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C.S. Lewis — A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet

Alister McGrath (Tyndale House Publishers, 448 pp., hardcover)

You might not have read C.S. Lewis, but you’ve read C.S. Lewis. By the time I got around to picking up one of Lewis’ greatest works, Mere Christianity, I felt like I was taking a refresher course. My Twitter friends made sure I had already seen his good quotes.

C.S. Lewis has infiltrated almost every faucet of religious rhetoric. Christians quote him, gush over his literary concepts, and use his illuminating illustrations daily. What is it about Lewis though, that makes him so popular today? Why is he so revered, even after all of these years?

World-renowned theologian and apologist, Alister McGrath, paints a new picture of one of the most popular 20th-century Christian writers in his recent book, C.S. Lewis — A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet. Just in time for the 50th anniversary of Lewis’ death, McGrath brings clarity and intrigue to the man who created such classics as The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, and the esteemed Narnia series.

McGrath’s work is an important contribution to the flood of Lewis literature available because of his ability to humanize the great author. While most works on popular figures tend to either demonize or create impossible heroes, McGrath presents a clear picture of C.S. Lewis, warts and all. A Life does not shy away from the more controversial topics in Lewis’ life. Primarily, his turbulent school years, supposed sexual relationship with a much older woman, and his rushed marriage to a gold-digging American writer, 16 years his junior. It also may be added that though Lewis was applauded as an apologist to the masses, some of the closest people in his life, including his brother, were resistant to many of his arguments regarding Christianity.

Yet, out of these fires came a man who has had an impact on the lives of people across countless generations. His understandable and precise works allowed the common person to grasp arguments for the validity and reasonableness of the Christian faith. McGrath argues that Lewis’ mass appeal is precisely why so many people have come to love his books over the years.

A Life argues, however, that Lewis was somewhat of a reluctant prophet. He was never a very good theologian and spoke from the perspective of a layperson, not a minister. He did not quote Scripture very often and pledged no allegiances to any one specific denomination. Yet, as McGrath outlines, this was what the world was looking for during and shortly after World War II. Lewis’ appeal during that period might also be the key to explaining his popularity today.

These explorations, along with a number of other important discussions, make McGrath’s book truly memorable. McGrath approaches his subject by closely scrutinizing the primary sources of information on Lewis’ life, including a vast amount of correspondence by the author. On top of allowing the reader to delve into the mind of Lewis, McGrath’s techniques also teach us to delete any e-mails we rather not see turn up in our biographies one day.

Through these means McGrath makes the most unique argument of his book. McGrath contends that Lewis’ conversion from atheism to belief in God did not occur in Spring 1929, as stated by Lewis in his autobiographical work Surprised by Joy. Instead, it occurred sometime during 1930. McGrath presents strong evidence to support his view, contending that Lewis’ memory was somewhat cloudy when recounting his experience over 20 years later.

A Life is sure to promote discussion and debate over one of the most beloved Christian figures in the last hundred years. McGrath writes his book in an extremely accessible and illuminating way. This method allows those with no theological training or prior exposure to Lewis to enjoy this work. If you are looking for an introduction to the world of C.S. Lewis, McGrath’s C.S. Lewis — A Life, is the perfect place to start. For the more intellectually inclined, look for McGrath’s companion piece, The Intellectual World of C.S. Lewis.

Reviewed by Wade Bearden, youth pastor, Houston, Texas.

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