Monday, August 26, 2013

C.S. Lewis: A Life - Alister McGrath

As the summer does truly close out, so has come the time for the end of the summer reading program I have been loosely participating in since June.  The program requires reading at least five books from Tyndale's list.  I posted about book four last week.  Alister McGrath's biography of the great C.S. Lewis is my fifth and final.

While nearly everyone who grows up in an American, evangelical Christian home has heard of C.S. Lewis and his writings, I realized that I actually knew very little about his personal history.  I knew he converted and subsequently became and influential defender of the faith.  Beyond that, I knew nothing.  Seeing McGrath's book on Tyndale's list seemed like the perfect opportunity to resolve that problem.

Clive Staples Lewis entered the world by way of Ireland just before the turn of the century.  He lost his mother at a young age and spent his formative years touring second rate boarding schools.  He eventually found his way to England on scholarship to Oxford.  He postponed his studies to fight in WWI, as many young scholars did in those years.  Upon his return, he received his degree and began a career in education at Oxford.  He remained at Oxford until 1954.

During his Oxford years, Lewis carried on a relationship of some sort with the mother of one of his war buddies.  Before Edward "Paddy" Moore was killed in the war, he had made some sort of pact with Lewis that each would care for the other's family should they not return home.  Lewis seemed to have done just that, and then some.  He lived with Mrs. Moore and Paddy's sister Maureen for the great majority of his Oxford years.  There is great speculation as to the nature of the relationship between Mrs. Moore and Lewis.  While he introduced her to others as his "mother," many scholars now agree that they had a far more intimate relationship ship than that of mother and son.  Whatever the case, Lewis considered the Moores to be family.  He cared for Mrs. Moore until her death until 1951 and he maintained a sibling relationship with Maureen for the rest of his life.

It was during the years at Oxford that Lewis returned to Christianity.  He had been raised in the church, but declared himself an atheist in his teenage years.  Interestingly, the seed of Lewis's Christianity seems to have been planted by a work of fiction, George MacDonald's Phantastes, a fantasy novel.  It seems beautifully appropriate that God used literature to bring Lewis to himself, just as Lewis's works would be used in the same way for countless others.  Lewis officially became a member of the Church of England in 1931.

Of course, it was this conversion to Christianity that eventually led Lewis to fame.  His writings about faith and Christianity are read world over.  Mere Christianity, which began as a series of radio broadcasts on the BBC, is arguably his most famous non-fiction work.  Lewis's work reaches beyond denomination, which I think accounts for much of their popularity.  It wasn't until after his death in 1963 that American evangelicals fell in love with the English writer.  I find the American love for Lewis particularly fascinating considering his own Anglicanism.  Also, I think it speaks volumes that Lewis was not and did not claim to be a theologian.  He was simply a man whose words God has used and continues to use in great ways.

Though Mere Christianity has gained much popular attention, Lewis has written many other prominent works.  In On Forgiveness, Lewis argues that "To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you."  In The Pleasure of Pain, tackles one of the great questions of Christianity: how can a loving God allow pain in the world.  Lewis states, "God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world."  Lewis believed that God uses pain as a tool of love to draw man to Himself and that "Our problem is that we want to be left alone, not loved as passionately as this."

Another conversation about Lewis is incomplete without spending time on his famous Chronicles of Narnia.  Lewis was a firm believer that literature should be enjoyed and experienced, not argued and theorized over.  This stance is most evident in Narnia.  While the stories contain great depth, they are also are cherished children's stories.  I loved the approaches McGrath suggests for reading the classic books.
"There are two main ways of exploring the Chronicles of Narnia.  One- the easier, and by far the more natural - involves thinking of the individual novels as rooms in a house. We stroll around the room and their contents, enjoying working out how they are connected by corridors and doors.  We are like tourists, wandering around a new town or country, taking in the sights and enjoying ourselves.  And there is nothing wrong with this.  Narnia, like any rich landscape, is worth exploring and getting to know. And, like most tourists, we might take a map of Narnia with us to help us make sense of what we see.
"Yet there is a second way of reading the Narnian novels, which involves the imagination as the primary organ of investigation.  This second way does not invalidate the first, but builds upon it and takes it further.  Once more, we think of the Narnian novels as rooms in a house. Once more, we wander around the house, taking everything in.  But we realise that the rooms in this house have windows. And when we look through them, we see things in a new way.  We can see farther than before, as the landscape opens up in front of us. And what we come to see is not an accumulation of individual facts, but the bigger picture which underlies them.  When seen in this way, our imaginative experience of Narnia enlarges our sense of reality.  Living in our own world feels different afterwards.
"Exploring Narnia is thus not just about encountering this strange and wonderful lang; it is also about allowing it to shape the way we see our own lang and our own lives.  To use Lewis's way of speaking, 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.  The story captivates us, making us see things its way - setting to one side the ordinary, and seeing the extraordinary instead."
While McGrath is applying this technique specifically to the consumption of Narnia, I think it can be used for any good literature.  In fact, if a book cannot be used as both a spectacle and a pair of spectacles, than it is lacking a crucial element, at least in my opinion.

Lewis used Narnia to paint beautiful stories reflecting real beliefs and experiences.  Reading his other works show the connections between Lewis's fiction and nonfiction.
"One of the most powerful visual images in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is the melting of snow, signifying the breaking of the Witch's power and the imminent return of Aslan. Lewis applied this potent image to describe his own diminishing resistance to the divine advent in Surprised by Joy, as he reflected on his own conversion: 'I felt as if I were a man of snow at long last beginning to melt.  The melting was starting in my back - drip-drip and presently trickle-trickle. I rather disliked the feeling.'"   
The feeling of the Holy Spirit prompting change within us is rarely a comfortable one.  Lewis obviously experienced that sensation himself, most intensely at the time of his conversion.  His literary interpretation of that change, and others within the Christian faith, are masterful in Narnia.

Lewis's use of fiction to influence readers is not surprising.  He believed "Christianity tells a true story about humanity, which makes sense of all the stories that humanity tells about itself."  Both Lewis and his close friend, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote epic tales that, while they did not overtly preach Christianity, present situations which support the stories and morality of Christianity.

Lewis married later in life.  American divorcee Joy Davidman died from cancer several years after their marriage.  Interestingly, their relationship was a mainly intellectual one.  Their civil marriage could be called a 'green card marriage' in modern terms, as Davidman wanted to move permanently to Britain.  It wasn't until she got sick that the two had a religious ceremony.

Lewis spent his last years at Cambridge, having taken a position there.  In an interesting historical twist, he died the same day as the John F. Kennedy assassination.  Because of that, his death was largely overlooked in the papers at the time.

McGrath put together a splendid biography of this great man.  Often, biographies can become a dry recitation of facts.  McGrath, however, kept the content interesting and engaging, which I appreciated.  He remained neutral and objective, as a good biographer should.

Learning about Lewis's life has given be such a greater perspective on a man who has influenced modern theology in a large way.  I aspire to read much more of his work, including his Space Trilogy.  More than anything, though, I found a connection with him through his love for the written word.  This is obviously a passion I share.  As he wrote in a letter to his lifelong friend, Arthur Greeves, "Whenever you are fed up with life, start writing: ink is the great cure for all human ills, as I have found out long ago."  How true.

Have you read C.S. Lewis's work?  Do you prefer his fiction or non-fiction?  What is your favorite Lewis work?

Pages: 431
Date Completed: August 20, 2013

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