[BONUS] Actor Max McLean on C.S. Lewis and the Most Reluctant Convert

C.S. Lewis Most Reluctant Convert Max McLean

You may already know that I’m an unashamed, unabashed, unrelenting, and slightly unhinged fan of C.S. Lewis. So, I’m sitting on the edge of my seat and over-the-top excited to share this BONUS podcast episode with you!

The man we get to hear from today is Max McLean, the actor who played C.S. Lewis in the movie, The Most Reluctant Convert: The Untold Story of C.S. Lewis. It’s the story of the beloved Christian writer’s incredible journey from atheism to faith, even though he was, according to him, “the most reluctant convert in all England.”

If you haven’t heard of Max, perhaps you’ve heard his voice! If you listen to the Bible on YouVersion or have asked your smart device to read Scripture, often it will be Max’s voice reading the Bible.

Isn’t that fun?!

Well, sister, I can’t wait any longer, so let me give you Max’s official introduction, and then we’ll head over to the podcast…

Max McLean is an award-winning actor and the founder of New York City-based Fellowship for Performing Arts. As an actor, he created the role of C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape in New York and London. He also created the role of C.S. Lewis in The Most Reluctant Convert in both a national tour and in an extended 15-week run in New York. Max received the Jeff Award—Chicago Theatre’s highest honor—for his performance of Mark’s Gospel. He has been nominated for four awards from the Audio Publishers Association for his narration of The Listener’s Bible. His creative work has been cited with distinction by the New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Wall Street Journal, and CNN, just to name a few. He stars in the film, The Most Reluctant Convert: The Untold Story of C.S. Lewis—which is a must-see and the film we talk about today.

You can go straight to CSLewisMovie.com to see the trailer, read a synopsis, and find out where to buy it. It truly is one of the most inspiring and masterful depictions of Lewis’ story, so check it out after listening to the podcast.

[Listen to the podcast using the player above or read the transcript below. Then check out the links below for more helpful resources.]


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Episode Transcript

4:13 Podcast: [BONUS] Actor Max McLean on C.S. Lewis and the Most Reluctant Convert

KC Wright: Welcome. Welcome to a bonus episode of the 4:13 Podcast, where practical encouragement and biblical wisdom set you and I up to live the "I can" life because you can do all things through Christ who strengthens you. Now welcome your host. She's an unashamed, unabashed, unrelenting, and slightly unhinged fan of CS. Lewis. And the man we'll talk with today, Max McClean. Your host, Jennifer Rothschild.

Jennifer Rothschild: Oh, KC! So true. That is so true. But I am here to help you be and do more than you feel capable of as you live this "I can" life. And I have just got to tell you, I'm so excited for you to be a part of this episode because this was a great conversation with the voice of the Bible. That's what I call Max, because if you listen to the Bible, like, if you tell your smart speaker -- I'm not going to say her name. Well, yeah, I will just to see what she does. Alexa. Anyway, if you ask your smart speaker to read from the Bible, it's likely going to be Max McClean's voice. If you are using your YouVersion, you're going to hear often Max McClean's voice reading the Bible. Okay. But what you're about to hear, I got to be honest, tell the friends and the 4:13 ers that this is take two, what you're about to hear, because the first podcast that I recorded with Max McLean well, KC should I tell them?

KC Wright: Yes, you should tell because first of all, we have no secrets here.

Jennifer Rothschild: No, we don't.

KC Wright: In the podcast booth, and you're our family, so I say let it rip. Let it fly.

Jennifer Rothschild: Okay.

KC Wright: Unleash the Kraken.

Jennifer Rothschild: This was one of the most -- oh, I don't even have a word for it. You can come up with an adjective after I tell you the story. Okay. So KC, he produces he helps book for the show Keep the Faith, right? Which is a morning, Sunday morning syndicated radio show all across the nation. I mean, it's amazing. And he has contacts with all these amazing guests. So he texted me and said, hey, would you like -- he knows what a C.S. Lewis junkie I am -- Would you like to talk to Max McLean? And, like, I freak out, and I'm like, "Yes, anytime, anywhere." Okay. So he sets up this interview, and, oh, my goodness, I was so excited. I researched. I didn't have to research a lot because I already knew so much about the guy.

