Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Alister McGrath's Biography of C.S. Lewis, Part 1

Thanks to a generous gift from a good friend, Michael Dennis, I recently received a copy of Alister McGrath's new biography on C.S. Lewis titled, Eccentric Genius. Reluctant Prophet: C.S. Lewis: A Life. There is something delightful about finding a new book addressed to you in the mail; perhaps it awakes that joyful childhood exuberance of peering into the stocking on Christmas morning and finding out that there is one last unexpected gift to open. Initially, I had thought to wait until I had finished the book for a thorough review. But, as I approach the end of the first third of the book, I found myself with a few thoughts worth putting down about this recent Lewis biography.

First of all, this is not the only work McGrath has written on Lewis. A scholarly companion to this tome is also available entitled, The Intellectual World of C.S. Lewis (It's already in my Amazon cue!). That being said, this particular volume is anything but slothful or sloppy in regards to its scholarly quotient. It is well researched and documented, and it is replete with footnotes, citations, a timeline, index and a well organized list of works consulted (both primary and secondary sources). So far my only complaint about the book has little to do with not the book at all, but rather with its reviewers. Several of the reviews I have read on this book have felt the need to justify or apologize for a new (or one might say sarcastically, another) biography of C.S. Lewis, as if there were any need for further research and all the facts are known. My first inclination was to agree with them. However, upon further reflection and reading, that notion is quite mistaken and rather short-sighted.

Why should there be any need to apologize for continued research on both a popular and scholarly level concerning Lewis's works? It is a good question, even if the answers are often misguided. and McGrath answers it well in his introduction. In recent years, as McGrath notes, a wealth of information, both on and by Lewis, has been collected in previously unavailable formats. Foremost among these resources stands the collected letters of C.S. Lewis edited by Walter Hooper. (By the way, these letters are a fantastic read and a must have for any Lewis enthusiast). McGrath further notes that as a result of his careful reading of these letters, many of the dates that scholars have long held concerning Lewis's life - particularly his conversion - may need to be revisited. This is especially apparent when comparing the dating of the events in Lewis's own letters to that of his autobiographical work, Surprised by Joy.

But even if this were not the case, one should hardly apologize or seek to justify a contemporary biography of Lewis. After all, most of the famous biographers, such as Roger Lancelyn Green and George Sayer are both dead and wrote their works relatively early and from the perspective of a close friend. There are many great strengths to that position. But, as we shall see below, McGrath also adds some unique characteristics to the biographer pedigree. He is new biographer for a new generation of Lewis readers. Moreover, the fact that multiple biographies of any given historical figure are written, published, and on the market for any length of time (and the longer their staying power the better) is helpful when cross-referencing research, fact checking conclusions based on primary source evidence, and using multiple sources to corroborate and substantiate well-known facts and conclusions. Proper analysis and research is greatly assisted by having multiple, quality biographies written at any given time. Having several biographies to use, whether for private enjoyment or academic research, is not a hindrance, but rather a benefit to any form of study. As the years progress, I think that McGrath's recent contribution to the Lewis biographical collection will stand the test of time and be added alongside the classics of this specific genre.

Another reason McGrath's biography is so timely is that on November 22, 2013 Lewis aficionados (amateur and scholarly alike) will mark the 50th anniversary of the death of C.S. Lewis. And for McGrath this was simply another motivation for a renewed look at the life and work of one the 20th century's most influential authors. How has Lewis's work influenced people the past 50 years? How will his works influence readers, writers, and thinkers for the next 50 years? McGrath explores these questions among others.

But perhaps the greatest consideration - and one of the facets of this book I have appreciated above all - is found in McGrath's own words in his preface:

This book aims to tell the story of the shaping and expressing of Lewis's mind, focusing on his writings It is not concerned with documenting every aspect of Lewis's life, but with exploring the complex and fascinating connections between Lewis's external and internal worlds...This biography sets out, not to praise Lewis or condemn him, but to understand him - above all, his ideas, and how these found expression in his writings...This is not a work of synopsis, but of analysis. (McGrath, Alister. C.S. Lewis: A Life, Carol Stream: Tyndale House Publishers, 2013, p. xi-xiii).

McGrath, by his own admission, never knew Lewis personally, especially when compared to other famous biographers who did know Lewis quite well (such as Roger Lancelyn Green, George Sayer, or even Walter Hooper, the executor of his literary estate). Where some might find this a weakness in McGrath's writing, I find it comforting and strengthening. For the manner in which he came to know Lewis's ideas and writings strikes a familiar chord with the modern readers of Lewis. For a wide majority of Lewis's readers, myself included, contact with this beloved author and his works did not occur until after his death. Reading Lewis is often more like reading the diaries and letters of a close family friend or relative whom you were unable to meet before their death than it is the work of a person well known. There is an unfortunate distance and yet the window into the author's world is through his written words.

I have no illuminating memories, no privileged disclosures, and no private documents on which to draw. Every resource used in this biography is either already in the public domain or available to public scrutiny and inspection. This is a book written by someone who discovered Lewis through his writings, for others who have come to know Lewis in the same way. The Lewis I have come to know is mediated through his words, not through any personal acquaintance. (McGrath, Alister. C.S. Lewis: A Life, Carol Stream: Tyndale House Publishers, 2013, p. xv).

In this respect, McGrath's biography marks a different - and welcome - tone. He is representative of the modern reader. And so far he appears to have captured Lewis and his works quite well. Several factors lead to this conclusion.

