One of the most important books on religion to have been published recently is Professor Alister McGrath’s new biography of CS Lewis, the Northern Ireland-born writer who has blazed such a trail for Christianity.
It is a fitting time to publish the book titled CS Lewis — A Life with the apt sub-title Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet. In November this year, a memorial to Lewis will be unveiled in the Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey, even though he was better known as a Christian apologist and the author of the Narnia Chronicles, rather than as poet or novelist.
Nevertheless, Lewis fully deserves his place in Poet’s Corner with all the great names of literature. He remains one of the most respected and best-selling authors in the English language today.
The unveiling of the memorial stone in the Abbey on November 22 this year will mark the 50th anniversary of Lewis’ death. He was born at Belmont in Belfast on November 29, 1898, and there is a good exhibition of his life and work in Belmont Towers, which is also a cafe/restaurant in a former school near his birthplace.
Lewis remains one of the best-known figures in the history of Ulster literature, but over the years many myths have grown about him, particularly the erroneous image of him as a ‘saintly' figure.
He was a good man, but he had many human dimensions. In his early days he was an intellectual snob. He never really got on with his father, he lived for a long time with an older woman during a period when this was not common, he was a long-time atheist, and when he did embrace Christianity, described himself as the most reluctant convert in all of England.
Lewis went through many dark periods, particularly after the death of his wife Joy Davidman, and he told his official biographer Walter Hooper that he expected to be forgotten five years after his death.
Apart from a gap in the early years after his death, however, the Lewis bandwagon gathered momentum, chiefly among American evangelicals.
With the constant reprinting of his books, and intense academic debate about him, as well as his ability to communicate in print with ordinary people, the name of CS Lewis remained prominent.
More recently the huge success of the movie versions of the Narnia Chronicles, and particularly The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, have made him immensely popular.
Given Lewis’ rise to such a new prominence, Alister McGrath’s new biography is all the more timely. McGrath, himself an Ulsterman, is currently Professor of Theology, Ministry and Education at King’s College, London, and head of its Centre For Theology, Religion And Culture, as well as senior research fellow at Harris Manchester College in Oxford.
He has studied all of Lewis’ voluminous correspondence and archival materials. This has helped him to produce a definitive study of one of the most influential Christian writers of the last century and more.
I have read several biographies of Lewis, but this study by McGrath is one of the best yet. Like Lewis’ own work, it is deceptively simple in its writing style but also profound and easily accessible to the non-academic reader.
If you are ever going to read only one book about Lewis, this is the one to take with you to bed or on holiday, and it is my guess that having read it you will want to discover much more about this remarkable son of Belfast.