Skip to content

Log Out



LATE IN THE AFTERNOON OF SEPTEMBER 7, 1940, the people of London looked up to a smoldering sky, where bomb-filled clouds harbingered an end to civilization as they knew it. Over the next eight months, the German Blitz would attack London and other nearby cities over seventy times, killing forty-five thousand civilians while injuring tens of thousands more. Stripped of agency and hope, the people of Britain would spend each night in terror, only to wake to a cavalcade of patrols, gas masks, blackouts, and shortages—all reminders that their world, and everything they loved about it, was hanging by a gossamer-thin thread.

Exactly five months after the start of the Blitz, James Welch of the BBC wrote to Clive Stapleton Lewis, then a young and popular professor at Oxford, inviting him to give a series of talks on faith. Having read Lewis’s 1940 book, The Problem of Pain, Welch believed that Lewis could provide comfort to the British people. He also believed that Lewis could take on the challenges of appealing to an increasingly secular society, where an estimated two-thirds of BBC listeners lived without any reference to God. Though there was consensus among the British people “that in the man Jesus lay the key to many of the riddles of life,” they had become spiritually disillusioned and dysphoric, rejecting religious faith as outmoded and illogical. As the Luftwaffe permeated British skies night after night, however, they began to hunger for something unknown—a balm for the pain, yes, but perhaps also a key to the riddle.

The year before the Blitz, Lewis had written that in our quest for God we often envision “not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven,” who likes “to see young people enjoying themselves.” But as Lewis would explain in his broadcast, the God of Christianity was not like that. “The Christian religion is, in the long run, a thing of unspeakable comfort,” he argued, though “it does not begin in comfort” but rather in the confrontation of a difficult truth or in the experience of a painful loss—in that “vale of soul-making,” as John Keats once wrote. If the British people looked for comfort, Lewis told them, they would find “only soft soap and wishful thinking.” But if they looked for something greater and something deeper, they would uncover a faith worth having. For Lewis, surely, “the longest way round [was] the shortest way home.”

Over the next two years, Lewis would captivate the British people, his voice becoming as recognizable and galvanic as Winston Churchill’s. After the war, his broadcasts were adapted into a book, Mere Christianity, which made him a global celebrity. In 1947, Time would put his picture on its cover—the equivalent of American sainthood—while venerating his style and wit: “With erudition, good humor and skill, Lewis is writing about religion for a generation of religion-hungry readers brought up on a diet of ‘scientific’ jargon and Freudian clichés,” wrote the magazine. Years later, the New York Times would echo Time’s encomium, calling Lewis the “ideal persuader for the half-convinced”—“for the good man who would like to be a Christian but finds his intellect getting in the way.”


Writers and scholars have drawn countless comparisons between World II and today, though it is debatable whether we have (or can even hope for) a C.S. Lewis of our own. Yet I believe if we look hard enough, we can find glimpses of him, at times in the most surprising of places. Last year I uncovered such a glimpse in the Irish novelist Sally Rooney—a writer admittedly far different from Lewis, but one whose voice was tailor-made for my millennial ears.

When her debut novel, Conversations with Friends, was published in 2017, critics hailed Rooney as the voice of her generation and the Jane Austen of our time. Recently adapted into a TV series, Conversations tells the story of two best friends, Frances and Bobbi, and a married couple, Melissa and Nick. Drawn to church and the Gospels, Frances (the narrator) has a tentative relationship with her faith. For millennial readers, this tentativeness feels real and relatable, given how most young people—in Rooney’s words—“[view] the whole Christianity thing as a bit uncool, or too sincere.” To Rooney, this perception is resonant and reasonable, but also regrettable, even problematic: “What religion represents in terms of its ethical outlook is something that I think is probably missing,” Rooney told the Irish Times in 2017. “I don’t mean in a supernatural way,” she continued,

but in a philosophical way. Like, how do people console themselves through periods of immense suffering? Capitalism doesn’t really have an answer. The free market isn’t going to help you, so what’s the substitute for what religion once was?

