C. S. Lewis: A life
Hodder and Stoughton £20
Church Times Bookshop £18
The Intellectual World of C. S. Lewis
Alister E. McGrath
Church Times Bookshop £18
LIKE many Christian believers of all denominations, I am deeply
grateful for the writings of C. S. Lewis, especially for some of
his wartime essays such as "The Weight of Glory", and for later
books such as Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on prayer.
Many will also be grateful for these two books by Alister
McGrath. Both reflect his thorough research, careful weighing of
evidence, wide reading, and clarity of expression. Having a similar
background in Oxford and Belfast, and a similar vocation as a
Christian apologist, he is particularly well placed to enter into
the mind and feelings of Lewis.
Although the main outline of C. S. Lewis's life is now well
known, McGrath's account can be warmly recommended to anyone who
wants a sympathetic, factually based, and balanced biography. He
has read all the correspondence in order, and his scientifically
trained mind leads him to question Lewis's account in some places -
for example, on the date of his conversion.
The Intellectual World of C. S. Lewis, as the title
suggests, looks particularly at the philosophical world of Oxford
in the 1920s, and considers some of the main themes in Lewis's
writing, such as the relationship between his more philosophical
arguments and his understanding of desire - which is perhaps better
understood as unattainable longing.
McGrath agrees with Austin Farrer's judgement on Lewis that "We
think we are listening to an argument; in fact we are presented
with a vision, and it is the vision which carries conviction."
The book contains useful studies on different aspects of Lewis
as a Christian thinker; and I particularly enjoyed the slightly
mischievous chapter in which McGrath argues that Lewis should be
seen as a "real" theologian, not just the amateur one that he
himself claimed to be.
Lewis was criticised for seeing pain in too instrumental terms,
"a slightly puzzling criticism later levelled against him by his
Oxford contemporary Austin Farrer", as McGrath puts it. In view of
that remark, I reread both The Problem of Pain and
Farrer's essay on Lewis "The Christian Apologist". It reaffirmed my
earlier judgement that Farrer's critique is both correct and hugely
Here I must declare a personal interest, as they say. Many years
ago I wrote a little book on C. S. Lewis, and was amused to receive
a letter from a lady in America, asking, in effect, how I, a mere
mortal, dared to criticise a god such as Lewis? I was slightly less
amused when, for whatever reason, my book no longer appeared in the
United States. In that book, besides expressing huge admiration for
Lewis, I had been critical both of his picture of God and,
following Farrer, his account of suffering. Farrer, commenting on
Lewis, had written:
"Pain cannot be related to the will of God as an evil wholly
turned into a moral instrument. Pain is the bitter savour of that
mortality out of which it is the unimaginable mercy of God to
rescue us. When under suffering we see good men go to pieces, we do
not witness the failure of a moral discipline to take effect; we
witness the advance of death where death comes by inches. By
failing to keep so elementary a consideration sufficiently to the
forefront of his scene, Lewis risks forfeiting the sympathy of a
compassionate reader, for all the evidences of a compassionate
heart he abundantly displays."
McGrath's main purpose in these books is to tell Lewis's life
story, and expound his thought. It is a pity that he does not
tackle the residual unease a fair number of people, otherwise
sympathetic to Lewis, feel about him; for the fact is that there
are aspects of Lewis's understanding of pain which are spiritually
damaging. His dearly loved brother Warnie, for example, found the
book "apologetically unconvincing". I believe that the unhelpful
picture of God Lewis sometimes presents stemmed from a too easy
universalising of his own experience.
His own state he thought of as one of rebellion; so we can
understand how pain became, for him, "God's megaphone" to break
down human resistance to God as our Creator. Lewis himself finally
gives in and kneels, "the most dejected and reluctant convert in
all Eng-land". True joy, about which he was such an eloquent
writer, came later.
But others are led by a gentler path: "the drawing of this love
and the voice of this calling", wrote Julian of Norwich, words
later quoted by T. S. Eliot. Lewis took a very Western, Augustinian
view of the fall of man with its catastrophic consequences, and
there is little sense of his taking evolution seriously, nor of
humanity as "the crown of creation".
Lewis had a bad relationship with his Belfast father, and a
terrible experience of bullying and sadism at school; it would be
surprising if this had not affected his whole outlook. Fortunately,
this went with a wonderful imagination linked to a powerful
yearning for beauty and goodness.
But if it is inevitable that we all, to some extent, create a
god whom we most love or a god we most fear, there is always the
danger of thinking that the path others travel will be the same as
The Rt Revd the Lord Harries of Pentregarth is an Honorary
Professor of Theology at King's College, London.