Alister McGrath currently serves as Professor of Theology, Ministry, and Education at King’s College, London, and leads the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics in cooperation with Wycliffe Hall. Additionally, he is a Senior Research Fellow at Harris Manchester College, Oxford. One of his most recent works is a vibrant biographical sketch of Oxford literary legend C. S. Lewis. McGrath’s shared Belfast birthplace, religious background as a former atheist converted to Christianity, and educational experience at Oxford and Cambridge have uniquely empowered him to write a thorough and compelling narrative on the life and legacy of Lewis.
A significant strength of this book is McGrath’s approach to his research. He first carefully pieces together Lewis’s personal and professional writings in chronological order. Then he masterfully weaves these primary source materials together with a variety of secondary resources. This paves the way for him to thoughtfully interact with the facts of Lewis’s life story in a fair-minded, balanced approach and question previous assumptions in the literature.
One of the challenged assumptions concerns the exact date of Lewis’s conversation from atheism to Christianity in the Trinity Term of 1929 (p. 141). McGrath contends that past historians wrongly accepted Lewis’s own recollections of his conversion as documented in Surprised by Joy. According to McGrath the traditional chronology of C. S. Lewis’s conversion does not adequately consider the evidence in the primary sources. He argues, “Lewis’s spiritual journey, by my account, is a year shorter than has traditionally been believed” (p. 142).
A second strength is McGrath’s review of Lewis’s life in the trenches of World War I, and his radio broadcasts during World War II. In these sections, C. S. Lewis—A Life transports the reader into the world of Lewis’s most formative years both in his private inner growth and development as well as his public service as a don at Oxford, a popular author, and a voice of hope for England during the darkest hours of the Second World War. McGrath’s insights surrounding these unique social, cultural, and geopolitical realities provide a helpful framework for more fully understanding Lewis and his distinctive influence.
A third strength is McGrath’s exploration of the complex relational dynamics within Lewis’s inner circle of family and friends. The reader gets an up-close and personal look into Lewis’s strained relationship with his father and the profound impact of the death of his mother. It chronicles his relationship with his brother, Warnie, and their many ups and downs over the years. McGrath considers Lewis’s unusual companionship with Mrs. Moore and his lifetime friend and confidant Arthur Greeves. He describes Lewis’s marriage of convenience in his later years to Joy Davidman and how toward the end of her fight with cancer a deeper love emerged, mirrored in later writings such as The Four Loves.
Other relationships explored include colleagues who participated in the Inklings literary discussion group, especially Lord of the Rings author J. R. R. Tolkien. It is fascinating to learn that Lewis and Tolkien were not only contemporaries, but also close friends. According to McGrath they encouraged each other in their writings. “Tolkien read parts of The Hobbit to Lewis; Lewis read parts of The Pilgrim’s Regress to Tolkien” (p. 175). For a season Lewis was a key instrument in the development of Tolkien’s classic Lord of the Rings. And Tolkien also influenced Lewis in his conversion to Christianity and perhaps in the development of his Narnia works—although McGrath suggests that Narnia was never formally discussed in the Inklings group. While it is unfortunate that Lewis’s friendship with Tolkien cooled over the years, McGrath presents the facts in all their twists and turns without understatement or overdramatization.
Another strength of the book resides in McGrath’s grasp of surprising scholarship about the Narnia series. Michael Ward rocked the C. S. Lewis scholarly world in 2008 with the publication of Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis. Ward claims that he has discovered a secret key that unlocks the seven Narnia books. His contention is that Lewis took pre-Copernican medieval cosmology, as illustrated by the seven heavens (planets), and worked them into the worldview of Narnia, so that each book represents the symbolism of the various planets. Of course, Lewis knew this worldview was wrong scientifically, but he felt it was a beautiful literary device for conveying the spiritual world of Narnia. Ward’s research was first written in his doctoral dissertation and then revised for the scholarly book Planet Narnia and its follow up, The Narnia Code.
When McGrath—already a Lewis scholar—first came in contact with this material, he was skeptical, but he soon became a believer due to the cogency of Ward’s arguments. In C. S. Lewis: A Life, McGrath not only expertly interacts with Ward’s materials, he explains them with such clarity that Ward’s ideas are easy to understand, and a Narnia lover can immediately gain fresh insight and new appreciation of the Narnia series. This feature itself makes C. S. Lewis—A Life a joy to read.