These days, it is easy to feel like we are embroiled in one gigantic mega-war, bombarded by a ceaseless blitz of enemies that are all, at least in part, of our own making. Just when we need them most, we’ve abandoned our communities, leaving our democracy, civil society, and mental health in peril. Perhaps in no area is this abandonment more striking than religion. Over the last twenty years, Americans’ membership in houses of worship has steadily declined, dropping below 50 percent for the first time last year. In Britain, the trends are even starker. According to the British Social Attitudes Survey, only 48 percent of the British public subscribes to any faith, with the percentage of Christians dropping from 66 in 1983 to 38 in 2018. Recent data from the Church of England show that in 2019, average weekly church attendance amounted to six hundred thousand, constituting just 1 percent of the population—a third of whom were over the age of seventy.

But do these numbers represent a circumstantial anomaly stemming from Covid-19, or a new geopolitical era, as inexorable as the Bronze Age or the Industrial Revolution? Published last fall, Chantal Delsol’s La Fin de la Chrétienté makes the case for the latter, reframing the time in which we live as a cultural “repaganization.” While perhaps hard for some to stomach, Delsol’s thesis is difficult to refute. Against a backdrop of institutional distrust, people have become disenchanted with Christianity, associating it not with good works and turning the other cheek but with sex abuse, homophobia, political cover-ups, and right-wing ideologues. Feeling detached from ourselves and one another, we’ve relinquished religion, filling the vacuum left by God with our worship of celebrities, demagogues, self-help gurus, and our own political beliefs.

With political identity supplanting religious identity, our civil society has
deteriorated. In her book Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, Anne Helen Petersen describes a cohort that doesn’t join civic organizations or even really get out much: “We stream Netflix at home instead of going to the movies.… We go on Tinder dates instead of simply showing up at the bar. We group text instead of hanging out with our friend group.”

The picture Petersen paints is a dire one, both for what it currently means and for what it portends. In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville defined civic associations as not only the touchstone of collective problem-solving but also the antidote to individualistic myopia and absorption. “The only way opinions and ideas can be renewed, hearts enlarged, and human minds developed is through the reciprocal influence of men upon each other,” he observed in 1840. But in a society devoid of such community, we’ve become more narrow-minded and solipsistic, often to the detriment of our most vulnerable.

And then there is the question of God himself. In a world marked by melting ice caps, N95 masks, mass shootings, and political insurrections and invasions, it is not hard to presume that God has proverbially left the building (or skipped town altogether). At the start of the Blitz, many Brits felt rather similarly: “[God] was conspicuous by his absence from many people’s lives,” writes Justin Phillips in C.S. Lewis in a Time of War, with even believers feeling that God had abandoned them and that “faith [was] in vain.” Twenty years earlier, as a soldier in World War I, a young and atheistic Lewis had felt duly forsaken. From the front lines of the Somme, he wrote,

Come let us curse our Master ere we die,
For all our hopes in endless ruin lie,
The good is dead. Let us curse God most High.

Of course, Lewis’s atheism would not last forever. Like “the mouse’s search for a cat,” his conversion to Christianity began reluctantly, picking up after he read G.K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man in 1925 and met his good friend J.R.R. Tolkien in 1926.


Many have lamented that we don’t have a Lewis to help us (or a Chesterton or a Tolkien to help him), but in my estimation Sally Rooney comes pretty close. Make no mistake—Rooney is no evangelist, nor is she even religious. To the press, she has expressed disdain for the Irish Catholic Church, condemning its long history of  locking up “undesirable members” of society, including unwed mothers. Yet no other modern writer I’ve encountered has made such a compelling case for faith—particularly in her latest book, Beautiful World, Where Are You. Set in 2019, the novel focuses on two friends, Alice and Eileen, and their email correspondence. Not unlike Lewis’s audience during World War II, the women live in a world marked by cataclysm, where every structure and institution seems to be on the brink of “civilizational collapse.” Adding to the agony they feel at watching continual climate disasters and the refugee crises is the sense that everything in their lives—from the buildings they live in and the food they eat to the mass-produced goods they unavoidably purchase—is “toxic” and “unspeakably ugly.”

