Special to The Layman
Alistair McGrath has given us an engaging and thorough biography of C.S. Lewis in his C.S. Lewis — A Life. A theologian himself who shares similarities of both origin and education with Lewis, McGrath does what few other biographers have done in their works on Lewis by demonstrating how Lewis’ roots in Northern Ireland influenced his writing, especially his fiction.
Though divided by a couple of generations, both C.S. Lewis and McGrath were born and raised in County Down, Northern Ireland. Like Lewis, McGrath also made his way to Oxford, eventually becoming a professor as well (though in Theology. Lewis taught Literature). McGrath is thus able to show the influences that Lewis took with him from his Ulster background, something that is often overlooked by other biographers.
McGrath maintains that many of the geographical descriptions one hears in Lewis’s fiction (especially his Narnia tales) bear similarity with the fields and hills of Northern Ireland that Lewis knew from his youth and continued to visit on vacations throughout his life.
A realistic portrait of Lewis
McGrath gives us a realistic portrait of Lewis. McGrath relates how Lewis was forever marked by the death of his mother when he was young. He reveals the underside of Lewis’ character, especially before his conversion to Christian. We see how Lewis’ relationship with his father was deceptive in many ways. We also read of a complex, questionable relationship that Lewis had with the mother of a friend of his from Oxford with whom he served in the First World War, a relationship that Lewis concealed from others as best he could, and yet one that had far-reaching significance for him.
Where McGrath’s work may well make its biggest impact in the world of C.S. Lewis scholarship is that he challenges the traditional year and date of Lewis’s conversion. While for the non-specialist reader this in itself may not carry so much weight, McGrath’s reworking of the timeline of Lewis’ conversion is significant, because he argues that Lewis himself, in his autobiographical writings, confuses the years of his conversion.
McGrath also spends a great deal of time on the complex relationship that Lewis had with the American woman Joy Davidman.
Initially, the two of them were married in a civil ceremony in order for Davidman’s immigration status to be adjusted, so that she and her two sons could remain in the United Kingdom. However, it seems that while seemingly for Lewis this was an act of convenience for a friend, Davidman had, from the beginning, much greater designs on Lewis.
Eventually, the two of them exchanged vows in a religious service in the hospital where Davidman was being treated for cancer. Lewis’ own feelings for Davidman had grown and changed in the course of their friendship and her diagnosis of cancer.
What is striking about McGrath’s portrait of Lewis is that he shows Lewis not as the great spiritual giant we see him for today, but as a human being with his foibles, and yet with a faith that transformed his life and his whole way of thinking.
Lewis was someone who lived primarily out of his brain, a brain that would be utterly changed and put to use for the faith of Jesus Christ. Perhaps this will serve to make Lewis all the more real, and thus all the more significant to a new generation of readers.
The Rev. Dr. Walter L. Taylor is the pastor, of Oak Island Presbyterian Church, Oak Island, N.C.
C. S. Lewis—A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet
By Alistair McGrath
Carol Stream, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishes
2013, 431 pages
Retail Price: $24.95