KC Wright: Wow.

Jennifer Rothschild: And we'll introduce him well, in just a minute, but anyway, let me get you to the story. All right. So I was so excited. It finally happens. I have the podcast. Well, my assistant Valerie happened to be out that day, and so one of our interns was filling in, and Valerie had already shown our intern how to set up the Zoom call. Blah, blah, blah. It was all done. She's sitting next to me. We're getting it started. I'm so excited. She gets it started. She steps out of the podcast closet and then I talk for 52 minutes with Max McLean -- like I am in heaven. He's fascinating, he's deep, he's brilliant. I finished the conversation. I literally bound up the stairs and I called KC right away.

KC Wright: You did!

Jennifer Rothschild: I said this was the best moment of my life. Actually, when I came out of the podcast closet, I announced everyone in the office. That was the best conversation of my life. I wish I were exaggerating, but I wasn't.

KC Wright: You called it podcast gold.

Jennifer Rothschild: It was podcast gold.

KC Wright: And I remember getting your call and I was on cloud nine because you were on cloud nine. God gave you the desires of your heart.

Jennifer Rothschild: I said it was one of the most -- it was like a professional and personal pinnacle of my life. Right?

KC Wright: Yes.

Jennifer Rothschild: I even text my friend Paula after hanging up from you, KC, and I say to her, "I feel like I was home for 52 minutes." Okay. It was that amazing.

KC Wright: Yeah.

Jennifer Rothschild: So I literally send the text to Paula and then intern comes upstairs and she goes, "Jennifer, I got to tell you, I did something really bad." And I'm thinking, "Intern, you're 21 years old. What could be that bad, right?" And she said, "I forgot to press record."

KC Wright: You had one job.

Jennifer Rothschild: Okay. So my mind at that moment is thinking 72,000 miles an hour. These thoughts are racing through me. One of them might have been, "Yeah, you had one job -- to press record." But I'm not going to mention that. All right. But all I could think of is that she's 21. It's one of her first professional jobs.

KC Wright: Absolutely.

Jennifer Rothschild: I have this moment to crush her -- or to create a life-shaping moment.

KC Wright: And she's human, like we all are. We've all done that.

Jennifer Rothschild: We've all made mistakes. And so all I could say to her was, "Grace, Grace, Grace." And then she burst into tears. "Oh, thank you for giving me Grace." And I said, "Listen, intern -- I'm not going to say her name, but -- "Listen, intern, you regret this. I know that. Of course I regret this. But we all make mistakes. We learn from it."

KC Wright: We do.

Jennifer Rothschild: "Grace, Grace, Grace." We hug. She went downstairs and then I called KC and then I texted Paula, and I'm like, "This is the worst moment of my life."

KC Wright: I remember responding. I texted "N" and then "Oooooo" I just held it.

Jennifer Rothschild: It was like 18 O's. And then you're like, "I'm going to call him right back. I'm going to ask if they'll reschedule." And I'm saying, "No, don't do it. I feel so indulgent. I feel so bad to ask him again."

KC Wright: But you know my motto, "I shall not be defeated and I will not quit." You are going to get another chance."

Jennifer Rothschild: Well, you did it. And then Paula even said to me, "Now, Jennifer, if you had been the guest on an interview and this happened, you would be gracious, right? You would do this for them."

KC Wright: Words of wisdom right there.

Jennifer Rothschild: Anyway, you did email back and his assistant said, "Oh, he said it was such a great conversation. Yes, he'll be happy." So we rescheduled and I tell you the story because it's funny, but also because I just want to commend Max McLean with as busy as his life is for being willing to have a second conversation. So I figured the first one, those 52 minutes, were just for me. But this next conversation is for all of us. So let's introduce Max McLean.

