A Courageous Biography of CS Lewis

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.

McGrath courageously argues Lewis himself got the date of his own conversion wrong, and McGrath’s case will be convincing to some. I’m not yet sure because I think the letter to Greeves 1 Oct 1931 suggests a fuller embrace of christology, but you’ll have to read McGrath to see what you think. McGrath, however, argues that Lewis got the inner world completely right in his descriptions. At one or two other places McGrath suggests Lewis’ lack of concern with dates — confirmed by Warnie — creates some oddities in Lewis’ own autobiography.

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.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://DerekLeman.com/Musings Derek Leman

    Thanks for the review, Scot. Ordered both books. My Lewis shelf (and Tolkien shelf) in my office are treasured cubby holes. Mere Christianity was the book that did me in, having grown up completely secular. The Great Divorce remains my favorite. Miracles is an amazing book and should be discussed more. The science fiction trilogy alone would have made Lewis a favorite author for me.

  • Rick

    This looks interesting. The ability of Lewis to peel away the layers so one’s own heart issues are revealed is amazing. Keller, who is a big Lewis fan, is somewhat able to do the same.

    If it has not been done already, someone will need to do a biography on McGrath.

  • http://Www.theparsonspatch.com Mark Stevens

    I have read Lewis’ children’s books but, dare I admit this, I have never read any of his Christian works. I am wondering as this post will be littered with Lewis fans, can anyone convince me to pick up my first. I hear him quoted all the time as the 28th book of the NT but he has never gripped me as a great voice. What am I missing? :)

  • RJS

    Mark,

    If you never pick up and read any of his Christian works you’ll never know.

  • http://DerekLeman.com/Musings Derek Leman

    Mark Stevens:

    If you’re interested in naturalism vs. supernaturalism: read Miracles. If you’d like to see a compelling vision of afterlife: The Great Divorce. The two Lewis books would be those I would recommend most. Many begin with The Screwtape Letters, but I think Miracles and The Great Divorce are far more essential.

  • http://www.godhungry.org Jim Martin

    Wow! I’m delighted to read this review. I have such great respect, not only for Lewis but for Alister McGrath. So glad to hear that he has written such an honest and thorough biography. I have been helped so many times by Lewis’ writings. I look forward to reading McGrath’s biography.

  • RJS

    This will probably sound a bit strange. I read most of Lewis’s work in college, both the books and shorter pieces compiled into anthologies. But much later, about 5 years ago, I read The Pilgrims Regress and really like that one, better than many of the other works. It requires some familiarity with the academic scene of the time though and I doubt many will find it quite as interesting.

  • http://Www.theparsonspatch.com Mark Stevens

    RJS, which one would you suggest?

    Thanks Derek!

  • Andy

    ‘The Great Divorce’ or ‘Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe’.
    I loved the Pilgrim’s Regress but I think some of sections could be perceived as containing language with faint racist overtones (that would have definitely been standard ways of speaking within Lewis’ time).

  • Josh T.

    My first real encounter with C.S. Lewis was as a senior in high school when I had been a Christian for about a year. We were doing end of the year projects for English class, and my teacher suggested that I would enjoy C.S. Lewis, so I read Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, several of the Narnia series. We each had to do a presentation about our author, so I chose to do mine from the point of view of Screwtape. I wore a suit and tie plus a red felt devil horn hat (from an old Halloween costume). The first two minutes I sat at a desk lit only by a red photo development bulb and mimicked writing a letter while a tape recording played my audible thoughts. The rest was a normal presentation about the life and works of C.S. Lewis, which was fun but awkward to tell as Screwtape.

    If nothing else, Mere Christianity helped keep my sanity in check while I struggled with things from that tradition, especially given that I did not have the kind of revivalistic day/hour/minute/second conversion typical of many in the evangelical world.

  • Clay Knick

    Thanks for this, Scot. I’ve got this in my backpack. It arrived right after we got back from Israel along with some others. So I’ve been having fun playing catch up. Another great review.

    McGrath is amazing!

    Mark, we chatted about this once, I think. The Problem of Pain is great, but right after that read his, A Grief Observed. Or start with Screwtape, which is fun reading. Take up and read any of them and take your time.

    I remember reading one of Marva Dawn’s books where she said each Christian needs to read The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe every few years. That’s high praise, I think. I think we’d all do well to read a little Lewis very often. I believe Scot mentioned here once that he reads Lewis very often just to read something that he knows is written well.

