C. S. Lewis, A Life: Eccentric Genius. Reluctant Prophet.

By Alister McGrath


A review by Dwight A. Moody


This is not a new book, but it is a good book and one that is worth the time of any person interested in the life story of the great English scholar C. S. Lewis. It was published in 2013 as part of the 50-year commemoration of the death of Lewis.


There are other biographies: by George Sayer, a personal friend of Lewis, who wrote one of the first—Jack: A Life of C. S. Lewis (1988)—with the title taken from the name Lewis selected as his own while still a child, which is why he was always know as “Jack” to his friends; by A. N. Wilson, who is not so enamored with Lewis as others—C. S. Lewis: A Biography (1990); and by Alan Jacobs, a professor at Wheaton College which houses the major repository of Lewis archives—The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis (2004).


All of these are good, and I am sure there are others; McGrath lists three more general biographies in his extensive bibliography; these are just the ones I own and have read. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, including that by McGrath. In the strength category I must note: the attention to detail and scholarly attribution, the courage to propose a revised timeline for the conversion of the famous don, a frank treatment of the Joy Davidman affair, and attention to the role of longing in the religion of Lewis.


The second of these caught my attention because, more than once in my amateur curiosity, I have been stumped by the matter of his conversion. I have read carefully all the primary sources about what happened in 1929, 1930, and 1931—helped immensely by the publication beginning in 2004 of the three-volume Letters of C. S. Lewis. I could never get it to fit.


Lewis, in his famous conversion story Surprised by Joy, dated the first step to “the Trinity term of 1929”, which would be late spring—June, to be precise. Both the Wikipedia article and the standard timeline of his life keeps to that date; but McGrath begs to differ, and I think he has a strong case. It is very likely that Lewis mis-remembers this detail, pushing back one year something that happened in the Trinity term of 1930. It was another year before his theism grew into Christianity and he began receiving communion in the college chapel.


There are many articles and books written about the role of reason and imagination in the thought of C. S. Lewis. They are the parallel rails upon which his intellectual engine traveled as it sought to navigate both the medieval world and the modern world. Most people are one or the other, but both are front and central in his life. Early on, under the influence of his teenage tutor William Thompson Kirkpatrick, reason held sway; but as the years rolled by immigration inched it way to the fore, this time under the influence of earlier writers such as George McDonald and William Morris and also his contemporaries J. R. R. Tolkien and Charles Williams.


I can say that it was his reason that grabbed my attention when I first read Lewis and kept me loyal all these years. But his influence in the wider world is largely the result of his imagination. The Screwtape Letters make him famous in America, and later The Narnia Chronicles made him famous and rich around the world.


In both, the element of longing is central. Lewis sensed this both in the medieval material of which he was master and also in his own soul, his own mind, his own imagination. The surest evidence of something unseen is the longing for it, he wrote on many occasions. Our hunger is proof that we are meant to eat, for instance.


There is a common-sense appeal to this line of reasoning, and McGrath treats it well, if briefly. “A central theme of many of Lewis’s writings is that we live in a world that is a ‘bright shadow’ of something greater and better. The present world is a ‘copy’ or ‘shadow’ of the real world” (300). McGrath illustrates this by scenes from both The Last Battle and The Silver Chair, claiming that it is central both to the Bible and also the Medieval literature so favored by Lewis.


But Lewis is wrong, or so I judge.


Without denying heaven as the abode of God or the reality of life after death, I reject this idea that our world is but a shadow of things to come. From beginning to end, the main assertion of scripture and reason is simply this: we live in the real world, and it was into this real world that Jesus came (perhaps through his own wardrobe!); and to this world Jesus will return to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.


Or as John in The Revelation puts it, “And I John saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven….and I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, ‘Behold, the tabernacle of God is with humans, and God will dwell with them and they shall be God’s people’” (21:2-3).


(November 1, 2019)