this immediacy in doing that. It has to work in that moment.
Cherie Harder: Right. You know, I’m willing to bet there’s a lot of people, especially when they hear you, they just, you know— There’s a real beauty and artistry to what you do. But I’m curious more about how you approach the text that you’re narrating. And for folks who might be sort of intrigued but intimidated about the practice of reading out loud—and you know, there’s a lot of us who are in our natural condition are droners—what counsel or guidance would you give to the intrigued but intimidated folks to better grapple with it and understand a text through public reading?
Max McLean: Well, one thing, it’s a wonderful aid for memorization. And so what I would suggest for someone to do is pick a text that they’d like to memorize. And so one I’ve already memorized, John’s gospel 1:1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God. The Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.” Now, when I read it like that, it’s sort of hermetically sealed. You know, the thought, the emotion, is not coming out. But if I slow it down, at least in the beginning—later on, you can speed it up—but when you slow it way, way down into its component thoughts: “In the beginning.” One thought. “Was the Word.” Two thoughts. “And the word was with God.” Three thoughts. “And the Word was God.” Four thoughts. “He was with God in the beginning.” Five and six thoughts. Those six thoughts, when you open them up, every one of them is like [exploding sound]. And so that’s where you can begin to meditate on it and then use your articulators to enjoy the meditation process. And that’s a really wonderful devotional exercise.
Cherie Harder: So we’re going to turn to questions from our viewers. And the first question—apologies, folks, I have a cold—comes from Michael Lundy and Michael says, “Lewis said [of] The Screwtape Lettersthat his assumption of the enemy’s perspective for writing became quite an oppressive ordeal in and of itself. Did you encounter anything analogous in your own directing of and/or acting of Screwtape?”
Max McLean: Not like Lewis. I mean, Lewis was was feeding from his own life experience. Screwtape is in many ways autobiographical in the sense that it was reflecting his own battles with temptation, and he wanted to express that in a way that would help other people in a satirical sense. So for him to do it, he said it was the easiest thing he’d ever wrote. But certainly—and it wasn’t, he said, it wasn’t fun, at least not for long. I think in the beginning, he thought it might be entertaining to do this. You know, when he wrote his brother about it. I think the idea of Screwtape came from after listening to Hitler’s Reichstag speech on a Thursday night, and then that following Sunday, he started thinking about an older devil who had this really wonderful, manipulative quality like he felt Hitler did, writing to a younger devil. So he just started to have fun with it and then in order to dig deep with it and really be just open—. You know, one of the one of the things we love about Lewis is that he’s so transparent. You know, what he’s dealing with he expresses, and he expresses it with magnificent prose and speech. So that got to be just too much. And he said it was all dust and itch and scratch, and he had to look at his own experience in a pretty real way. My job was to interpret Lewis’s words, so I didn’t feel it at that level. But I always worry— I did find playing that role, you know, just putting on these airs, being just so full of himself, loving yourself so much, and just— I found that I didn’t enjoy playing him. Yeah. So I was happy to give it up.
Cherie Harder: So our next question comes from James Bucceney and James asked, “C.S. Lewis, by way of imaginative fiction, found a door to steal past the watchful dragons of the modern person’s reason. How can Lewis’s apologetics be presented in a way more relevant in our postmodern or post-reason times?”
Max McLean: Yeah, yeah. I think Lewis would be, I think he’d be kind of shocked at where we are now, although Britain, in the 30s and 40s, would have been probably where the U.S. was in the 60s and 70s in terms of dispensing with the Christian position. You know, in America, there was kind of a majority of people that had a religious memory, had a memory of Christianity, and that was gone in Britain way, way sooner. So I do wonder how he would respond. You know, I do feel like his apologetic stands up because it’s not just this dry sort of apologetics, it’s so, you know—. He read everything from the Greeks to the moderns. He had a steel-trap mind that could remember everything he read. And then he had this incredible ability to translate that into magnificent prose and speech. I mean, some people say he was one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. I think he’s one of the greatest writers of all time in terms of really articulating thoughts and ideas and the constellation of thoughts and ideas that you get almost nowhere else. I mean, you never get to the bottom of it. So that’s why I can always go back and do another C.S. Lewis show because I just never get to the bottom of it, nor ever even want to. I mean, I’m just desirous to go back. And I think he just kindles the imagination; that’s a big part of it. But he’s really strong on the empirical part. He’s really strong on the dialectical part. So he puts it all together. And I think what’s often missing is the imaginative part, is the part that we don’t seem to get very well. Yeah. And I think that’s one of the reasons why theater has been a good outlet for Lewis’s works.
