It seems that for every cause, concern, and cataclysmic event we face, words from C.S. Lewis help us find our bearings. Dick Parsons, the co-chief operating officer of AOL Time Warner, turned to the Christian scholar for wisdom this week. Monday, Parsons sent a message to all AOL employees, quoting liberally from Lewis's WWII speech "Learning in War-Time." Though I wasn't able to secure a copy of the excerpt Parsons chose, I'll thank him for calling attention to the still-timely address.

To put this speech in context, it's important to note that Lewis's experience with wars began long before the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. He had served and suffered injury in WWI, and though he was 40 when war broke out again, he was still eligible for being recalled to active duty. He dreaded the thought, writing in a letter to a friend:

"My memories of the last war haunted my dreams for years. Military service, to be plain, includes the threat of every temporal evil; pain and death, which is what we fear from sickness; isolation from those we love, which is what we fear from exile; toil under arbitrary masters. … which is what we fear from slavery: hunger, thirst, and exposure which is what we fear from poverty. I'm not a pacifist. If it's got to be it's got to be. But the flesh is weak and selfish, and I think death would be much better than to live through another war.""

Instead of serving at the front in WWII, Lewis served the Home Guard by patrolling Oxford, rifle on his shoulder, in the wee hours of the morning. But Lewis made a far greater contribution to the war effort with words. He was invited to speak to groups of soldiers, to students, and to his entire country via a series of BBC broadcasts. One of his best-known books, Mere Christianity, came out of those radio addresses. The Screwtape Letters, a fictional dialogue between demons published in 1942, in some ways confronts the war more directly, especially in this passage:

"Consider whether we should make the patient an extreme patriot or an extreme pacifist. All extremes. … are to be encouraged. Not always, of course, but at this period. Some ages are lukewarm and complacent, and then it is our business to soothe them fast asleep. Other ages such as the present one are unbalanced and prone to faction, and it is our business to inflame them."

Lewis delivered his "Learning in War-Time" speech to a group of students who were no doubt wondering, "Why should I keep up my studies while the world crashes down around me?" The elegance of Lewis's answer cannot be captured here, but his points include an emphasis on learning to combat intellectual attacks, the necessity of completing all activities to the glory of God, the permanent problem of harmful distractions, and a reminder—of particular importance today—that war actually does little to change the human condition. Even amid explosions and threats, eternal salvation matters more than temporal security, and the human mortality rate remains at 100 percent:

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"The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would have never begun.

"We are mistaken when we compare war to 'normal life.' Life has never been normal. Even those periods we think most tranquil, like the nineteenth century, turn out on closer inspection, to be full of crises, alarms, difficulties, emergencies.

"Plausible reasons have never been lacking for putting off all merely cultural activities until some imminent danger has been averted or some crying injustice put right. But humanity long ago chose to neglect those plausible reasons. … They propound theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on scaffolds, discuss poetry while advancing on the walls of Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopylae. This is not panache; it is our nature."

As I said, I don't know which of Lewis's words the AOL employees received, but these would have been helpful. So would these: "If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul. … we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon."

Elesha Coffman is managing editor of Christian History magazine, a Christianity Today sister publication.

Related Elsewhere:

More Christian history, including a list of events that occurred this week in the church's past, is available at Subscriptions to the quarterly print magazine are also available.

See David C. Downing's essay "Neither Patriot nor Pacifist, but 'Patient': Lewis on War and Peace."

"Learning in War-Time" appears in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (Eerdmans, 1965). Read a student overview of the book's contents.

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Christianity Today sister publication Books & Culture published in 1998 a headier article on Lewis's relevance in postmodernism: "C. S. Lewis Among the Postmodernists | How to be a perspectivalist without losing your foundations."

Christian History has covered C.S. Lewis in issue 7 and issue 65, where Lewis was profiled as one of "The 10 Most Influential Christians of the Twentieth Century."

If it's Lewis you're interested in, Into the Wardrobe should fill your every desire.

The Discovery Institute's C.S. Lewis and Public Life site is another wonderful resource of papers about and by Lewis.

Beliefnet also has a series of Lewis-centric articles, including a C.S. Lewis essay contest.

Still hungry for more? You'll probably never have the time to read everything linked at the C.S. Lewis Mega-Links page.

Previous Christianity Today articles on Lewis and his writings include:

Myth Matters | C. S. Lewis bequeathed us a method and a language for sharing the gospel with the modern and postmodern world. (April 17, 2001)
Spring in Purgatory: Dante, Botticelli, C. S. Lewis, and a Lost Masterpiece | For slightly over five hundred years, the most famous and popular illustration of Dante's Divine Comedy has remained effectively "lost." (Feb. 7, 2000)
Walking Where Lewis Walked | My reluctant entry into the world of pilgrimage. (Feb. 7, 2000)
C.S. Lewis on Christmas | Lewis summed up Christmas in one sentence: "The Son of God became a man to enable men to become the sons of God." (December 20, 1999)
Reflections | Clive Staples Lewis in his lifetime gave us many writings that explicate the Christian faith and walk. (Nov. 16, 1998)
Still Surprised by Lewis | Why this nonevangelical Oxford don has become our patron saint. (Sept. 7, 1998)
Jack Is Back | The search for the historical Lewis. (Feb. 3, 1997)

Christian History Corner appears every Friday at Previous editions include:

Apocalypse Not | As speculations mount regarding the significance of recent events in God's plan for the end of the world, voices from the past urge restraint. (Oct. 12, 2001)
'He Does Not War' | In the Anabaptist tradition, a Christian must never fight back. (Sept. 28, 2001)
A Time For War? | Augustine's "just war" theory continues to guide the West. (Sept. 21, 2001)
The House That Jack Built | C.S. Lewis and six of his literary friends open their doors to students and researchers at Wheaton College's impressive new Wade Center facility. (Sept. 14, 2001)
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Raiders of the Lost R | Documentary on School skips religious history, giving a skewed account of American education. (Sept. 7, 2001)
Explaining the Ineffable | In Heaven Below, a former Pentecostal argues that his ancestors were neither as outlandish as they seemed nor as otherworldly as they wish to seem. (Aug. 31, 2001)
Eyewitness to a Massacre | The bloodbath that started on August 24, 1572, left thousands of corpses and dozens of disturbing questions. (Aug. 24, 2001)
Live Long and Prosper | Though a recent survey raises questions, the health benefits of faith have been documented for centuries. (Aug. 17, 2001)
Divided by Communion | What a church does in remembrance of Christ says a lot about its history and identity. (Aug. 10, 2001)
Thrills, Chills, Architecture? | The most exciting adventure at St. Paul's Cathedral would be a time-traveling jaunt through its history. (August 3, 2001)
Deep and Wide| A dive into Reformation imagery yields striking new insights, while a drive-by church history overview largely disappoints. (July 27, 2001)
Shelling the Salvation Army | If William Booth's church could handle sticks and stones in the 1880s, it should withstand the recent barrage of hateful words. (July 20, 2001)
Historical Hogwash | Two books—one new, one newly reissued—debunk false claims about the "real" Jesus. (July 13, 2001)
Ghosts of the Temple | Soon after Jerusalem fell, the Roman Colosseum went up. Coincidence? (July 6, 2001)