Two of the most influential voices in evangelicalism were not evangelicals themselves, though they have been claimed for evangelicalism and many younger thinkers can’t imagine their not being evangelicals. Those two are Dietrich Bonhoeffer, an orthodox Lutheran, and C.S. Lewis, an Anglican with the sensibility of a “mere” kind of Christianity. In their day neither was claimed by the kind of evangelicalism that then existed, which was more like the very conservative side of evangelicalism today. One could probably tally up a lengthy list of folks who are “claimed” by some group but who in their day were not in that group.
Let’s have a discussion on the most important book by C.S. Lewis and why.
What cannot be denied though is that C.S. Lewis has become a saint for evangelicalism. The focus of his biography is not on that dimension of Lewis, even if he has one of the better sketches of that story, but on the life, development, theology, and career of C.S. Lewis. I’m speaking of Alister McGrath’s exquisite new biography, C.S. Lewis, a Life: Eccentric Genius. Reluctant Prophet. I can’t say McGrath’s two categories (eccentric genius and reluctant prophet) are addressed head-on but these two expressions certainly form deep structure themes in this book. Lewis was eccentric and he never did want the attention he garnered.
I have read four other biographies of Lewis — Green, Wilson, Sayer, Jacobs — and McGrath. McGrath is now the best of the lot because it provides more perspective and critical interaction than the others. Wilson’s remains too critical and suspicious while Green’s is now the dated volume. Jacobs set out to do more of an examination of imagination but offered more of a biography than a thematic exploration.
McGrath spent 18 months reading everything from Lewis in chronological order. He sorted through papers and pictures and documents and historical and university records, judiciously selected from the scads of noteworthy items and drops his discoveries into the text in clean and compelling ways. McGrath both keeps the story of Lewis’ life flowing and yet pauses for critical reflection and theological interaction. This is the biography for the thinker even if the fan may found it a bit deep at times. If you love Lewis and want to know what was “really” going on, read McGrath first. Alister McGrath has a book due to be published next month called The Intellectual World of C.S. Lewis, and I shall no doubt buy and read it in due course.
Three features of McGrath’s life of Lewis deserve notation here:
The biography is courageous. Lewis was eccentric, if not weird. McGrath is not writing hagiography and so he tells the story of the weirdness of this man from Belfast. Lewis was beset by some sadomasochism in his life. McGrath does not delve into the “Christina dreams” issue, but is not afraid to talk about the weird, possibly intimate and maybe not, relationship with Mrs. Moore. He tells the story of Lewis’ marriage of convenience to Joy Davidman, explores the possible reasons and the secrecy around the marriage, and then explains that Lewis eventually does fall deeply in love with Joy.
In addition, McGrath pushes against Lewis’ obsession with Malvern in his autobiography and lack of interest in far greater issues, like the world war.
The biography is a critical apology. Lewis has been criticized, justly McGrath thinks, for his social conventions and his perspective on women. McGrath takes this on several places in the biography but also explains Lewis’ context and his conventional views. This is what I mean by a “critical apology”: he’s with Lewis but does not defend him. He explains him. McGrath’s view is honest, critical, balanced, and unafraid.
The same applies to Lewis’ odd relations at the University of Oxford. Lewis was admired by some and hated by others; he was critical of the culture and of nothing-but-scholarship approaches and he wrote popular books and became world famous. Lewis simply refused to play their game, and then it is not surprising that on three occasions he was not promoted to professor because of this context. For years Lewis kept his relation to his “family” — Mrs Moore and Maureen — secret from the university. His relation to Tolkien fell apart, mostly on Tolkien’s side according to McGrath. Lewis himself nominated Tolkien for a Nobel prize in literature, demonstrating his profound respect for Tolkien. The same cannot be said for Tolkien’s view of Lewis.
McGrath provides a convincing case for how the Anscombe-Lewis encounter in the Socratic club can be understood. AN Wilson once argued that Lewis got thrashed by Anscombe, so much in fact that Lewis abandoned apologetics at the rational level and opted to tell stories. This theory has been repeated by many. McGrath, who distinctively pulls in memories from John Lucas, contends Lewis was writing the Narnia stories before the famous Socratic debate, that he was already wearied with apologetics, and that he simply wasn’t interesting in staying up to date in philosophy — so that the debate, while a temporary setback for Lewis, was not as life-changing as Wilson argued. Lewis in fact learned from that debate and adjusted his famous anti-naturalism argument. McGrath makes a good case but the follow ups in McGrath’s own treatment make me wonder if there’s not more to the Wilson theory than McGrath admits. Lewis said he was obliterated, Lewis said he was not up to date, and Lewis did not write another piece of apologetics. I side with McGrath on this one but I’m open to further considerations.
The biography is contextual. What perhaps was most appreciated in McGrath’s life of Lewis is that he connected everything — Lewis’ childhood in Belfast, Lewis’ private (or, as they put it, public) school education, Lewis’ military service, Lewis’ own entrance and success at Oxford, Lewis’ academic career, and all of Lewis’ writings and lectures — each of these is connected succinctly and illuminatingly to the historical, social, ecclesial, academic and theological contexts. One example. Lewis’ beautiful story of Aslan’s death is set in the context of Medieval ransom and atonement theories, and in Lewis’ own statements about atonement theories, as well as into the narrative logic of the Narnia tales.
We are indebted once again to Alister McGrath for bringing together so many loose ends and diverse facts into a compelling account of one of the 20th Century’s delightfully eccentric characters.