Local News: On Friday, January 27, Jackson’s First Presbyterian Church will host it’s annual Mid-South Men’s Rally. The speaker for the evening will be Elbert McGowan. For more information, e-mail administrative assistant Marie Phillips at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Though a gifted writer who successfully published novels, poetry, and theology, Helen Joy Davidman is best remembered today for being the beloved wife of C.S. Lewis. The Richard Attenborough film, Shadowlands, which stars Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger, tells their tragic love story (the couple’s union was a deathbed marriage, as at the time of the church wedding, Joy had bone cancer and wasn’t expected to live; miraculously, they had three years together before she finally succumbed to cancer at age 45). According to son Douglas Gresham, Winger’s performance captures his mother’s demeanor and personality remarkably well. Winger shows Joy to be a brash New Yorker, the intellectual equal, yet in many ways extreme opposite, of Lewis.
Judging from her correspondence with friends and colleagues, if anything, the 1993 film radically understates Joy’s bluntness and abrasiveness. Oddly, even when at her most aggressive and assertive, Joy possessed a certain disarming wit and self-effacing humor which comes through in her letters, which have recently been published as Out of My Bone: The Letters of Joy Davidman (Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co., 2009).
Born in 1915, it was obvious early on that Joy was intellectually a child prodigy. She finished high school at 14 and had a master’s degree by age 19. Though ethnically Jewish, she was brought up to be an atheist. In the late 1930s, she joined the Communist Party and devoted all of her efforts for the next decade to the cause of Marxism. She married Bill Gresham, also a novelist, and by the mid 40s, they had two sons.
Intriguing is Joy’s discussion of what it’s like to be an American Jew. She says it’s difficult for Gentiles to comprehend the understandable fear Jews have of Christianity, but she also complains against what she calls the “red herring” of anti-Semitism, by which she means that Jews sometimes allege prejudice to ward off warranted criticism. Her identity as an ethnic minority gives her poignant insight into the plight of southern blacks. As integration starts happening in the 50s, and is met with violence, Joy says that Negroes are the only ones in the south who still have any dignity or wisdom.
In the late 1940s, thanks largely to the influence of C.S. Lewis’ books, Joy converted to Christianity, leaving atheism and Communism behind for good (just a few years before the hysteria of McCarthyism set in). Around the same time, Bill also converted to Christianity, even becoming an elder in the Presbyterian Church, but unlike Joy, his conversion proved temporary. The letters outlining the development of Joy’s philosophy and religious beliefs are definitely some of the book’s most interesting.
A large percentage of the letters are written to Bill, both before and after their messy 1954 divorce. One is amazed at how gracious she is to her violent and unfaithful ex-husband, as well as to his new wife (who also happened to be her cousin). One can’t help but admire Joy’s courage in the face of the poverty she lived in when she and her sons relocated to England after her divorce. Bill frequently failed to financially support the family as he was legally obligated to, often leaving Joy literally with no money for food.
C.S. Lewis fans will especially appreciate the little anecdotes about her interactions with him. She teased Lewis for so enjoying being in a minority—she jokingly said if Christianity did really triumph everywhere, he’d feel compelled to invent some new heresy. She called Lewis the only man who could successfully get away with kidding her father. She also discusses her involvement, unknown to many fans, in advising Lewis on his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, as well as his 1957 novel, Till We Have Faces.
Some will probably be disappointed that the book contains almost no letters from Joy to Lewis. Because he received so many letters daily, Lewis made a habit of burning them once responded to, so none of hers to him from the early days have survived.
2. Joy’s Theology
As her testimony, “The Longest Way Around”, explains, when Joy converted in 1948 she and her entire family were baptized at Pleasant Plains Presbyterian Church in New York. Her best-known book, Smoke on the Mountain, was published by Westminster Press, the publishing company of the PCUSA. Though the book doesn’t explain why, in 1953 Joy joined the Episcopal Church. Seeing as how she did so shortly after her first visit to England, one can imagine her growing love of all things English—she called herself “a complete Anglomaniac”—had something to do with it.