First of all, he has no personal influences that might sway him one way or another when evaluating Lewis's life and work. There is nothing intimately personal (positive or negative) at stake here. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, McGrath sets out not simply to summarize Lewis's life and work, but to analyze it, not to regurgitate well-known facts but to take those well-known facts, along with Lewis's own published works, and understand the man behind the pen. As McGrath notes in Lewis's treatment of John Milton's Paradise Lost, what really mattered most were the ideas Lewis found and appreciated when reading the book. It is McGrath's position that Lewis's readers should approach Lewis the same way he approached Milton, approaching the ideas and content.

As Lewis emphasized throughout the 1930s, the important thing about authors is the texts they write. What really matters is what those texts themselves say. Authors should not themselves be a 'spectacle'; they are rather the 'set of spectacles' through which we as readers see ourselves, the world, and the greater scheme of things of which we are a part. Lewis thus had surprisingly little interest in the personal history of the great English poet John Milton, or the political social context within which he wrote. What really mattered were Milton's writings - his ideas. The way Lewis believed we should approach Milton must be allowed to shape the way we in turn approach Lewis. (McGrath, Alister. C.S. Lewis: A Life, Carol Stream: Tyndale House Publishers, 2013, p. xv).

In other words, Lewis is not the spectacle to behold in his writings and neither should he be; he does not want us as his readers to view him that way. So too, McGrath is not the spectacle in his biography of Lewis, he is merely the set of spectacles through which we as readers are launched into the worlds of Lewis, both real and imaginary (although they are nonetheless real for it). Of course this does not mean pitting social, political, or historical context against the content of the man's writing. On the contrary, a thorough look at the content of Lewis's writings requires a firm grasp (but not a choke-hold) of the context in which Lewis's ideas came to the written and published page. This, I think, is the endeavor upon which McGrath has embarked, and thus far, succeeded in my evaluation.

Whatever McGrath may lack in personal knowledge he makes up for in scholarly research. You would be hard-pressed to find a more well-read biographer of Lewis than McGrath. Hardly a page goes by in McGrath's book without a direct citation of one of Lewis's primary source documents, most notably his letters.

The reason for this is simple, yet logical. McGrath's own research methods focus predominantly-though not exclusively - on primary source material from C.S. Lewis. As McGrath notes in the conclusion of his preface:

The core of the research began with a close reading of Lewis's entire published output (including his letters) in strictly chronological order of writing, so that the development of his thought and writing style could be appreciated...This process of intense engagement with primary sources, which took fifteen months, was followed by a reading - in some cases a somewhat critical reading - of the substantial secondary literature concerning Lewis, his circle of friends, and the intellectual and cultural context in which they lived, thought, and wrote. (McGrath, Alister. C.S. Lewis: A Life, Carol Stream: Tyndale House Publishers, 2013, p. xvi).

Here, McGrath shows his genius as a writer and a scholar. He focuses on primary source material to begin with. Furthermore, that he read the books in the order in which they were written (note, not the order in which they were published) gives insight into the ways Lewis changed in thought over time (much like scholars are able to do with Luther studies when comparing his writing before and after his "tower experience"). That he was able to read all of Lewis's published works, including the collected letters, in fifteen months is nothing short of astounding. This is what serious scholarship and research look like. And it is a good method for students of any subject to follow but especially for Christians. This way of doing research also sheds light on how Christians should approach evangelism and apologetics in our own day and age. In today's social-religious climate, it is vital to know where the unbeliever or skeptic of Christianity is coming from intellectually and philosophically. There is no better way to find out than to read what they are reading, understand their arguments, positions and reasons. Then, the Christian is able to apply a veritable tool box of Christian apologetics and a specific word of Law and Gospel to the person with whom they have been conversing.

This is remarkably similar, at least in some ways, to the humanist movement popularized during the years leading up to, and during, the Lutheran Reformation. The movement then was known as ad fontes - back to the source. This was, in part, what led Melancththon to Wittenberg. And this is also what led Luther back to the Greek and Hebrew and forward to the German Bible. Although it may sound simplistic, the way forward was to go backwards, back to the source, or, as we like to say today, back to the basics. Not only was Lewis a student of basic, or, mere Christianity. But he also was influenced by the importance of primary source research and classical education. He studied "The Greats", Greek and Latin prose, poetry, and other great works of antiquity in their original languages.

Following the Great War, Lewis continued his studies at Oxford where he became a student of Literae Humaniories. In this field of study, students "were required to engage directly with the literary, philosophical, and historical riches of the classical age in the original languages - not simply as a subject of intellectual interest, but as a means of ensuring England's survival and prosperity. Lit. Hum. was seen as a gateway to wisdom, rather than a mere accumulation of knowledge. It was about moral and cultural preparation for life, not simply the acquisition of factual information. Where other courses of study might aim merely to fill graduate minds, this one set out to shape them." (McGrath, Alister. C.S. Lewis: A Life, Carol Stream: Tyndale House Publishers, 2013, p. 82).

A patient reader can follow Lewis's Lit. Hum background and discover how it, along with his continued education in English Literature, shaped his mind from the earliest poems all the way through the wardrobe into Narnia and beyond. Similarly, McGrath has applied Lewis's own educational background into his research and writing of this current biography. I look forward to reading the remainder of the book as McGrath continues to shape our understanding of this eccentric genius and reluctant prophet.

No comments:

Post a Comment