KC Wright: Max McLean is an award winning actor and the founder of New York City based Fellowship for Performing Arts. As an actor, he created the role of C. S. Lewis' screw tape in New York and in London. He also created the role of CS. Lewis in The Most Reluctant Convert on national tour and in an extended 15 week run in New York City. Amazing. Max received the Jeff Award, Chicago theater's highest honor, for his performance of Mark's Gospel. He has been nominated for four awards from the Audio Publishers Association for his narration of the Listener's Bible. His creative work has been cited with distinction by the New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Wall Street Journal, and even CNN, to name a few. He stars in the film The Most Reluctant Convert: The Untold Story of C. S. Lewis, which is, by the way, a must-see.

Jennifer Rothschild: A must-see.

KC Wright: Now, settle in for this fascinating conversation between Max and Jennifer.

Jennifer Rothschild: All right, Max, I read that you immigrated to the U.S. as a four year old, and that English was not your first language. So can you take us back to that part of your story and your early childhood?

Max McLean: Yes. Well, you've done your research, haven't you? I'm an immigrant. My first language was Spanish. Born in Panama, came to America when I was four, came to the West Side passenger terminal in New York City, about ten minutes walk from where I currently live, which is interesting. Dad was military, and so we traveled all over the country and many parts of the world. I think I went to ten different schools from first grade to 12th grade. But I think the Lord used all of that in developing my character, my gifts, my foibles, used it all as part of his molding process.

Jennifer Rothschild: Yeah, it really was a launching pad, too, I would think, with all that you saw and experienced, which would lead me to acting, because I would be curious if you were always interested in theater or film, or was there maybe a particular film or stage production that just caught your imagination? So take us into this part of your story. What led you into acting?

Max McLean: Sure. Well, I've always loved movies. I grew up watching movies, going regularly, and there are certain stories that I particularly liked, stories that heroic -- that took me out of myself. Lewis uses a marvelous phrase, "the music you were born remembering," and there's certainly some kind of films that take you there. I remember "To Serve With Love" -- A Man for All Seasons did that. But what really got me into theater was to overcome a fear of public speaking. I decided that it was a problem worth trying to solve. So I went to the weird part of campus and took an oral interpretation class, and that's where the bug bit. And I've been practicing the art of theater ever since.

Jennifer Rothschild: I would say you have. That is not what most would expect to hear, is that you -- the voice of the Bible, which is what I affectionately call you -- had a fear of public speaking. I just love how God can take even what we think is our weakness, inhabit it, and turn it into our greatest strength. So I'm curious -- speaking of the Lord -- were you a believer growing up? I'd love to hear that part of your story, your conversion to Christ.

Max McLean: Yeah, my conversion happened in my twentys. I was confronted with Jesus a couple of times. One, I ran away, far away, but Jesus kept knocking on the door. On one occasion, I was pretty overwhelmed by his presence and decided to read the gospel, John's Gospel. I read it in one sitting, and that's where I met Jesus. I met him very, very clearly. He came into my world, and he meant business. Yeah, that was in my twentys. And I have never faltered in the sense of ever doubting whether the reality of the gospel was true.

Jennifer Rothschild: I love that you shared that, because when the Bible says about itself that it is living and active, you met the living Christ in his living word, and that is a beautiful encouragement to all of us. So let's move toward CS. Lewis, because in a moment I want us to talk about your film, The Most Reluctant Convert. So let's kind of transition toward Lewis. When were you first exposed to him and were you a believer? What was the book? What did you think? Give us that part of your story.

