‘The most reluctant convert in all England’

999999C.S. Lewis – A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet
by Alistair McGrath

Reviews of this most recent biography of C S Lewis published early in 2013 abound, so why bother reading another? Because this is not a review in the typical sense but rather an overview, such as one might share with a friend, accompanied by some personal comments on how  the book impacted my own thinking.

Given that Alistair McGrath is at times critical of A.N.Wilson’s own 1990 biography of C.S. Lewis, it is striking that the front cover of the new edition includes this deferential comment from the earlier biographer: ‘There have been plenty of biographies of Lewis…but I do not think there has been a better one than Alistair McGrath’s.’  What humility!  I’ve not read A N Wilson’s biography but I wholeheartedly agree with his verdict on McGrath’s.

Tim Keller is also spot on when he says that the book is ‘filled with information based on extensive scholarship but is nonetheless extremely readable’.  It is exactly that.  In fact, I could hardly put it down.  But this was perhaps due to the fact that in this biography, I finally found that the two worlds that I love, literature and Christianity could be happily reconciled instead of fighting with one another as they have done in my mind since my own reluctant conversion at university.

Sam Leith in his 2013 Guardian review points out that, ‘McGrath’s first interest is not in Lewis’s life, but in the shape and development of his thought – specifically, his religious thought.’  The book, therefore, is of particular interest to those wanting to get to grips with Lewis’s thinking, although for the super keen, this is dealt with in much greater depth in his meatier work published at the same time: ‘The Intellectual World of C S Lewis’.

McGrath describes how Lewis fitted into a group of literary scholars, also known as ‘The Inklings’,  who converted to Christianity ‘through and because of their literary interests.’  Lewis’s love of literature is not a backdrop to his conversation; it is integral to his discovery of the rational and imaginative appeal of Christianity.’  He draws the reader’s attention to the many leading writers who came to faith around the same time, ‘through reflecting on literary issues’,  citing, for example, Graham Greene who argued, according to McGrath, that ‘great literature depend[ed] upon a passionate commitment to a real world – which, for Greene, demanded a foundation in a deeper order of things, grounded in the nature and will of God’.  Apparently Evelyn Waugh said something along the same lines: that good novels rest upon the creation of realistic, believable characters and that Christian faith, which not only makes sense of the world in general, also makes the greatest sense of human nature.  McGrath supports this case alluding to the depth of insight found in the works of literary greats such as George Herbert or Pascal.  Christian readers, cautious of indulging in the luxury of the Arts, will be encouraged to see the value in doing so in the interests of better understanding their fellow-man and the created world in which they live.

The biography comprehensively covers Lewis’s Irish childhood, his turbulent schooling, his experience of the First World War and his academic career at Oxford and then Cambridge.  His extensive body of writings is described and analysed: his childhood creation of the imaginary land of ‘Boxen’, his apologetic material, his academic contribution to the field of English literature and his more familiar ‘Narnia’ series.  Alongside this we are given a detailed account of his journey from philosophical atheism to ‘mere’ Christianity.

Frequent excerpts from his diary and letters also pepper the text giving fascinating insights into his relationships particularly those with his mother, herself a voracious reader of good novels, and whom he lost early on in his boyhood;  with his father, his brother, Warnie and with the curious Mrs Moore. So as a diarist, it was amusing to read Lewis’s reflection that  ‘If Theism had done nothing else for [him], [he] should still be thankful that it cured [him] of the time-wasting and foolish practice of keeping a diary.’  Hmmm…controversial.

Views on this book seem to be hugely varied but for those with a bookish bent and a love for Christ it is an enjoyable literary ‘workout’.


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