C.S. Lewis: A Life (In Review)

Derek Ouellette —  January 26, 2013 — Leave a comment

C.S. LEWIS – A LIFE: ECCENTRIC GENIUS. RELUCTANT PROPHET.
Alister McGrath
5 Stars (out of 5)
Kindle . Hardcover

Do we really need another book on C.S. Lewis? If such a book were to be written it would have to do several things.

  • It would have to take advantage of the recently published hundreds of personal letters of C.S. Lewis, including a document that recently come to light previously unknown recommending Tolkien for the Nobel Prize – see below.
  • It would need to shine new light on old assumptions.
  • It should be well written and engaging.
  • It would need to be timely, like say, written 50 years after Lewis’s death.
  • Finally, it would need to stand apart by breaking new ground in a vital area of Lewis’ life.

Fortunately McGrath’s new biography does all of these and more.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the passing of C.S. Lewis back in 1963. So we have an exciting opportunity to take a fresh look at a familiar face, and I think no book will have accomplished this more by the end of the year, than Alister McGrath’s (except, perhaps, his second one on Lewis also coming out this year).

In C.S. Lewis – A Life McGrath cordially waltzes into sacred territory and overturns some of the tables of Lewis’ biographers, and even at one point of Lewis himself. In fact, McGrath begins to sound much like Jesus at this point: “You’ve heard it said… but I say…”. It’s an echo repeated several times throughout the book (p. 152, 186, 254, 329, etc.), most significantly at the point of Lewis’ conversion where McGrath challenges Lewis’ own testimony. But we’ll get to that.

SOME THINGS UNCOVERED

First I’d like to highlight some things about Lewis that I personally had not known. I’ve read a few light biographies of Lewis in the past, so these points may not be new to you.

He couldn’t do math to save his life, literally.

I was surprised to discover that Lewis was so terrible at math, especially in light of the fact that math was an area his mother excelled in. In fact, Lewis was so bad at math that it would be no exaggeration to say that he couldn’t do math to save his life. Literally. Terrified to be in the trenches during the Great War, and knowing his chances of surviving the war were better if he was an artillery officer, but also knowing that the Royal Artillery required knowledge of mathematics, he vied for the distant gunner position. Lewis wrote to his father:

“[My] chances of getting into the gunners [were low, as they recruited only officers] who had some special knowledge [algebra] of mathematics.” (p,54)

Still, Lewis was determined and made special and private arrangement to be tutored in algebra under John Edward Campbell. In the end Lewis would be sent to the trenches. His determination to learn the required math to avoid the more likely death in the trenches failed. Of course he survived the trenches. But the point stands. When it seemed his life rested in his ability to do math, he couldn’t cut it.

Some shocking sexual discoveries.

For some reason you just don’t expect certain things from your heroes. I don’t know why what McGrath reveals in this book was shocking to me. After all, Lewis was just like any other person prior to his conversion. It should be pointed out that I’m highlighting merely what McGrath passes over. This is my fascination, not his.

At a party in 1917 Lewis got himself “royally drunk.”

“Disinhibited under the influence of what were clearly substantial quantities of alcohol, Lewis unwisely let slip his growing interest in sadomasochism, which he had already confided a little shamefully to Arthur Greeves. Lewis recalls that he went around imploring everyone to let him ‘whip them for the sum of 1s. a lash.'” (p.61)

Arthur Greeves was Lewis best friend. Their friendship would last the span of Lewis’ life and most of his personal confessions are found in letters sent to Greeves. Lewis began to read at this time erotic writings and enjoyed in particular books dealing with “pleasure beating.” In a letter he wrote to Arthur Greeves, he apologized for having written it “across my knee” only to find the phrase triggered “distracting erotic associations in his mind.” This is a quote from that letter Lewis wrote to Greeves:

“‘Across my knee’ of course makes one think of positions for Whipping: or rather not for whipping (you couldn’t get any swing) but for that torture with brushes. This position, with its childish, nursery associations wd. have something beautifully intimate and also very humiliating for the victim.” (p.62)

McGrath says that in Lewis’ Oxford letters it is clear that these fantasies, although mostly of women, was something he was willing to extend to men. MaGrath goes on to expound on these points. But I just want to highlight one more significant point. How does Lewis react when his best friend, Arthur Greeves, confesses that he is probably a homosexual? It is a question of relevance in our day and age.

“Greeves wrote to Lewis, confiding that he realized he was probably homosexual, something that Lewis had most likely already guessed. Lewis’s response to Greeves’s confession shows a surprising tolerance towards this development.”

He goes on to quote Lewis:

“Congratulations old man. I am delighted that you have had the moral courage to form your own opinions <independently,> in defiance of the old taboos…”

But, McGrath suggests, “[i]t is possible that a close reading of this letter led Greeves to realise that Lewis had subtly indicated that he did not share his sexuality.” (p.72)

Other things of interest.

I already wrote on some of the other points I found interesting, including his debate with a woman philosopher named “Anscombe”, what McGrath had to say about Lewis’s atonement theme in Narnia, and “The Women of C.S. Lewis.” In that latter article I forgot to mention that while Lewis would certainly be behind the times compared to today regarding the roles of men and women – in Narnia the two sons of Adam are given leadership roles – he was certainly progressive for his own day. The lead human character in the Narnia series was, after all, a young woman who has a special connection with Aslan and is the first to discover Narnia (p.178 ff).