Cherie Harder: You know, I’m going to combine two questions, one from an anonymous viewer who asks, “How did you grow as a person through spending time reading and playing Lewis?”, as well as a question from Lydia Dugdale, who asks, “How did participation in these Lewis films impact fellow actors or crew who wouldn’t necessarily describe themselves as Christian?”
Max McLean: Well, that’s true. We’ve had people come to faith in Christ, mostly just through interaction, not because we were making that a program by any means. So that was important. A lot of people have told us this is the most satisfying work they’ve done. You know, the thing about actors is they want good material. They want material that’s really, really challenging. And also just like, “Well, I haven’t done this kind of material before.” And really nobody’s doing this kind of material. You know, we’ve got the field to ourselves. So I feel that gives us a leg up. So, you know, people just haven’t heard these things. They have not heard these discussion points, these arguments. Lewis said something very, very interesting. He says, “You know, rational arguments, apologetics, whatever you call it, they don’t create belief, but the lack of them destroys conviction because what somebody will not defend is soon abandoned.” I thought that was really interesting. If you’re not going to take the trouble to defend it, if you’re not going to take the trouble to explain it, then it’s going to be abandoned. And personally, that’s what’s happening on college campuses. Lewis saw that at Oxford and Cambridge in the 30s and 40s and 50s and 60s, and he endeavored with others to do something about that. And I think it’s motivating; you know, it’s motivating for me personally. I hope my answer to the second question in turn answered the first question.
Cherie Harder: So Jenny Savage asks a question that I’m sure many of our viewers are wondering about, which is, “Which are your favorite books of Lewis, both fiction and nonfiction?”
Max McLean: For me, The Screwtape Letters may have been the most important because it really made me understand spiritual warfare in a way I didn’t understand it, as much as I didn’t enjoy playing it, but it really moved me. You know, it just put a magnifying glass on my own—. You know, it looks at evil in the intimate details of our life or, you know, how we get so annoyed at the smallest things. And how, you know— I just had an experience not too long ago where a small thing became such a big thing, and if I had continued in that direction, it would have destroyed not only the relationship, but a lot of other things. It’s just because you just can’t get it out of your system. And Lewis said that he used to invent conversations to score points on other people. So, you know, and him being aware of that—. So I think [The Screwtape Letters] because it’s just so clear and so up front.
But The Great Divorce was really very powerful, too, because it looks at the same subject from the heavenly point of view of how we just dismiss our conscience. You know, our conscience has said, do this, do this. And a big thing in almost all of Lewis’s material is our responsibility to follow our conscience. And one of the things about modern life is we’re so devoid from our conscious. You know, it’s like it almost doesn’t exist, except for the fact that we still receive the guilt for not following our conscience. So it’s there, but we think it’s something else, and some sort of pill or therapy or something will solve it. You know, that’s his moral law. So yeah, I lost my train of thought. I’ll stop there.
Cherie Harder: No, that’s great. There’s a lot of questions piling up in. A lot of them are on one particular play or the other. Jack and Kelly Oates asked, “If Lewis sees the rational as the pursuit of truth, does he see the imaginative as the discovery of what that truth means?”
Max McLean: Yes.
Cherie Harder: There we go.
Max McLean: Yeah.
Cherie Harder: Great. Another question from an anonymous viewer: “Could you speak more about the imagination and the ways that theater can uniquely convey beauty, truth, and goodness? How can we be more faithfully involved in the theater?”
Max McLean: It all starts with the material. You know, you build an edifice on a foundation; the foundation is the script. If you have a lot of money and you have all kinds of special effects, but you don’t have a good story, it’s not going to work. So it begins with a good story. And the other thing too is out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks. So if you’re a theater maker, you’re going to make theater on the basis of the thoughts you think, the books you read, the people you talk to. And so there’s a responsibility to do that well. Thoughts you think: you know, what fills you with thought? What are you filling your thought-life with? What books are you reading?: What are you reading and who are you talking with? And you know, that’s a large part of our lives, especially the thought part. So, that’s the foundation. Then, of course, you build; you develop a craft. You learn how to do it. And that takes a long time, you know, and you’ve got to have good mentors that know how to do it. And the interesting thing about mentors, it’s a very interesting thing because I’ve tried to be that to some people and it’s, you know, people that know… Well, two thoughts here: Knowing how is very important, knowing why is more important. People that know how often work for people that know why. And so the why question is really important and sometimes the people that are the “doing” have a hard time translating that into the teaching. So it has a lot more to do with watching, being inspired by, looking at their work ethic, those sort of things.