  • rdhudgens

    At one point in my life I was trying hard to fit in the evangelical world for reasons rooted most directly perhaps in my family of origin. But my ongoing inability to see Lewis as some sort of icon or model for evangelical engagement with the world doomed this quest. In order to be an evangelical in those days one had to admire either Billy Graham or C S Lewis and it was best to admire both. I’m glad for McGrath’s new biography, but I also long for a cultural history of the 20th century evangelical cult of Lewis – how it developed, expanded, and is perpetuated. It remains a curiosity to me (and I suppose many others outside the evangelical subculture).

  • scotmcknight

    rdhudgens, read the last chp of McGrath as he sketches that very history.

  • Dianne P

    Mark, I suggest you read The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. It is a delightfully fun read, yet immersed in Lewis’ theology. And it will put you in the same readership as many of your parishioners, young and old. Next, Mere Christianity, to give you his sense of God. Then, The Screwtape Letters, to give you his sense of Satan. Then… well, you’ll be hooked by then. Just keep reading.

  • http://rwtyer.blogspot.com Rory Tyer

    I’d recommend Screwtape Letters – I think it can often hard to take some of Christianity’s ethical / spiritual ideals (the grammar of the faith, so to speak) and concretely live into them, and Lewis’ advice, cleverly hidden within Screwtape’s attacks on faith, is remarkably timeless and clear. There are passages that still make me shiver with their stark reasonableness and clarity.

  • http://DerekLeman.com/Musings Derek Leman

    rdhudgens:

    To me the best book explaining what is so wonderful about Tolkien and Lewis is Richard Purtill’s LORD OF THE ELVES AND ELDILS. It is apparently back in print, as a search of amazon just revealed to me. Maybe the fantastic perspective on reality does not appeal to everyone. It makes my mind soar.

  • Alan K

    Mark, The Great Divorce is probably the best work of fiction ever written that effectively captures the cosmology of the New Testament and effectively illustrates the dominant reality of truth vs. the nothingness of falsehood.

  • LMoon

    Till We Have Faces haunts me every time I read it.

    And I agree that a history of the evangelical cult of Lewis could be fascinating.

  • Ben Wheaton

    My favourite Lewis book is Till We Have Faces. I find it fascinating to read Tolkien’s letters as an affectionate, but definitely non-hagiographic, view of Lewis.

  • Jim

    I agree re: Lewis and Bonhoeffer. Both were formative for me and probably reasons why I sometimes feel so schizophrenic in my faith. Thanks for the review.

  • Dana Ames

    I read nearly all of Lewis in my 20s. The works I returned to more than once are:

    the Space Trilogy, especially “That Hideous Strength” – each of these can stand alone, though there are commonalities;
    the entire Narnia series – they really do form a unity;
    “Til We Have Faces” – supposedly Lewis’ favorite – written in his mature years, after he had come to know and experience Joy the person – needs reading several times to appreciate its depth.

    Re L’s eccentricity and other issues: mother’s death when he was a child, with no explanation and little opportunity to grieve, added to father’s distance and his own eccentricities, would affect anyone significantly.

    Dana

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Till We have Faces, and the Planetary Trilogy are my favourites. But a non-hagiographic view of the man is long overdue. It always strikes me as interesting how people have the need to see their heroes (literary or otherwise) in undue rosy light, almost as if they were/are demi-gods.

  • http://rdhudgens.blogspot.com Ric Hudgens

    Scot, I’m glad to know about McGrath’s last chapter. I’ll definitely look it up. To Derek Leman: I’ve read all of Lewis (at Wheaton we had to!) and even studied regularly in the Wade Collection about 25 feet from the famous wardrobe itself. I prefer Tolkien to Lewis, but even then I prefer Tolkien as a writer of fiction and not as a guide for Christian discipleship. Lewis has helpful pastoral counsel to offer (and Leanne Payne has done a wonderful job explicating the pastoral bent of Lewis’s writings). But that’s different than the evangelical “adoration” of Lewis one still finds among evangelicals. Bonhoeffer is a much better guide for contemporary disciples and if the choice is between Tolkien, Bonhoeffer, and Lewis then Lewis clearly falls a distant third in my view.

  • Tanya

    So glad for this review. And yes, Till We Have Faces, hands down. I’ve always thought that he got a woman’s voice in that novel much better than I could have predicted.

    The Lion, Witch, Wardrobe suffers from the single and regretable emphasis on substitutionary atonement over all other understandings of the death of Jesus.

