C.S. Lewis: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet: A Life, by Allister McGrath
This book is one of several notable biographies of C.S. Lewis, and is written by someone outside of the circle of friends and associates that made up the first generation of Lewis biographers, who felt (and were) entitled to call Lewis “Jack,” as his friends. McGrath speaks as an outsider to the life of Lewis, and with that distance seeks to write, as near as possible, a biography that is both full of praise as well as full of honesty and integrity. The effort is a success–despite its nearly 400 pages in length, the book is a worthwhile and friendly and honest account of Lewis’ life and of the elements of his enduring popularity as an imaginative Christian intellectual. The author is sufficiently confident in his reading of Lewis’ writing, including his voluminous body of letters to others, to make notable emendations and propose novel theories for such matters of importance as the timing of Lewis’ acceptance of Christianity. Only time will tell if the author’s reasoning and reading of the evidence results in a change to these matters, or to an acceptance of Lewis’ deeply troublesome and highly furtive relationships with women, as well as a realization of some of the fundamental ironies of Lewis’ life, such as his being a childless bachelor Oxbridge don whose enduring fame rests in large part on works of popular apologetics like Mere Christianity and on children’s literature like his Chronicles of Narnia series.
In terms of its contents, the author takes a mostly chronological approach to Lewis’ life, looking at census stats to look at Lewis’ household when he was growing up, and the striking feature of there being a Protestant as well as a Catholic housemaid, which was unusual in Ulster Protestant households of the time. Such seemingly insignificant details, including a comparison of Lewis’ description of the “deceitful son” with his own shameful deceit of his father concerning his early atheism and his inappropriate attachment to the married Mrs. Moore, are skillfully woven to show the development of Lewis’ thinking and believing as well as the way in which the extraordinarily compartmentalized Lewis nevertheless had areas of his deeply private and often unconventional personal life seep into his otherwise cerebral and intellectual works with a great deal of subtle and often unrealized importance. The author does not ignore any of the complicated aspects of Lewis’ life, from his family relationships, to his life as an Oxford tutor and later a Cambridge don, from his works of literary analysis to children’s literature to apologetic works, to his warm encouragement of other writers and his article writing for British and American evangelicals, despite the fact that he was also a sociable and warm person fond of smoking and drinking and sharing the largess of good food sent from America with his impoverished British colleagues suffering likewise under lasting postwar austerity. Likewise, the author makes a point of including Lewis as a neglected influential Irish writer, neglected because of his Protestant background and his long residence in England. This is a book that manages to say something striking and new about Lewis, and that is not the easiest of tasks given Lewis’ role as a rare and notable ecumenical Christian thinker of nearly universal acclaim across denominational borders.
What we are left with in this book, for those who take the effort to read it closely, is an appreciation for Lewis’ complexity as a man, and with an appreciation for the way in which Lewis, as a fluent writer fond of rich and often subtle literary allusions, wrote works of great importance because they were both accessible to educated common people but full of depth and richness that rewards continued research and analysis . That combination of qualities is a rare one, but an important one. Part of that seems to come from the fact that Lewis was a voracious reader of works and an equally voracious writer of works, so that what he read as he absorbed the deep inner logic of the texts he was so fond of bled into his own writings, enriching the words he wrote with the logic and beauty of the words he read so passionately. Likewise, the works he wrote so well have also tended to strongly influence the expression of those who, like him, also read and write voraciously. To read a book like this is not only to seek to understand a complicated man who was an intellectual and also a friendly and sociable writer of popular works for a variety of audiences, but also, for a certain type of similarly complicated person of sprawling interests, voracious reading habits, and extreme fluency as writers, a way of understanding oneself by triangulation. No doubt, as such people continue to ponder their own place in the world, and within institutional Christianity, books as this will continue to be appreciatively read by those who have been shaped by Lewis’ own thinking and approach to matters of faith, imagination, and reason.
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