Max McLean: Yeah, my introduction to Lewis happened very shortly after I read -- no, let me see. Well, I'm wondering if it was -- now, thinking about it for the first time in many years, it was certainly around the time. I read Surprised by Joy about the same time I read John's Gospel. But I felt like, this is not where I'm at. I mean, it was like he was just way beyond me at that point, but I read every word of it. So this person gave me another copy, and I think this one I did read after my conversion. It was the Screwtape Letters. And I said, "Oh, I know this guy." Yeah, the very first letter hit me hard. I don't know if you remember it. The very first letter talks about a man in a British Museum reading something very provocative. We don't really know what it is. It could be scripture, it could be something... It doesn't matter because God uses many things. But regardless, Screwtape knew that something very serious was happening to his [inaudible]. He says he saw 20 years work beginning to totter like it was ready to fall apart. And so he says, "Isn't it just about time for lunch?" To get him out of that moment. And I just struck me, I said, "Wow, I know that." Towards the end of that scene, Screwtape says, I took care of that guy and he's now with us. But it's funny how these humans picture us as putting things into their minds. Our best work is done by keeping things out." And I said, "Okay, this guy's for real."

Jennifer Rothschild: Yeah. Wow. Okay. What strikes me about that too is -- and I wish I could remember the quote, but CS. Lewis says something about how -- be careful what you read, be mindful what you read. There's a lot of danger there in all the best ways.

Max McLean: Yes. That's actually in Most Reluctant Convert -- he says, "A sound atheist cannot be too careful in reading."

Jennifer Rothschild: Yes, and it's true. It is so true. All right, so you went to seminary and I read that you had an epiphany at seminary that we all really benefit from. So could you share that with us?

Max McLean: Yeah, in seminary I had some faculty that encouraged me to use drama in ministry. And at that time, drama in the church was beginning to become a thing, but I wasn't that interested. It was mostly used to illustrate sermons. I wasn't that interested in that, but I thought, why not use the skills and techniques development theater and apply it to the scripture? And I didn't really know what I was doing, but I knew I was doing something pretty significant. Later, I think, reading Lewis, I think in Mere Christianity, he helped explain what was happening. He says, "Explanations of the gospel are not the gospel." They are just that they're explanations of the gospel. They're ways of trying to clarify what it might be. But the gospel is the story -- is the event. And so the gospel story is the closest thing we have to experiencing the gospel itself. And so that's what I started doing. I memorized Mark's gospel, I memorized Acts, I memorized Genesis, and I would just tell the story.

Jennifer Rothschild: Well, just -- I mean, it is so powerful when you've done that because you really do combine that narration and that acting to bring the drama, the reality, that expression to the scripture itself. So two things... First, how do you memorize all that? Because I know some people just heard that you've done that and they think he memorized those whole books? So how do you do that? And then secondly, talk to us about the value of hearing the word of God presented that way.

Max McLean: Well, for an actor, memorizing lines is the minimum requirement for the job. So you have to do it. It's like a carpenter with his nails. He just has to have the basic foundation of his work. And that's really important because if you don't know your lines well, then you're not free to be in the moment because the words are doing something to you. They're revealing what the Holy Ghost is trying to say. And so you have to be very sensitive to that. What was the second part of that question?

Jennifer Rothschild: You kind of alluded to it -- just the power of hearing God's word.

Max McLean: Oh, yeah, right. Well, when the Holy Ghost is in you and you're living in those words, I mean, faith comes by hearing the message. The message is heard through the word of Christ. There's something in the hearing. I mean, it is how God uses language. Language is how material things, how the immaterial world becomes real to us.

Jennifer Rothschild: Tangible.

Max McLean: It is a way in which it's a connection from our world to the next world to the other world, the universe next door, further out, further in. So that's what language is supposed to do. And in the Gospels, it's a very specific set of language because it's telling that story. So it's telling the story about the God of the universe becoming man. And so that by nature, particularly if you have faith and believe, because faith is sort of what unlocks that door. Unbelief -- it's like the door. What does Lewis say? "The gates of hell are locked from the inside." It's like I refuse to see. "He who has ears to hear, eyes to see." "Once I was blind, now I see." All of that becomes a way of us touching, the eternal touching. God became man because we didn't have --we needed -- our imagination needed it. We needed it because we just didn't have a way to consider it ourselves. And if we made it up ourselves, we'd go as we always do. Go in wrong directions.

