“The Most Reluctant Convert” traces C.S. Lewis’s journey from atheism to Christianity

By Bliss Bowen

Actor Max McLean says “Chronicles of Narnia” author C.S. Lewis’ great strength was his imagination
Photo by Jeremy Daniels

“A young man who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere … God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.”
—C.S. Lewis, “Surprised By Joy: The Shape of My Early Life”

C.S. Lewis (1898-1963), author of the legendary children’s book series “The Chronicles of Narnia,” was one of the most widely renowned intellectuals and lay theologians of the 20th century. Yet the esteemed Oxford don who imbued his stories with Christian precepts was a staunch atheist by his teens. His wholly unexpected conversion to Christianity, and his fierce resistance to it, turns the plot of Max McLean’s “C.S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert,” running at The Broad Stage through Sunday (July 21).

Since it is Belfast-born Clive Staples Lewis being dramatized center stage, the one-man play, based largely on Lewis’ 1955 autobiography “Surprised By Joy,” is neither anti-intellectual nor preachy. Rather, it tracks Lewis’ shifting worldview with wit and care, starting from his mother’s death of cancer when he was 9. Vicious trench warfare witnessed while serving in the British army during WWI fortified his opposition to religion, especially after he was wounded in the Battle of Arras and discharged. Onstage, McLean delivers Lewis’ grim wisecrack that, despite being frightened “all the time” in France, he “never sank so low as to pray.”

As McLean explains during an interview, Lewis concluded “that either there’s no god behind the universe, a god who’s indifferent to good and evil, or worse, an evil god.”

Yet Lewis’ formidable intellect compelled him to methodically question his rational objections to what he’d long considered a manmade salve to fear.

“He thought things through with such depth, and nothing got past him,” McLean says, noting that Lewis began to reject atheism when he recognized that “if materialism was true, our minds are nothing more than atoms colliding with cells.” To have everything be strictly the result of physics — as if “an explosion of a printing press would create the British museum” — was “unbelievable.”

“TMRC” tracks the evolution of Lewis’ thinking, including his idea that “paganism is the childhood religion” and an early opinion that the only religions “worth considering” were Christianity and Hinduism. McLean says he adapted 98% of the text from “Surprised By Joy” and personal letters from the time of Lewis’ mother’s death in 1908 through Christmas 1931, when he took communion in the Anglican church for the first time in 17 years, at age 32. The play is set after he became celebrated for spiritual books such as 1940’s “The Problem of Pain” and 1942’s “The Screwtape Letters,” and just before he published “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” the first book in the “Narnia” chronicles.

Interestingly, Lewis’ writings have grown in stature and popularity — thanks partly to his ability to sound like an erudite Everyman, albeit one blessed with extraordinary imagination. He was a literary academic, not a seminary-credentialed theologian like Thomas Merton (whom he admired) or Paul Tillich, yet he still connects with readers by approaching from a different direction.

“He engages the imagination,” McLean says. “That’s Lewis’ strength and the play’s strength. Lewis said the imagination is the organ of meaning and reason is the organ of truth. How I interpret that is, the imagination is the raw material of what we think about if we’re ever going to apply our rationality to any particular idea.

“He’s kind of become my guru. Because of his extraordinary wisdom and brilliance, and being perhaps one of the best-read literary minds of the 20th century, he’s become my spiritual guide that allows me to see the Christian faith in a far more imaginative, multilayered, provocative, convicting way.”

McLean, who says he has been touring with “The Most Reluctant Convert” since a 15-week run in New York in 2017, previously toured in two other productions based on Lewis classics, “The Screwtape Letters” and “The Great Divorce.” It’s an interesting period in American life to take such shows on the road. Religion does not influence the public square as it once did, and people often hear about Christianity in political contexts that misrepresent and contradict its core tenets.

“Religion is cultural … religious views do inform your other views,” McLean says, acknowledging the conflict. “But what tends to happen is, within your religious views are certain virtues that get lost in the heat of politics, so there’s no civility. There’s just rage.”

He likens the structure of “TMRC” to the late Hal Holbrook’s “Mark Twain Tonight!,” in that it presents “a mature man looking back on his youth.”

“It’s theater, so it has to entertain; if it doesn’t entertain, it doesn’t matter what else it does. But it’s very funny, very provocative, and the conviction, the insight really seeps through. I love what Harold Clurman said about theatre: ‘Make them laugh, and while their mouths are open pour truth in.’”

Performances continue at 7 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday (July 17 to 21) at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica, and are followed by a Q&A session. Tickets are $35 to $69 at (888) 294-1733 and thebroadstage.com.