Tinker, tailor, theologian, spy—even the gifted John Le Carré couldn’t have written this!
A high-ranking spy, a theologian, a man of remarkable wit and talent, the backdrop of World War II, an advancing Nazi regime, and what appeared to be a pedantic and prosaic broadcast entitled The Norse Spirit in English Literature that aided a covert, peaceful takeover of an Icelandic nation? Welcome to the world of C.S. Lewis—theologian extraordinaire!
Hal L. Poe, Charles Colson Professor of Faith and Culture at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee, has expanded our knowledge of one of the most erudite minds in Christendom and world literature. “As I browsed eBay not long ago, I came across a 78 rpm recording of a lecture by C. S. Lewis. I assumed that it was a mistake or that the seller was trying to defraud an unwitting public. I knew Lewis well enough to know that he had never made a 78 rpm recording for general distribution, much less one produced by something called the Joint Broadcasting Committee.” Poe’s captivating headline, “C.S. Lewis Was a Secret Government Agent,” is an immediate attention grabber. His discovery shines bright lights and reveals this shadowy side of Lewis’ life as a spy.
And not a milk-toast, generic spy, either—we’re talking MI6.
Good vs. Evil
When a man is getting better he understands more and more clearly the evil that is still left in him. When a man is getting worse he understands his own badness less and less. A moderately bad man knows he is not very good: a thoroughly bad man thinks he is all right. This is common sense, really. You understand sleep when you are awake, not while you are sleeping. You can see mistakes in arithmetic when your mind is working properly: while you are making them you cannot see them. You can understand the nature of drunkenness when you are sober, not when you are drunk. Good people know about both good and evil: bad people do not know about either.
-C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
It is no secret that Cambridge and Oxford were a hotbed of intrigue and espionage during World War II. Known for passing on information to the Soviets during the war (and beyond), the Cambridge Spy Ring were Kim Philby (cryptonym: Stanley), Donald Duart Maclean (cryptonym: Homer), Guy Burgess (cryptonym: Hicks) and Anthony Blunt (cryptonym: Johnson), with the possibility of John Cairncross.
In The Australian we read: “Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and Kim Philby still haunt the corridors of Britain’s intelligence agencies. Long dead, their names provoke an involuntary shudder in spies with a sense of history. The trio penetrated the upper echelons of the Foreign Office and MI6, spied for the KGB undetected for years, and then fled to Moscow. Philby, in particular, caused immense damage to Western intelligence, and sent brave people to their deaths.”
The BBC article “The Cambridge Five Spy Ring Members ‘Hopeless Drunks'” states the “members of the ‘Cambridge Five’ spy ring were seen by their Soviet handlers as hopeless drunks incapable of keeping secrets, newly-released files suggest… Major Vasili Mitrokhin smuggled the information out of Soviet archives during 12 years working for the KGB. He defected to Britain in 1992.”
On the other hand, the Oxford Inklings appear to be the perfect counter-espionage group to the Cambridge Ring—the rivalry between the two institutions continuing?
Who were The Inklings? A group of British men, mostly Christian and teachers at Oxford University, who met (1930s-1940s) in C.S. Lewis’ and J.R.R. Tolkien’s rooms at Oxford, and spent their time listening to readings and criticisms of their writings. Lewis was a prominent member of The Inklings. Others in this esteemed group were Tolkien and Charles Williams.
Besides being members of this group, both Lewis and Tolkien were veterans of The Great War. One can assume the atrocities of that war impacted their lives and shaped their minds. It would not have taken much to evoke in them a response to defend their country. Tolkien (trained as a spy) may have been approached first, but declined. Still, Tolkien continued his vociferous denunciation of Adolf Hitler, Nazism, and their anti-Semitic ideology. A simple reading group of friends? Or a perfect cover to exchange sensitive, classified information?
So Lewis was recruited. He wasn’t your Foreign Correspondent of Hitchcockian fame. He continued his readings and teaching. But one can’t help but ask, was there more to The Inklings than we will ever learn? Did they somehow connect with Dietrich Bonhoeffer? Were Bonhoeffer’s writings influencing the group and vice versa? We know that George Bell, Anglican theologian, Dean of Canterbury, and then Bishop of Chichester, was a close friend of Bonhoeffer and an ally of the Confessing Church. He was even aware of the plot to assassinate Hitler. Familiar with Oxford, did he know The Inklings and pass on this information to them? It is true that we don’t know enough, and we will continue to speculate and to write more stories of intrigue and espionage.
But what does this new knowledge of Lewis mean for us?
For those of us staunch spy and Lewis lovers, we can look at our hero with new eyes and be proud of our theologian spy—he’s one of the good guys! It’s encouraging to find that a stellar Christian hasn’t turned out to be scum. We are inspired that a man who has influenced our minds and behavior is, once again, compelling us to be more than who we are.
Lewis points us to serve a God of superior intellect whose ability to write the most intricate, exciting, and involved screenplays (also known as our lives) surpasses anything we can do. These plots span years, cross generations, oceans, and cultures. We see the weft and the warp threads interlacing into woven bits of our life’s tapestry that we recognize, while others we wait to view. To our God, we once again look in wonder and awe as he reveals himself to be the mastermind behind life’s best plans—in whose presence we once again can dream our highest dreams.
Photo © Walter Wanger Productions