Monday, December 17

'C.S. Lewis: A Life' by Alister McGrath -- Short Review and Longer Reflections

This is a good book that is worth reading if you're interested in Lewis. McGrath is a researcher. He read all of the primary sources to write this book, including some (like letters) that had not been available previously. Therefore, he has complete command of the available facts. He even produces a new timeline of Lewis's conversion that is convincing. (The most interesting part is that, if McGrath is right, Lewis misreported an important date.) All of this factuality is strong. It means that McGrath has paragraphs or sections that sometimes plod a little, but these passages are rare and short and easily overlooked.

A few of my reflections:

The first thing that jumped out at me, as addressed by McGrath, is Lewis's motivation by and usage of imagination. He often presents as being supremely rational. That is the first thing that some people would mention about him, considering landmarks like The Problem of Pain or Mere Christianity.

However, even more than being very rational, Lewis was driven by imagination and prodigiously engages the imagination of his readers. McGrath does a good job of describing how Lewis himself was motivated by imagination as a path to understanding and inspired the same thing for his readers. Before he could ever have been regarded as a paragon of reason, Lewis understood and, indeed, lived in the world through imagination. Before he became an academic, he wanted to be a poet. Imagination is the path to reason that he primarily offers to his readers. In fact, he often goes above or beyond reason to address things that it cannot.

This brings up an interesting observation. Lewis burst onto the popular scene as a seeming apologist. But, as Austin Farrer says (p222), what he was really giving to BBC listeners during World War 2 was a vision of Christianity that they could consider and that obviously attracted many. He was subject to criticism from philosophers and theologians that his arguments were not thoroughgoing enough or were too shallow. This was true, in a way, because he was never well placed (or trained) for serious philosophical apologetics. Nor did he intend to engage at that level. He was a popular apologist who cast a vision. He found apologetics exhausting and never really accepted or met its philosophical standards. Before long, he gave it up.

Lewis had some very strange relationships with women, to put it mildly. his relationships with Mrs Moore and Joy Davidman seem odd given his public persona and they should be included in any overall assessment of Lewis's life (which McGrath does).

As someone who was first a fan of JRR Tolkien, the dissolution of their friendship is sad to me. My most recent other source on their lives was 'The Fellowship: the Literary Lives of the Inklings'. My reading of that book lowered my opinion of Tolkien and raised my opinion of Lewis, However, reading McGrath's book 'corrects' those estimations a little. Tolkien drew back from Lewis when Lewis's friendship with Charles Williams grew, to some degree because of self-doubt. But Tolkien worked with perseverance to get Lewis his position at Cambridge, breaking through Lewis's own misunderstanding. In the same way, Lewis nominated Tolkien when they were fairly estranged for the Nobel Prize.

Perhaps because of this distance, and also because of the extreme irregularity of the relationship, Lewis included almost none of his friends in his relationship with Joy Davidman. But, as Lewis himself often argued in general, we should reserve some of our judgment regarding people from a bygone era. Lewis's friends, including Tolkien, had a different view of divorce and remarriage than we do. It's easy to look back and condemn them in this regard, but we should hold back, at least a little. By any measure, the relationship was always strange, certainly not the fraughtless romance of the 1993 movie 'Shadowlands'. Apart from the breaking of multiple conventions, Lewis's friends, including Tolkien, were undoubtedly concerned that Davidman might be using him. His brother, Warnie, certainly regarded the situation that way.

McGrath, an Evangelical himself, does a good job of addressing how Evangelical's have considered Lewis, up to this day when he can, in a sense, be regarded as their (our) 'patron saint'. For my part, I want to draw two brief connections. One weak part of Lewis's Mere Christianity is the individualness of it (i.e. it mostly leaves out the critically communal part of the faith). I suspect this has appealed to Evangelicals as it is a weakness they (we) have also been prone to.

Also consider The Problem of Pain, Lewis's first popular work. Although it is intellectually sound as far as it goes, The Problem of Pain is fairly shallow in basically not treating the emotional complexities of faith and suffering. It should be compared with A Grief Observed to think through the changes in Lewis's life and how a merely intellectual treatment of pain is inadequate. I think The Problem of Pain comes from a time in Lewis's life when he had locked out his own significant earlier suffering including the loss of his mother at a young age, his father's terrible inadequacy afterwards, and the horrors of the trenches of World War 1.

One final example of brokenness in Lewis's life was his anxiety about money. He often struggled with it and, even when he was comparatively wealthy, he was so worried about being able to afford retroactive taxes (which had been charged to him before), that he was incapable of being generous. Although Lewis's writing inspires us to hope for substantial healing in this life for ourselves, his own life is a little disappointing in this regard. I feel sorry about his own experience and wish he had experienced more growth as an encouragement to my own hope.
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