If you lived in England in August of 1941, you would have had a front-row seat to a historic broadcast on the BBC. Beginning at 7:45 p.m. on August 6th, C.S. Lewis stepped up to the microphone for fifteen minutes and gave his first talk on the radio. “Right and Wrong: A Clue to the Meaning of the Universe” was the name of the series that had only four episodes planned. However, Lewis returned for a fifth program because of listeners responding with questions that he felt needed answering.
If you know your Lewis history then you know it didn’t stop there. He delivered three more groups of talks before the end of World War II. The first two sets of broadcasts were released under the “creative” title of Broadcast Talks in the U.K. in 1942. In the U.S. they were published as The Case for Christianity in 1943. Eventually they became available as part of a collection of all four series of radio addresses in the now classic Mere Christianity.
This never would have happened if it weren’t for James Welch, the Director of Religious Broadcasting at the BBC. He had read Lewis’s The Problem of Pain and wrote to him expressing how much he enjoyed the book. In the letter he also asked Lewis if he would be willing to come speak on the radio. While Lewis was no fan of the radio, the fact that he could potentially reach a million people with it provided the necessary motivation for him.
An interesting footnote here is the fact that Welch had never heard Lewis speak! I’ve worked professionally in radio and it’s unheard of to ask someone to talk on the radio if you don’t know how he or she will sound! Of course, we all know that the risk was worth taking because Lewis had a great voice. Sadly only one of three recordings (from his final series) survived. There are a few places online where you can hear this, but I created a special post on my C.S. Lewis Minute blog that also provides additional information about that broadcast.
This first talk from 1941 is now known as “The Law of Human Nature,” but when Lewis prepared it for the radio it was called “Common Decency.” This shorter title comes from the script Lewis carefully planned in advance of his debut broadcast. However, when it was first released in Broadcast Talks it didn’t have either title, but was simply the first piece of the first part of that book. The second half of the book contained five talks from “What Christians Believe,” the follow-up group of broadcasts Lewis did in early 1942.
Some may ask why Lewis began his debut broadcast the way he did, focusing on natural law. Lewis thought the audience of his day was so lacking in their knowledge of the Bible that they didn’t believe in the assumptions the Bible made about morality. Therefore, Lewis decided he must make sure there was an understanding that right and wrong existed universally. Once this truth was established he could deal with the issue of not living up to that standard and from where such a standard originated.
As you reflect on this anniversary consider how much society has changed since the early 1940’s. Sadly Christians today are too busy giving people the answer that Jesus saves when they don’t bother to make sure their audience even thinks they need saving from anything. Lewis didn’t make this mistake when given an opportunity to speak about his faith. May we be challenged by his example.
Read more from William O’Flaherty at essentialcslewis.com.