The Intellectual World of C. S. Lewis
Reviewed by Pamela Jordan-Long, The Center for the Study of C. S. Lewis & Friends, Taylor University
Of making many books about C. S. Lewis there is no end. Even Lewisian scholars say that everything there is to say about Lewis has already been said. Yet, remarkably, Alister McGrath’s The Intellectual World of C. S. Lewis provides fresh, perspicacious insight into the thought and work of one of the most influential writers of the last 100 years. As his title suggests, McGrath explores Lewis’s intellectual vision and the forces that shaped it. Following his brilliant biography of Lewis, in The Intellectual World of C. S. Lewis, McGrath delineates how Lewis’s thought developed and was refined. Also meticulously researched and relying on primary materials, McGrath’s second book on Lewis aims “to set Lewis in the greater context of the western literary and theological tradition” and explores how Lewis “appropriated and modified its narratives, ideas, and images” (3).
McGrath’s study opens with a pithy, concise biography of Lewis’s life—a kind of preface. What follows is actually a collection of eight essays each with a unique focus. They range from a critical examination of Lewis’s autobiography, to a discussion of what is distinctive in Lewis ideology, to a consideration of whether or not Lewis should be labeled a theologian. The book is quite an offering for those who would understand the Lewisian intellect and the pervasiveness of Lewis’s influence.
“The Enigma of Autobiography: Critical Reflections on Surprised by Joy,” the title for chapter one, is a perfect appellation. McGrath presents a critique of Lewis’s account of his life and his conversion to Christianity. In Eccentric Genius. Reluctant Prophet. C. S. Lewis: A Life, McGrath raised the question of the reliability of Lewis’s memory and made the case for revised perspective on the date of Lewis’s conversion. Here he makes the case that Lewis’s autobiography was an explanation of how Lewis came “to discover Christianity.” He offers a way of reading Surprised by Joy not as a biography of Lewis’s life but as a literary reflection on his life. McGrath suggests that Augustine and the medieval ars memorativa were literary models that shaped Lewis’s narrative approach. The chapter also discusses the nature of autobiography and concludes: “Perhaps we should read Surprised by Joy, not primarily as a book about the life of C. S. Lewis, but a book about life itself. Lewis’s autobiography is then to be seen as much as a reflection on the meaning of human life in general as it is on the meaning of his own life” (9).
The second chapter is perhaps the essay that brings the freshest insight to Lewis’s intellectual development. It provides an adroit overview of the intellectual history of Oxford in the 1920s and how Lewis’s perspective was shaped by currents of thought including modern psychology and “Oxford realism.” McGrath comments on how Lewis’s study of philosophy informed his thinking and his writing. He also points out how Lewis’s philosophical positions shifted over time and underscores that they remained idiosyncratic. McGrath gives particular attention to Lewis’s “treaty with reality” which he summarizes as Lewis’s “attempts to limit reality to the intellectually manageable and controllable” (39). This mode of thinking is significant in Lewis’s progression from atheism to a belief in God. McGrath’s discussion of Lewis’s changing views deepens our understanding of Lewis’s power as an apologist, for as McGrath notes, “most of the positions that Lewis criticized so effectively, especially during the 1940s were positions he once held himself” (49).
The essay “A Gleam of Divine Truth: The Concept of Myth in Lewis’s Thought” is an enlightened discussion of a topic that has been explored by many Lewis scholars, most notably Donald Glover, Margaret Hannay, and Robert Smith. McGrath brings his wide reading and a broad understanding of German Romanticism and the history of the genre of myth to develop a context for Lewis’s understanding and application of the concept of myth. Lewis biographers have consistently pointed to the significance of Tolkien’s suggestion that the Christian narrative was a myth that was true in Lewis’s conversion to Christianity. McGrath reiterates: “Lewis’s 1931 conversation with Dyson and Tolkien set in place a transformation of his intellectual vision, which arguably underlies his literary and theological endeavors from that point onward” (65). Even a cursory reading of Lewis substantiates McGrath’s claim. McGrath points to three conclusions drawn from Lewis’s understanding of myth: Paganism can be seen as “an imperfect grasping toward truth,” Christian doctrines are subordinate to the greater reality of the grand narrative (65), and the New Testament cannot be demythologized (69). Lewis’s writings of the 30s and 40s are infused with these ideas and articulated in his 1944 essay, “Myth Became Fact.”
