Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Surprised by Lack of Joy: A Review of Alister McGrath's C.S. Lewis: A Life

C.S. Lewis’ writing has fundamentally shaped the way I look at the world. I know I’m not the only one who feels this way about Lewis, whose work—as scholar, fantasy writer, theologian, and apologist— has profoundly influenced and shaped many people.

When you know the general contours of someone’s life and thought, it can be pure pleasure to rehearse those lines again, and picking up a biography about him can be an exercise in familiar delight. On the other hand, a new biography is precisely that – new – and there’s always the realization that by the time you reach the end of it, you will undoubtedly have learned things you never knew before. Even when it’s a biography of someone you know well, a guide has opened up a new doorway into their world, and it can take a while to feel at home there.

So slipping into Alister McGrath’s C.S. Lewis – A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet was both a foray into an unknown country and an exploration of a landscape that looked hauntingly familiar. It turned out not to be the most exhilarating walk I’d ever taken in Lewis country. Nonetheless, there were signs and wayposts that I enjoyed there, and I can see why it’s been lauded as an important book.

Let me list a few of the elements that make it valuable:

  • A solid, comprehensive book, it provides a fairly detailed chronology of Lewis’ life and writings. McGrath, himself an Oxford professor, is the first biographer to have taken full advantage of the complete letters of Lewis (edited by Walter Hooper) now available. He names the letters the backbone of his narrative.

  •  The book is valuable for its notes and lengthy works consulted list alone, and the acknowledgments read like a “who’s who” of recent, important Lewis scholarship. He is indebted to conversations with some of my favorite recent writers on Lewis, such as Alan Jacobs and Michael Ward.
  •  I think this is probably also the first Lewis biography I’ve ever seen that so carefully works through the books published in his lifetime, weaving them into the chronology of Lewis’ life. It’s eye-opening to see what was going on in Lewis’ life when he was working on certain books, and what experiences in his life and thinking helped shape his canon. McGrath also provides a synopsis of each work. This feels especially valuable with some of Lewis’ older and lesser-known works like The Pilgrim’s Regress.
  •  It provides detailed evidence, mostly based on careful noting of dates in letters, that in Surprised by Joy, Lewis named the wrong year (1929) for his conversion to Christianity. McGrath argues convincingly that the date should be 1930, a point I found interesting but belabored. It’s not extraordinary that Lewis, who never much liked numbers, might have gotten the date mixed up, and while it’s interesting that previous scholars haven’t noticed or brought attention to the slip, there’s little to be said for the significance of the later dating beyond the fact that it makes a great deal of emotional and spiritual sense to realize that Lewis’ father’s death probably compelled him forward in his faith journey. Given Lewis’ complicated relationship with his father, and the remorse he felt later about his treatment of his father when he was ill, it would be hard not to speculate that his father’s death had that kind of influence, though since Lewis himself doesn’t seem to write about that anywhere, it’s hard to take the thought much further.
Beyond the book’s general comprehensiveness, McGrath brought out some important insights that I hadn’t pondered much before. Here are a few of the insights I found most memorable:

  • Lewis’ identity as someone who was born and raised (till the age of 10) in Belfast, and then spent the majority of his life in England. McGrath, himself an Oxford transplant from Belfast, raises interesting thoughts about why Ireland has not embraced Lewis as a native son, and about Lewis’ conscious self-identity as a British rather than (nationalist) Irish writer. “His Irish identity, inspired by Ireland’s landscape rather than its political history, would find its expression in the literary mainstream, not one of its ‘side-tracks,’” writes McGrath, adding “Lewis may have chosen to rise above the provinciality of Irish literature; he nevertheless remains one of its most luminous and famous representatives.” (pp 13-14) He leaves that intriguing thought there; other writers, like Harry Blamires, have explored the question of Lewis’ intrinsic Irishness in more depth.

