Review of Alister McGrath, C.S. Lewis — A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2013) for the Emerging Scholars Network (ESN). Part II. Click here for Part I.
Things which I felt did not work:
Moving on to things that I found difficult about the work, I think the biggest thing was that the writing style was confusing to me. At times, McGrath seemed to fall into the awkward habit in his writing style of announcing his transitions in a way that seemed unnecessary. For instance, he ends the section on the Inklings with the following, “Yet this is to run ahead of our narrative. We must now consider the work which established Lewis’s reputation as a serious literary scholar – and which remains widely read to this day – the 1936 classic The Allegory of Love” (181-2). This leads to his next heading: “The Allegory of Love (1936)” (182). At least once, he set up the next section or transition with an entire paragraph that was an explanation of what he was going to say next. At some point, it became very noticeable in the narrative, similar to the way that someone’s verbal tick in a speech becomes noticeable if it is repeated enough times. While this is not a substantive complaint, books are narratives which are meant to be read and it made the flow very awkward and these explicit transitions seemed very unnecessary to the writing and should have been caught by an editor. It is possible this is more of an English (as opposed to American) writing style (he does favor English spellings over American spellings), but compared to several other biographies that I have read recently, this stylistically did not work and became distracting.
The big issue that McGrath takes up in this work, which he acknowledges places him alone among Lewis scholars, is the dating of Lewis’ conversion (135-146). While it is certainly true that autobiographical memory is open to critical evaluation by later generations of scholars and this may in fact become the standard view with further consideration, I was left wondering why the issue seemed to be such a big deal for McGrath. McGrath set up the issue around one of his central themes for the biography, connecting Lewis’ inner and external worlds by looking at Lewis’ own account in Surprised by Joy and comparing that with Lewis’ correspondence and known behavioral changes. This led him to the conclusion that Lewis converted to theism in 1930 and not 1929 as Lewis states in his autobiography. Of more interest to me, and an issue which is largely lacking in this biography, is the transformation of Lewis from the person that we meet in the early pages of the biography, one who is willing to experiment with sexual pain and S&M to the admittedly conservative Lewis who we encounter later in life (cf. 236). McGrath does not really take up that issue other than a couple of oblique references to issues like Lewis’ transition from a more low church expression to a high church Anglican. Considering the veiled implications (or not so veiled depending on how you read McGrath) which McGrath makes about Lewis’ relationship with Mrs. Moore – an admittedly thorny issue for Lewis scholars – it would seem that some more of these transitional blanks could have been addressed (or at least explored). One gets the impression that Lewis converted and was simply and immediately transformed, but it would seem that it is unlikely.
Finally, I have two issues with the way that McGrath took up Lewis’ corpus. Continue Reading…