On being haunted by Owen Chadwick

Most contemporary historians, I suppose, have had the experience of meeting the dramatis personae about whom one is writing. In a recent conference paper, I discussed a 1965 encounter between Michael Ramsey and a leading Anglican evangelical, now retired to Oxford, and in the audience. With perfect courtesy he disagreed with my analysis, but did unwittingly point me in the direction of an additional source, now worked into the paper, which is much the better for it.

What, however, do you do when the author of the main secondary work in your field was also a participant in the events which he describes? Even worse: what if that author is the (now retired) Dixie professor of ecclesiastical history, and then regius professor of modern history at Cambridge, and president of the British Academy? Such is my vexed relationship with Owen Chadwick, holder of all these offices, and author of the standard Life of Michael Ramsey.

One would need to read the book carefully to notice (such is his self-effacement), but Chadwick was involved at the very centre of the events he describes. Chadwick was a member of the Church of England’s commission on synodical government, and chairman of the influential commission on church and state which reported in 1970. While Ramsey was archbishop of York, the two men were part of the same delegation to Moscow to meet leaders of the Russian Orthodox church in 1956.

Even less well known was their contact over scholarly matters. Ramsey read and appreciated Chadwick’s The Victorian Church. He also sought Chadwick’s counsel on the draft pamphlet Image Old and New, Ramsey’s reply to John Robinson’s Honest to God, which Chadwick gave in in a state of ‘doubt and difficulty’.

It would help, of course, if one could say that Chadwick’s book was a bad one; or even that it was now unsatisfactory by dint of age and the changing state of the field. Of course (as I am bound to say) there is more to say on Ramsey. Chadwick doesn’t deal directly with the debates about secularisation and the Sixties that have been prompted by Callum Brown in recent years. He also tends to underplay the force and significance of conservative opinion, and particularly conservative evangelicalism. More prosaically, having been completed before the Ramsey Papers at Lambeth Palace Library were catalogued, the book has no references to the papers which a scholar could follow.

Despite all this, it isn’t a bad book or even an inadequate one. More than one person suggested to me that I would have my work cut out to supersede it, since it is a fine piece of work; and that is my problem. If, as A. N. Whitehead put it, all western philosophy has been but footnotes to Plato, then at times writing about Ramsey has felt like so many minor adjustments and refinements to Chadwick’s overall picture. Many times have I seized with glee upon a chink of new light, only for a check to reveal that Chadwick had it covered, even if obscured by an inadequate thematic index.

Even the style is a problem. There is a mandarin quality to Chadwick’s writing; of the wise doings of a great and sensible man among other sensible men of a similar age and class. Matters are just so; courses of action are obvious once the right minds had been brought to bear on an issue. This style tends to flatten out some of the turmoil of the period, the very present sense of crisis in British religion. This much can be refined, finessed, disrupted. But the prose style is seductive too, somehow making matters so plain that it disarms criticism. In fact, I found myself having to examine my own prose for traces of Chadwick; more than once have I unwittingly reproduced one of his sentences, so aptly had it summed up the matter in hand.

Perhaps all this is merely a symptom that I have lived with the book for too long; nothing that a change of focus or a stiff dose of more bracing reading wouldn’t sort out. It helped that I eventually realised that I didn’t need to replace Chadwick’s book at all; better simply to receive it gratefully as a foundation on which to build. But I would be intrigued to hear of other historians’ relations with similar monumental works in their fields, if they were prepared to share their thoughts.

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.

Alister Chapman on John Stott: a review

It was a great pleasure to see my review of Alister Chapman’s study of John Stott appear in Reviews in History (for which, incidentally, I am apparently the single most prolific reviewer; answers on a postcard as to whether this is a Good or Bad Thing.) I digest some of my main points below, but as some of them are criticisms, let me say to begin that overall I thought it  ‘a model of engaged, sympathetic yet critical scholarship which is sure to find a wide readership.’

I began by reflecting a little on the recent controversy concerning Andrew Atherstone and David Ceri Jones’ splendid collection of essay on Martyn Lloyd-Jones, on which I blogged here, and which tells us important things about Christian biography as a scholarly exercise:

‘Historians who would assess the careers of contemporary religious leaders are on a hiding to nothing. [Atherstone and Ceri Jones’ book] has been excoriated both for slighting the memory of a revered figure and for asking the wrong questions. In the first case, some reviewers have shown, [in the words of Carl Trueman], an ‘apparent absolute commitment to maintaining a fundamentally uncritical, defensive and hagiographical approach [to Lloyd-Jones and his reputation that] does the church no favours’.  For Iain Murray, one of Lloyd-Jones’ biographers, there is little point [to historical reflection on The Doctor] without attempting to assess whether Lloyd-Jones was right in his theology. [History] that avoids the truth claims of its subject fails the basic test of utility for the Christian reader.
‘That religious biography has been made to carry greater weight than other such writing is of course not new. […] For many, Christian lives are to be exemplary, and as such the biographer is faced with a peculiar set of expectations among potential readers.[…] it may be that Chapman has navigated through the obstacles as well as could possibly be hoped. Chapman’s title is Godly Ambition, and the leitmotiv throughout is the tension between Stott’s natural assumption of his capacity for leadership, and the self-effacement customary in the exemplary Christian life. [..] Stott was ambitious that God’s kingdom on earth be fostered, but within that framework, ambition for one’s own personal success was legitimate, and indeed desirable, ad maiorem Dei gloriam. At the same time, Stott’s very human struggle with his pride in his own achievements is sympathetically and expertly handled, and Chapman is clear-sighted and frank about the tactical mistakes and intellectual diversions inevitable in a long career in the public eye.

My main criticisms concerned the place given to the rest of the Church of England, the non-evangelical majority:

‘Consider the phrase on p. 90: Chapman argues that, despite Stott’s definitive turn towards engagement with the Church of England, […] he nonetheless never became the kind of “theologically fuzzy ecclesiastical pole-climber” which (we are to understand) was common elsewhere in the Anglican church. It was, and is, a regular rhetorical device to set evangelical ‘clarity’ and ‘certainty’ in theology against liberal vagueness and doubt; but an author more attuned to the breadth of discourse in the Church of England would have hesitated over such a phrase.

On the failure of the Church of England to make Stott a bishop, despite the growing numerical strength of evangelicals within the Church of England:

‘Chapman, like [Timothy] Dudley-Smith, puts Stott’s exclusion down to Michael Ramsey, archbishop of Canterbury, and his reputed antipathy towards evangelicals. But to regard the episcopate in these quasi-parliamentary terms – as a representative body chosen according to the weight of party numbers in the wider church – is to miss the point. (That role was, in theory, fulfilled by the Church Assembly and its successor the General Synod, for election to which bodies Stott refused to stand.) In a theologically mixed church, with territorial governance by parish and diocese, the test for a bishop was not his particular churchmanship, but his ability to gain the confidence of all the parties represented on his patch. And for all Stott’s success in shifting the centre ground within the evangelical constituency, when viewed from outside he still appeared to be a party man. […]

More generally:

‘It is a besetting sin of evangelical historiography to talk only to itself, an isolation that sometimes results in a lack of proportion. […] Largely absent are voices from outside the evangelical constituency, in connection with Stott in particular and evangelicals in general, and the book would have been enriched by a greater sense of them.’

All this said, when judged on its own terms the book could hardly be bettered. And it is also encouraging that OUP could be persuaded to publish it, and that we have in place another key plank in our growing understanding of a pivotal time in evangelical history.