Monday, May 25, 2015

Book Write-Up: C.S. Lewis, by Alister McGrath

Alister McGrath.  Eccentric Genius.  Reluctant Prophet.  C.S. Lewis: A Life.  Carol Steam, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 2013.  See here to buy the book.

C.S. Lewis was a teacher at Oxford and Cambridge, a scholar of English literature, a Christian apologist, and the author of fantasy, the most famous of his fantasy works being The Chronicles of Narnia.  There is so much in Alister McGrath’s biography about Lewis, that this blog post would become a book were I to mention everything that I got out of it.  Here are some items, though.

1.  Although Lewis could be a bit pretentious, McGrath’s narration of Lewis’ struggles in life certainly made him sympathetic to me.  Lewis struggled with the death of his mother, difficulty in getting along with his father, an alcoholic brother whom he still loved, horrible boarding schools, employment prospects, alienation from some of his colleagues, and feelings of inadequacy as a Christian apologist, especially since he could not convince the people closest to him to embrace Christianity.  Plus, the challenge to one of his arguments by a student expert on Wittgenstein made him feel intellectually inadequate to continue argumentative apologetics, though, as McGrath notes, Lewis did not abandon apologetics completely, for it is in the Chronicles of Narnia, on some level.  (Lewis would later say that he preferred enjoying Christianity to defending it.)  Even when Lewis was at the height of his fame, he could not really become pompous about it, on account of the struggles that he continually experienced.  Why do I say that he could be a bit pretentious?  Well, he did prefer students whom he considered interesting, and he did not always care for teaching on account of what he considered amateurish questions from his students.  I suppose that this is understandable for a well-read scholar such as Lewis, but it does sound somewhat elitist.

2.  I gained more insight into Lewis’ atheism from this biography.  I knew from Surprised by Joy that one factor behind his atheism was the death of his mother.  But, according to McGrath, Lewis also had intellectual reasons.  Lewis read old myths and wondered what made Christianity and its claims any different from them.  I am a bit vague, however, about the precise reason that he became a Christian.  Lewis was searching for joy, and he became convinced that Christianity contained the true, historical myth to which other myths were pointing, on some level.  In addition, other prominent authors were becoming Christians around that time, and Lewis felt that added a depth to their writing that was absent from certain secular works.  Lewis was coming to believe that Christianity offered a compelling way to look at life.  McGrath denies that Lewis became a Christian out of wishful thinking or primarily for emotional reasons, however, for he characterizes Lewis’ theism as rational.  Lewis himself said that it was almost as if philosophical arguments were becoming embodied before him as he thought about them, and those arguments pointed to theism.  Lewis also felt as if God were pursuing him: he mocked the platitude about man’s search for God by saying that, in his case, that would be like saying that the mouse is searching for the cat!  Did Lewis ever come up with philosophical arguments that proved the existence of God?  Not that I could tell.  I long thought that, in Mere Christianity, Lewis was trying to prove the existence of God by saying that there is a moral law, and thus a moral lawgiver, but McGrath contends that Lewis in that case was not trying to prove God’s existence.  Rather, according to McGrath, Lewis was saying that the existence of a moral law is consistent with what Christianity and theism have to say.  I respect Lewis’ spiritual journey, but I am somewhat reluctant to exclude wishful thinking as a factor behind it.  Maybe spirituality does not need hard-core proof in order to be valid, though.

3.  Many books have been written about Lewis, but what sets Alister McGrath’s book apart is his redating of Lewis’ conversion to theism and to Christianity.  McGrath questions Lewis’ own dating of those things, as well as the dating that many biographers accept.  McGrath makes his arguments by looking at Lewis’ letters.  If Lewis was becoming a theist and attending chapel in 1929, for example, why did he not mention those things then, especially after noteworthy events, such as the death of his father, occurred in that year?  But Lewis does mention those things in 1930.  While McGrath does present instances in which Lewis could fudge the truth, he does not think that Lewis does so when it comes to the dates of his conversions.  Rather, McGrath argues that Lewis simply was not good at dates, and that this problem was accentuated after he became less faithful in keeping his journal.  (Eventually, Lewis stopped keeping a journal altogether because he thought it was self-absorbed.)

4.  There were parts of the book that made me laugh at loud!  Lewis wrote a lady and told her that the trenches of World War I were better than his experiences in boarding school.  That expert on Wittgeinstein who challenged Lewis?  According to McGrath, A.N. Wilson suggested that Lewis based the White Witch in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe on her.  McGrath does not buy that, though!  And, in his later years, Lewis wore a device due to his health problems.  McGrath says on page 350: “The frequent malfunctions of this improvised device caused inconvenience and occasionally chaos to Lewis’ social life, as at an otherwise dull Cambridge sherry party which was enlivened with a shower of his urine.”

5.  The scenes that especially touched me in the book were ones in which people whom Lewis did not particularly like, or who did not care that much for Lewis, ended up helping him.  Lewis did not care for the taciturn husband of Maureen, the daughter of Mrs. Moore (who may have been his lover in his young, pre-Christian days), but he helped Lewis out when Lewis was in need.  Lewis was alienated from some of the Oxford faculty on account of his Christianity and his popular works, but one scholar (whom I vaguely recall was rather critical of Lewis) turned down a position at Cambridge so that it could go to Lewis.  Lewis did not care for the poetry of T.S. Eliot, but Eliot helped Lewis to make his Grief Observed (which is about Lewis’ grief after the death of his wife) more anonymous, which is what Lewis wanted.  (Interestingly, people recommended A Grief Observed to Lewis, unaware that he wrote it.)

6.  Lewis took meticulous notes in the books that he read.  McGrath refers to someone who contrasts that with the ease with which scholars today can do a search and find what they are looking for in a book.  Something is missing in today’s approach, that person was saying.  Back then, a person could be surprised by something in a book that he did not notice before, or that made an impression on him that it did not previously make, whereas such surprises are less likely to occur today.

7.  McGrath offers thoughts about Lewis’ relationship with various religions.  He discusses his reception within Catholicism and evangelicalism.  McGrath also tells about how Lewis encouraged the desire of one of his step-sons to convert to Judaism.  I was hoping that McGrath would explore further the aspects of Lewis’ thought that disturb some conservative evangelicals, such as Lewis’ views on the Bible and the atonement.  But McGrath did make an interesting point in discussing Lewis’ approach to the atonement.  McGrath suggests that perhaps some scholars are barking up the wrong tree when they try to place Lewis in a certain theological school, or to ascribe a particular view of the atonement to Lewis.  McGrath doubts that Lewis was deeply conversant with theological nuances about this, for Lewis’ field was English literature.  McGrath believes that medieval plays about Christ’s death, ransom of people from the power of the devil, and harrowing of hell are more helpful for understanding how Lewis depicts the atonement in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  That is an interesting thought, and there may be something to it.  I do believe, however, that Lewis was conversant with theology and theological nuances, on some level, for he did write an introduction to the church father Athanasius’ work on the incarnation (which I do not recall McGrath even mentioning).

Excellent book!

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