She had a strong distaste for what she saw as the humorlessness and rigidity of Puritanism, and this also likely influenced her eventual departure from Presbyterianism, steeped as it is in Calvinism. Presbyterianism’s principal statement of faith, the Westminster Confession, was written by 17th century Puritans. Though there is much negative that can be said about the Puritans, one almost gets the impression Joy believed nothing good could be said of them. They possessed spiritual pride, yes, but it didn’t define them—one need only read Arthur Bennett’s Valley of Vision, a collection of Puritan prayers, to see how keenly aware the great Puritan devotional writers were of their own sin and utter need for Christ’s transforming power.
Joy’s theology is distinctly Protestant:
“I could not doubt the divinity of Jesus, and, step by step, orthodox Christian theology logically followed from it…. I accepted the sacraments as meaningful, but not magical; I recognized the duty of going to church, while I rejected the claim of any church to infallibility and an absolute monopoly on divine authority. So what I was, it appeared, was a Protestant Christian, of the orthodox Trinitarian kind.”
Her theology is also decidedly non-evangelical—for example, she says, “I don’t believe for a moment that the Old Testament is anything but an excellent compendium of a nation’s literature, with amazing flashes of prophecy and insight and divine inspiration shooting through it now and then like lightning!” Hardly an affirmation of St. Paul’s, “All Scripture is God-breathed.”
While not disbelieving in the Virgin Birth (which, if one judges by the ecumenical creeds, is an essential tenet of the faith once for all delivered to the saints), she calls it a doctrine she can take or leave. One can hope Joy became more orthodox on this point as time passed; her last recorded comments on the subject are from a 1951 letter to Chad Walsh.
A firm believer in the Deity of Jesus Christ, as well as the Incarnation, Atonement, and Resurrection of Christ, Joy was throughout her Christian life what C.S. Lewis would call a “thoroughgoing supernaturalist.” Her objections to the Virgin Birth weren’t based on modernist skepticism; instead, she said that while the eyewitness accounts in the gospels have the ring of fact, from a literary standpoint, the Virgin Birth, not being an eyewitness account, doesn’t. She calls it a doctrine not unbelievable, but irrelevant.
However, to pick apart which parts of the gospels are and aren’t history—when clearly they are all presented to the reader as strict history—leaves a believer with no solid footing. If Matthew and Luke made up the Virgin Birth, can they be trusted when they describe the events of Christ’s adult ministry? How’s anyone to know for sure which Bible passages can be taken at face value? Though it didn’t in Joy’s case, this sort of neo-orthodoxy regarding Biblical authority can’t help but undermine the gospel when carried to its logical conclusion.
If pietistic Christianity is one’s frame of reference, Joy’s behavior is at times as bewildering as her theology. Well after her conversion, and even after being made a deaconess in the Presbyterian Church, her letters are still sprinkled with mild profanity, and frequent abuses of God’s name. Some of this may be excused on the grounds that she was raised a brash New Yorker and didn’t cease to be one after becoming a Christ-follower, but nevertheless her language does give one a jolt at times.
Readers catch a glimpse of Joy’s perception of Muslims when her oldest son David, at age 10, expressed that he wanted to submit to Islam (or as she put it in a very old-fashioned sort of way, “to become a Mohammedan,”). Her response was somewhat disconcerting: “I bought him a copy of the Koran and shall leave matters to time and the effect of that very dull book,” she told Chad Walsh. She told Bill, “I might go so far as seeing that he memorized suitable passages from the Koran… and said prayers regularly in the direction of Mecca. That sort of cat is best killed by choking it with cream.”
One can see the humor in Joy’s approach—she apparently knew her son well enough to know that his interest was only a passing phase, so there was no need to quarrel. However, she never entertained the possibility that reading the Koran might’ve actually strengthened David’s desire. Being the second largest religion in the world, Islam is, after all, nothing to take lightly, and there are plenty of people who are drawn in through reading Mohammed’s book. Incidentally, David grew up to embrace neither Islam nor Christianity, but rather Judaism, as his own religion.
On the whole, Joy was more guarded than Jack (Lewis’ nickname) about organized religion in general. In 1956, she said, “The trouble is that while I like Christianity well enough, I hate Churchianity; as far as I can see, every organized church in the world ends by either missing the point and tangling itself in trivialities, or by contradicting the whole point altogether. And certain of my past experiences have left me suspicious of all organization.”