Book Review: C.S. Lewis: A Life

C.S. Lewis: A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet

Alister McGrath
Hodder & Stoughton, 2013

I confess: I have never been a big fan of C. S. Lewis. My early attempts at reading his apologetic writings foundered on the register of his prose. In my undergraduate evangelism, I was trying to present the truths of Christian faith in a vernacular that could easily be understood. Lewis seemed to move in a different direction. So I was taken aback then when I lived in a graduate student dormitory at Yale and got to know a non-Christian friend who voraciously read anything by Lewis that I could lay my hands on. The time had now come to get serious with the Apostle to the Imagination.

So I read the biography of Lewis by Alister McGrath, called C. S. Lewis: A Life, published by Hodder & Stoughton in 2013. Though intimidating by its size, I discovered that its thick pages, frequent photos, and penetrating analysis of Lewis’s life and times made it a much easier read than I anticipated. In fact, McGrath has inspired me to dig deeper. It takes the normal shape of a chronicle, starting with Lewis’s birth in 1898 and early life in Northern Ireland, and ending with Lewis’s death in November 1963, the same day on which JFK was assassinated. McGrath alerts us to the fact that Lewis disengaged from Irish politics in the 1920s when his identity was increasingly English. His service in World War I and call to explain Christian faith on the BBC during the darkest days of World War II portray him not as an absent-minded professor but as profoundly immersed in the vicissitudes of the life of the nation.

There is also here no avoidance of the bizarre relationship which Lewis enjoyed with Mrs Moore, nor of the strange way that his later marriage to Joy Davidman began: after the ceremony, Lewis headed back to Cambridge and Davidman to their home in Oxford. It appears to have begun as a relationship of convenience for an American, whose Communist leanings closed off job prospects at home. McGrath quotes Jacob: Lewis was ‘an American divorcée’s sugar daddy’ (p. 331). Joy’s literary inclinations however gave Lewis much stimulation and encouragement in his writing in the last years of his life, and Lewis’s account of Joy’s untimely death remain some of the most moving in twentieth century literature.

What McGrath does so well is take a break from the narrative from time to time to insert chapters on particular writings of Lewis. There is analysis of Lewis’s philosophy, his approach to apologetics, and most interesting of all reflection on Lewis’s creative pieces. I loved reading about how the Narnia series was composed, and how it doesn’t so much establish one on one correspondences with our world, as an allegory might, but intends rather to provoke us to ask which story about Narnia is true, the interpretation of the Witch or of the beavers. We have a role to play in working out the meaning of it all.

Fascinating was the insight that perhaps Lewis sets up the whole seven books of the series each to represent a planet, with its own distinctive contribution to make, without instructing us to read the seven in a particular order. Drawing on medieval precedents—Lewis was after all a professor of medieval literature in Cambridge—he could create a deep unity in the chronicles while giving a distinct feel or atmosphere to each part. These books don’t just give us apt quotations for sermons, but build an imaginative yet Christian world to inhabit, even if only temporarily.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised by the joy I discovered in reading this biography of one of the twentieth century’s great apologists. I am a reluctant reader no longer. Lewis helps us live in a world dominated by technological capacity for evil by nurturing the power of the imagination, and by teaching us of the possibility of mere Christianity, which points us to Jesus, not just the institution of the church.

Rhys Bezzant, Vic. 

 

C.S. Lewis: A Life:

Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet

Alister McGrath

Hodder & Stoughton, 2013

 

I confess: I have never been a big fan of C. S. Lewis. My early attempts at reading his apologetic writings foundered on the register of his prose. In my undergraduate evangelism, I was trying to present the truths of Christian faith in a vernacular that could easily be understood. Lewis seemed to move in a different direction. So I was taken aback then when I lived in a graduate student dormitory at Yale and got to know a non-Christian friend who voraciously read anything by Lewis that I could lay my hands on. The time had now come to get serious with the Apostle to the Imagination.

                 So I read the biography of Lewis by Alister McGrath, called C. S. Lewis: A Life, published by Hodder & Stoughton in 2013. Though intimidating by its size, I discovered that its thick pages, frequent photos, and penetrating analysis of Lewis’s life and times made it a much easier read than I anticipated. In fact, McGrath has inspired me to dig deeper. It takes the normal shape of a chronicle, starting with Lewis’s birth in 1898 and early life in Northern Ireland, and ending with Lewis’s death in November 1963, the same day on which JFK was assassinated. McGrath alerts us to the fact that Lewis disengaged from Irish politics in the 1920s when his identity was increasingly English. His service in World War I and call to explain Christian faith on the BBC during the darkest days of World War II portray him not as an absent-minded professor but as profoundly immersed in the vicissitudes of the life of the nation.

                 There is also here no avoidance of the bizarre relationship which Lewis enjoyed with Mrs Moore, nor of the strange way that his later marriage to Joy Davidman began: after the ceremony, Lewis headed back to Cambridge and Davidman to their home in Oxford. It appears to have begun as a relationship of convenience for an American, whose Communist leanings closed off job prospects at home. McGrath quotes Jacob: Lewis was ‘an American divorcée’s sugar daddy’ (p. 331). Joy’s literary inclinations however gave Lewis much stimulation and encouragement in his writing in the last years of his life, and Lewis’s account of Joy’s untimely death remain some of the most moving in twentieth century literature.

                 What McGrath does so well is take a break from the narrative from time to time to insert chapters on particular writings of Lewis. There is analysis of Lewis’s philosophy, his approach to apologetics, and most interesting of all reflection on Lewis’s creative pieces. I loved reading about how the Narnia series was composed, and how it doesn’t so much establish one on one correspondences with our world, as an allegory might, but intends rather to provoke us to ask which story about Narnia is true, the interpretation of the Witch or of the beavers. We have a role to play in working out the meaning of it all.

                 Fascinating was the insight that perhaps Lewis sets up the whole seven books of the series each to represent a planet, with its own distinctive contribution to make, without instructing us to read the seven in a particular order. Drawing on medieval precedents—Lewis was after all a professor of medieval literature in Cambridge—he could create a deep unity in the chronicles while giving a distinct feel or atmosphere to each part. These books don’t just give us apt quotations for sermons, but build an imaginative yet Christian world to inhabit, even if only temporarily.

                 Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised by the joy I discovered in reading this biography of one of the twentieth century’s great apologists. I am a reluctant reader no longer. Lewis helps us live in a world dominated by technological capacity for evil by nurturing the power of the imagination, and by teaching us of the possibility of mere Christianity, which points us to Jesus, not just the institution of the church.

Rhys Bezzant, Vic.