A decade after his death, C. S. Lewis’s (1898–1963) mark was fading away. But five decades after Lewis passed physically from this world, his intellectual and imaginative influence holds powerful sway. In fact, some have even called him the patron saint of evangelicalism. Surely countless American evangelical pastors have quoted the ever-quotable Lewis in a Sunday morning sermon.
So what led this academic specialist in medieval English literature to rise to such revered status today? Alister McGrath—who, like Lewis, grew up in the Belfast region of Ireland and became a professor at Oxford University—offers an incisive interpretation of Lewis’s life and legacy in his book C. S. Lewis: A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet (Tyndale, 2013).
During the last several years, McGrath immersed himself in Lewis’s writings and the secondary literature surrounding this figure, and in the last two years, he has published three books related to Lewis. The Intellectual World of C. S. Lewis (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013) represents a more academic work, while McGrath explores Lewis’s ideas on the basic questions of life’s meaning in If I Had Lunch with C. S. Lewis: Exploring the Ideas of C. S. Lewis on the Meaning of Life (Tyndale, 2014).
McGrath intends his biography of Lewis’s life for a broader, less academic audience (though he engages academic questions along the way). C. S. Lewis: A Life is a book by one who didn’t know Lewis personally but met him through his books for others who also met him through his books. This perspective of the volume differentiates it from most biographies about Lewis, written by friends or those who knew Lewis during his lifetime.
I recently had the opportunity to listen to the audiobook version of McGrath’s volume and found it rich with detail and intriguing in its analysis of Lewis. As the title signifies, McGrath views Lewis as both a genius and a prophet. His unusual intellectual prowess made him stand out both as an academic and as a popular voice for Christianity in the mid-twentieth century. He also spoke boldly in defense of Christianity, even as he was a rather reluctant convert and an oddball of a professor—often unkempt and keeping an unconventional home life.
McGrath offers an inviting entrée into Lewis’s life, beginning with his boyhood in Belfast before Ireland broke off from the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland was separated from what is today the Republic of Ireland. As he guides us through Lewis’s troubled childhood, war service, academic studies, and rise to fame, he gives us a taste of Lewis as an atheist living a double life. He also reminds us that, even after his conversion, Lewis remained an academic even as he grew into a role as a Christian apologist.
McGrath makes one key contribution to the literature on Lewis’s life. He convincingly argues that we should re-date Lewis’s conversion from 1929, before his father’s death, to 1930, after his father’s death.
One of the benefits of McGrath’s work is that he offers helpful commentary on Lewis’s major works, such as The Problem of Pain, which launched Lewis to fame, The Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity, and The Chronicles of Narnia. His analytical insights help readers think about Lewis’s works in a new light, one that brings in the perspective of Lewis critics and offers a balanced interpretation of Lewis’s literary legacy.
It is important to note that McGrath reads against the grain at times to help us understand the hidden early life of C. S. Lewis. Given Lewis’s admitted pre-conversion habit of lying to his father and even his friends (as stated in a letter to his closest confidant, Arthur Greeves), this move seems well justified. By exercising an appropriate bit of skepticism toward Lewis’s descriptions of his life in letters to his father, McGrath leads readers into the surprising domestic world of the young Lewis at Oxford, a world dominated by a complex relationship with his fallen comrade Paddy Moore’s mother, a woman with whom Lewis lodged and with whom he also most likely had some kind of a romantic relationship.
Some have criticized McGrath for digging too deeply into Lewis’s psyche, trying to uncover the darker details of his life that he either suppressed or withheld. (See, for example, Jerry Root’s article.) McGrath certainly questions Lewis critically and may take license at times. But overall I think his approach helps us. While Root views McGrath as too negative toward Lewis, my sense is that he is more negative to him in his early, pre-Christian life—and for good reason—than in his later life. Later on, I find McGrath often defending Lewis and criticizing critics for failing to see his genius.
In his concluding chapter, McGrath considers Lewis’s legacy. We sometimes forget that many American fundamentalists originally shunned Lewis—a smoking, drinking Anglican who held questionable views on doctrines such as Scripture and the atonement. But as postmodern ideas flooded the intellectual landscape of the late twentieth century, Lewis offered a vision of Christianity that appealed to many, one uniquely shaped by his literary expertise. For a skeptical world increasingly captivated by narrative, Lewis offers a skeptic’s reluctant acceptance of the Christian story and an imaginative description of Christianity that undergirds his bestselling Mere Christianity and Chronicles of Narnia books.
Lewis’s influence on Christianity—reaching even beyond American evangelicalism—still exerts itself today. For those wanting to know why, McGrath’s C. S. Lewis: A Life offers a balanced interpretation of his life and legacy, helping readers appreciate his genius and prophetic apologetics while also alerting them to potential areas that may cause some reluctance. As McGrath book rightly reminds us, the best reading of C. S. Lewis is a critical reading.