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Home » C.S. Lewis: A Prophet for Contemporary Christianity: Alister McGrath (Transcript)

C.S. Lewis: A Prophet for Contemporary Christianity: Alister McGrath (Transcript)

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.

So let’s look at each of these things. New evidence, new readings, new interpretations.


As some of you here tonight will know, in 1917 Lewis trained in Oxford to go into the British Army to serve in the First World War. He joined the Somerset Light Infantry. Most biographies say Lewis joined the Somerset Light Infantry, full stop. I have to say I put a question mark there. Why did he join the Somerset Light Infantry?

Now there’s some here tonight from Somerset and they’ll say well it’s a very nice place. It makes perfect sense to join the Somerset Light Infantry. But I want to suggest to you that somebody whose worlds were simply Northern Ireland, Ireland as it was then, and Oxford, it’s actually rather strange that they should choose to join the Somerset Light Infantry when there were lots of Irish regiments available and also of course the local one, the Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry.

WHY? Lewis’s closest friend during his period of training was a man called Paddy Moore and his mother, always referred to as Mrs Moore, played a very significant role in Lewis’s life.

And I may talk about that a bit more.

But Lewis became best friends with Paddy Moore and Paddy Moore we know joined the rifle brigade and died on the Somme in 1918.

So why did Lewis join the Somerset Light Infantry? I came across a document in an Oxford archive which in effect was the record of the officer training unit to which Lewis and Moore were attached. And this document is very very detailed. It in effect begins by saying this officer could have arrived on this date sponsored by this regiment and then gives details of everything they did before they were discharged to commission.

In Lewis’s own case, he began being sponsored by the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, no explanation given, and then was discharged to the Somerset Light Infantry. But here’s the interesting point. The regiment that sponsored Paddy Moore, Lewis’s best friend, was the Somerset Light Infantry.

In other words, reading those documents you begin to think maybe Lewis asked to be assigned to the Somerset Light Infantry because that is where his best friend was going.

There’s a very interesting letter from later in 1917 in which Mrs Moore says, you know my son is going off to the rifle brigade, Lewis is going to the Somerset Light Infantry and the subtext is they’re expected to go off together. So I think it does cast light on Lewis’s choice of regiment.

But more importantly there is a review of existing evidence. I think the most important aspect of this is the suggestion that Lewis’s date in Surprised by Joy for his own conversion may be inaccurate. Many of you will know Surprised by Joy very well and one of your favorite scenes may well be Lewis’s own account of his conversion. He begins to believe in God and he talks about this in terms of being the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England and he dates this very precisely to Trinity Term 1929. In other words, the Oxford term which begins in April and ends in June of 1929.

And Lewis names this date with great precision and great certainty. I want to suggest it happened a year later and in doing that I’m going against every Lewis scholar I know that is before the publication of this biography, and I’m afraid Lewis himself.

So let me explain why I think that’s right, and why I think I can defend it even against Lewis himself. As I mentioned I read everything that Lewis wrote in the order of writing, and as I read through the books for 1929 the letters and so on what I found there was it could be summarized as nothing really very much happened. There’s no change in the tone of his writing.

There is a massive event in that year: his father died in September 1929, and that’s significant because if you look at Lewis’s letters he does not interpret his father’s death in any way in terms of believing in God. It’s simply an event. Many said look Lewis must have understood his father’s death in terms of a belief in God but I began to wonder what happened might be explained in a different way.

What if the death of Lewis’s father precipitated reflection on God rather than reflected an existing belief in God because I’m telling you when you read those letters there is no mention of any kind of faith or attitude towards God in Lewis’s correspondence.

Secondly, those of you who’ve read Lewis’s Surprised by Joy will know his description of his conversion. It’s all about God drawing close to him. It’s very much phrased in terms of God taking the initiative and beating down Lewis’s defenses.

One of Lewis’s best friends was Owen Barfield. The other was Arthur Greaves. In a letter of February 1930 to Owen Barfield, a very very short letter, it gets interrupted by a visitor, Lewis says to Barfield, you’d better come and see me quickly, because the ideal is beginning to get aggressive, behaving just like God unless you come here I’ll be in a monastery by Monday. That’s February 1930.

Now if Lewis was converted in the summer of 1929, that doesn’t make a huge amount of sense. Nor does the letter of October 1930 to Arthur Greaves. Lewis tells us that as a result of beginning to believe in God, he did two things. He began to go to his local church, that’s Holy Trinity, Headington Quarry, and he also began to attend chapel at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he was based.

In a letter of October 1930, Lewis tells Arthur Greaves, his best friend, I started going to bed earlier because I started going to morning chapel at eight o’clock. Now again, that’s October 1930, and if Lewis was converted in the late Trinity Term of 1930, Magdalen College chapel shut down for the summer, it reconvened in October, Lewis would have begun going to chapel at the first available opportunity.

