Full text of Alister McGrath’s talk titled “C.S. LEWIS: A PROPHET FOR CONTEMPORARY CHRISTIANITY”. In this lecture Dr Alister McGrath reflects on the continuing significance of Lewis for contemporary Christianity, and the challenges that face his biographers.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here:
Alister McGrath – Northern Irish theologian
Well, let me begin by saying what a pleasure it is to be here tonight and talk about C.S. Lewis. And the title we’ve given is that of Lewis as a prophet to contemporary Christianity.
And I think that there is no doubt that Lewis is a prophet in some sense of the word. He says some things that need to be said. As I suggest in a biography, he says those things with reluctance and the reason for that is he felt there are others who are much better placed than he was to say these things but he felt also that they were not saying them at all or they were saying them in ways that didn’t really connect up with where people were.
And so Lewis thought, well, if they won’t do it, I will do it. And so there’s a sense in which he did this with reluctance but I think it’s also important to say he did it really quite well.
And so what I want to try and do in this lecture this evening is to open up some of the issues that arise from Lewis’s life. I want to talk a bit about this biography but I also want to talk more importantly about Lewis himself. What is it about Lewis that continues to resonate with people’s feeling that there is more to life than what we see on the surface? Why do people still find things of significance in Lewis?
I suppose one very obvious question to begin with is this: There are loads of biographies of Lewis. So why on earth clutter up the marketplace with yet another one?
I think that’s a fair question and maybe there are one or two things that do need to be said here. I think the main point to make is this: The last major biography was by A.N. Wilson back in 1990. And a lot has happened since 1990. There has been a huge amount of Lewis research but I think most importantly Walter Hooper edited and published the complete edition of Lewis’s correspondence.
And really I think that correspondence is the backbone of this biography. It in effect gives us a sense of what Lewis was thinking at various times in his life. And we must remember that Lewis never thought these things were going to be published. So when we read his correspondence from the 1910s and 1920s this is a private correspondence that’s gone public. I think it does help us understand what Lewis’ thought was going on, how he was positioning himself and the lines of thought that he was taking.
I think the main thing to emphasize is this: That there is more to Lewis than meets the eye. And one of the things I’ve tried to do in this biography is to present Lewis in the most accurate way possible. And I think that the greatest honor you can pay to somebody is to get them right. In other words just to tell things as they are rather than the way you think people would like them to be.
And so the portrait I paint of Lewis is not that of a saint, but rather of an interesting man who actually had a very hard time in life and who yet managed to transcend those things in his writings and various other ways. And in many ways Lewis I think is a symbol of hope that providence can deal you a pretty bad hand but nevertheless you’re able to rise above it and do some remarkable things.
So the portrait you’ll find of Lewis in this biography is very honest. There’s nothing wrong with that. It in effect is just saying this is the way Lewis is, it helps us understand his writings, but also I think helps us in one other respect as well.
Let me explain. If you read the biography by George Sayer, it’s a very good biography, and it’s written by somebody who knew Lewis well at first hand. And I think it’s very important. Sayer tells us what Lewis was like as a person. I never met Lewis at all. I know Lewis derivatively through his writings. And there’s a sense in which I know him only indirectly.
And I want to suggest to you that maybe that is what Lewis would have liked because as many of you will know Lewis was very skeptical of any who tried to make sense of a writer by explaining his or her history. Think for example of his writings on Milton. The important thing he said is what they wrote. That is what you should look at. And I think he’s right.
One of Lewis’s most famous statements from the 1930s is this: The poet is not a spectacle at whom you look. He is a set of spectacles through whom you look. In other words it’s saying that a poet or a writer gives us a way of looking at things and the important thing is to engage with their writings and explore the way of looking at things that they make possible.
So I do hope Lewis is right because if he is, then actually not knowing Lewis may be an advantage in this respect.
But I think another point I’d like to make is this: That although I never knew Lewis I do know some of the situations in which he grew up and subsequently worked. Like Lewis, I was born in Belfast. Those of you listening in Belfast you can tell immediately. Like Lewis I lost my accent.
Like Lewis, I went to Oxford as an atheist, discovered Christianity there, became a Dom and various things like that. It means I know a lot about the cultural background against which Lewis operated. And I don’t think that gives me a position of privilege but at points it does help me make sense of some of the things that were going on in his life.
Let me talk a little bit about some of the things that emerged from this biography before I go on to engage with Lewis as a figure of importance in his own right.
I think with a biography there are two main things you can explore. First of all there is the acquisition of new evidence. We didn’t know about this before. Now we know this, it helps us to make sense of things.
And then secondly there are new interpretations of things we already knew. In other words the issue is, well we already knew about that and that and that, but the issue is you’re saying this actually leads to a different way of thinking about Lewis or a different way of interpreting Lewis. And both those things are there in this biography.
I did a lot of work in Archives so there is a lot of new material that you won’t have seen before. Some of the photographs in the biography you’ll have seen for the very first time.
And secondly the research method I used is that of reading everything that Lewis published in chronological order. And the reason I did this was basically to try and get a sense of the way in which Lewis’s vocabulary and style developed and also how his ideas were developing.
I have to say to you I didn’t really expect that to lead to anything very important other than simply understanding his development better. But as you will see in a moment it did actually raise a question about one most fundamental theme in Lewis’s autobiography: Surprised by Joy.
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