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Max McLean in Fellowship for Performing Arts' C.S. LEWIS ONSTAGE THE MOST RELUCTANT CONVERT, photo by Jeremy Daniel 7

The Most Reluctant Convert: C. S. Lewis Onstage, Part III

By David Baggett 

Part I 

Part II

We had been told to wait in the lobby of the second floor for Max McLean to arrive, which he did about fifteen minutes later. After one performance and before another, with a Q&A sandwiched in between, I marveled in advance at his generosity of time. We didn’t want to waste his energies, so we dove right in after quick introductions. He’d freshly turned 64 a week before, as it happens, which happened to be the age Lewis was when he died, but McLean exudes vitality and shows every appearance of being able to keep going like this for quite a while.

To prepare to interview him, we’d read all the interviews he’d done we could get our hands on, and in so doing we discovered that, from a young age, he’d suffered from a fear of public speaking, a severe form of social anxiety, sociophobia. As a certified introvert I wanted to ask about this because, seeing him on the stage performing, nobody would ever imagine this. He had actually turned to theatre originally in college to overcome his fears; we wanted to know if the fears were gone or if he’d simply learned to manage them.

“I think that if I’m not prepared the anxiety will come back. The fear makes you really prepare. I find that there’s an enormous fear of failure. I don’t think I’ve gotten over that.” Asked whether he considered himself an introvert or extrovert, he said he is definitely an introvert, getting his energy from reading and his quiet time. “Absolutely,” he added for emphasis.

After college McLean studied acting in London, always having been impressed by British actors and their use of language. Interesting to note, too, are the various English thinkers and writers who have left an impression on McLean—from Shakespeare to Shaw, Eliot to Chesterton, Spurgeon to Lewis. He will be returning to England this summer for Oxbridge, a triennial Lewis conference held at Oxford and Cambridge Universities, and doing some of this performance there.

Prior to McLean’s conversion to Christian faith, he admitted that he’d tried to read the Bible but it made no connection; he couldn’t find a way of getting into it. “It was just a flat book. It could have been an engineering book, but it wasn’t a book that captured my imagination. Once Jesus became alive to me, I read the Bible differently. I read John’s Gospel; I thought Jesus was going to come out of the pages. He was a story, a human being that was a hero and an overwhelming one. So my emotions were engaged.”

So why are theatre and story so powerfully effective at capturing the imagination of people, and why is that important? McLean replied, “Well, that’s the critical thing, because the imagination serves up the raw material of what we think about. Romans 1 tells us we all have the knowledge of God. There’s that thing about how we all have eternity in our hearts. And these things are intact—like I mentioned in the Q&A that people want to talk about these things but they don’t know how to talk about them—so I think that the theatre captures people’s imagination and stirs the imagination—which then asks, could this be true? And then a person is more willing to invest intellectual capital. You know, you’re not going to invest intellectual capital unless your imagination is engaged, unless you want to know more. So I think theatre is an extraordinary tool for that.”

There’s that thing about how we all have eternity in our hearts.

In pursuing this goal, by what intentional steps does the FPA strive to engage a diverse audience? “People make their own choices about their entertainment options. So essentially we don’t do it in a church. We do it in a theater. We advertise in the New York Times, we advertise in the subway. We advertise at NPR. I think the main thing is this: our best audience is somebody . . . who’s able to use relational capital to say, ‘Okay, come with me to see this play, because you’re not going to be embarrassed. It’s going to be a safe space, and you’re going to enjoy it.’ And if they don’t want to engage, no harm done. You know, you go out to dinner, and when they have questions, that’s great, and when they don’t have questions, that’s great too.”

McLean thinks the theatre can do great good, but only if it’s done well. We’d been struck by the plethora of rave reviews his work had consistently garnered, by reviewers both sacred and secular. Accolades and awards are commonplace—from the DC Metro Arts to the Washington Post, the Chicago Critic and Splash, the Indianapolis Monthly to World Magazine to Stagebuddy and The Weekly Standard. Adjectives among reviewers describing his work abound like “fascinating,” “smart,” “brilliant,” “masterful,” “winsome,” “delightful,” “captivating,” “satisfying,” and “moving.” We asked him to talk about the importance of striving for excellence in his work.

“Doing it in New York . . . New York is kind of hyper in that way. To do theatre in New York is such a challenge, and if you make it known that it comes from a Christian worldview the bar just gets really much, much higher. And then to consider doing it in such a way as to engage a diverse audience in this highly polarized world that we’re in right now, it’s almost impossible. So you depend on these kind of things: the writing, the acting, the stagecraft . . . you don’t want it to be turned off at that level or you won’t get a fair hearing. And a fair hearing might be ‘I’ve heard it, I listened to it, I think it’s rubbish, but it was really well executed.’ As opposed to what mostly happens: the execution is terrible, and nobody even bothers . . . or the message is so trite that it’s just immediately dismissed. So what we do, in order to accomplish our mission, we spend a lot of time thinking about what material has the best possibility to reach a diverse audience, then we have to execute it to the highest levels that our budgets will allow. Which means that we hire all our designers. They’re professionals. Just like you go to the best doctor, the best dentist, we hire the best sound designer, the best set designer . . . because you don’t want it to be dismissed at the execution level. You want the message to be heard, and you don’t want anybody to say, ‘Oh, I’m not going to listen to the message because the messenger just doesn’t care.’”

We thought it particularly interesting that one of the most recurring descriptions we’d read of his work was “funny,” and especially all the references to self-deprecating humor. Why, we asked, does this seem to function so well as an ice breaker and bridge builder with his audience?

