Alister McGrath on C.S. Lewis: a double review

[This review will appear later this year in the Christianity and History Forum Bulletin. This extended version is published with the kind permission of the Editor.]

Alister McGrath, C.S. Lewis. A Life (London, Hodder & Stoughton, 2013)

Alister McGrath, The Intellectual World of C.S. Lewis (Oxford, Wiley-Blackwell, 2014)

In the words of Tom Wright, former bishop of Durham, ‘many of us thought we knew most of what there was to know about C.S. Lewis’. A problem for any scholar looking to shed new light on Lewis – literary scholar, Christian apologist and creator of Narnia – is the easy accessibility of the sources. Walter Hooper’s three volume edition of Lewis’ letters contains very nearly all that are known to have survived. The vast bulk of the essays were recently edited by Lesley Walmsley for Harper Collins. As for the books, a check of my own shelves revealed copies of more than half of the list, accumulated second-hand in recent editions without any great intent or effort. Most of the fiction and much of the apologetic work remains in print. Apart from the Lewis Papers, eleven volumes of manuscript transcripts concerning Lewis’s background in Belfast, there are no significant manuscript collections associated with Lewis that remain unmined.

Yet the wheels of the Lewis Studies machine continue to turn, with study after study traversing the corpus, parsing Lewis’ work in every conceivable way. But for all the attention paid to the works as texts, Lewis seems less well integrated into the history of British Christianity in the 1940s and 1950s than he ought to be. With the exception of Dorothy L. Sayers, also a writer of fiction and apologetics from within the Church of England but on its edge, Lewis seems without easy parallel, and hard to locate.

Lewis is particularly hard to place since, as Walter Hooper observed, there is not one Lewis but several. Most readers will be familiar with Narnia, but perhaps less so with the science fiction of the Ransom trilogy (1938-45), or the fictionalised retelling of classical myth in Till we have faces (1956). Many readers, although perhaps not quite the same readers, have experienced Lewis as Christian apologist and popular theologian, most famously as a wartime broadcaster and in Mere Christianity (1952). Few modern readers will know Lewis’ academic writing on medieval and Renaissance literature, such as his work on Milton’s Paradise Lost, for which he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature long before Narnia. In common with Lewis’ colleagues at Oxford, those who know all three may well struggle to connect them.

McGrath - Intellectual World of Lewis - cover

Now we have two fine complementary studies of Lewis from historian and theologian Alister McGrath. The aim common to both is to integrate the many Lewises, and to show that the many sides of Lewis’ thought can, and must, be read as springing from the same set of fundamental preoccupations. In this McGrath is wholly successful, and both studies will surely establish themselves as essential reading.

From Wiley-Blackwell comes The Intellectual World of C.S. Lewis, a collection of eight essays: fine contributions to the history of ideas in its pure form, and of considerable interest to specialist historians. There are acute and stimulating observations on Surprised by Joy as autobiography cast in a Christian mould, and its reliability as a source for historians. There are two particularly fine chapters showing the long-range influence on Lewis of the tradition of classical, medieval and early modern literature. The first of these re-emphasises the importance of myth for Lewis, and of understanding Christianity as foremost a true myth; the apologetic task was not merely about the cerebral apprehension of certain propositions, but about engaging the imagination. This is an important counter-balance to the plain man Lewis and the plain prose of the wartime apologetic. Perhaps the most striking piece is on Lewis’ use of metaphor, and the privileging of ocular metaphors, of light, sun, sight. McGrath brilliantly contrasts this with the weight of Protestant metaphor which is aural – of hearing the Word – to which Lewis the Ulsterman might have been more disposed.

Lewis - Life - McGrath cover

Published by Hodder is C.S. Lewis. A Life. While it may not surprise specialists in matters of fact, as a Life written for a general readership this will be hard to better. McGrath adroitly steers through the ‘meteoric shower of facts’ that have accumulated around Lewis, giving a pacy account of Lewis’ career, integrated carefully with the genesis of the works. There are pithy expositions of the key works, which send the reader back to the writings themselves as good criticism should. Particularly fine are the accounts of The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933), and of A Grief Observed as a transposition of the abstract concerns of The Problem of Pain into a much higher and more painful key.