Jennifer Rothschild: Yeah, go astray. The word became flesh. And when you present that way, it does in many ways, it does give us something tangible. Those words do come to life.

So in 1992, Max, you founded the Fellowship for the Performing Arts. And for those who don't know, it has produced very successful productions of, like The Screwtape Letters, the Great Divorce, which is my favorite, by the way, and C. S. Lewis on stage, the Most Reluctant Convert, which is what became this film. So let's talk specifically about that. Obviously, you've done a lot on Lewis. What specifically made you become interested in moving C.S. Lewis from the page to the stage? Why him? Of all the things out there, why C.S. Lewis?

Max McLean: Yeah. Well, it's because no one captures my imagination as much as he does. We all need spiritual guides, and he happened to be the one that God put in me and my interests to say, "Okay, I want you." And of course, the series of events happened. We're a product of the thoughts we think, the books we read, the people we talk with. And at some point in my career, I suppose, in my life, I said, not really even knowing what a big moment it was, that I'm going to really try to understand this guy. And because my talent and my occupation is the theater, when you decide to take something from the page to the stage, you really have to know it. You have to get underneath it in a way that it will speak and communicate and live to other people. So in some ways, my gift to others is I'll do this all this heavy lifting, this hard work, so that people will say, have this experience with CS. Lewis. And one of my -- one of the greatest accolades somebody can give me is that, "You made me go buy that book because my imagination was so engaged, I needed to know more. I needed to dig like you dig." And that's been a big blessing.

Jennifer Rothschild: Well, I got to see you perform The Weight of Glory there at the University Church in Oxford at the C.S. Lewis Institute several years ago. Weight of Glory -- one of my very favorites, and it was just stunning. But to hear it articulated made me want to go read it again and again and again and study it some more and more because it came to life, because hearing it was a different experience than me listening to it on an audiobook. So I can understand it in many ways. He baptized your imagination, didn't he? Like McDonald baptized his. Do you have a single favorite work of C.S. Lewis?

Max McLean: Not really. One reason for that is I see how his work repeats itself in all his other works, which I think is actually something I trust. I like seeing an echo here and there. Somebody asked me -- If I was on a desert island. I could only take one book. What would it be? And I says, "Well, there's this book that compiles all 37 of his publication."

Jennifer Rothschild: [Laughs] That's cheating. That's very efficient, though, even though I think it's cheating. So since you've studied him so much, I would think maybe you feel like you know him. So, if so, you got to heaven someday, and you guys are sitting there having some tea. What is it that you would ask him? Is there anything you would want to ask him or discuss with him when you got to heaven someday?

Max McLean: Yeah. He was very self-aware, and he really recognized the challenge of living the Christian life. He understood faith. He understood works. He certainly didn't buy into an easy Christianity, a cheap grace. He really believed that the Christians were to take up their cross and follow him. And by the grace of God, he really tried to practice it, and he did it through prayer, and he did it through disciplining himself, in a way. And I would want to talk about that in his day, to day life. How he did that. I've read twelve biographies and most of his works and you could see -- but even when I say all that, there was this evident joy. He was fun to be around...

Jennifer Rothschild: Happy.

Max McLean: Yeah. So he definitely had a real insight into living the Christian life.

Jennifer Rothschild: Yeah, well, I think there was a gift of being alerted early on in his childhood to the longing. I really do. I think that's a gift -- that ache is a gift because I think it continued. It was what God used to lead him to recognize how it was so satisfying in the long run.

Max, I wish I could talk to you for hours, and I know our listeners are feeling that way. And I'm going to talk more about the film when you and I finish because I want everyone to see the Most Reluctant Convert. But that's how I'd like us to finish up here, just to focus, you and me, on this film: The Most Reluctant Convert. One of the most beautiful experiences of my life was watching that. And it was mostly a looking back on Lewis' life, his conversion, based on his book, as you already mentioned, Surprised by Joy. Okay. So for me, though, as I'm listening, because I've read so much of his stuff, it was -- it was like a treasure hunt, listening to all the different quotes that you wove in. I just thought the selection and the scenes of the quotes, the scenes, it was just really woven together brilliantly for telling a story. So for those who haven't seen it yet, let's whet their appetite and just give them an idea of what The Most Reluctant Convert is about and how it's going to impact them when they see it.

