It is appropriate that I finished reading Alister McGrath’s recent work about C.S.Lewis titled A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet on a train from Budapest to Szeged.
It is appropriate for a lot of reasons. Lewis had a baptism of imagination by reading a book on a train and, were it not for Lewis, I probably would not be on this train. His impact and influence on me was so profound that I believe that God used Lewis in a big way to develop me and my calling.
I was pretty excited when I saw the tweet that announced this new examination of Lewis’ life. You may notice that I have not referred to the book as a biography. It isn’t. It is no more a biography of C.S.Lewis than one of the Gospels is of Jesus. It is so much more. McGrath lets us in on his methodology in his introduction. I was encouraged about the book when I read how he prepared to write it. He read Lewis in the sequence that his writings were written. Then he went back and read the secondary literature. I commend him for this. Primary sources in the order written, then the secondary. McGrath is an excellent scholar and I was pleased to dive head first into this. I had read Green and Hooper, A. N. Wilson and Sayer. Sayer’s Jack was my favorite. Sadly, it was lent to a student never to be seen again (if you are a former student, and have Jack in your library, and are not sure where it came from, see if it is mine will you?). Wilson’s terrible book is on my shelf, I wish it had been the one loaned to oblivion instead. Indeed, if you are looking for a pure biography, I suggest Jack by Sayer. However, I write here in praise of McGrath. If you want just Lewis’ story, the critical analysis and theological reflections in this book, while AWESOME, may be more than you are interested in. But, even having said that, this is not strictly
What is the goal of this book? It seems to me that the goal of this book is to help the serious Lewis student better understand the why behind the what. I think Lewis would approve. McGrath gives us plenty of the life and events of the man to help us understand the many and varied contexts of C.S.Lewis. Indeed, McGrath has given the best understanding yet (time is on his side… documents have been ‘recently’ uncovered) of Joy’s role in Jack’s life. If my suggestion on the purpose of the book is close to accurate, McGrath has nailed it. Nowhere, have I read anything which helps the student of Lewis understand his context. Getting context helps us get better at understanding the meaning of Lewis, and I am very sure that Lewis would have been pleased with that.
As I reflect on what I have just read, I guess I do have one fault to bring forth. If you, like me, enjoy and profit from Lewis’ essays and sermons (“God in the Dock” comes to mind), you will find precious little in this work about them or from them. There is a fair amount of information that McGrath brings in from letters, but precious little from the sermons and essays. I suppose space may have been an issue. I have this book in my Kindle apps and so I have no idea how big the book is, but with 774 footnotes (yes, 774, I did not mistype, you did not misread) this has to be a good sized book. When I get home, I will need to buy the actual book now and place it on that top shelf in the library where the books by and about Lewis reside in my office. But, back to my point, I wish in a future edition, McGrath’s insights into the essays and printed sermons would be included. I think that his insights into these resources would be helpful to us who study and learn from Lewis.
I suppose that the most significant thing I learned from this book is from McGrath’s emphasis on how important Tolkien was to Lewis and vise-versa. This is a pretty significant relationship and McGrath brought it to light, especially how they helped each others as writers in community (a book about that is on my bed table at home).
I just scrolled through the highlights in my Kindle, there are just too many to talk about.But there are three that I must mention. McGrath rightly provides the reader with a discussion about not just understanding but getting to meaning. This was important to Lewis and Tolkien. I was encouraged to read the emphasis on the “ trans-denominational” nature of Lewis’ work. Finally, I was pleased to read the discussion on how Lewis, as opposed to others who were more reason based, became a voice to Postmodernism since he emphasized imagination and story, we have much to learn here. There are other things: time, periods of time are constructs (the renaissance isn’t a fact with an objective date), and that the test of communication is the ability of a common man to understand you should provoke thought. That is what a great book does. Did I just call this a great book? Well, that is for bigger minds than mine to decide.
Oh, how I wish I had had this when I taught Mere Christianity those blessed years of arguing with eighteen-year-olds for a living (yes Bryan, you need this book. Carol, buy it for him! You too, Luke… that Ethics class needs some Lewis!) I recommend this book without reservation. It will be helpful to people who use Lewis in their teaching or in their study.
It occurs to me that this book helps in understanding the meaning of C.S.Lewis the way that F.F. Bruce’s Paul: The Apostle of the Heart Set Free did for Paul (which sits on the top shelf of the next book shelf). Yes, I just put McGrath in a league with Bruce, and yes, I just put Lewis and Paul together. Lewis will grimace, Paul will offer a high five. You simply need to read the book.
(written between Cegled and Kiskunfelhaza – sorry about the spelling)