Many pastors are familiar with C. S. Lewis’s famous apologetic work Mere Christianity. As a child, I enjoyed his Narnia books, which my teachers read to us in class. Later, during a church youth backpacking trip, I was surprised when some of my “kids” discussed his Mere Christianity, which convinced me of his far-reaching influence within Evangelicalism. McGrath argues that Lewis’s influence is, in large, part due to “a vision of the Christian faith that . . . [was] found to be intellectually robust, imaginatively compelling, and ethically fertile” (373).
Alister McGrath divides up his compelling biography of Lewis into five parts: the prelude of his early life (chapters 1–3), his life as an Oxford don (chapters 4–10), the world of Narnia (chapters 11, 12), his years at Cambridge (chapters 13, 14), and, finally, some reflections on his legacy (chapter 15). His book contains a revisionist’s take on his life that significantly updates previous biographies, in addition to challenging some long-established notions about his life. McGrath, unlike many previous biographers who never knew Lewis, based his work upon Lewis’s writings.
McGrath presents the many challenges that Lewis went through, especially during his early life. Challenges, such as the loss of his mother and an increasingly distant relationship with his father, caused him to question the meaning of life. He ultimately became an atheist. Readers will enjoy the detailed narrative of Lewis’s conversion that includes a significant revision of the chronology of when and how this happened, based upon extant sources (131–159). Early on, Lewis dreamed of being a poet; but when no opportunities arose, he continued his studies at Oxford. He ultimately won a “first place” standing in three areas known as a “triple crown”—a rare honor. His failure as a poet allowed him to develop the ability to write prose with a poetic vision (108).
Lewis rose to fame largely as a result of a series of war talks that later became the book Mere Christianity. His rise to popular acclaim placed him “on the margins of academic culture” (247), and he was turned down for advancement within Oxford because his peers felt that such popular writing was not truly worthy of an academic. Even J. R. R. Tolkien, Lewis’s close friend, who played a significant role in leading Lewis to Christ (146–151), later resented the fact that Lewis dedicated The Screwtape Letters to him as Tolkien viewed the book as a lightweight work (217) and later viewed his Narnia works as shallow (266). Despite this, Tolkien played an influential role in helping Lewis obtain a prestigious Cambridge position. Lewis held Tolkien in high regard and recommended Tolkien to receive the 1961 Nobel Prize in Literature (352). This complex relationship, symbolized by Lewis and Tolkien, led a group of Christian intellectuals known as the Inklings to model them and critique their ideas and writing.
Lewis shifted from apologetics to fiction after World War II (254). He saw “imagination as the primary means by which an individual is brought to a point of giving serious rational attention to the Christian faith” (174). This, in turn, led to the Ransom Trilogy (233–238) and later the Narnia series (263–305). “The Chronicles of Narnia,” suggests McGrath, “resonate strongly with the basic human intuition that our own story is part of something grander—which, once grasped, allows us to see our situation in a new and more meaningful way” (279). Now recognized as one of the best works of children’s literature, this book served a purpose: “The Chronicles of Narnia have a far greater scope and reach, using an imaginatively transposed version of the Christian narrative to enable its readers to understand and cope with the ambiguities and challenges of the life of faith” (282).
If you have ever wanted to know more about C. S. Lewis, then this is the book for you. Pastors will appreciate how Lewis struggled to take complex theological ideas and translate them into the vernacular (208). Clergy, like authors, need to know their audience. I hope that all Christians will be challenged by reading this biography of the continued need to share the reasonableness of Christianity with a secular world.
Reviewed by Michael W. Campbell, PhD, assistant professor of historical-theological studies, Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies, Silang, Cavite, Philippines.