Alister McGrath’s C.S. Lewis– A LIfe: Part One

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Alister McGrath has recently provided us with a top drawer biography of C.S. Lewis, which has as its subtitled ‘Eccentric Genius. Reluctant Prophet’ (Tyndale, 449 pages, about $18 U.S.). Unlike it’s notable predecessors (by George Sayer or Roger Lancelyn Green), McGrath did not know Lewis personally, and therefore presents us with more of an outsider’s portrait of the man, based on the literary evidence. When I say literary evidence, I mean not only his published works but especially the 3,000 plus pages of his correspondence collected and arranged by Lewis’ secretary in his last days Walter Hooper, a professor from my neck of the woods– the University of Kentucky. The singular and most important contribution of this biography then is to present us with the unvarnished Lewis, the not necessarily for public consumption Lewis, the unguarded Lewis, as he dialogued with his friends and inquirers and relatives.

This careful and critical analysis of the correspondence as well as the rest of his oeuvre produces some surprises: 1) previous biographers probably got the date of Lewis’ conversion wrong, because Lewis himself was very bad about remembering dates, including those that involved himself!; 2) the truth about the Inklings through a better chronicling of the sometimes close, sometimes strained relationship between Tolkien and Lewis, and the way Lewis’ friendship with Charles Williams put a strain on the relationship between Tolkien and Lewis; 3) more clarity is provided on what an important role Lewis played in helping midwife Tolkien’s great epic the Lord of the Rings, and strongly advocating for its completion and publication; 4) the hitherto unknown fact that Lewis nominated Tolkien for a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1961, something Tolkien himself never knew about. 5) a less rosy picture of Lewis’ relationship with Mrs. Moore, and then with Joy Davidman (who turns out to have set about to ‘seduce’ Lewis, and then once married sought to have the Kilns bequeathed to her own sons rather than to the persons who were entitled to the property– Mrs. Moore’s daughter and Warnie if he survived).

Quite properly, the focus of McGrath’s study in this volume is the life of Lewis, and he has written a companion study on The Intellectual World of C.S. Lewis (Blackwell, 2013) which gives more detailed attention to analysis of Lewis’ most significant literary output and thought world. Not that these subjects are neglected in this biography, but the other book is a more specialized study that is able to go into more detail about the thought world.

What I especially appreciate about this biography is that it is fair and balanced. It is not hagiography, but it is written by someone who clearly appreciates Lewis and his work, without attempting to hide his various flaws and missteps (for example his early propensity to be interested in sadomasochism). This is exactly the kind of assessment we have been needing in a context where Lewis tends to either be unstintingly praised to the moon, or in the case of Mr. Phillip Pullman, vilified as the spawn of Hell. Lewis deserves neither of these treatments.

One of the examples of just how balanced this treatment is, is that McGrath is able to show both that Lewis and his literary output are indeed reflections of their own ethos and time period, but at the same time Lewis’ enduring impact shows that a good deal of what he wrote, while conditioned by its immediate environment and context, is not limited in its value and cogency to that context. Lewis was a man of many parts, one part academic as several of his major publications show (see his famous survey of English Literature), one part lay theologian (see his Screwtape Letters) one part apologete (see his Problem of Pain), one part writer of fantasy and children’s stories (the Narnia novels or the Space Trilogy), one part ecumenical Christian (see Mere Christianity). He was different things to different persons. McGrath nicely shows the scope of the mind and writings of Lewis, without suggesting that he could do seven impossible things before breakfast.

Alister McGrath, himself an academic, an apologetic, and a very fine writer for a lay audience who also happens to come from Protestant northern Ireland as well, writes very clearly and directly about Lewis, giving us a helpful chronicle of his whole life. Along the way, he helps us appreciate even more how so many of us who are Evangelicals have been nourished and nurtured in our faith journeys by Lewis. In my own case, I read the Screwtape Letters when I was in high school, in the late 60s, and continued to read everything else I could find by Lewis thereafter, branching out to read the other Inklings as well. C.S. Lewis was a man of letters, and as it turns out also a man of much letter writing as well. It is these latter missives that often best peel away the modern lacquer of hagiography, and help give us a clearer and truer picture of Lewis– a genuine Christian, a gifted writer, but not a saint.

In the following posts, I will have a dialogue with Alister about some of the cogent points of this biography. Stay tuned for the next two weeks.

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