Pioneers of Modern Spirituality: a review

[A review first published by Fulcrum in November 2018]

Jane Shaw
Pioneers of Modern Spirituality. The neglected Anglican innovators of a “spiritual but not religious” age
Darton, Longman and Todd, 2018. Further details

What is the church’s past for? How far might it hold examples for today’s Christians, and how easily are those examples translated into our present context? This intriguing book, by the principal of Harris Manchester College, Oxford and a former cathedral dean, is one answer. Based on the Sarum Lectures for 2017, in its brief compass it demonstrates both the potential and the limitations of church history as a resource for the present church.

Jane Shaw’s aim is to show that in the early twentieth century there were Anglican figures whose life and work might be a resource now in reaching those who might think of themselves as spiritual but not religious. Before moving to Oxford earlier this year, Shaw ministered for several years in California, and she rightly notes a similarity in Anglican missional strategy on both sides of the Atlantic. Mission is too often concentrated on deepening the faith of those who are already in some way engaged with the church, she argues, to the neglect of those who are not. Are there resources within historic Anglicanism that might help engage those who might never otherwise consider crossing the threshold of a church?

Among these seekers, she argues, the things that are sought are: an engagement with the beautiful as something that points beyond the self; ways of dealing with the hyperactivity and over-connectedness of daily life; a sense of community; agency in building a juster society, and a seriousness about fundamental questions of human life. All these the tradition can provide, if only these seekers can find pathways into it.

Shaw focusses on four Anglican figures of comparable ages, all active either or both before and after the First World War, some of whom are reasonably well known, others not at all. Rarely, if ever, have they been juxtaposed in this way. The book is pithy and engagingly written and has the cardinal virtue of sending the reader back to the texts themselves, to which end there is a useful guide to further reading.

It opens with Evelyn Underhill, perhaps the most important English writer on mysticism of her generation, whose most significant books were written during a very wide-ranging intellectual journey which only later ended in Christian conviction. As both author and as a leader of retreats at a time when few women did so, Underhill stressed that spiritual experience was not the preserve of elite practitioners but could be open to all. Crucially, her practice was to allow those under her direction to use prayer and meditation on the truths that they could understand and accept as a pathway towards those doctrines which seemed more difficult. Demanding but forgiving, practical and gentle, Underhill’s example offers much of value.

More exacting was the spiritual direction of Reginald Somerset Ward, who left parish ministry to work as a ‘freelance’ spiritual director for over forty years, counting bishops and archbishops among his several hundred directees. In Ward’s stress on the importance of a regular rule of life in which prayer is the first rather than the last priority – a discipline of time and attention – Shaw finds a possible means to manage the demands of modern life. That many will find their way into the full rigour of Ward’s practice is harder to imagine.

Third among Shaw’s subjects is Percy Dearmer, and his work in the renewal of Anglican worship. Through his writings, not least The Parson’s Handbook, and through the model of St Mary Primrose Hill in London, Dearmer promoted an art of public worship (the title of another of his books) that demanded the best in all its aspects: its music, its words and its movements, its architectural and decorative setting. Shaw focusses rightly on Dearmer’s theology of beauty as articulated in Art and Religion (1924), and notes contemporary experience in San Francisco and elsewhere of the response of seekers to the arts in church settings.

This ‘high’ theology of beauty as sacrament was taken up by others, notably Walter Hussey, dean of Chichester, but not all parishes can hope that their building and their music may be beautiful (supposing for a moment that we could agree on what was beautiful in the first place). However, I would argue that Dearmer’s thought and practice also points towards a more achievable aspiration that is no less useful and likely to be as attractive in a different way: that the way in which public worship is conducted is a demonstration that it is important, that attention has been paid to it, that time and effort have been expended on it, as a means of pointing to the One to whom it is all directed.

The final chapter is on the novelist Rose Macaulay. After a conventional church upbringing, Macaulay spent nearly three decades out of contact with the church as a member, only returning to faith at the age of 69. However, she continued to draw on what she called ‘spiritual capital’, describing herself as an ‘Anglo-agnostic’ who (had it come to it) might have been an ‘Anglo-atheist’. This identification was a matter of ‘taste and affection’ but also in her ‘blood and bones’. Art, music, architecture, liturgy, the company and conversation of Christian friends (many of them clergy); all these remained sources of delight and meaning throughout. It is the existence of this spiritual capital in the British upper and middle classes that allowed Underhill, Dearmer and Ward to operate, and arguably this chapter might have been better placed first in order to frame the argument. But it is telling that Macaulay features little in Shaw’s conclusion, since we surely now face a different situation, in which that spiritual capital is not there to be drawn upon, but must be invested afresh.