With each day bringing “a new and unique informational unit, interrupting and replacing the informational world of the day before,” Alice and Eileen have little time to digest—let alone do anything about—this period of crisis. In a world where religion and community have been replaced by politics and predatory capitalism, they and their friends work hard to optimize themselves into productive robots, though they cannot evade feelings of inadequacy and isolation. “I do feel like a failure, and in a way my life really is nothing, and very few people care what happens in it,” writes Eileen. “I think I have by now forgotten how to conduct social intercourse,” Alice later confesses. “Even writing this email I’m feeling a little loose and dissociative.”

Just as a young C.S. Lewis ached with sehnsucht—a German word he defined as “the inconsolable longing in the heart for we know not what”—Alice and Eileen are hungry for meaning. They long to be more hopeful and less self-centered, though they feel stuck in a “philosophical nowhere place,” where nothing can ground or inspire them. Seeking spiritual fulfillment, they crave the idea of God. But much like Lewis’s audience, they find religion to be embarrassing, atavistic, and absurd. When Eileen attends Mass at the Church of Mary Immaculate, Refuge of Sinners (an “extraordinarily Catholic name,” she writes), she wonders whether she’s stumbled upon a practical joke: “Is it really possible I witnessed such a scene, right in the middle of Dublin, only a few hours ago? Is it possible such things literally go on, in the real world you and I both live in?”

In Mere Christianity, Lewis countervails such befuddlement by making a rational case for faith. Starting a “hundred miles [from] the God of Christian theology,” he begins not with the Bible or Jesus but with the law of nature. For Lewis, this law finds its foundation not in what is convenient, easy, or even human, but in what is “above and beyond the ordinary.” Though not created by us or proved by scientific inquiry, it is a law that is “quite definitely real ” insofar as we can feel it “pressing on us,” influencing our lives in material, if albeit invisible, ways.

From there, Lewis goes on to address his audience’s theological hang-ups on everything from creation and human suffering to free will. On the latter, he writes that what God desires for us is not coerced belonging but rather the “happiness of being freely [and] voluntarily united to Him and to each other.” “A world of automata,” indeed, “would hardly be worth creating.” Later on, Lewis affirms the divinity of Jesus, writing that God could only suffer and die if he was man, and man could only suffer and die perfectly if he was God. Yet in doing so, Lewis also questions the categorical “rightness” of Christianity. “If you are a Christian,” he tells us,

you do not have to believe that all the other religions are simply wrong all through…. As in arithmetic—there is only one right answer to a sum, and all other answers are wrong; but some of the wrong answers are much nearer being right than others.

During Lewis’s wartime broadcast, there was an “almost unanimous consensus,” even among nonbelievers, that Jesus was special. Though they don’t identify as Christian, Alice and Eileen also subscribe to this consensus. While dismissing Christian doctrine as “manifestly incorrect,” Eileen cannot help but wonder whether there was “something special about Jesus”—“that to worship him as God, while not quite reasonable, is somehow permissible.” Later, while sitting in an empty church, Alice is moved to tears as she thinks about not only the “personality” of Jesus but also the closeness she feels to him. For Alice, it is a closeness that feels fathomable, yet also strange and mystic. “He seems to me to embody a kind of moral beauty,” she writes to Eileen,

and my admiration for that beauty even makes me want to say that I “love” him, though I’m well aware how ridiculous that sounds. But, Eileen, I do love him, and I can’t even pretend that it’s only the same love I feel for Prince Myshkin, or for Charles Swann, or for Isabel Archer. It is actually something different, a different feeling.

