Alister McGrath. C. S. Lewis: A Life, Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet. Carol Stream: Tyndale House Publishers, 2013.
McGrath’s work is a welcome addition to the voluminous literature on Lewis. It represents exhaustive research and insightful analysis. The reader comes to know Lewis the man, his character, and his ideas. McGrath clearly explains Lewis’ ideas and places them in the context of their development. New information requires reassessment of some events in Lewis’ life.
The work provides detailed information about Lewis’ family dynamics (mother, father, and brother) and his relationships with Mrs. Moore, Joy Davidman, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, other literary figures, and the Oxford faculty.
McGrath provides a brilliant analysis of Lewis’ literary works, especially The Chronicles of Narnia and recognizes his significance among twentieth century writers. I found his analysis of Mere Christianity and other apologetic works less insightful.
The last chapter assesses Lewis’ influence. McGrath states, “Lewis’s rise to fame in the United States was linked with the wartime revival of interest in religious questions, which persisted until late in the 1950s–but then began to fade. During the 1960-s, religious interest and concern switched from theoretical questions to practical issues. Lewis seem ‘much too theoretical and abstract’ to the younger generation.” (p. 363) McGrath says Lewis’ prominence “receded in the 1960s” and he had “few champions ” in the 1960s. He says Evangelicals in the 1960s “clearly regarded him with suspicion.” (364-365) He says Lewis’ popularity surged again in the seventies.
This tracing of Lewis’ influence in America does not square with my experience and what I observed during the mid twentieth century. As a student in Ozark Bible College in the late fifties and early sixties, I brought and read several of Lewis’ books. His books were discussed at the college. I attended Wheaton Graduate School in the mid-sixties. Lewis’ influence was very much alive in Wheaton at that time. After Lewis’ death in 1963,Wheaton professor Clyde Kilby began collecting Lewis materials for “The C. S. Lewis Collection.” In 1965 the Wheaton College Library Committee accepted Kilby’s proposed Lewis’ collection. Because of an endowment of the Collection, in 1974 it was renamed The Marion E. Wade Collection. But that date does not document the beginning of the collection as McGrath seems to indicate. I began teaching in Bible college in 1967 and used Mere Christianity as a required text each semester from then until 2005.
Having read many books by and about Lewis over the past fifty years, I found McGrath’s book to be the most definitive biography of Lewis available today. His exhaustive research in all the Lewis correspondence and other primary sources adds credibility to McGrath’s work. This is a thorough, well-written, honest portrait of C. S. Lewis.