A Reluctant Prophet for our Times

C.S. Lewis - A Life by Alister McGrath

Readable, scholarly and incisive.

C.S. Lewis – A Life: Eccentric Genius and Reluctant Prophet by Alister McGrath

On 22 November 1963 there was only one piece of news felt worthy of attention: the assassination of President J.F. Kennedy. Almost unnoticed, at home in Oxford, one of the most influential literary critics of his time, persuasive of Christian thinkers and beloved of children’s writers – Clive Staples Lewis, known simply as Jack to his friends and family – died.

Since the 1930s, Lewis had been known both for his ability to explain the Christian faith and from the 1940s for his Chronicles of Narnia series of children’s books. Surprised by JoyMere Christianity and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe have perhaps shaped the faith journeys of millions on both sides of the Atlantic. His theology cuts through denominational boundaries; his words are as likely to be quoted by a Roman Catholic as an evangelical Anglican. And whilst during the 1960s his literary criticism fell out of fashion, since the 1980s there has been a growing interest, both popular and academic.

He has been the subject of numerous studies in recent years, ranging from the scholarly (the complex symbolism of Narnia) to the scandalous (Lewis’s equally complex and unconventional relationships with women). To add to this ever growing interest, Alister McGrath, sometime Professor of Historical Theology at the University of Oxford and now Professor of Theology, Ministry and Education at King’s College, London, has written an incisive biography, exploring Lewis’s journey from a prosperous middle class childhood in Belfast, through service in the First World War to a promising academic career, and from being in Lewis’s own words ‘the most reluctant convert’ to Christianity to his role as almost a prophet for our own times.

McGrath’s portrayal of Lewis escapes the dangers of the hagiographic, rose tinted versions of C.S. Lewis which too often dominate. The film Shadowlands was released in my third year at university, and served as a fine introduction to Lewis’s life and works, beyond the Narnia books I had known as a child (coincidentally, in my studies in Medieval and Renaissance literature I was also encountering another side to C.S. Lewis in his literary criticism). Shadowlands is deeply emotional stuff, retelling Lewis’s unconventional marriage and love for Joy Davidson, and her tragic death from cancer, but it is part of the C.S. Lewis myth which can obscure the complexity and reality.

Indeed, McGrath’s biography acknowledges the many contradictions in Lewis’s character. On the one hand, he possessed a forceful, prize winning intellect both in Classics and in English and was renowned for the rigour of his tutorials at Magdalen College; on the other, his mathematical abilities were such that he almost failed to get into Oxford in the first place and he died close to poverty, his house damp and poorly maintained, unaware of precisely how much money he had made from royalties.

For McGrath, there are three related but distinct sides to Lewis’s life: his career as an academic in Oxford, his time as a Christian apologist and his children’s writing, followed by his time in Cambridge. As an academic in the field of English Literature, Lewis was at the vanguard of intellectual developments in the early twentieth century, teaching a subject which was very much a new and exciting field: Cambridge’s Faculty of English (where Lewis later moved to in 1954) was not founded until 1919. Lewis emerges as a scholar of exceptional insight. His reading was meticulous: he kept careful records of when he had read particular works (I’ve always aspired to this but never managed it!) and most importantly re-read the same works. His teaching was unquestionably erudite, grounded in a close reading of the text, of a sort often unknown in more recent years, where literary theory (which Lewis detested) has come to the fore. His insight into writers such as Spenser remains influential, though other parts of his oeuvre have not survived changes in fashion.

CSLEWISSTUDYLewis’s work as an academic, however, led to a transformative experience of thought and life, and without which his legacy would be negligible. As a young man, he rejected his Anglican upbringing, but in his late twenties came to Christianity through his reading of literature and his intellectual questioning; as McGrath observes, ‘Lewis’s love of literature is not the backdrop to his conversion; it is integral to his discovery of the intellectual and imaginative appeal of Christianity’. Lewis himself remarked in his spiritual autobiography Surprised by Joy, ‘A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful about his reading. There are traps everywhere.’

Lewis’s recognition of the imaginative and intellectual appeal of Christianity was to lead to his most famous works. First, he became something of an apologist for Christianity, arguing his case through a series of debates in Oxford and in radio broadcasts during the Second World War. His aim soon became as much to speak to ordinary men and women and his focus on the basics of Christianity – which led to the title Mere Christianity – perhaps sums up his approach. To many modern readers, Mere Christianity is not a light read, but my experience is that it is worth persevering.

The first edition of 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe'

The first edition of ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’

His passion for literature and his faith led to what is perhaps is longest lasting legacy, the Chronicles of Narnia series. He had no children of his own yet wrote in a way which appeals to their imagination and that of many adults. It is here that I found McGrath’s account most illuminating, particularly  his discussion of the significance and symbolism of the series, including its roots in the Christian narrative of creation, fall and redemption.

McGrath does not skip over the less palatable sides to Lewis’s character. As a student and somewhat arrogant young man, he treated his father shamefully, a fact he later came to regret. He could act towards his friends without thought but he was characterised by immense generosity, giving away much of his earnings from his writing. His relationships with Mrs Moore and then Joy Davidman remain perplexing. Yet McGrath’s portrayal is sympathetic, recognising in Lewis a number of parallels with his own experience: both were originally from Belfast and left Northern Ireland for Oxford and both were at one time atheists. McGrath, too, is a prominent apologist for Christianity, particularly in his responses to Richard Dawkins, which is given added credibility by his original background in the natural sciences.

C.S. Lewis –  A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet is a highly readable, fair and balanced exploration of Lewis’s life and work – I found myself devouring it over a weekend.  Like the best teachers, McGrath writes clearly, explains and clarifies, and challenges preconceptions. Based on a chronological reading of Lewis’s literary output as well as a systematic analysis of Lewis’s correspondence and other personal papers, it offers new insights (including the dating of Lewis’s conversion, another victim of Lewis’s inability with numbers). Nonetheless  C.S. Lewis – A Life wears its scholarship lightly; this is a much for the general reader as the Lewis aficionado (though McGrath has also recently published a collection of academic essays on Lewis’s work). Perhaps most importantly, like the best literary biographies, C.S. Lewis – A Life sends the reader back to its subject’s writings and whets the appetite for more, with a much deepened appreciation of a sometimes flawed but remarkable writer.

You can watch Alister McGrath presenting a lecture on Lewis here. I watched it live!