  •  Lewis’ brilliance as a scholar but his sometimes uneasy fit within the world of academia. McGrath’s understanding of the British school system and particularly the world of Oxford was very helpful for this American woman with a humble master’s degree. I still don’t pretend to understand all the politics of Lewis’ Oxford days, but having a deeper glimpse into that world helped me to at least begin to understand how oddly Lewis (with his very public commitment to Christianity) was perceived by some of his colleagues and why he was passed over for scholarly chairs and honors that he seemed to deserve.
  •  The differing and yet overlapping seasons of Lewis’ work as apologist and writer of imaginative fiction. McGrath neatly debunks, as have some others before him, the notion that it was Lewis’ public drubbing in a debate with Elizabeth Anscombe that caused him to make an abrupt turn from apologetics to the writing of imaginative fantasy. This odd speculation by earlier Lewis biographer A.N. Wilson doesn’t hold water, and McGrath pokes satisfying holes in the theory. To do this, he relies first on his understanding of the nature of the Socratic Club, helping readers to see that this debate was in the tried and true academic vein of one colleague offering a sharp and specific scholarly critique to another. While Lewis clearly didn’t enjoy the public setting-down, he appreciated Anscombe’s critique of his particular argument enough to use it to hone his argument in a subsequent revision of the pertinent chapter in Miracles. Secondly, McGrath makes the valid point that Lewis’ supposed turn to imaginative fiction, and its ability to capture minds and hearts and to convey theological convictions, had already begun a number of years before when he wrote the Ransom trilogy.
  • What he does take up quite helpfully is Lewis’ growing weariness in the role of public apologist, not for any abrupt reason (like being bested in one debate) but for a host of interwoven and very human reasons. This included Lewis’ weariness with public life in general: publicity seemed to weigh heavily on him, not only because it affected his professional, academic life, but because he took his role as apologist so seriously. He also suggests that the post-war Lewis was beginning to feel as though it was time to make room for younger voices in the field. McGrath also speculates that Lewis felt weary because, with all his success as an apologist, he felt singularly unsuccessful in his ability to convince two of the closest people in his life of the validity and importance of the Christian faith. He writes: “Mrs. Moore remained hostile to Christianity throughout her later life, and (Arthur) Greeves moved away from his somewhat austere Ulster Protestantism to an equally austere Unitarianism.” (p. 259) This is a consideration I had never pondered, but given his long-term affection and loyalty to both of these people, it rings heart-rendingly true.
  • McGrath’s biography also provides an entire section, two chapters out of fifteen, to Narnia. Within these chapters, he provides a good but by necessity somewhat cursory overview of the creation of the series and its place in Lewis’ canon and overall legacy. He covers many issues of importance to Narnia readers and scholars, including the preferred reading order of the books (and what Lewis said and didn’t say about that); the recent important interpretive lens of medieval cosmology that Michael Ward has presented as a key to unlocking further meaning and depth in the series; and a brief response to critics who charge Lewis with misogyny. While I can understand his desire to acknowledge that issue, I almost wish he hadn’t taken it up at all given the lack of space and time he was able to give it, as it basically just rehashes old issues without offering substantive analysis or defense. He makes the suggestion that Lewis was ahead of his time but behind our own (an odd assertion and one that smacks a bit of chronological snobbery).
My main struggles with the biography both centered, ironically, around joy.

The first and easiest challenge to pinpoint is McGrath’s treatment of Lewis’ relationship with his wife Joy Davidman Gresham. He paints Lewis’ relationship with Davidman (as he refers to her) in an almost completely negative light. At first, I was puzzled by the tone and thought perhaps I was either mistaking it or that he would eventually, given their happiness in their final years together, move toward a more positive assessment, but it never really happened.

While it’s true that Lewis’s relationship with Joy was unusual from the first, and remained puzzling to some of Lewis’ close friends, it seemed odd to me that McGrath was so selective about what and whom he chose to quote. For a biography that seems to be attempting some critical distance from its subject (he resists the use of Jack in referring to Lewis, he doesn’t seem to overtly rely on conversations with anyone still alive who knew Lewis) the section on Lewis’ marriage seems awash with negative connotations. Davidman comes across as aggressive and predatory, and McGrath seems to see no sense in the fact that Lewis came to love her (he goes out of his way to point out that Ruth Pitter would have made a more likely soul mate for Lewis).

Lest you think I exaggerate, consider the language that McGrath uses as he begins to describe Joy and her relationship with Lewis. Others “sought Lewis’ advice, Davidman “sought his soul.” Her “intention” was “to seduce Lewis.” Her poems of the period show her intention “to melt” the glacial figure of Lewis “through a heady mixture of intellectual sophistication and physical allure” (p. 323). Her “real intention” in visiting England was to befriend Lewis. She “initiated” correspondence and contact. Lewis “hurriedly” replaced one “chaperone” with another when lunching with her (though McGrath readily admits no one actually used the word chaperone in this situation). Davidman “made all the moves” and perhaps saw Lewis as a “possible vehicle” in helping her transplant from the U.S. to England (pp 324-325).