“Well, humor is a reaction. It doesn’t lie. I mean, there are things you can do to create it, depending on your sense of humor. So much of modern comedic humor is based out of anger, and putting somebody down. Lewis’s humor is based on wit, and surprise, and also his own making fun of himself. He didn’t take himself that seriously. He did, but he tried to act like he didn’t. So I think that humor does tear down barriers, that if you can get to it, that if you’re good enough to find the humor, theatre is built on it. . . . I do think it’s a very high priority. Chesterton thought humor was the bloom of his argument.”

Having seen McLean at work, I must say: if anybody can demonstrate that life is a comedy and not a tragedy, McLean’s channeling Lewis can. Still, he admits to mixed results among certain atheist reviewers. Plenty of “generous atheists” have accorded his work accolades because they enjoy a good time. Still, particularly among those who seem to think they have a stake in the game, there’s resistance. “A real true blue atheist is one for whom the possibility of the supernatural world breaking into the material world is just considered impossible. So any other possibility is more probable than the supernatural. That’s really hard core.”

When up against that level of settled conviction that theism isn’t so much as possibly true, perhaps McLean’s work is exactly what’s needed to chip away at the wall. Rather than just more discursive argument that only heightens defense, something that’s engaging, entertaining, and aesthetically pleasing might be what’s needed to break down the barriers. McLean agrees, adding: “People have these moments of joy, moments where the supernatural breaks in. Because there are two spheres. There’s the sphere of love, which isn’t just biochemistry.”

Using performance art to wake people up, stir curiosity, and generate conversation is what McLean and the FPA are all about. This summer this show will hit the road; readers are encouraged to find out if it’s showing near you; and if so, sell all you have and see it! It’s a world-class production, and it’s eminently worth it, irrespective of your worldview. And this fall in New York a new production will begin, again based on Lewis: “Shadowlands.” I think this may necessitate another death-defying trip to the City.

McLean has written, “I’m keenly aware that, despite the best of intentions, as soon as the word ‘Christian’ appears within an artistic context, red flags go up. That, obviously, creates a challenge.” He continues:

During our first season of four plays in New York City, several reviewers expressed misgivings. Realizing that the work was from a Christian perspective, one critic wrote “my heart sank.” Another made the understatement that “presenting what is unequivocally come-to-Jesus fare to a general audience is no easy thing.”

In both cases, it was the play itself that turned them around. The first declared, “I expected a preachy bore, not the deliciously witty, theatrical treat that still resonates and amuses the day after.” He went on, “I expect that, like the first, [the next production] will be entertaining, very well staged, canny, and imbued with serious Christian thought and an earnest invitation to introspection.”

The second reviewer began by clarifying his background: “I’m Jewish by birth, liberal by conviction, and an atheist by observation and introspection.” He went on to say “how much I admire the approach of Fellowship for Performing Arts. . . . They do their work through a careful combination of good story-telling—craft comes first—and avoiding overt preachiness, allowing any message implicit in the material to take care of itself.”

Such feedback is reassuring. Art hints at the deeper structures of reality. FPA desires to create theatre that contributes to a better understanding of it. To do that requires honest, clear-eyed storytelling that entertains and engages its audiences. If a work doesn’t do that, regardless of intent, it really doesn’t matter what else it does.

It’s inspiring to see a faithful worker in this field, laboring in the hardest of venues, speaking truth and spreading light. He and the FPA deserve our admiration, support, and prayers. He’s someone who knows, like Orson Welles knew, the power of story and the importance of the imagination to wake people up, evaluate their assumptions, and generate conversations worth having. For McLean, though, the message to look up is not one of fear, but of soaring hope.

In that connection, one might wonder what C. S. Lewis was doing in jolly England when Welles did his radio performance. I don’t know. But I do know that, just hours before, Mars came up in some of his correspondence. Evelyn Underhill, famous for her works on mysticism and a convert to Anglicanism in 1921, had written a letter to Lewis that arrived on October 26th of 1938. He replied to her on October 29th, the day before Welles’ American broadcast. Here is what Underhill had written to Lewis:

May I thank you for the very great pleasure which your remarkable book Out of the Silent Planet has given me? It is so seldom that one comes across a writer of sufficient imaginative power to give one a new slant on reality: & this is just what you seem to me to have achieved. And what is more, you have not done it in a solemn & oppressive way but with a delightful combination of beauty, humour & deep seriousness. I enjoyed every bit of it, in spite of starting with a decided prejudice against “voyages to Mars.” I wish you had felt able to report the conversation in which Ransom explained the Christian mysteries to the eldil, but I suppose that would be too much to ask. We should be content with the fact that you have turned “empty space” into heaven!

In chapter 5 of Out of the Silent Planet, Ransom is in the spaceship on the way to Mars: “He had read of ‘Space’: at the back of his thinking for years had lurked the dismal fancy of the black, cold vacuity, the utter deadness, which was supposed to separate the worlds . . . now . . . the very name ‘Space’ seemed a blasphemous libel for the empyrean ocean of radiance in which they swam . . . it was the womb of worlds, whose blazing and innumerable offspring looked down nightly even from the earth with so many eyes—and here, with how many more! No: Space was the wrong name. Older thinkers had been wiser when they named it simply the heavens.”

Lewis’s reply to Underhill, written on October 29th, after expressing his alarm and delight at hearing from such a notable writer as she, went like this: “I am glad you mentioned the substitution of heaven for space as that is my favourite idea in the book. Unhappily I have since learned that it is also the idea which most betrays my scientific ignorance: I have since learned that the rays in interplanetary space, so far from being beneficial, would be mortal to us. However, that, no doubt, is true of Heaven in other senses as well!”

True to form for a guy who recognized that a convert must gravely count the cost.

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