McGrath also avoids the temptation to psychoanalyse Lewis overmuch, particularly given the curiously unresolved traumas of Lewis’ experience: in the trenches in the First World War; the loss of his mother; the oddity of his relationship with Mrs Moore; and the marriage of convenience with Joy Davidman. Only occasionally is an odd note sounded. The detailed exposition of the Narnia series in chapter 12 is overlong in relation to McGrath’s treatments of the other works, and feels like a long interlude in the narrative. Occasionally some of the detail is incongruous: ‘the Minto’, Lewis’ nickname for Mrs Moore, may well be connected with the sweet of the same name (p.84); but it isn’t clear why the reader needs to know who invented it, when and where (the Doncaster confectioner William Nuttall, in 1912).

As McGrath points out, on one point he stands alone amongst Lewis scholars: his redating of Lewis’ initial conversion from atheism to theism, from 1929 to 1930, which to this reviewer seems wholly convincing. Historians of Christianity are provided with few enough detailed accounts of individual paths to conversion, and of those few as idiosyncratic as that of Lewis. As such, the redating is welcome and important. Several of the early reviews also identify this as the major piece of new biographical light to be seen here. At the same time, it is a redating of an event in a sequence of events rather than a reordering of that sequence; and the redating does not affect our understanding of the composition of any of the works, other than to show that Lewis’ own account in Surprised by Joy is itself wrong.

There are both advantages and disadvantages to the separation into two volumes. The placing of much of the detailed exposition of Lewis’s intellectual context in The Intellectual World allows rich and nuanced writing that would be difficult to integrate successfully into a chronological narrative. However, the removal of that contextual material leaves the Life rather denuded of very much context that was not contained within Lewis’ head, the Bodleian Library, and a square mile of central Oxford. The impact of the Second World War is limited only to its effect on college life; the ‘low dishonest decade’ that was the Thirties hardly figures. There is also little sense of the wider currents of thought and feeling in post-war British life that together constitute the much-disputed idea of secularisation, apart from its manifestation within Oxford philosophy. Lewis may have self-consciously positioned himself as a dinosaur; but readers of the Life without access to The Intellectual World may need to know rather more about the elements of contemporary discourse with which Lewis was out of sympathy. In both volumes, McGrath correlates the apparent eclipse of Lewis’s thought with the rise of secularism, and then his recovery of influence with the sway of postmodernism. This is entirely plausible, but the suggestion is made without engagement to any great extent with the large and well developed historical literature on both.

Another odd note is sounded in the chapter in The Intellectual World on Lewis as theologian. McGrath is determined to show that Lewis counts as a theologian, and that any definition of the role that would exclude him is a faulty definition. To this reader, at least, this feels very much like pushing at a long-open door. Historically, McGrath tries to show that the theological establishment in Britain tried to exclude Lewis, but at the end of the chapter it remains unclear just who was doing the excluding, from what, and by what means. Undoubtedly there was opposition to, not to say distaste for Lewis in Oxford; but the most waspish character assassination I know of is in the letters of Hugh Trevor-Roper, hardly part of the theological establishment. The bewilderment amongst Lewis’ colleagues at the wartime apologetic was not that it did not pass muster as “theology”, but that he should want to write such stuff at all. By and large Lewis didn’t concern himself with the issues that were preoccupying Oxford divinity; the story is surely one of mutual ignorance, rather than deliberate exclusion.

The final chapter offers an analysis of Lewis’ afterlife, providing a highly suggestive outline of what a reception history of Lewis might look like. It is indeed striking that Lewis, no evangelical, should be thought theologically unsound by Martyn Lloyd-Jones in the year of his death, yet go on to achieve something approach star status amongst evangelicals, particularly in the USA. As with the earlier chapters, however, there is a relative lack of engagement with recent historical scholarship on the period, leaving historians with many threads to pick up and examine more closely. It is to be hoped that they do, along with much else in these splendid volumes.

About these ads

One thought on “Alister McGrath on C.S. Lewis: a double review

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s