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Spend an Evening with C. S. Lewis on November 3

John G. West
Photo: Max McLean as C. S. Lewis, via The Most Reluctant Convert.

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If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to spend an evening with famed writer C. S. Lewis, now’s your chance. On November 3, theaters around the United States and Canada will premiere a film titled The Most Reluctant Convert: The Untold Story of C.S. Lewis, and it may be the next best thing to meeting the real Lewis, who died in 1963.

Adapted from a one-man stage show by New York actor Max McLean, The Most Reluctant Convert portrays Lewis’s intellectual journey from scientific materialism to idealism to theism to Christianity. It’s a cerebral and “talky” film, but that doesn’t mean it’s slow or boring. Clocking in at just 73 minutes, the film moves briskly and includes plenty of emotion and humor. 

For Lewis admirers who don’t know much about his personal story, the film should be fascinating. But even for those who know a lot about Lewis, it will be a treat. I’ve written books about Lewis and know a lot about his life and ideas, but it was a pleasure for me to see them presented so well.

C. S. Lewis — Young and Old

The origins of the film as a one-man play are apparent, but they don’t detract. Max McLean, as the older Lewis, speaks directly to the audience and guides them through his own life, even as other actors portray key episodes. This means McLean is sometimes on the screen at the same time as other actors who are portraying him as a child or young man. Nicholas Ralph (star of the reboot of the series All Creatures Great and Small in England) portrays the young adult Lewis. 

With less accomplished actors, this format might not have worked. But McLean is pitch-perfect as the older Lewis, and Ralph is outstanding as an earnest young Professor Lewis. When either McLean or Ralph is on screen, the movie comes alive.   

The Most Reluctant Convert was directed by veteran British director Norman Stone, perhaps best known for the original BBC version of Shadowlands, which told the wrenching story of Lewis’s marriage to Joy Davidman late in life. The British Shadowlands was more accurate than the Hollywood version, but still flawed because of the underlying source material supplied by writer William Nicholson. (I don’t fault Stone for that.) Stone’s new film, however, is exceptionally accurate, drawing heavily on Lewis’s actual writings.

The Most Reluctant Convert was filmed on location last fall in and around Oxford, just after England had re-opened for film production. I’m sure that, for an independent production, funding must have been limited, but the film doesn’t show it. The cinematography is first rate, and the settings are beautiful. The lush score was composed by Craig Armstrong, whose previous films include Moulin Rouge!, The Great Gatsby, and World Trade Center

Nature as a “Sinking Ship”

A key theme in The Most Reluctant Convert is Lewis’s relationship with science. 

The movie opens with Lewis as an outspoken scientific atheist, whose view of science reinforces his bleak materialistic view of the universe. Lewis gives a short rendition of what he sometimes called the “argument from undesign,” explaining how evil and pain made him think the universe at base was blind matter or overseen by a God who was either impotent or cruel. Strolling through a natural history museum, Lewis declares that according to science, “Nature is a sinking ship.” The screen then cuts to a statue of Charles Darwin impassively staring over the museum.

Of course, Lewis eventually rejected scientific materialism. One key to his reversal was his struggle to understand the origins of human reason. In the film, the struggle is represented by an intense conversation with his friend Owen Barfield. 

Lewis insists to Barfield that “the findings of science have concluded that human reason” resulted “from natural selection with random mutations… to confer upon humans a reproductive advantage.” But Barfield won’t have any of it. “If my clearest reasoning tells me that my mind is nothing more than the accidental result of atoms colliding in skulls, there must be some mistake,” he retorts. “How shall I trust my mind, when it tells me that my most profound thoughts are merely mental patterns resulting from heredity and physics?” Lewis stares back like a deer blinded in headlights.

Why Lewis Rejected Scientific Materialism

Looking back in time, the older Lewis concludes: “Rock bottom reality had to be… intelligent.” 

Another key to Lewis’s rejection of materialism was when he began to wonder where his sense of right and wrong came from. He condemned the universe as cruel and unjust, but where did he get his notion of cruel and unjust? “What was I comparing the universe with when I called it cruel and unjust?,” Lewis says in the film. “If the whole universe has no meaning, I should never have known it has no meaning.” Thus, there must be some ultimate source of morality, transcending the physical universe.

If you have the chance, I’d certainly encourage you to see The Most Reluctant Convert on November 3. Bring some friends and then linger over coffee afterwards. The film will be a great discussion starter. 

If you are interested in digging deeper into Lewis’s views on science and scientism, meanwhile, visit Discovery Institute’s C. S. Lewis YouTube channel or its C. S. Lewis website, where you’ll find lots of videos and articles to help you on your way.