McGrath’s examination of Lewis’s use of visual metaphors addresses an omission in Lewis scholarship. McGrath makes the case that Lewis’s pervasive use of “metaphors relating to sun, light, vision and shadows in his writings” (83) situates Lewis in the “the classic tradition of ancient Greece and its Renaissance reformulations” (84). He notes that the Western tradition uses such metaphors to convey truth and meaning and comments on these themes in literature, science, and philosophy. What is significant in Lewis is the concept of seeing things as they really are and, particularly, that Christianity enables us to see things “properly.” McGrath further contends that Lewis’s use of visual metaphors is central in his approach to apologetics “which often focuses on the manner in which Christianity offers a new way of seeing things which casts light on the enigmas and paradoxes of human existence, allowing them to be seen in a new way” (83-84). He points out that Lewis uses ocular imagery to convey our means of grasping reality and apprehending coherence. McGrath’s examination invites further study of Lewis’s use of this imagery.
The fifth chapter offers a constructive treatment of Lewis’s “Argument from Desire.” Noting first that this distinctly Lewisian theme is more an argument for the existence of heaven than an argument for the existence of God, McGrath explores the literary and imaginative context for Lewis’s understanding of desire and provides a succinct explanation for Sehnsucht. McGrath points out that Lewis explores the significance of desire in several works but his most salient statement is found in Surprised by Joy wherein Lewis delineates his experience of joy and gives the word a uniquely personal meaning. He reminds us that Lewis’s argument is essentially suppositional and that it is an appeal to intuition and imagination. And for Lewis this vision of reality includes a “resonance between the imaginative and the real” (121). McGrath argues that Lewis’s approach from desire offers a novel way of seeing things and places emphasis on the overall picture. This, he suggests, explains Lewis’s reluctance to debate doctrine. The discussion of desire provides valuable insight into Lewis’s mode of thought.
The sixth essay is one of the best explanations of Lewis’s success as an apologist. Lewis’s strength as apologist rests in four areas. First, Lewis serves as a kind of theological translator. McGrath points to his “capacity to transpose theological idioms into the cultural vernacular,” and more so in his “ability to transpose such idioms into…images and narratives” (132). He cites The Chronicles of Narnia as a prime example of this strength. Second, Lewis appeals to reason by showing that the Christian faith makes sense of what we see and experience in the world around us. He shows us “how intelligent reflection on the experiences of life strongly suggests…that there is a God” (133-134). Third, Lewis appeals to human longing. McGrath purports that the Christian view of reality Lewis provides “accommodates such longings, offering an explanation of their origins, accounting for their significance, and indicating how they may be fulfilled” (137). Fourth, Lewis appeals to human imagination. Citing the science fiction trilogy and The Chronicles of Narnia, McGrath states that Lewis’s primary concern was to enable his readers to embrace imaginatively “the deeper meaning of the Christian faith” (140). Once again, he suggests that Lewis provides his readers with a visual framework: a vehicle for seeing in a new way. McGrath praises Lewis’s ability to “engage apologetic issues at multiple levels” (143).
In the closing chapters of his study, McGrath pulls together some remaining observations regarding Lewis’s relation to organized religion. He comments on Lewis’s choice to align himself with his local parish church, Holy Trinity Church and speculates about Lewis’s influence on contemporary Christian culture. Following an interesting discussion of Lewis’s lack of engagement with twentieth-century theologians, he entertains the question of whether or not Lewis should be considered a theologian. McGrath concludes that Lewis has become a theologian because he is “now received as a theologian” by those “who find in Lewis certain intellectual and cultural virtues that they do not find elsewhere” (178).
McGrath’s research is compelling. Throughout, McGrath makes the case that Lewis’s engagement with Western thought shaped his perspective and informed his writing. He argues successfully that “Lewis was deeply conscious of standing within a tradition of literary, philosophical, and theological reflection, which he extended and deepened in his own distinctive manner” (5). McGrath weaves his knowledge of Christian history, literary theory, and philosophy into a cogent discussion of Lewis’s writings and biography. He adds much to Lewis scholarship, most notably an understanding of university culture, particularly the Oxford milieu. McGrath’s thought-provoking research invites further study of Lewis.