Evangelism from an era when ideas mattered: a review of “The Most Reluctant Convert”

Could Hamlet have met Shakespeare?

While it may surprise people unfamiliar with his story, long before Narnia and Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis was not a Christian. Despite being raised in a nominally Christian household—or rather, perhaps because he was raised in a nominally Christian household—C. S. Lewis went off to college, to war, and back to college again as an unbeliever. He was proficient in Greek, Latin, French and Italian. He had a classical education, understood logic and philosophy, and was a fellow at Oxford. But he failed to understand Christianity, and in fact even described himself as “opposed to such a thing.”

He could no more fathom a creature meeting God as he could understand Hamlet meeting Shakespeare.

But over time, the Lord used Lewis’ training in logic, reason and the classics to wear him down. God, in his role as the hound of heaven, pursued Lewis—first persuading him of the theism, then of the existence of a personal God, then finally winning him over to Christianity. Lewis finally realized that it is possible for Hamlet to meet Shakespeare, but only if Shakespeare wrote himself into the story.

While Lewis’s life was devoid of what today we might call a radical conversion—there were no police chases, drug addiction, or capital crimes (although there was some dabbling in the occult!)—his conversion to Christ was a radical transformation of his heart, mind, and soul. Lewis later wrote that God dragged him, screaming and kicking, into saving faith. Lewis described his journey this way: “I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”

His self-given sobriquet is the title for a new movie released this week: The Most Reluctant Convert. Produced by Max McLean, this is the first movie produced by The Fellowship for Performing Arts—which is the group that has turned several of Lewis’ books into plays, such as The Great Divorce and The Screwtape Letters. In fact, they had previously done a one-man production titled “The Most Reluctant Convert,” and this movie is largely based off of that script, which itself was adapted from Lewis’ writings (most prominent are Surprised by Joy and Mere Christianity).

The movie stars Max McLean as Max McLean playing C. S. Lewis. In other words, the movie starts with Max as an actor, and then he assumes the first-person role of an older Lewis looking back on his life. The movie unfolds as Lewis walks in and out of scenes and conversations that were impactful and determinative in his spiritual journey. Having McLean play himself playing Lewis is the rhetorical device that allows the audience to feel like we are joining an older man giving a retrospective, marveling on what God has done in his life.

The narrative begins with Lewis as something of an avid materialist. “If there are 1,000 false religions in the world, certainly it makes sense that Christianity could be 1,001.” Lewis’s objections to Christianity were not particular toward the Bible, but were more general: The universe is mostly empty space, and where there is life there is also death, and on top of that there is the inevitability of suffering. So if there is a God, he must be the kind that delights in death and sorrow—if there is a God, Lewis surmised, it is likely that he would be an evil.

From that point, the story unfolds. The audience sees how God used Lewis’ training in logic to expose the folly of materialism. Then how God used providence and friendship to show Lewis the importance of believing in a personal God. Finally, in the last act, how God returned to reason to decimate any notion that God can be true, but Jesus a liar. And I must say, as a life-long Lewis fan, I appreciated how McLean depicted the Lord/Liar/Lunatic dynamic for which Lewis is so well known. By having the words come from Tolkien, their effect on Lewis is profound. In fact, in the movie Tolkien presents the argument in a much more robust way than even Lewis does in Mere Christianity.

If the movie has a weakness, it would be that it is largely narrated. It is a lot of talking. But that comports with Lewis’s conversion. His was a conversion that took place on the playing field of literature, ideas, and reason. The directorial decision to present that in terms of words was a necessary one, given the source material.

In fact, I couldn’t help but wonder if this approach to evangelism would be more effective in a bye-gone era. Lewis’s conversion is a powerful story of a person who cares about truth and reason submitting his mind and heart to where truth and reason lead. It is a compelling argument for Christianity for those who care about truth and reason. Lewis’s point in writing Mere Christianity was that if a person is going to be intellectually honest, they are going to end up a Christian.

My fear is that this form of thinking is largely absent from the American culture today. Evangelism on college campuses is different than it was for Lewis at Oxford. Few conversations today turn on the point that if materialism is true, there is no grounds upon which to object to suffering and sin. If we are all simply matter in motion, then who cares about virtue or truth?

Today evangelism derails into sexual ethics and politics more than into critical thinking and logic. We say, with Tolkien, “you would expect someone claiming to be God to be declared arrogant and proud, yet Jesus was known for his humility; you would expect him to be written off as a lunatic, but even his enemies called him wise!” And often we are met with “yeah, but Christians voted for Trump.” As Carl Trueman once said, we are talking in numbers and they are thinking in colors, and often we can’t figure out why we are having a hard time communicating.

I enjoyed watching “The Most Reluctant Convert” because it showed evangelism in an arena where ideas mattered. Moreover, it is filmed on location in Oxford. They used the real locations that the events happened. The real White Horse Pub, the real streets of Oxford, the real grounds at Magdalen, the real chapel where Lewis worshiped. In fact, the contrast between his first visit to that chapel and his last one is magnified by the fact it was filmed on location.

I watched the movie with my 13, 10, and 8 year-olds. The teenager loved it, and the two younger ones had a harder time following it. I’d encourage parents to watch it with teens if they are willing to engage with ideas on that level—as in, can your teenager answer and discuss questions like what is materialism? What is the difference between being converted to theism and converted to Christ?

It is possible that this movie will have an impact on people in the era of COVID that it might not have had a year ago. If a person is seriously thinking about the nature of truth and the meaning of life, this movie may challenge their minds in a unique way. If you are a Christian and are at all familiar with Lewis’s life, you will find this movie compelling because of its faithfulness to Lewis’s own testimony.

It is in theatres through November 18, and you can find tickets here.

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