Specialist historians may well be left with questions that Shaw raises, but which (quite understandably in a book of this size) it is not her aim to pursue. Shaw is quite right to draw attention to a critique of ‘institutionalism’ voiced by Underhill and Dearmer, but there is work to do yet to establish how widespread this understanding was. As well as that, I would question how far this impatience with certain aspects of the way in which churches operate can be equated with the self-conscious identification as being of ‘no religion’ that characterises our current situation. The conditions are now quite different, and to project them back risks distorting our sense of the inter-war period.

Shaw also perhaps overplays how marginal some of her subjects were. Underhill and Macaulay clearly were, but Percy Dearmer, while not holding an appointment within the Church after leaving Primrose Hill (to his discomfort), was still a widely read author, an academic in a university setting in which ordinands were trained (King’s College, London) and eventually a canon of Westminster. Somerset Ward was certainly not well known in public, but the array of the great and the good who gathered for his memorial service surely demonstrates that he was far from marginal.

More generally, the book is marred by a great many small mistakes – personal, organisation and place names misspelled, titles of books given incorrectly – which could have easily been ironed out and are a distraction. This is a shame, as Jane Shaw has brought four neglected figures to our attention again in a fresh and fertile way. This book deserves to be widely read.

Rediscovering Howard Root: a review

Theological Radicalism and Tradition: ‘The Limits of Radicalism’ with Appendices. By Howard E. Root.
Edited by Christopher R. Brewer. Pp. xii + 165. Illustrated. Abingdon: Routledge, 2018.

[An extended version of a review for the Journal of Theological Studies.]

The prominence of Howard E. Root (1926-2007) during his career is not matched by his obscurity in subsequent years. Born in the USA, he moved to the UK in 1949 after a time teaching in Egypt, and studied and taught theology and philosophy at the universities of Cambridge and Oxford before taking the chair of theology at the University of Southampton in 1966. As Christopher R. Brewer shows in his helpful introduction to this welcome volume, Root was thought to have great potential from early on in Oxford, and this repute soon spread around the Church of England. Root was appointed one of the Anglican observers at the Second Vatican Council when not yet 40, and he was subsequently called upon to serve the church of which he was a priest on successive commissions, not least that on marriage and divorce which reported in 1971, and the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission. But Root published relatively little, even for a time before the hyperactive publishing culture of the modern university, and as a result he figures hardly at all in the current literature on the period.

If his writing has been noted at all, it was for his essay that opened the 1962 volume of ‘essays concerning human understanding’ edited by Alec Vidler with the title Soundings. Root’s essay, entitled ‘Beginning all over again’, surveyed the current state and future prospects for natural theology, and was robustly dealt with in E.L.Mascall’s book-length response to Soundings, published as Up and Down in Adria (1963). While Brewer suggests (rightly) that Mascall somewhat missed the point that Root was making, his accusation that Root was proposing a wholesale abandonment of Christian tradition has to a certain extent stuck, and Soundings as a whole has been read as the catalyst to much of the ‘radical’ theology of the next decade. But, as Brewer points out, ‘Mascall did not, and should not, have the last word on Root.’ (p.14) This edition of Root’s hitherto unpublished Bampton Lectures for 1972 should go a long way to recovering the range and intentions of Root’s thought. It will be read with interest both by theologians and by historians of theology and of the religious climate of the sixties and seventies; no serious library for theology or religious history should be without it.

The eight lectures of ‘The Limits of Radicalism’, though brief in compass, are rich and suggestive, with scarcely a dull sentence. The subject is nothing less than the proper purpose of theology as a discipline, and the degree to which it, and natural theology in particular, could hope to survive in the peculiar intellectual conditions of the time. Though no theologian himself, this reviewer would imagine that Root will now find new conversation partners amongst contemporary theologians. Brewer shows in particular the synergies and continuities between Root and the work of David Brown, under whose supervision Brewer completed his graduate study at St Andrews University. Brown is, Brewer suggests, ‘in more ways than one… Root’s theological heir’ (p.20). But it is the significance of Root’s lectures in their historical context that I wish to explore in particular here.