And so on. I would go on, but it continues in that vein for the remainder of the section. McGrath seems so determined to debunk the Hollywood image of Joy (the movie “Shadowlands” took liberties when depicting her and her marriage to Lewis) but ends up creating an unsympathetic portrait that, in its own way, also feels inaccurate. No one who has read much about her would deny that Joy Davidman Gresham Lewis was a bold, sometimes brash, always passionate woman, but those attributes can have positive as well as negative connotations. McGrath’s dislike of her feels subtle but pervasive, painting her as a manipulative interloper whose only contribution was that she turned out to be a good “midwife” for some of Lewis’ later and best respected works, an appellation I think she justly not grudgingly deserves.

I was happy to see that I was not alone in my response to this section of McGrath’s book. For a fuller and very helpful response, I would recommend that you read Gina Dalfonzo’s “C.S. Lewis’ Joy in Marriage,” at Christianity Today, which not only corrects McGrath’s portrait on certain points but also presents some of Lewis’ own words about his wife. One would certainly hope that Lewis’ views in this important matter should be consulted and trusted.

One happy byproduct of my wrestling with this section is that it led me to the book Out of My Bone, the collected letters of Joy Davidman, edited by Don W. King and published by Eerdmans in 2009. I’m only 75 pages in, still deep into Joy’s pre-Christian, Communist years, and I have already laughed out loud and found myself nodding in deep appreciation for her literary insights, keen mind, and outright wit. The Davidman found there in her own words practically leaps off the pages.

In the end, that may have been my biggest overall struggle with McGrath’s biography of Lewis: no one, not even Lewis himself, leaps off the page. This portrait lacks vitality and joy. While it is easy to appreciate the neat and detailed orderliness of the account, especially the account of Lewis’ writings, the book seems to serve more as historical chronicle than interpretive biography, with the exception of a few places where some strong biases show through. Beyond chronology, there is no strong, overall lens to guide us through the narrative.

McGrath makes an interesting case, in his chapters on Narnia, for the importance of subtitles (which he sees as key to noting the proper reading order of the series). Taking a nudge from that, I tried to invest McGrath’s own subtitle “Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet” with more interpretive influence as I reflected on the book as a whole, but even that doesn’t help as much as I expected. Lewis’ genius has never been in question, and while he certainly had some eccentricities, it doesn’t seem to me that he had more than most complex people (and the older I get, the more convinced I become that almost everyone I know is complex). McGrath points out Lewis’ tendency toward secrecy in various aspects of his life, but I’m not sure how odd this tendency really is given his temperament and his life situation, including his brother’s alcoholism.

Nor am I entirely sure about the “reluctant prophet” part. Lewis once famously called himself a “reluctant convert,” but once he embraced the Christian faith, he did so with a winsome wholeheartedness. That doesn’t mean his faith didn’t have weary seasons or that his wrestling with his calling didn’t have times of raggedness, but the overall portrait one gets from Lewis’ own writings, and from those who knew him best, is that this was a man with an enormous love for God and people. While it is true that his prophetic critique of modernity did not always win him accolades or professional ease, he nonetheless chose to embrace that role, and the role of public apologist, despite the personal costs.

Some of Lewis’decisions likely brought him discomfort, but his overall embrace of his faith and calling seems to have moved him ever more deeply into joy. It’s this Lewis that I felt I caught only fleeting glimpses of in McGrath’s carefully researched narrative. God surprised Lewis by winning him to faith in the first place, and it seems likely that God continued to surprise him – with the opportunity to be a public voice for faith in wartime Britain, with the sudden vision of a faun in a wood that led him to write stories for children, with a brash, bold, and funny American woman who would become his beloved soul mate and  wife. Such surprises may not have always led to the easiest and most comfortable of lives, but they led Lewis into the places where God most  wanted him to be.


Erin said...

An excellent review of what sounds like a fascinating but frustrating biography. Lewis and joy definitely ought to go together. :)

Beth said...

They do, don't they? In all sorts of ways!

I both very much enjoyed and very much struggled with this book. It felt good to work through it all in a review!

Katharine said...

I am so grateful that you, Beth, are allowing yourself to be led exactly into the places where God most wants you to be. Your well articulated review was well researched, reflected upon and graceful in its style. A (yes, I cannot help it) true joy to read. Thanks for your work!

Beth said...

Thank you, Katharine! I'm glad you enJOYed it. (No, I couldn't resist either.)

I am finding the letters of Joy Davidman Gresham Lewis most fascinating. Wishing I could find a cave to curl up in and time to finish them!