Max McLean: Yeah, well, it is an origin story of how the most influential Christian writer of the past century -- how he comes alive in his own memories to tell the story of his conversion from this vigorous debunker of Christianity, this hard-boiled atheist to belief in God, and finally belief in Christ. And in the process, he calls himself "the most reluctant convert in all England." And that transition took many years. He suffered greatly, lost his mother to cancer when he was a boy. He had an estranged relationship with his father that got worse after his mother died. He experienced the butchery of trench warfare in World War I. And he came to the conclusion -- he called it "the hell where youth and laughter go." And he came to the conclusion early in his life that either there's no God behind the universe, a God who's indifferent to good and evil, or worse -- an evil God. He said when he was in the trenches and being as frightened as he was, he never sank so low as to pray. That's how far gone he was. Or so committed to his atheism. And so the story goes... How did he go from there to becoming this most influential Christian of all the past 100 years?

A lot of it was through his friends, like J. R. Tolkien, Owen Barfield, Hugo Dyson. They're portrayed in the movie. And he came to realize that his position was untenable. One line of thinking that really influenced him was, he said his argument against God was that the universe was so cruel and unjust. But he asked, "Where did I get this notion of cruel and unjust?" I call a line crooked because I have some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing the universe with when he called it cruel and unjust? And then he came to realize something else. This is not quite in the film, but I almost wish I developed it more in the film. But he said the problem of suffering, the problem of evil, the things that happened to us that we have that seem kind of out of our control -- he says, "Christianity doesn't solve the problem of evil. It creates it because evil would not be a problem unless we had some assurance -- some assurance that ultimate reality is righteous and good." And so what do we do with our daily experience of evil and suffering, of injustice and wickedness, right and wrong?

Because the reality of evil is real, and we have to deal with that. But if that is so, then that which overcomes evil and pain is even more real. And that's the essence of the gospel. That's the essence of Christianity. And that's what Louis was really trying to tell.

Jennifer Rothschild: Well, his life portrayed it well, and this film and you as the older Lewis, portray it so beautifully. So just as one, I call myself a "votary of the blue flower," as he mentioned in Surprised by Joy. As one "votary of the blue flower" to another, may I just tell you thank you so much for your good and diligent work. I love the film. I can't wait for all of our 4:13 ers to watch it. So thanks, Max.

Max McLean: Thank you, Jennifer. Thank you so very much. God bless you.

Jennifer Rothschild: Bless you.

KC Wright: Wow. That's all I have to say.

Jennifer Rothschild: Yeah. I know, I know, right? He is the real deal, my people. He's a gentleman, he's wise, he's kind, he's brilliant. Obviously, I'm a big fan.

KC Wright: You need to see the movie if you haven't. It's so good. You can go straight to Cslewismovie.com, that's Cslewismovie.com to see the trailer, read a synopsis right there and find out where to buy it. You can also stream it on lots of platforms, but the best way to find it is simply go to Cslewismovie.com.

Jennifer Rothschild: Truly is one of the most inspiring and masterful depictions of C.S. Lewis' story. So make sure you check it out. You will absolutely love it, and Max does an incredible job in it. All right, our people, thanks for hanging out with us. I hope you enjoyed this as much as we did. So please go support the Fellowship for the Performing Arts, please. They are doing such good work, and we need much more of what Max creates. So until next time, we love you. And remember that whatever you face or however you feel, you can do it. You can do all things through Christ who gives you strength. I can.

KC Wright: I can.

Jennifer Rothschild: And you can. I'll tell you though, KC, it was freaking me out. As I'm listening to his voice, I'm like, I just think I'm listening to God because I'm so used to doing scripture with him. He reads me the Bible every morning like it's the voice of God.


 

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