Root was invited to give the Bampton lectures in early 1970, during what in retrospect can be seen as a hiatus between phases in the theological confrontation between radical and conservative. The initial excitement caused by Soundings and then Honest to God (1963), and Harvey Cox’s The Secular City (1965) had to an extent died down, and the controversies over the report Christian Believing and the work of John Hick (The Myth of God Incarnate, 1977), Maurice Wiles and Dennis Nineham were yet to come. And so there was some space for a stocktaking, such as in Michael Ramsey’s God, Christ and the World (1969), of which Root’s lectures were arguably a part. At the remove of a few short years, Root’s criticisms of the radical project of the preceding decade were acute. Born of a failure of nerve – a loss of confidence in the tools for theological study – the movement to ‘translate’ the message into new terms had risked the disintegration of the discipline into a set of sub-departments of history, literary criticism and other disciplines. But this left theology with nothing distinctive to do, no peculiar concerns to call its own, and for Root it was metaphysics that had been left out; in the final analysis, theology without metaphysics was largely redundant (Lectures 1 and 2).

Root was particularly alive to the significance of terminology – to the power of particular discourses, as we might now say – and there are subtle and stimulating asides, such as on the curious process by which ‘radical’ – in its etymology a restorative, backward-looking term – had become exclusively focussed on the future (Lecture 3). Similarly telling is a brief note on the idea of the need for the church to offload its ‘baggage’, a widely used and largely unexamined metaphor in the period. Root was also a prolific maker of fertile images, most particularly in his discussion of the nature of tradition (Lecture 4), which may be the part of the lectures that has the most enduring significance. It was not necessary for the church to choose between two mutually incompatible notions of tradition: on the one hand, a petrified set of texts, doctrines and symbols that could only be preserved and passed on unchanged, and on the other, tradition as a deadweight from under which the church needed to pull itself (the attitude which Mascall thought he detected in Root in 1962).

For Root, tradition is in a continuous process of being received, as Christians select those elements that are of most pressing usefulness, and in the process modify and renew them in readiness for a transmission in turn to the next generation. But this process of transmission was not linear; to look for genealogies of tradition was to misconceive its nature. Root proposes the image of multiple constellations of theological effort, an image ‘that preserves a sense of order, but at the same time not only permits diversity, but finds diversity an element in its order’ (p.67). While there may be disagreement over particular points of doctrine (individual stars in the constellation), the constellations are so interconnected such as to constitute an identifiable whole, a recognisably Christian theological universe. The suppleness of this notion of tradition was rare indeed in the theology of 1972; one wonders what Mascall would have made of it. One also wonders how the subsequent development of Anglican theology might have been different had this ‘third way’ been available.

A second major theme is connected to that of tradition: the responsibility of the Christian theologian to that tradition and to the church that receives it. The controversy over John A.T. Robinson’s Honest to God had brought into sharp relief the tension between freedom of enquiry and the responsibility of the theologian to his or her church, as had the leaving of the Roman Catholic church in 1966 by Charles Davis; an episode that Root addresses directly. Root’s notion of tradition led him to conclude that Davis, by renouncing any claim that his church might make on his work, could no longer meaningfully be called a Christian theologian, though a theologian he remained. Root adopted an analogy from the arts, from the process by which a work of art comes into being. As a painter is commissioned to fill a certain space with a work on a certain subject, so the theologian is commissioned by his church, with the constraints that that entails; the choice of materials, and the use he makes of those materials remains his prerogative, as does the opportunity to convey something of his own individual, unique sense of the message itself. At a time when the Church of England was reorganising (and reducing) its provision of theological education, and the nature of the discipline was changing in the universities, Root’s comments were timely. The church could have only limited use for the ‘freelance men’ in the universities who responded to no commission in particular.

Finally, Root’s set of lectures is remarkable for the use he makes of the arts, both as a source of the analogy explored above, and as a remedy for the ‘imaginative impoverishment’ of theology that he had identified in Soundings. The Church of England had begun in the previous two decades begun to rediscover a tradition of artistic patronage, led in large part by Walter Hussey, but this was not yet accompanied by the kind of theological engagement with the arts that characterises the work of David Brown and others in more recent years. Root, a great lover of music, makes great use of artistic metaphor as a means of understanding theology, drawing on T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden and Pierre Boulez. But he also wants to prompt theologians to look to the arts as generators of new images that reflect the experience of life in the early 1970s. Not all these images would be immediately useful to all – they were, after all, only individual stars in one of Root’s constellations – but over time these images would cluster together, be found in theological dialogue with each other, and either become part of the tradition, or (although Root does not spell the point out) be found to be useless and fall away. In this, in the context of the theology of the time, Root was advanced indeed, and foreshadows much of the more recent work on theology with and through the arts.

