C. S. Lewis-A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet/A Life Observed: A Spiritual Biography of C. S. Lewis

By Tirrell, Jeff | Anglican and Episcopal History, December 2015 | Go to article overview

C. S. Lewis-A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet/A Life Observed: A Spiritual Biography of C. S. Lewis


Tirrell, Jeff, Anglican and Episcopal History


C. S. Lewis-A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet/A Life Observed: A Spiritual Biography of C. S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis-A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet. By Alister McGrath. (Carol Stream, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2013, Pp ix, 431. $24.99); A Life Observed: A Spiritual Biography of C. S. Lewis. By Devin Brown. (Grand Rapids, Brazos Press, 2013, Pp vii, 241. $16.99.)

When Clive Staples Lewis died on 22 November 1963, his death was understandably overshadowed by the assassination of John F. Kennedy that same afternoon. He himself assumed he would be forgotten within five years of his passing. And yet today, more than fifty years later, all of his books are still in print and widely read. To commemorate his passing, two new biographies about C. S. Lewis were released in late 2013 that provide fresh examinations of the Oxford and Cambridge scholar who gained wide popular appeal. The first, C. S. Lewis-A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet by Alister McGrath, himself a former Oxford professor, is most striking and provocative for its re-dating of Lewis' conversion to theism and its extensive use of primary source material. The second, A Life Observed: A Spiritual Biography of C. S. Leivis by Devin Brown, focuses its attention on the spiritual journey of Lewis' life. Both are excellent and welcome additions to the field of Lewis scholarship, but each approach their subject with different style and purpose.

McGrath's erudite sensibilities are thickly present on each of his over four hundred pages and the depth and quality of his research is second to none. He has done so much research, in fact, that he has crafted a second academically-oriented companion book which was released around the same time, The Intellectual World of C. S. Leivis ( Malden, Massachusetts: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013). As his nearly twenty-five pages of endnotes will illustrate, the vast majority of his source material comes from personal correspondence to and from Lewis, much of which is now publicly available but rarely used with such attention to detail. These letters, combined with careful reading of all of Lewis' published works, including essays, lectures, and speeches, serve to provide a thoroughly comprehensive picture of C. S. Lewis the scholar and C. S. Lewis the man, as well as Lewis' legacy within scholarship and Christianity. McGrath's stated objective for his book is to "tell the story of the shaping and expressing of Lewis' mind, focusing on his writings ... [and] exploring the complex and fascinating connections between Lewis' external and internal worlds" (xi). He does this exceedingly well, so well in fact that his research led him to conclude that Lewis' own dating of his conversion to theism in Lewis' autobiography, Surprised By Joy (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1955), is wrong: whereas Lewis gives the date as Spring 1929, McGrath convincingly argues that it should be Spring 1930. One might assume that McGrath's approach could be haughty or pretentious; after all, he presumes to know Lewis' life better than the man himself! Yet his writing has no trace of arrogance, only a cautious yet firm presentation of the facts uncovered through hours of study with the original letters and texts of Lewis and his correspondents.

If critique can be leveled at McGrath's superb study it is that it can be, at time, disconnected from its subject matter. Certain sections of the text have a detachment that, to use one of Lewis' own examples from his essay "Meditation in a Toolshed," gives the impression of one looking at the ray of sunlight rather than looking along it. This "objective" vantage point can make it difficult to fully "enjoy" all that Lewis has to offer at times. This is most glaring when McGrath inteijects his own speculation about Lewis' psychology, such as Lewis' supposed "treatise with reality" that prevented him from exploring the horrors of war in his writings. …

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