  • http://DerekLeman.com/Musings Derek Leman

    Wow, Ric #23. I simply appreciate his imagination, vision, stimulating thought about topics dear to me. Maybe what disappoints you about Lewis is that he did not expound more on practical holiness topics or something (or that his life is not a model of discipleship). I wasn’t looking for practical holiness in Lewis. While I too appreciate Bonhoeffer, I think he could learn a few things from Lewis (no doubt vice-versa). And Tolkien’s grand vision of creation theology, a la the Silmarillion, shines as well. I wonder if Wheaton spoiled your chance to appreciate Lewis.

  • TJJ

    Thanks for the excellent review. I am an evangelical, and yes I love CS Lewis. Why? Well certainly not because anyone told me to. I read his books and loved them. He was an scholar at Oxford, what many might say was/is the pinnacle of scholarship and intellectual respectability, who both defended and brilliantly articulated orthodox Christian faith and doctrine. And he wrote books about the same that were/are thoroughly enjoyable to read, and dare I say, reread.

  • Mark

    Rarely mentioned, but well worth reading and rereading, is the collection of Lewis’s essays found in “Christian Reflections.”

  • http://rockingwithhawking.blogspot.com rockingwithhawking

    Regarding the Anscombe debate, Victor Reppert has written on this as well (e.g. here). I don’t know if Reppert is correct or not, but at least his take is worth considering since, among other things, I believe Reppert is a respected Lewis scholar.

  • http://rdhudgens.blogspot.com Ric Hudgens

    Derek Leman: I totally get why you and others (my wife!) think Lewis is so valuable. I read all the Narnia books to my kids for fear that if I didn’t they wouldn’t be able to get into Wheaton. I’m not really dissing Lewis, but rather confessing my own inability to understand the adulation of others (i.e. he’s good, but he’s not THAT good).

    Wheaton spoiled my chances to appreciate many good things in life . . . : )

  • http:augustiniandemocrat.blogspot.com John W Brandkamp

    I’m so surprised no one has mentioned Lewis’ short but absolutely brilliant book The Abolition of Man. I dare say it should be required reading for anyone wanting to understand the postmodern turn.

  • R.C.

    All Lewis’s stuff is very good. I found The Discarded Image fascinating: It got me interested in Boethius.

    I think his essays are neglected. You hear a lot about The Weight of Glory, and justly so. But I also agree with his essay Priestesses In The Church?, and moderns are apt to give that a horrified disapproval.

    And that is just why it, and The Discarded Image, and authors like Bede and Boethius, ought to be read by Christians now.

    We are in fact very parochial, very sheltered, very closed into our bubble, very intellectually inbred, we moderns…and yet we think we are cosmopolitan and experienced and well-read because we read a lot of books from “different perspectives,” not noticing that most of these “different perspectives” are from people who’ve lived in the last fifty years, in the sexually-confused, consumeristic, individualistic post-Christian West!

    That perspective is actually very narrow. It’s like all these studies of human sexuality and psychology that are done in American universities, which instead of being performed on representative slices of humanity as a whole, are instead using a sample set of WEIRD people: Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic…about as rare and eccentric a group of human beings as one can locate on earth, and turned loose on college campuses in their 20′s no less…no wonder all the findings are skewed towards hedonism, sentimentalism, postmodernism!

    But if we’re not careful, our devotional readings as Christians can suffer from the same problem.

    You need to read the works of Christians in every century that has yet passed since the Resurrection if you want to call yourself “well-read” because the folk of the last fifty years, like the previous history, have remembered some things about the faith that their parents had forgotten…but they also forgot some things about the faith that their grandparents took for granted.

    You need to get into a different era, then, to get a really different perspective. That’s what I meant when I said that we moderns tend to be intellectually-inbred, parochial, narrow. We are broad in terms of, oh, denominational commitments, perhaps. But most of the authors we read these days had heard of the telephone and lived in a world with anesthesia and antibiotics, and that is an uncommon and narrow perspective when compared to the broad experience of the Body of Christ over 2,000 years!

    We need Francis De Sales and Teresa of Avila and Bede and Athanasius and Irenaeus and Chrysostom and Cyril and Gregory Nazianen.

    And that’s tough reading for some of us. We need to get our feet wet before we jump in the deep end.

    That’s where Lewis helps us: He was a scholar familiar with those writers. His works quote them, giving us a taste. We can see who he quotes and follow up by reading them for ourselves.

  • http://jwwartick.com/ J.W. Wartick

    I’m confused by the notion that Bonhoeffer would not be an evangelical because he was an Orthodox Lutheran… does this suggest Lutherans are outside the realm of evangelicalism? Or is it because he was a German Lutheran and at least partially predated the notion of evangelicalism in America anyway?

  • Greg Metzger

    Great review. I wondered if there could be anything new to be said but your review answered that.


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