Readers of this volume will have reason to be grateful to Brewer for his scrupulous annotations to the text, few of which Root himself had supplied. Some of them are perhaps over-long, such as the long lists of reviews of volumes to which Root had contributed (p.29), but this reader (at least) would rather this inclusive policy than its opposite. The appendices – other essays from Root that were either obscurely published or not at all – do much to complement the main text, though the selection of correspondence relating to the non-publication of the lectures adds little and could have made way for something more substantial in what is a slim and expensive volume. These cavils aside, Christopher Brewer is to be commended for this valuable edition, which will go a long way towards the recovery of Root for which it is intended.

[There is as yet no biography of Root, but there were a handful of obituaries after his death in 2007: in the Daily Telegraph and the Church Times.]

Technologies of Religion: a review

[The version of record of this review appeared in the journal Internet Histories  ]

Sam Han
Technologies of religion. Spheres of the sacred in a post-secular modernity
Abingdon, Routledge, 2016
ISBN:978-1-138-85586-1

Technologies of Religion, by Sam Han of the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, offers both more and less than the description from its publisher would appear to indicate. Its main impact is as a work of critical social theory, and specifically concerning the cosmogonical, or ‘world-making’ qualities of contemporary religion as it meets new (and in particular, digital) technologies. Han is concerned to show that new technologies and religion come together to form ‘spheres’ (or ‘worlds’), that no longer correspond to the categories of the classical sociology of religion as associated with Durkheim or Max Weber. Gone is much of the stability and hierarchical longevity associated with authoritative institutions; Han’s spheres are in constant flux, unbounded, networked. These ‘modular assemblages’ have a kind of promiscuity, as different worlds or spheres form network connections with others, across which certain elements (traditionally separate) may ‘resonate’ according to their ‘affinities’ (p.30).

In a short review it is difficult to fully sum up Han’s theoretical argument, developed stage by stage in close dialogue with philosophers, aestheticians and sociologists and occupying very nearly half of the book’s 113 pages of text. (Particular attention is paid to Peter Berger, Mircea Eliade and John Milbank amongst others). Perhaps of most interest to readers of this journal, and historians of religion more generally, is Han’s engagement with recent readings of Max Weber, and with classic secularisation theory more generally. Students of secularisation have often tended to understand ‘religion’ and ‘technology’ as antipathetic: that the growth of new technologies, along with modernisation in general, has in general acted as a solvent of traditional religious belief and the organisations which support it; an assumption which has often been carried over into scholarship on religion and the Internet. Han wants to show that the two, far from being antipathetic, in fact exist in a relationship of mutual support which is ‘ontologically creative’ (p.31). Scholars of religion and the Web have in recent years themselves moved away from such an oppositional model of the religion/technology relationship, and have begun to unpick the ways in which religion and the Web mutually influence each other; Han’s work provides a welcome boost to that process.

Chapters 3 and 4 are an examination of some of the theoretical themes worked out in relation to Bright Church, a large ‘multi-site’ evangelical church which operates on several ‘campuses’ in the United States. Here Han seeks to show that the multi-site model of church – in which a single preacher’s message is simultaneously videocast to each campus – places traditional ideas of religious space into play in a new way. Han also examines the ways in which the presence of technological objects in the worship space may be read as constitutive of the message being conveyed. Chapter 4, examining both Bright Church’s own graphical user interface and its use of Facebook, is concerned with the nature of religious communality. It is in these two chapters where the weaknesses of the book show most clearly.

Although it is not Han’s main concern that it should be otherwise, his thesis of the ontologically creative nature of religion and technology is curiously ahistorical. This is a shame, since a greater engagement with the history of religion and the media has potential to strengthen his case. His reading of the design of the worship space and the technological fixtures and fittings within it is suggestive, but it could have benefitted from a greater consideration of the means by which earlier ‘technologies of religion’ – candles, music, paintings and sculpture, priestly vestments, liturgical vessels, and the movements of people and objects – have created the ‘atmosphere’ that he analyses in terms of projector screens and mixing desks. Similarly, the book’s analysis of the means by which identification is created between a worshipper and a physically distant preacher would bear some juxtaposition with scholarship on religious broadcasting on radio and television and its reception, or on the circulation of recordings of worship music from ‘celebrity’ worship leaders for use in the home.

