A Theologian of the People?
A review of
The Intellectual World of C.S. Lewis
Alister E. McGrath
Reviewed by Shaun C. Brown
In 2013, the fiftieth anniversary of the death of C.S. Lewis (who died on November 22, 1963, the same day as the assassination of John F. Kennedy), theologian Alister McGrath has turned his attention to the popular twentieth century writer of fiction, popular Christian apologist, and literary scholar. McGrath may be the ideal person to take up the study of Lewis. Lewis and McGrath were both born and raised in Belfast, Northern Ireland (while Lewis did spend time at English boarding schools), studied and lectured at Oxford University (Lewis, however later taught at Cambridge, and McGrath currently teaches at King’s College London). They also both went through years of skepticism and atheism before embracing the Christian faith in the Church of England.
Earlier this year, McGrath also published a biography of Lewis called C.S. Lewis: A Life: Eccentric Genius. Reluctant Prophet. While that volume seeks to establish Lewis’ life story, The Intellectual World of C.S. Lewis serves as an academic volume to explore various aspects of Lewis’s thought and explore Lewis’s significance in his cultural context and in the contemporary world.
For those less familiar with Lewis’s life story, McGrath begins the book with a brief biographical sketch. McGrath then discusses Lewis’s legacy. Not long after his death, interest in Lewis waned as people perceived him as out of touch with the modern world. McGrath argues that by 1980 interest in Lewis began to grow for a variety of reasons. McGrath seeks, in the eight essays that follow, “to set Lewis in the greater context of the western literary and theological tradition, exploring how he appropriated and modified its narratives, ideas, and images” (2–3).
In the first chapter, McGrath interacts with Lewis’s autobiography, Surprised by Joy, which McGrath calls, “a narrative of a human collision with divine reality, in which old ways of thinking were shattered and disrupted, and new ways of seeing opened up” (8). McGrath argues that we should not read Surprised by Joy in order to better understand Lewis, but so we can better understand the meaning of human life. McGrath discusses Lewis’s indebtedness to G.K. Chesterton in Lewis’ apologetic writings, and the influence of Augustine’s Confessions and Dante’s Vita Nuova on Surprised by Joy. McGrath also examines the historical reliability of Lewis’s narrative, and points out major events that are given the silent treatment by Lewis (his relationship with Mrs. Moore and his father, as well as the Great War).
The second chapter is a discussion of the cultural and philosophical milieu of Oxford University in the aftermath of the Great War when Lewis was a student at University College and then a lecturer at Magdalen College. After the war, European society came to “came to question the settled cultural assumptions of the Edwardian age, especially its views on human nature and cultural progress” (32). McGrath seeks to define what Lewis called in that time period his “New Look” in philosophy, which includes a move from “Oxford realism,” his early atheism, “chronological snobbery,” the new psychology, and scientific reductionism. McGrath notes that in works after his conversion to Christianity, like The Pilgrim’s Regress and The Abolition of Man, “Lewis proves to be at his most perceptive when criticizing views he once held” (48).
McGrath then summarizes Lewis’s concept of myth. While in Lewis’s atheist period he used the term myth to refer a “fabricated untruth” of “a story that was devoid of historical basis or rational significance” (55), he also greatly appreciated imaginative mythical stories in works like Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelungs. This led Lewis to desire a “greater vision of reality” (57), so he later came to have a more developed and nuanced definition of myth. While others centered their study of myth upon their historical origins, J.R.R. Tolkein and Lewis focused more on their literary function and the Sehnsucht (“sense of the ‘numinous’” (59) that myths evoked in readers. Lewis came in the early 1930s to see the story of Christ as the “true myth” that fulfills other myths and embraced the Christian faith. “For Lewis, God authorizes the use of myth as a means of captivating the human imagination and engaging the human reason” (64). Humans, as “sub-creators,” have the innate capacity to create myths. Lewis seems to have believed that since humans have this innate capacity, and since the gospel takes the form of a mythos, that the best apologetic would be in the form of imaginative narratives (as seen in The Chronicles of Narnia and The Space Trilogy). This holding together of imagination and reason remains a central theme through the rest of Lewis’s life.
In chapter four, McGrath notes that while many, particularly in Protestantism, tend to privilege auditory metaphors, Lewis privileged metaphors related to light, the sun, and sight that he borrowed from classic pagan and Christian, as well as Renaissance sources. While Michel Foucault and Tolkien (e.g., the eye of Sauron) discuss the capacity to see as a negative metaphor connected to control, Lewis used vision metaphors in a positive sense connected to perception and the enabling of knowledge. For example, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else” (83).