I used to have a rule that it was good to take a C S Lewis book on holiday every year, and that way make progress in his so varied body of work as one of the great twentieth century writers and thinkers. It’s a good rule. Start with Mere Christianity, then try The Screwtape Letters or the Four Loves, and then maybe a book of essays like First and Second Things to get a wider sense of his thinking. But that is only to scratch the surface of his work, and the more you read the more you wonder about the author. That is why I can’t recommend too highly enough Alister McGrath’s brilliant biography, C S Lewis – A Life. Eccentric Genius, Reluctant prophet. This is the story of his life, told by a fellow Irishman who is also a great Oxford academic apologist and one of our best minds, yet written in a way that is accessible to a wide audience.
C S Lewis is an enigma. Loved by many most of all for his children’s fiction, his greatest work was in the area of literary criticism, yet he is known most among Christians as an apologist. He should also be known as a committed young Oxford atheist who reluctantly became a Christian. McGrath explores his troubled childhood, his dreadful days at Malvern School, and then his defining years next to my native Leatherhead where he was tutored by ‘the Great Knock.’ He charts his journey through the trenches of the First World War to his settling in Oxford in the relatively new discipline of modern English literature, and also his irregular relationship with ‘Mrs Moore.’ Then we are plunged into the intellectual and spiritual agonies through the 1920s and the early days of his academic career that led to his conversion in 1931-32. It was no intellectual surrender, but rather the logical solution to the intellectual and imaginative riddles that had troubled him from his youth.
McGrath provides a guide through all the writings of Lewis, setting them each in the different stages of his life, and revealing some of the pain that produced them. In many ways it is a gateway book, showing you the way into a much denser body of work and helping you understand the bigger picture. You will come away inspired to read more Lewis, and to rediscover the Lewis books that have fallen out of fashion.
Lewis became a broadcaster during the Second World War, which made his name. The broadcast talks eventually made their way into his most celebrated book Mere Christianity. Why was it such a success? Because people were looking for an explanation for evil in the face of a terrible tyranny, at the noonday of liberalism Lewis presented a robust case for Christianity, and in a way that appealed to people of many traditions. Listen to the few surviving recordings of those first broadcasts and you can sense both his intellectual clarity and his ability to connect with the man and woman in the air raid shelter. Do we have anyone who can do that today, and who could work their connections in the main broadcasting networks to get a hearing?
Knowing Lewis’s huge fame in recent years, his final years were shaped by pathos. His brief marriage to Joy Gresham and her death from cancer, the frustration of his career by his fellow Oxford dons that led to a move to Cambridge, and his own declining health seem odd to his present day admirers. He died the same day as JFK and Aldous Huxley, and was buried in Headington churchyard in a quiet ceremony. Yet this slightly socially awkward tweed-jacketed, pipe-smoking don, who would have held back from calling himself an evangelical Christian yet was such a scourge of liberal scholarship, is one of the most fascinating characters of the twentieth century. Reading this book will evoke an era that is not long gone, and a character who speaks so prophetically to our own century. Inhabiting the worlds of C S Lewis is a great way to spend a summer holiday.