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Book Review: C. S. Lewis – A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet (Dr. McGrath)

February 2, 2013

Less than a month from now the first of several biographies on C.S. Lewis will be released. It kicks off with a highly anticipated book by Dr. Alister McGrath. His book, C. S. Lewis – A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet releases in the U.S. officially on March 1st. What new can be said about the life and work of Lewis? Is this the perfect biography? I hope to answer these and other questions in this short review.

McGrath Book CoverLet’s get the first question out of the way by asking another question: Can there really be a “perfect” biography of anyone? While it’s true that a person could compose a imperfect book, to do the total opposite actually asks the wrong question. That’s because you have to consider the target audience of a book, what approach is used and what the credentials of the writer are. For those not familiar with Dr. McGrath, he is a historical theologian who is currently Professor of Theology, Ministry and Education at King’s College London, UK. This fact may make some people think he has written a rather “dry” biography that would only be of interest to other professionals. This is not the case at all. The book is a well organize volume covering the life of Lewis without being overly concerned with providing every detail possible (which would make for an impossibly long book if it tried). Yet in the 400+ pages you do get an adequately detailed look at his life. In a recent interview by Will Vaus on the HarperOne C.S. Lewis blog, McGrath stated his biography was aimed at individuals who mostly know about Lewis from the recent Narnia movies or have just heard about him without knowing much at all. Thus his aim was to “show why this man was so interesting.” Is this just another work to mindlessly applaud Lewis? Not at all, as McGrath states in the book itself, “This biography sets out, not to praise Lewis or condemn him, but to understand him.”

Consider the subtitle of the book, “Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet.” While it provides a nice takeaway line that does reflect a positive view of Lewis, McGrath doesn’t hesitate to show Lewis’s warts. Prior to a return to the faith, Lewis treated his father very poorly and McGrath admits there likely was a sexual relationship with Mrs. Moore. But this is not the legacy that Lewis left behind. He wrote in a wide range of topics in a variety of styles. Plus, we have a great deal of the letters that Lewis wrote. This leads me to note a key difference about this biography. McGrath focused knowing Lewis from reading his works and examining the archival material available. He conducted no interviews and didn’t personally know Lewis.

Readers of this blog range from those who know only a little about Lewis to those who know so much that they have written on his life. McGrath is aware that this will be the case with his book and does a good balance in speaking to that range of readers. The more experienced consumer of Lewis’s work will likely find very little new information, even though McGrath does provide a good defense to question the commonly accepted date of Lewis’s journey back to the Christian faith.

After reading McGrath’s book several times I found my understanding of Lewis had grown. But, of course, I have a pretty strong interest in Lewis and have been exploring him very seriously for the last several years after having been a casual reader for a few dozen years. One thing that struck me about the book came from considering who wrote it. While Lewis never claimed to be a theologian here is someone who is one that has a great deal of respect for him. As most know, Lewis didn’t quote a lot of the Bible, but he did provide others with a greater understanding of Biblical truth as well as showing how it could be applied to one’s life. In his book McGrath gives the necessary and more interesting background about Lewis to appreciate how, fifty years after his death, he came to this role in his life while his world around him didn’t always understand him.

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