While Eileen and Alice never reference Lewis by name, their emails—particularly Alice’s—are packed with references to his work. As if in dialogue with Lewis, Alice embraces the existence of a preestablished and objective moral code that lies “underneath everything,” stipulating the difference between right and wrong. “When one person kills or harms another person, then there is ‘something’—isn’t there? Not simply atoms flying around in various configurations through empty space,” she writes to Eileen.

Like Lewis, Alice also rationalizes God’s decision to make us into “complex human beings with desires and impulses” by reframing people as fictional characters, whom a reader can sympathetically engage with (and even love) but never control. In an email to Eileen, she lays out her theory, echoing Lewis’s concept of free and voluntary love:

Compassionate attachment to purely fictional people—from whom we obviously can’t expect to derive any material satisfaction or advantage—is a way of understanding the deep complexities of the human condition, and thus the complexities of God’s love for us.

Like Lewis, Alice also does not presuppose the “rightness” of Christianity but rather its proximity to (or anticipation of) rightness. As Lewis wrote in The Problem of Pain, the doctrine of the resurrection “is not peculiar to Christianity” but instead reflective of “an ‘eternal gospel’ revealed to men wherever men have sought, or endured, the truth.” As such, Christians are free, first, to believe that all religions, “even the queerest ones,” “contain at least some hint of the truth”; and second, to treat Christian stories as ways to metaphorize the otherwise incomprehensible. Lewis does not equate the story of Creation with “the literal eating of a fruit,” just as Alice does not believe that faith in God necessarily means “heaven and angels and the resurrection of Christ.” But, as she suggests to Eileen, “maybe those things can help in some way to put us in touch with what it does mean.”

When Lewis tells us that “the longest way round is the shortest way home,” he unearths the fundamental paradox of faith: That to love God—and to live by that love—is simultaneously the easiest and the hardest thing one will ever do. In Beautiful World, Alice recognizes this paradox as she describes the story of a woman who receives God’s forgiveness by pouring oil on Jesus’s feet. Writing to Eileen, she asks, “Could it be that easy? We just have to weep and prostrate ourselves and God forgives everything?”

But like Lewis, Alice also understands that what is asked of the unknown woman (and indeed of her) is not as simple as it sounds. “Maybe it’s not easy at all,” she tells Eileen. “Maybe to weep and prostrate ourselves with genuine sincerity is the hardest thing we could ever learn how to do.”

Of course, whereas Lewis lands affirmatively on the question of God’s existence, Rooney’s Beautiful World ends with a question mark. In Mere Christianity, Lewis writes that “a man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher”—he had to be either God or a silly and conceited lunatic. Yet as Lewis tells us, even Jesus’s enemies do not “get the impression of silliness and conceit,” nor can they necessarily dismiss him as undivine—his voice is just too singular, and his connection to God is just too seamless. Likewise, Alice finds she cannot “separate the Jesus who appears after the resurrection from the man who appears before.” “They seem to me to be all of one being,” she writes midway through the book, “but that’s as close as I get to thinking about his divinity.”

At the height of the Blitz, Lewis told the British people that they were deserving of love—not because of what they did or where they were from, but because of who they were, as children of God. Rooney is certainly different from Lewis, though her book makes room for a way of thinking about the world a little more communally and little less cynically. At the end of Beautiful World, Alice is unable to call herself a Catholic or even a Christian; yet she feels that she can accept a “deep principle of goodness and love,” which undergirds everyone and everything. For Alice, this goodness is one that endures “regardless of reward, regardless of our own desires, regardless of whether anyone is watching or anyone will know.”

It is a goodness that accepts, nourishes, and values us, no matter how good, productive, or optimal we are. And it is a goodness that inspires us to know and “live by” the difference between right and wrong—to transform our broken world into the beautiful one we know it can be.



Cornelia Powers’s work has been featured in Time, Harper’s Bazaar, and New York Magazine. She is working on a biography of her great-great-grandmother, Bessie Anthony.




Image depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.

+ Click here to make a donation.

+ Click here to subscribe to Image.

The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Receive ImageUpdate, our free weekly newsletter featuring the best from Image and the world of arts & faith

* indicates required