Academically I found it interesting that Lewis believed that the Renaissance never happened. (p.316)

I also found it interesting that Winston Churchill recommended C.S. Lewis for “the Commander of the Order of the British Empire,” an honour just below Knighthood. I was all the more surprised that Lewis turned it down.

Now this one is really interesting: As recently as last year a Lewis-mystery has been solved. In 1961 Lewis wrote a letter to a former student asking whom he should nominate for the 1961 Nobel Prize in Literature. But that was the first and last anybody heard of that conversation. Then in January of 2012 the archives of the Swedish Academy for 1961 opened up to scholars. It was discovered that Lewis had nominated Tolkien for the Nobel Prize.

There is something poetically sad about this. See, the relationship between Lewis and Tolkien had cooled by this point in Lewis’ life, mostly on Tolkien’s part (among other things, Tolkien believed Lewis stole ideas from The Lord of the Rings for his Narnia series without due credit). But Lewis’s admiration for Tolkien had not cooled. Sadly it is unlikely Tolkien ever knew that Lewis had nominated him for the Nobel Prize. (p.352)

Finally I found it fascinating that Lewis’s death would be completely eclipsed by another event. At the same time that Lewis fell out of his bed dead of a heart attack in England, “President John F. Kennedy’s motorcade left Dallas’s Love Field Airport, beginning its journey downtown. An hour later, Kennedy was fatally wounded by a sniper.” (p.358)

THE TO-BE LEGACY OF MCGATH’S BIOGRAPHY

Given all of that information, the true legacy of McGrath’s biography of Lewis lay not in all of these little details, but in his re-dating of Lewis’ conversion from atheism to theism. On the back of the book Michael Ward writes:

“McGrath’s book will gain a permanent position in Lewis scholarship for his brilliant and, to my mind, undeniable re-dating of Lewis’s conversion to Theism. How we all missed this for so long is astounding!”

McGrath devotes a rather substantial section to this subject. One wonders with Ward how we could all miss the evidence that McGrath points to when he says that Lewis converted a year after the received date. The answer lays in the fact that Lewis provided his own conversion date – 1929, leaving his biographers little reason to investigate. But McGrath found reason to question this date, and it lead him to 1930.

“In preparing for this biography, I read all of Lewis’s published works in their order of composition. At no point in Lewis’s writings of 1929 did I discern any signs of the dramatic developments that he describes as having taken place in his inner life that year. There is no hint of a change in tone or tempo in any works written up to January 1930. Furthermore, Lewis makes it clear that, as a result of his conversion, he began to attend church and college chapel. There is no trace of such a significant – and publicly observable – change of habit, either as a topic of conversation or discussion, in his correspondence of 1929. Even allowing for Lewis’s reluctance to self-disclose, his writings of this period do not point to any kind of conversion experience in 1929. As we shall see, however, his writings of 1930 tell a very different story.” (p.141)

He goes on to muster evidence concluding that Lewis converted to theism a year later than Lewis said he did (pointing out the fact that in a) 1927 Lewis stopped journaling, b) that he wrote his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, near the end of his life, c) he was attempting to recall by memory and that, d) according to Lewis’s friends, Lewis did not have the best memory to recall past events and dates).

McGrath also musters a great deal of evidence – that I found convincing – to suggest that Lewis’s conversion to Christianity was also a year later. It is normally said that Lewis’s brother Warnie verifies Lewis’ conversion date to Christianity, but Warnie’s testimony was based on Surprised by Joy. It was not based on his own memory, making using Warnie’s testimony circular. In the end, however, McGrath writes, “The best solution at present is to allow the traditional date of Lewis’s conversion to Christianity – September 1931 – to stand, while noting the ambiguities and uncertainties that surround it.” (p.156)

ONE GLARING OMISSION

Despite my raving endorsement of this book, there is, to my mind, one glaring omission. Namely, there is no substantial discussion of Lewis’ theology. I found this odd especially in today’s day and age when scholars and lay folk alike appeal to Lewis in defence of different theological views that are growing in popularity. In particular, Lewis’s view on Hell and his view on the atonement.

There are two possible reasons why these are omitted from the book. 1) McGrath does not see Lewis as a profession theologian (rightly so). Even still, given the influence of his theology, I would suspect more attention would have been paid to it. This leads to the more likely reason his theology was omitted from this book. 2) There was not enough room in this already 400+ page biography, and it was written to tell a story to a wider audience.

In fact, from the start McGrath writes:

“It became clear at an early stage that a more academic study would be necessary to engage some of the scholarly questions that emerged from this detailed research… My concern in this volume is to tell a story, not to settle occasionally arcane and invariably detailed academic debates. Readers may, however, like to know that a more academic volume will be published shortly, offering scholarly exploration and justification of some of the assertions and conclusions of this biography.” (p.xvi)

I look forward to that book, currently slated to be released some time later in 2013 under the title, “The Intelligent World of C.S. Lewis.”

CONCLUSION

All in all I cannot recommend this biography high enough. It is well written, engaging – nay – captivating. Insightful and delightful. My copy ended up on my desk at the Christian bookstore I work for. It was an advanced copy courtesy of Tyndale and Foundation Distributing in Canada. If you enjoyed this review and plan to buy this book (coming out in March), please consider supporting this poor blogger by purchasing it through one of these links:

US: Kindle . Hardcover. CA: Kindle . Hardcover.

Thank you.

P.S. I’m going to give this book away as part of my March book giveaway. To qualify for the giveaway you have to be a follower of me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/derekouellette

Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.