12 November 2013

5-Minute McGrath

I'm reviewing three new Lewis biographies for Sehnsucht: The C.S. Lewis Journal. Here are selections from my thoughts on the last of these. 

Alister McGrath's book C. S. Lewis: A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet is by far the most academic of the trio. Its style is objective and authoritative. Its content is extensive, covering public, private, personal, theological, and professional aspects of Lewis' life. There are a few noteworthy moments in this book that call for brief examination. 
First, there is the much-discussed topic: McGrath provides a new chronology for Lewis' conversion. Many Lewis scholars and fans have been weighing in on this topic online; a google search for “McGrath Lewis conversion” will reveal insightful, detailed discussions about the dates Lewis records (in his letters, Surprised by Joy, and elsewhere), the dates McGrath offers, and evaluations of the two. Here is one by The Pilgrim in Narnia that clearly explains the situation. 
Second, McGrath focuses a little more than other biographers have done on Lewis' Irishness, discussing this topic heavily at the beginning of his volume. He positions Lewis in historical context far more fully than either of the others, discussing social class, politics, economics, and war just enough to provide a robust understanding of the world into which Lewis was born.
Third, McGrath includes much material about Mrs. Moore and about Charles Williams, analyzing each of these influences sufficiently. 
  His approach to one episode has, however, generated criticism. McGrath is very harsh towards Joy Davidman, Lewis' wife. He claims that Joy purposefully set out to “seduce” Lewis (323). He refers to (but, frustratingly, does not publish or quote from) “forty-five sonnets, written by Davidman for Lewis over the period 1951-1954” (323). Some of them, McGrath claims, “set out in great detail how Davidman attempted to forge that relationship [with Lewis]. Lewis is represented as a glacial figure, an iceberg that Davidman intends to melt through a heady mixture of intellectual sophistication and physical allure” (323). How strange, then, that McGrath does not quote any lines at all from these poems to support his controversial interpretation. Instead, he refers in his footnotes to Don King's forthcoming study, Yet One More Spring. We will have to wait, then, to see how much evidence there is to support McGrath's reading of Joy Davidman as a money-grubbing, sexually motivated, American predator. 
Even more surprising than McGrath's negative interpretation of Davidman is his failure to balance this ugly portrait with the image of the woman who brought passionate, comforting, companionable love to Lewis in his later years and the writer who inspired several of his last, best books. Had she done nothing else, Joy's role as midwife to Till We Have Faces alone would have earned her a place worthy of praise. Yet she did far more. 
Finally, McGrath is also critical of one other character in this story: Lewis himself. McGrath takes a refreshingly objective approach to the man and his work. His is no wimpy paean of watery praise for St. Lewis. Instead, he takes the philosopher and apologist seriously, analyzing each of Lewis' arguments and pointing out their weak spots. This is exactly what Lewis needed, and what he liked in his friends. He loved a good argument. He would have been delighted to sit down with McGrath and thrash out these points. 
Perhaps the most telling critique is his attack on the famous “trilemma”: the Liar, Lunatic, or Lord proof about Christ's nature. I have long thought that this lovely, elegant argument simply does not work as an evangelical tool, because it functions on Christian presuppositions—which are exactly what the listener presumably does not accept! McGrath takes the same approach, albeit much more thoroughly and professionally than I have done. He points out: “the main problem is that this argument does not work apologetically. It may well make sense to some Christian readers.... Yet the inner logic of this argument clearly presupposes a Christian framework of reasoning” (227) and ignores several alternatives that non-Christians may propose, such as “that Jesus was a well-loved religious leader and martyr whose followers later came to see him as divine” (227). One can imagine other possibilities, such as a universe in which god lies, or in which there are so many gods that anyone can truly claim godhead, or (the most plausible postmodern option) a universe in which “truth” and “lies” have no meaning-content. 
In short, McGrath's critiques of Lewis are good. They are necessary, in a publishing world glutted with Jacksploitation and hagiography. They are apt, opening cracks that should be further explored. And in spite of his harsh treatment of Davidman and less-than-idolatrous treatment of Lewis (or perhaps because of them), this is one of the most intelligent biographies on the market.

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