If you’ve been following the blog of late, you’ve probably noticed that I’m on something of a C.S. Lewis kick. A major part of that kick has been my reading of Alister McGrath’s new biography C.S. Lewis – a Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet. And let me say, the book is outstanding! I really can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s a page-turner. Couldn’t put it down.
Alister McGrath wrote this book for the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Lewis’ 1963 death, and McGrath is just the right man for the job. He makes excellent use of his well-honed skills as an historian to master the primary and secondary literature and produce a thorough account of Lewis’ life and work. McGrath is no second-rate wordsmith himself; I was constantly impressed by his literary ability and engaging style.
When the subject is a man like Lewis, you may wonder whether a new biography is warranted. What could be said to advance the discussion by making an original contribution to our knowledge of Lewis’ life. His life and his work have been scrutinized. Nevertheless, McGrath makes a fresh and compelling argument for why he thinks Lewis got the date of his own conversion to Christianity wrong in Surprised by Joy. McGrath suggests that Lewis was converted in 1930 rather than the 1929 date Lewis gives in his autobiography. What? You are shocked and amazed at the gall of a biographer who thinks he knows better than Lewis the date of such a major turning point in Lewis’ own life? Well, you won’t be surprised to find that not everyone agrees. I do find McGrath’s argument very sensible and persuasive, though I won’t repeat here. You’ll just have to read the book (or this summary).
Life and Literature
One feature of the book that I like very much is that is not only organized into key periods of Lewis’ life, it is also organized around his key works of literature. Lewis was a major author; it only makes sense that his biography should be organized with a view to important writings. This is a real strength of the book. There are sections devoted to many of Lewis’ numerous well-known works like Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain, and The Screwtape Letters, to name only a few. So, if there’s a particular work or works of Lewis in which you are especially interested, you can flip over to those sections and read them in whatever order you please. I read the first chapter and then, since I’ve also been reading the Chronicles or Narnia, skipped forward and read chapters 11 and 12, which are all about Lewis and Narnia, before going back to read the remaineder of the book straight through. This is a great feature of the book that means I will be consulting it in the future as a reference work on various of Lewis’ writings. I anticipate turning to it again and again.
A Real Man
It is very easy to idolize great writers. When you read only the sublime ideas of brilliant thinkers that have been revised, reworked, refined, and rewritten many times before publication, you may begin to think more highly of them than you ought. Lewis is one of those writers. You can read his work and come away wanting to think he can write no wrong, that he is perhaps more than a man. McGrath’s biography is an excellent corrective to such idolizing tendencies. Lewis was a genius; there’s no doubt. But he was also a real person. He had his struggles and his weaknesses. He was a sinner. He knew it. We should, too. When you read this biography, you will not find the mere Lewis that you encounter in the final published editions of his works. You will find instead a complex Lewis, one who sometimes devised elaborate deceptions of family members; you will find a Lewis who was sometimes treated unfairly; who was occasionally frustrated by his students; and who fled from God only to be finally overtaken. You will find a man who was not only exceptionally gifted but rigorously disciplined. You will find one whose gifts and discipline led him to see the big mystery that most of us miss. You will discover how his writings were shaped both by success and failure. You will find a real man, and you will find someone whose life is, for that very reason, inspiring.
As I said, I can’t recommend this book highly enough. If you are interested in Lewis, you must read this book. If you don’t normally read biographies, give this one a try. I’m not a big reader of biographies myself. This book made me want to read more in the genre. It’s that good. When you read the book, leave a comment and let me know what you thought of it.