C.S. Lewis: A Life, by Alister McGrath – Book Review

9781414339351_p0_v2_s260x420For as long as I can remember I the world of Narnia has captivated me. I have read the story of the Pevensie children and those that came after them literally hundreds of times throughout my childhood and into my adult years. I was the girl who consistently checked the back of her closet (I didn’t have a wardrobe) with the hope that I would meet Aslan or enjoy afternoon tea with Mr. Tumnus. I would offer up a brief prayer to God, reasoning that if he could do anything he could send me to Narnia, and then plunge behind my clothes. Sadly, I never got through, but I never gave up trying either.

As I grew older I discovered that the author of the Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis, wrote many other books, both fiction and non-fiction. Lewis was already my friend through Narnia, and I grew to appreciate him on a deeper level as I read his other works, such as: Mere Christianity, The Space Trilogy, An Experiment in Criticism (less popular, but one of my favorites), God in the Dock, and Miracles. Lewis quickly became my literary hero. He communicated in ways that resonated with my intellect and my imagination.

It came as no surprise that when Alister McGrath – one of my apologetic heroes – chose to write a biography on C.S. Lewis entitled C.S. Lewis: A Life, I waited eagerly for its publication and then for my copy to come in the mail (thanks Amazon). Having studied under McGrath in Oxford – Lewis’s long-term and my short-term home – made my excitement all the more palpable. Into my hands in Wisconsin came a book about one of my favorite people, written by one of my favorite people, located predominantly in my favorite city.

Many excellent and insightful reviews are available on McGrath’s biography of Lewis, pointing out that McGrath sheds new light on the date of Lewis’s conversion to Christianity, his complex relationship with Mrs. Moore, and his influence on J.R.R. Tolkien completing The Lord of the Rings. All of these reviews leave me hesitant to add my voice. Yet I’ve noticed that for all their praise or criticism, there are a few elements that are crucial to the biography they fail to discuss.  There are three main areas of McGrath’s C.S. Lewis: A Life that deserve mention and which cause me to recommend this book to you.

Faith and Apologetics

Of the reviews I read, the majority tended to downplay McGrath’s emphasis on Lewis’s Christian faith and insinuated that because McGrath shares that faith, his biography was colored. Yet this is one of the book’s strengths. It is precisely the Christian faith both McGrath and Lewis discovered, turning to Jesus Christ from Atheism, that enables McGrath to emphasize this aspect of Lewis’s life in a meaningful way.  A Life shows that the Christian faith of Lewis not only defined who he was, it defines how he’s received today. As McGrath notes in the preface: whether one thinks Christianity is good or bad; it is clearly important – and Lewis is perhaps the most credible and influential popular representative of the ‘mere Christianity’ that he himself championed.[1] Any biography of Lewis that does not take his faith seriously is not a true biography of the man. Therefore, McGrath’s emphasis on Lewis’s conversion and how Christianity shaped his life marks this biography with the stamp of credibility.

It was the confidence Lewis discovered in his Christian faith that led him down the path to become a notable apologist. Perhaps his most well-known quote – and McGrath’s favorite- is this: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”[2] McGrath manages to show how this conviction that the Christian message not only made sense, but made sense of everything else, shaped how Lewis lived and shared his faith. McGrath takes great care to show Lewis’s development as an apologist. As one who has come to appreciate the apologetic value of Lewis’s writing in defending Christianity, I appreciated this emphasis on how Lewis grew and developed into ‘mere Christianity’s’ champion. Whether it was his wartime broadcasts on Christianity, his insights into the problem of pain, his defense of miracles, or his conviction that Christianity was the ‘true myth,’ Lewis’s legacy as an apologist lives on through McGrath’s biography.

Intellect and Imagination

The second important theme that runs through McGrath’s biography is Lewis’s intellectual and imaginative development, specifically in relationship to his writings. We live in a world that places a barrier between academic, intellectual pursuits and the pursuit of imagination. We place stories for children about fauns on the bottom shelf of significance and works on difficult topics only a few can understand on the top shelf. Yet Lewis showed the world that the marriage of deep intellect and a vibrant imagination can produce works that break down intellectual and experiential barriers.

