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Book Review: If I Had Lunch with C.S. Lewis (Dr. Alister McGrath)

April 6, 2014

Lunch with LewisIn 2013 two books related to Lewis studies was released by Dr. Alister McGrath. Now this year another book by him, If I Had Lunch with C.S. Lewis recently became available. Last year we were presented with a biography and collection of new scholarly essays that evaluated Lewis’s life and the major themes of his writings. The present volume has a unique enough title to at least stop you long enough to make you wonder just what the book is aiming to accomplish. The subtitle offers some assistance: “Exploring the Ideas of C.S. Lewis on the Meaning of Life.” I’m not sure, but I think this is the first book with Lewis’s name in the title AND subtitle.

Not all subtitles brings clarity to a title’s purpose and unfortunately in this case this one falls short. However, the preface paints a very clear and ambitious picture: If you could meet Lewis for a series of lunches where he would mentor you on some of the key lessons he had learned from life, what would he have to say? After all, as McGrath points out, “Lewis is a rare example of someone who had to think about life’s great questions because they were forced on him by his own experiences…His ideas were forged in the heat of suffering and despair.”

So, the setup is McGrath having us get together with Lewis for a series of eight imaginary lunches to help us ponder many of the important concepts and ideas Lewis has explored in his writings. While there is more than enough wisdom to gain from Lewis, McGrath states he chose eight topics because when Lewis taught at both Oxford and Cambridge the academic year was divided into terms of that many weeks. Instead of creating a dialogue making up words that Lewis might say, McGrath states he will “provide accurate summaries of Lewis’s ideas, spiced up with some of his better phrases and quotes, to draw readers into his way of thinking.” Finally, he suggests that you might “see this work as a preface to reading Lewis.”

When I first saw the title for this book I was skeptical about yet another book on Lewis by McGrath. Was this an attempt to cash in on the increased interest in Lewis? However, when I read the preface I understood the need for a popular title like this. It can help those unfamiliar with Lewis beyond Narnia. Additionally it can be an aid to those somewhat acquainted with him who wanted to get more familiar with his works and are unclear what else to read by Lewis.

McGrath (2014)So, how did McGrath do? Unfortunately the expectations set by the preface were either too high or not clarified enough for me. As I saw one reviewer comment about expecting a fictionalized discussion in each chapter, but being “glad” it wasn’t, I’m not so sure I totally am. On the other extreme just having questions and quotes from Lewis’s works to a series of topics would be less interesting. Maybe some middle ground between the two could be achieved by some writer?

Another review I saw after I read the book noted McGrath failed to achieve the conversational tone suggested by his title. An additional distracting element I found (and mentioned to some extend by others) is the amount of biographical content in the main portion of the book. There is an appendix called “Introducing Lewis” were much of it could have been placed in my view. While a certain amount of that material should be included in the chapters, I just can’t imagine Lewis “talking” about himself so much at lunch.

Having said this, the main audience of If I Had Lunch with C.S. Lewis might not let my issues with the book cloud their ability to benefit from the overall aim of getting people to want to read Lewis firsthand. As a “preface” or introduction to Lewis a reader is present with overviews on a range of topics that include: friendship, education, pain and sharing one’s faith (among four others). While there are many other books available with similar aim in mind, McGrath does manage to cover a lot of ground in a relatively short book (just over 200 pages). That achievement gets high marks from me and justifies why I’d give the title four out of five stars with an understanding that the book is aimed at those with less than a moderate familiarity with Lewis.

Disclaimer: I was provide with a complimentary copy of this book with the understanding that I would review it and that my review would be objective.

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Listen to a podcast about McGrath’s Biography: C.S. Lewis – A Life

Read my Review of C.S. Lewis – A Life

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 6, 2014 11:54 pm

    If I lunched with Jack, I’d ask him what led him from despising Americans to marrying one. What did he see in the brilliant but abrasive Joy?

    • April 7, 2014 7:44 am

      I hadn’t thought much about Jack not like Americans much, other than what most people from his day thought of us. As for what he saw in Joy, you will want to tune in for the four and final podcast miniseries on Lewis and Women I’m doing. The second one just posts today.
      http://allaboutjack.podomatic.com

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