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A review of the two Alister McGrath books about Lewis

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  • wendell_wagner
    I just finished C. S. Lewis - A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet and The Intellectual World of C. S. Lewis, both written by Alister McGrath and
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 31, 2013
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      I just finished C. S. Lewis - A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet and The Intellectual World of C. S. Lewis, both written by Alister McGrath and published earlier this year.  (Incidentally, why does Intellectual World have a 2014 copyright date?)  They are mostly being reviewed separately, but I think it would be better to think of them as a single work, with Intellectual World being a set of long footnotes on particular issues in Genius/Prophet.  Consider this to be my review of these two books.
      Someone noted earlier this year on this E-mail mailing list that Michael Dirda, in his review of Genius/Prophet in The Washington Post, said that one thing that the book says little about is Lewis's literary criticism.  Since Dirda is a literary critic, that's the obvious thing that he would notice.  In fact, I think that McGrath covers a number of areas only lightly.  McGrath is a professor of theology, so it's not surprising that he would be better at explaining Lewis's theological (and general philosophical) views better than other aspects of his life.  The essays in Intellectual World are nearly all about Lewis's philosophical views or how he used his writings to explain those views.  While Genius/Prophet is a reasonably good biography of Lewis, it's not the comprehensive, standard biography that someone is going to have to write someday.  There were a lot of sides to Lewis, and it's going to take a great biographer to write a great biography of him.
      Some of McGrath's statements about Lewis's life are very perceptive.  He's probably right about the chronology of Lewis's conversion timeline being off by about a year from what was previously assumed.  I'm not sure that it's that important, though.  The interesting thing about Lewis's conversion account is the various philosophical/religious positions he went through, not their timing.  Other comments that McGrath makes about Lewis's life don't seem to me to be as useful.
      McGrath wonders why Lewis goes on for so long in Surprised by Joy about his experiences at boarding school, while he devotes very little of the book to his time in combat in World War I.  I don't find the amount of print that Lewis spent on each of these times to be that strange.  First, the amount of time that Lewis spent in combat was just under a year, and some of that time he was actually in various hospitals.  He spent several years in boarding schools.  Second, McGrath seems to have a fixed view of how terrible any combatant must have found World War I to be and of the relative mildness of the bad experiences of a boarding school.  While in the sense of the actual threat to his life, the war was worse than the schools, but that's not how Lewis experienced his emotional and physical pain.  The things done to him in boarding school were personal and directed at him by other students, while those done in the war were against everyone, and everyone on his side worked together against them.
      It also occurs to me, when I think about any biographer's attempt to quantify the amount of influence that a period of a subject's life has on him by looking at just the length of that period, that the influence of a period has less to do with its length and more with the variety of things that happen during it.  Why, to use my own life, do I remember so much about my time in Austin (from the age of 22 to 25) and so little about my time in Columbus (from the age of 25 to 29), where both periods were mostly spent struggling through grad school?  You'd think that four years would be easier to remember than three years, that a more recent period would be easier to remember than one further back, and that one that has some relation to my current job would be easier to remember than one that has no such relation.  Yet the opposite is true in my case.  Columbus is mostly a blur, while Austin brings back all sorts of interesting memories.
      I don't think McGrath is being fair to Joy Davidman when he attempts to paint her as a gold-digger who took advantage of Lewis.  Even if we assume that somehow Davidman first visited England with plans to seduce Lewis (and that's a strange supposition), the fact remains that Lewis was happy during his brief marriage.  There's been an attempt on the part of several biographers to claim that Lewis would have been better off if he had married Ruth Pitter.  If that's so, why didn't he marry her?
      McGrath makes a useful distinction in his discussion of Lewis's apologetics in saying that what Lewis was doing was not trying to make a tight logical argument for his beliefs but a demonstration that they were consistent with what we know of the world.  Too often Lewis's fans treat Mere Christianity, for instance, as if it were the Summa Theologica, a succession of logical deductions from basic assumptions.  I think this is why so many people misunderstand the so-called Trilemma (a name that Lewis didn't use himself).  I think that Lewis was not offering a complete categorization of all the possibilities for what Jesus was.  Rather, he was trying to address a common idea among the sort of people who listened to his wartime broadcasts (the preliminary version of Mere Christianity) had about Jesus.  These people, who were largely those brought up rather vaguely as Christians and now considering themselves still rather vaguely Christian, wanted to believe that Jesus could be thought of as a mere ordinary teacher of morality.  Lewis's point was that this wasn't a consistent logical position, not that he could name all other possible logical positions.
      Incidentally, I just noticed something really interesting while I was looking at the title verso page (where the copyright statements are) for Genius/Prophet.  It says the following:
      The Hobbit is a trademark of the Saul Zaentz Company dba Tolkien Enterprises.
      The Lord of the Rings is a trademark of the Saul Zaentz Company dba Tolkien Enterprises.
      [dba means "doing business as."]
      So Zaentz is now claiming that anyone who uses the phrases "The Hobbit" or "The Lord of the Rings" has to mention that he owns the trademark on it.
      Wendell Wagner
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