Cherie Harder: I mentioned earlier, there are a lot of questions about specifics of what you’re going to be focusing on next. Nathan Swanson asks, “Are there any plans for a FPA production focusing on the Inklings?” John Ellsdorth asked, “Any thoughts to rendering dramatic versions of the stories in Lewis’s Space Trilogy? Each of those has so much to offer.” So I’ll pose both of those to you and then just sort of ask you a broader question about what are your next projects, Max?
Max McLean: Yeah. Well, the Space Trilogy. I love That Hideous Strength. I just reread it and it just blew my mind. I mean, I’d love to have—. I don’t think I’m ready for it in terms of being able to do it, but I’d love to keep that in mind. That was one. What was the first one?
Cherie Harder: The Inklings.
Max McLean: The interesting thing about the Inklings is—. I do have another piece in mind, and it does capture that period. What was helpful about Most Reluctant Convert, it was taken directly from Surprised by Joy, his memoir, because it’s very important for me to have Lewis’s voice. In the readings that I’ve had with the Inklings—except for the letters, and the letters are very, you know, they’re just wonderful little moments—they’re usually written by other people observing. And so then you would have to create language. And I’ve just had difficulty with the kind of work I do. I think somebody else is going to do that and is going to do it really well.
Cherie Harder: Ron Boyd asks, “Do you see the influence of Lewis continuing in the next generation to new thinkers and those yet to discover his unique wisdom and insight?”
Max McLean: Yes. Yeah. I mean, he sells more books that— He sold more books— You know, this might be a little bit inflated, but it wasn’t inflated for a long time. You know, what happened is that he sold more books this year than he sold last year, and the assumption was he’d sell more books next year than he did this year. It’s like his embers are still blazing, while other writers their ashes are dead. I remember I think Owen Barfield asked him—and Owen Barfield was his estate planner—and asked him—this was like probably a year before he died, maybe even in ’63 when he died—he asked him, “What are you going to do about your literary estate?” And Lewis supposedly responded, “You know, five years after I’m dead, nobody’s going to read a word I write. Nobody’s going to read a word I’ve written. Who cares? It’s not going to amount to anything.” And that’s just not true.
Cherie Harder: That’s right. So our next question comes from Lee Grooms and Lee asks, “What does it look like to be a faithful presence in the arts generally?”
Max McLean: Yeah. That’s a very interesting question because my concern about young artists, particularly ones that are not very grounded, is it’s so easy to negotiate things away. Man, it’s so easy to do that. And just to go downstream, go with the flow. Really easy. And the pressure is enormous. Enormous. I think in our day and age, especially in a place like New York where I live, faithful presence has to be with good material because Christian worldview, as it is expressed, as Lewis articulates it—I mean, he articulates it so beautifully that it does steal past watchful dragons, and he does it so imaginatively—but if you look underneath of what he’s saying, it’s like, “Oh, I’m not going to go there. I can’t do that.” So it’s a challenge, and it’s going to continue to be a challenge. It’s going to be more of a challenge in the future than it was in the past.
Cherie Harder: Yeah. Daniel Wittier asks, “If C.S. Lewis himself were able to watch The Most Reluctant Convert, what do you think his comments in response would be?
Max McLean: “Oh, why bother?” he would say. He just says, “Oh, all this attention, it’s so misplaced.” No. But that’s a very interesting comment because he was a very private person, yet he wrote in a way that it would be shared with all. I mean, he chronicled his life through his letters and his writings that we share his innermost thoughts, and we’re so grateful for them. And of course we have to thank Walter Hooper for a lot of that because he saved so much of Lewis’s papers from the fire.
Cherie Harder: So another question comes from an anonymous viewer, and they ask, “The theater often portrays raw emotion so beautifully. Similarly, Lewis often wrote of suffering, and wrestled with doubt, faith, raw emotion, etc. During this Christmas season, with many of us experiencing highs and lows, what does your work in the theater contribute to today’s problem of pain?”
