BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
Out of shadows and illusions into reality
, May 11, 2013
C.S. LEWIS: A LIFE:
Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet
by Alister McGrath
(London: Hodder & Stoughton)
Hardcover: 448 pages
Reviewed by Bill James
This year marks the 50th anniversary of C.S. Lewis’s death (he died on the same day as President Kennedy and Aldous Huxley), so Alister McGrath’s book will almost certainly be one of many publications in 2013 commemorating him.
Not that it requires a significant year to produce Lewis books; they appear with such a regularity that it is hardly cynical to speak of a Lewis “industry”.
When I reviewed Alan Jacobs’ 2005 biography, The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis, in News Weekly (April 1, 2006), I called it “the best book about C.S. Lewis ever written”. When I first laid eyes on McGrath’s book, I hoped that it had not been churned out simply to exploit the semi-centennial, without having anything new to contribute.
I need not have worried.
Both Jacobs, and A.N. Wilson who wrote the previous significant life, C.S. Lewis: A Biography (1990), came from literary backgrounds.
McGrath, like Lewis, grew up in Ireland and started out as an atheist; but his initial academic interest was in science, and his first Oxford doctorate was in molecular biophysics.
After his conversion to Christianity, he took a second Oxford doctorate in theology, eventually becoming professor of historical theology at Oxford. Many Bible college students will know him as the author of a widely-used introductory theological textbook.
It is perhaps not fanciful to discern the analytical and systematising tendency of both science and theology in McGrath’s treatment of Lewis.
He quarried through mountains of primary material to research this book, particularly the recently published collection of Lewis’s letters, and while there is slightly less personal narrative momentum in his story than in Wilson’s and Jacobs’, there is a lot of additional useful background information.
For example, he provides details of Britain’s conscription legislation in both wars; Oxford’s term system; the organisation of the BBC (on which Lewis made a series of famous radio broadcasts during Word War II); and a chart of the Narnia stories in three columns, showing order of writing, order of publication and internal chronology.
He also suggests an alternative account of Lewis’s two-part conversion (to Deism and then Christianity), setting out the traditional and his own chronologies in numbered steps.
While deeply appreciative of Lewis, McGrath is not blindly hagiographical about him, and suggests criticisms of, for example, his famous Christological Trilemma, sometimes summarised as “Liar, lunatic or Lord”.
Another flaw which he acknowledges in Lewis’s apologetics writings is the standpoint from which he wrote them, i.e., the outdated attitudes of the middle-class in the south of England during the 1940s.
This is particularly evident in Lewis’s attitude towards women and their roles.
Speaking of women, McGrath deals judiciously with the two strange relationships in Lewis’s life with which there is so much ongoing fascination.
From the end of World War I until her death in 1951, he lived with (and, according to some, in the early years “lived with”) Mrs Janie Moore, the mother of a deceased fellow-officer.
In 1956 he married Joy Davidman in a civil ceremony, and the next year in a Christian ceremony performed under questionable circumstances.
Many of Lewis’s friends found Davidman, an American divorcee, an unattractive figure, but he was undoubtedly devoted to her, and experienced a profound spiritual crisis (described in A Grief Observed) when she died of cancer in 1960.
McGrath attaches quite some credence to the bald, and perhaps unfilial, statement by Davidman’s younger son Douglas Gresham, that his mother had gone to England with one express purpose: “to seduce C.S. Lewis”.
Perhaps a third woman should be mentioned.
In 1948, at a meeting of Oxford’s Socratic Club, the Roman Catholic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, who was largely sympathetic to Lewis’s position, critiqued his critique of naturalism as set out in his Miracles, which Lewis consequently modified.
Wilson, in his biography, claimed that this incident destroyed Lewis’s confidence that his faith could be rationally defended, and drove him to compensate for his loss by self-indulgently writing children’s stories.
McGrath rejects Wilson’s overstated position, but concedes that the experience showed Lewis that he was no longer sufficiently au fait with modern philosophy, and would be better employed in presenting a more imaginative apologetic.
So, what is Lewis’s current status?
As a children’s author, he is a consistent bestseller.
McGrath shows that Philip Pullman, whose His Dark Materials trilogy was written in conscious opposition to Lewis’s Narnia books, was forced to borrow some of Lewis’s values and categories.
As an Oxford and Cambridge career academic, Lewis has a secure reputation, as McGrath reminds us, for his scholarly contributions to Spenser and Milton studies.
Finally, what of his role as a very public expositor of, and apologist for, Christianity?
Paradoxically, he remains extremely popular with conservative, credal, orthodox Christians, particularly evangelicals and Roman Catholics.
Paradoxically, because his loyalty to the concept which he used as the title of his book Mere Christianity, meant that he did not always adhere strictly to all his admirers’ theological sine qua nons.
Reading McGrath’s book would be a very worthwhile way of remembering Lewis, 50 years after his leaving what he called, in Platonic terminology, the Shadowlands, and his passage (in the language of John Henry Newman’s epitaph) ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem — out of shadows and illusions into reality.