More generally, this reader was left with the impression that, whilst Han’s theoretical framework may well be a fruitful one, it is by no means established from the empirical data presented, which is thin. Han focusses on Bright Church alone, which raises the question of how typical it may be of other churches, Christian or otherwise, with multi-site operations. Only some twelve pages of documentation of Bright Church are given, in which small space is included an observation of the worship at one of its several campuses as well as readings of associated Christian technological literature, and of the online church interface; Facebook is given a single page. Han asserts (p.62) that the experience presented at Bright Church New York may safely be taken as typical. Whilst clearly true of the presentation (since it is controlled from a Global Operations Center in Oklahoma), the experience is surely modified by the physical size and shape of the room, the number of people present, as well as by the use of local musicians. There is also little discussion here of the perceptions of the worshippers themselves, either those present in person in New York or engaging with Bright Church online, and also relatively little from those responsible for its leadership. A much deeper and wider empirical engagement would be needed to ground Han’s theoretical work than is on offer here.

These cavils aside, Han’s study presents many fertile lines of enquiry for historians of religion and the Web. It is well written, although it is often dense and heavy in its use of jargon terms and will tax those without a close acquaintance with the theoretical work with which it is in dialogue. At £90 for only 129 pages it may stretch some budgets, but once in hand it will repay attentive reading.

Evangelicals and sex on the Internet: a book review

Kelsy Burke
Christians Under Covers. Evangelicals and sexual pleasure on the Internet
Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2016
978-0-520-28633-7

[This review first appeared at Reading Religion. What follows is a shortened version]

Evangelicals, we are led to believe, have a problem with sex. On both sides of the Atlantic, if the mainstream media knows anything about Christians and their views on sex, it is that Christians cannot agree, and particularly on the status of gay relationships and the nature of marriage. These debates are complex, but the stereotype of the Puritan, whose conservatism covers not only the contexts in which sexual intercourse is permissible but also which forms it may take, has tended to color all evangelical thinking on sex a single shade of grey.ch-under-covers

Kelsy Burke’s new study of evangelical sexuality websites tells a new, finely nuanced and wholly convincing story. Her raw material is close readings of a group of websites — message boards, blogs, and, yes, sex toy stores — supplemented by extensive survey and interview evidence. In them Burke uncovers a “new evangelical sexual logic”, in line with an older principle: that sex is to be between married, monogamous heterosexuals. Within those bounds, however, the Christians Burke observes find spaces online in which they are available to work out, individually and in dialogue with others, the most pleasurable and fulfilling ways to enjoy their relationship with their spouse. Here is there no Manichaean duality of body and spirit, no ascetic mortification of the flesh. Users present their own prayer, personal testimonies, and interpretations of scripture in an iterative form of “lived religion,” that fills in the empty spaces within the bounds of official interpretation on matters that are rarely broached face-to-face in local churches.

For scholars of the Web and of the Internet (Burke rarely distinguishes between the two), there are many suggestive and intriguing lines of enquiry here. Acting anonymously might, on the face of it, be expected to present difficulties to the Christian. Burke’s subjects short-circuit any unease by means of a stress on the omniscience of God. One might be acting anonymously, but God is one’s witness as to the integrity with which one conducts oneself. Evangelicals have often attempted to create safe spaces and alternatives to the cultural products of a corrupt world—Christian film, Christian holidays, Christian heavy metal. Here, we see Christians creating safer stores for sex aids, in which they may be purchased without the unacceptable messaging that would surround such a sale in a secular store. Also interesting are the ways in which authority is constructed. Evangelicalism has historically been amongst the least clerical among Christian traditions in its control of which voices are heard and which may be trusted. Here, even that relatively loose emphasis on external validation by an institution is unpicked; those who create and maintain these sites do so on the basis of their marriedness, their personal piety, and their sense that they are under the gaze of an omniscient God.

If there is one area in which I would have wished to see more, it is on the nature of the Web itself. One of the governing myths of the Web is that it is a boundless space of infinite possibility, free from control, in which users and site owners may create their own reality. But each website is in fact an amalgam of conscious and unconscious design choices made by site owners, embedded in the software applications they develop themselves or license from others. These choices are made both in anticipation of and in response to the needs of users, insofar as they are known. How a website looks, and the things it allows users to do and not to do, are part of this story, into which the author might have gone further. It would have made an already fascinating and suggestive study even richer.

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.