Max McLean: Lewis said—it’s very interesting—I think he wrote that Christianity doesn’t solve the problem of pain, it creates it. And I think what he meant by that [was] that pain would not be a problem unless you had some assurance that ultimate reality was righteous and good. Because if ultimate reality is capricious, you know, atoms colliding in skulls, just products of physics and biochemistry, then there’s no problem. And I think that’s part of our solution. I think that our mission at Fellowship for Performing Arts—our theater company; we’re based in New York; we do theater, we’re now doing film—it’s to produce theater from a Christian worldview meant to engage a diverse audience. And by diversity, we mean intellectual diversity, worldview diversity. You know, the word has been co-opted to mean kind of gender and racial diversity. And so in order to do that, we just need to tell good stories from a Christian worldview that are imaginative, multilayered, passionate, and deal with tough questions, humorous when they can be, and leave room for the Holy Spirit to do his work.
Cherie Harder: Don Morgan asked, “What was Lewis’s attitude towards people who remained atheist?”
Max McLean: He said, “Pray for them.” He said, “We must pray for those who choose different doors than we. If they are wrong, they need our prayers. If they become our enemies, then we’re obligated to pray for them.” He said we must be kind to those who choose different doors than we.
Cherie Harder: Yeah. So question from Scott Griffin, who says, “I loved the opening scene of The Most Reluctant Convert where you start on the movie set and then walk into the story, pausing to share a pint with the audience in an English pub. Where did the motivation for that opening scene come from?”
Max McLean: In the pub? Yeah, I think there’s a couple of scenes prior to that. The film starts in in my trailer, you know, in the studio asking, “Where’s my phone? How’s my hair?” You know, very famous C.S. Lewis lines [laughs] that, you know, I’m sure he would—. Actually the whole idea there was to show an actor going into character. The director, Norman Stone, wanted to show the backlot, I suppose. And then he also wanted—this was all Norman’s idea of trying to take as much from the one-person show, which was directed to the audience, and try to keep that on film by breaking the fourth wall and offering a pint to the audience because I’m going to share this story. You know, the idea of the play is kind of a little bit like A Christmas Carol where Scrooge sees Christmas Past and he lives in it and sees what it was like. So that was borrowed for The Most Reluctant Convert.
Cherie Harder: Yeah, that’s great. We’ll take one more question from an anonymous viewer who asks, “Lewis and your works paint compelling portraits of faith, which can be attractive to many people who aren’t of faith. How can we, as Christians, paint better or more compelling visions of what it means to live faithfully? What would you like to see from artists today?”
Max McLean: Living faithfully. That’s a good start. I think, one of the things, a commitment to excellence, unto the Lord, is—. It really speaks to people. I think it’s important that we find material that captures the imagination. God has set eternity in our hearts. He’s made us a little lower than the angels. And somehow that reality is very compelling to people. I still think the biggest ideas are not the ideas set in this empirical world because I do think it ends in an appeal to the emotion. You know, I am pleading for meaning. I am pleading for a relationship. I’m pleading to fill this hole that I have in my heart. Or I’m laughing it off. You know, I’m going to build my house on the footsteps of Vesuvius. Either way, they’re just not satisfying. And Lewis feels like, you know, there’s either the crude beginnings of life on this planet were dropped by a fuller, more perfect life. Or it all begins with the idiocy of the universe. And so what he wants us to do is, when you come to the conclusion that it all begins with the idiocy of the universe, then you begin to answer the question, “Could there be—? Perhaps there is another world further up, further in, and that is where we come from.”
Cherie Harder: That’s wonderful. Thanks, Max. This has been great fun. Thank you to all of you for your interest, your support, your feedback, and your encouragement over the last year and a half. And finally, as promised, Max, the last word is yours.
Max McLean: Good. Well, you know, this program has been about art and theater and Christianity and how they mingle. And Lewis wrote this essay called “Is Theology Poetry?” And his answer was if it is poetry, it’s not very good poetry, which I thought was funny. But he ends with, I think, one of his most poetic statements that really does drive the work of FPA and much of my work. And it reads, the very last statement of that essay, and I think it’s found in the book Weight of Glory: “I believe in Christianity as I believe the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but by it I see everything else.” And I think that’s what prompted most if not all of Lewis’s work.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. Thank you, Max. Thank you to all of you for joining us. Merry Christmas.