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C. S. Lewis: eccenctric genius, reluctant prophet

Biography of C. S. Lewis by Alister McGrath

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C. S. Lewis in three dimensions

  • Sep 15, 2013
Rating:
+3
C. S. Lewis has become a celebrity writer in the 50 years since his death, revered and loved for his apologetics (Mere Christianity) and his fantasies (the Narnia stories).  But the man himself seemed like a standup cardboard display used to sell his books.  McGrath's biography changes that as he uses the recently completed publication of Lewis's correspondence to flesh out earlier bios by those who knew pieces of the Lewis story as well as the man himself, and studies of Lewis's writings to show his his life influenced his work and vice versa.


C. S. Lewis was a unique and sometimes odd man, easily seen as a the stereotypical absent minded professor, which he was during his days in Oxford and Cambridge.  But he was also a popular writer of fiction and apologetics which made him an outsider on the in ode of academia of his day, a perception that cost him promotions at Oxford.  He was an Irish-born Protestant who became an atheist Oxford don and never wrote explicitly "Irish" prose or poetry. 

But his conversion to Christianity changed his life and writing career.  Asked to script and give radio broadcasts on Christianity from a layman's point of view during World War II, Lewis found he had a skill in translating "Theology into the vernacular": 

I have come to the conviction that if you cannot translate your thoughts into uneducated language, then your thoughts were confused.  Power to translate is the test of having really understood one's own meaning.

He rewrote and published his ideas as "Mere Christianity" still a standard text for most Christian denominations in part because, McGrath says, Lewis wrote and though merely about Christianity as a logical and imaginative faith and not a set of doctrinal distinctions.  In his movement from atheist to believer, Lewis was logical, but in his personality imagination (as a boy and then a young man who had adopted atheism Lewis called this imagination or longing "desire"), was important not just as a way to dealing with reality but as a way to see it better.  This was part of the reason he adopted fantasy in writing the Narnia chronicles.  In McGrath's words:

"We can see Narnia as a spectacle, something to be studied in its own right, or we can see it--whether additionally or alternatively--as a pair of spectacles, something that makes it possible to see everything else in a new way, as things are brought into sharp focus."

Lewis was also famously friends with the other great fantastic English writer of the 20th century, J. R. R. Tolkien, as they shared ideas and reviews of their works in progress as part of the loose collection of Oxford friends known as the Inklings.  Tolkien too saw the power of imagination,  and as the two men shared their stories, Lewis came to see

"Christianity, rather than being one myth alongside many others, is thus the fulfillment of all previous mythological religions.  Christianity tells a true story about humanity , which makes sense of all the stories that humanity tells about itself." 

While the two men would later grow apart, in part because of Lewis's late in life marriage to Joy Davidson, their joint influence on each other and on the literature of the last century ranks huge in Lewis's biography.

McGrath, who writes this biography from the sympathetic standpoint of a fellow atheist turned Christian and Oxford professor, still writes all the warts into his biography, and Lewis had several: his strained relationship with his father,  his alcoholic brother, his long and strange relationship with Mrs. Moore (a childhood friend's mother), the odd circumstances of his marriage to Davidson, and his falling out with Oxford near the end of his working life. 

But if we are to see the man as more than a cardboard display, we must see him as he lived.  And McGrath gives us the three dimensional man who still helps us understand pain, joy, faith, God, imagination, and life itself.

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September 20, 2013
The last paragraph makes sense.
 
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About the reviewer
Todd Stockslager ()
Ranked #37
I love reading and writing about what I have read, making the connections and marking the comparisons and contrasts. God has given man the amazing power to invent language and the means to record it which … more
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