The McGrath Biography of C.S. Lewis

One of the interesting observations McGrath makes in his Lewis biography is to cite a list of books which were bestsellers in their day, none of which are in print anymore and none of which are at all well-known. He’s dealing with the question of why the works of C.S. Lewis have maintained the kind of popularity they do. I’ve noticed he’s keen as well on bringing out things that were fashionable with the elite (back in the day) against which Lewis stood (vivisection, for instance). He also seems to go a bit out of his way to explain things Lewis stood for which people are no longer in sympathy with.

Two things: one is the irony of having to point out to people interested in C.S. Lewis the perils of chronological snobbery. I gather it is a lot worse in England. There is an awful lot of explaining McGrath goes to the trouble of including which doesn’t strike me as all that necessary. The second thing is that it does go to show how quickly the world changes, and how its fads come and go. If you’re going to write, tap into the permanent things and stick to that.

This biography is still not the definitive biography–not that I really expected it from Alister McGrath (he’s good, but not that memorable; I’ve read plenty of his books but I don’t remember what on earth he was writing about). When will we get the two volume knock-down drag-out, detail and anecdote filled tomes that show us the significance of Lewis for his day and always? Is someone waiting for it to become intellectually respectable to do what will make studying Lewis intellectually respectable (outside of an evangelical institution of higher learning)? Speaking of which, it seems McGrath is coming out with a tome more geared for our domed brethren. I can’t wait.

Shortcomings: it is brief on detail and long on explanation. I wish he’d set himself less the task of an apologist for Lewis and more the task of writing the story of his life. I’m not sure why we need a book length defense of the life and works of C.S. Lewis. Maybe he’s not popular in England nowadays? And while the whole argument about when exactly Lewis was converted is an interesting observation about the imprecision of memory, I really do not see at all what difference it makes to nail down the precise moment at which he began to believe in Christ. It is that Lewis was converted and how he was converted which are important. Even if the chronology changes, these things remain the same. It is kind of sad that in dealing with a popular writer McGrath feels he needs to simplify further to explain. Probably something to do with the state of things in Britain. A lot of things are boiled down so much they’re practically boiled away. Not that McGrath is trying to be subtly dismissing, but one wishes he had more of a gift for making us want what he wants us to understand. Look, C.S. Lewis is part of the cannon of intelligent and interesting books that the world now has. Why does he need to be popularized or explained at this point? As long as there are readers of intelligent and interesting books, he will be discovered, enjoyed and understood. What we need now is the definitive biography.

Longcomings: because he did spend time on the events of Surprised by Joy, McGrath is very interesting in his general observation of that book; I also think he’s pretty good on the story of Joy Davidman (the picture of her McGrath chose to include says it all: 327) and the anxieties at the end of Lewis’s life–I had not noticed those from the letters. McGrath has achieved some of the necessary critical detachment the two early biographies by friends lacked. As well, he knows Michael Ward’s ideas about the coherence of the Chronicles of Narnia and gives–as with just about everything–a clear, simplified statement of the position. I don’t know how well this book is going to last, but I do know it has some interesting and worthwhile things to say. It didn’t take long, and I liked it, mostly.

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