McGrath takes pains to note that Lewis believed “the important thing about authors is the texts they write. What really matters is what those texts themselves say. Authors should not themselves be a ‘spectacle’; they are rather the ‘set of spectacles’ through which we as readers see ourselves, the world, and the greater scheme of things of which we are a part.”[3] Lewis believed authors should never overshadow their books, and McGrath seeks to engage with Lewis’s books in this way when possible. This biographical approach may leave some wishing for more details about certain aspects of Lewis’ personal life or more information about the motives behind his works. Yet it honors Lewis by using the same method of analysis on his texts that he advocated using on others. While it is almost impossible not to see the significance certain life circumstances had on Lewis’ writings (did he write Narnia as a retreat from apologetics after losing a debate?) McGrath manages to craft his narrative in a way that thoughtfully takes the ‘spectacle’ and the ‘set of spectacles’ into account.

Weakness and Grace

The final important theme I want to highlight that runs throughout C.S. Lewis: A Life is that of weakness and grace. McGrath does not shy away from Lewis’s shortcomings, neither portraying him as a saint nor a villain. He honestly shows that Lewis the man had many flaws. He was prone to deceit, lived in questionable relationships with more than one woman, and demonstrated a weak character on numerous occasions. In all honesty, reading certain aspects of Lewis’s behavior filled me with disappointment. My literary hero did not always act the part. Sometimes he was more like pre-Aslan Edmund or Eustace than faithful Lucy or Reepicheep.

While I was left disappointed in Lewis’s humanness, this again is one of the strengths in McGrath’s biography. Here we see a man who was not perfect, yet discovered a confidence in the Christian faith that transcended his faults and failures. As McGrath pointed out in a recent lecture – Lewis was a sinner, but he was a sinner saved by grace. Rather than his shortcomings, it is the grace he found that defined his life and produced in him an enduring legacy that has grown in the 50 years since his passing. McGrath’s biography allows the reader to see the thread of grace that was woven through Lewis’s life, shaping who he was: his mind, imagination and faith in God. McGrath shows that it was grace that brought a man who once denied God’s existence to turn to God in faith, and then near the end of his life to suggest, we are “like a seed patiently waiting in the earth: waiting to come up a flower in the Gardener’s good time, up into the real world, the real waking. I suppose that our whole present life, looked back on from there, will seem only a drowsy half-waking. We are here in the land of dreams. But cock-crow is coming.”[4]

Tonight I may knock on the back of my closet for old time’s sake. But if nothing happens, like Lewis, I can look forward to the Gardener someday calling me further up and further in to the real waking. In the meantime, I’ll read some of Lewis’s works and urge you to read McGrath’s biography, C.S. Lewis: A Life. Your intellect and imagination won’t be disappointed.

For further reviews on McGrath’s biography, see the following:

The Telegraph

[1] McGrath, Alister. C.S. Lewis: A Life, Tyndale House, Carol Stream, 2013: p. xi

[2] Lewis, C.S. The Weight of Glory, Harper One, New York, 1980: p. 140

[3] C.S. Lewis: A Life, p. xv

[4] Ibid, p. 360


3 thoughts on “C.S. Lewis: A Life, by Alister McGrath – Book Review

  1. Pingback: C.S. Lewis: A Life, by Alister McGrath – Book Review | Penny of a … | ChristianBookBarn.com

  2. Very well said, Sarah. 🙂 I was just thinking of you and your closet searching the other day. 😉
    I used to be rather disappointed, learning of the “clay feet” of most of the “greats”… but now I am encouraged to see how God worked through them and in them (knowing the darkness of my own heart only too well) in spite of the things with which they struggled. Seeing the mercy, grace, and love with which He has worked in each individual believer in every generation, in every era of the world, is amazing. Even fraught with humanity’s foibles. It seems that some blinders just don’t come off until eternity, for all of us in different ways, no matter how we feebly seek to grow in Christ’s truth. No one and nothing is ever perfect this side of Heaven, seeing as we do “through a glass darkly”. But nothing is outside His reach and sovereignty. How amazing it will be someday, looking back in the clarity of His light! I’ll like to read this book sometime. 🙂

  3. Pingback: Really Recommended Posts 10/11/13- Worldview, Wilberforce, and World [Religions]! Plus some more! | J.W. Wartick -"Always Have a Reason"

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