If Lewis converted in the summer of 1929, why did he wait a year before going to chapel? So the evidence really is there, but the final point is this. Lewis was hopeless about dates. In his letter of 1950, he regularly apologizes, I keep getting my dates wrong, I’m so sorry. His brother was convinced Lewis had a lifelong inability to remember dates. Indeed, in 1941, Lewis was made vice president of Magdalen College, Oxford, and that college responsibility had one major obligation, which was the booking of college rooms for meetings. And either these rooms were not booked at all, or they double booked, because Lewis simply found diaries impossible to manage.

If you read Surprised by Joy, there are errors in dates. Let me just mention two of them. Lewis talks in Chapter 4 like this: In January 1911, just turned 13, I set out with my brother to Wyvern, that’s his word for Malvern, for the college, and I for a preparatory school. Well, that’s all very well, but he’s out by a year, not 13, but 12.

Or again, in Surprised by Joy, he talks about the very first time he read a book, Phantastes, by George MacDonald, and he dates it very precisely August 1915. But in a letter to Arthur Greaves, bristling with excitement, he says, I’ve just read this book by MacDonald, Phantastes is wonderful, you should read it too. The letter’s dated March 1916. He’s way out.

So I suggest that Lewis’s conversion needs to be redated. Now some of you will say, well, you know, that’s quite interesting, but in a rather nitpicking sort of way. I mean, you know, what difference does that make to reading Narnia, or indeed reading anything by Lewis? And I have to say, you’re absolutely right, that Lewis begins to write the books for which he is remembered in August 1932.

So whenever Lewis got converted, that is done and dusted by the time his writing begins. So in one sense, this is just a little storm in the teacup, but if you’re interested in Lewis’s intellectual development, then I think this really does make a big difference.

So what I want to do is begin to talk not about, you know, the fine detail of Lewis’s life, but to stand back and look at some of the major themes that emerge from it. I’m going to look actually towards Christianity, towards literature, and I’m going to talk about Narnia.

So let’s begin by looking at Christianity.


Well, that’s a complicated question and needs a lot of answering, and I am struggling slightly under the limits available to me. But I think there are two things I need to say.

Lewis began to discover that Christianity A) made sense, and B) engaged his imagination. In other words, it was not simply something that was reasonable, it was something that was reasonable, but was more than that, something with the capacity to engage and transform his imaginative world.

And I use that word imaginative, not imaginary, made up. But imaginative, which for Lewis means being able to excite the imagination, not in an arbitrary way, but in a way that somehow corresponds with the way things actually are. And Lewis I think really emphasizes that Christianity gives us a big picture of reality, which fits things in, and thus makes rational sense of them, but is also able to excite the imagination because it’s told not simply in terms of ideas, but in terms of stories that illuminate the way the world is.

Now I’ll come back to that presently. Many of you will know Lewis’s famous ARGUMENT FROM DESIRE. And as this is normally stated, it doesn’t really sound very plausible. We long for something, things in this world don’t really seem to satisfy it, therefore there must be a God who’s able to satisfy it. Thus stated, the argument makes little sense, but it’s not the way Lewis develops it.

What Lewis says is this: Christianity gives us this big picture of reality. This way of thinking, within this way of thinking, our longing for something which is never really satisfied by anything in this world makes perfect sense. That’s what Christianity is all about. And it says, look, that’s what we observe, here’s what it points to. It’s about giving people a framework that identifies the phenomenon and then offers an explanation. It is an unrecognized longing for God, which is recognized as such when we find God and are transformed and transfigured by that.

So Lewis is really saying, if you like, that there is a correspondence between the theory and the observation. And that correspondence is itself an indication of the reliability of Christianity. And he makes this point, I think, particularly finely at the end of one of his essays, which is the essay called, Is Theology Poetry?

For those of you who want to know the answer, it all depends what you mean by poetry and what you mean by theology. But the final line of that essay, I think, is beautiful: I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen, not just because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.

In other words, it’s like what Plato called a synopticon, a way of looking at things that colligate things, that brings them together, that makes sense of them. And for Lewis that was really enormously important.

But of course Lewis chose to express himself primarily through literature. And therefore I need to talk a bit about what Lewis thought literature was all about. Because clearly Lewis finds this a way of expressing himself. Many of you will know Lewis hoped to be a poet. During his army year Lewis was a very aggressive atheist, and he also wanted to be remembered as a war poet. And we possess his war poetry from that age. They express his anger, his indignation at an uncaring God who allowed all this suffering to go on around him.

But we don’t really remember Lewis anymore either as an atheist or as a poet. Because clearly he was changed radically by his conversion and also by his realization that he wasn’t actually a very good poet but began to realize he could express his poetry through his prose.

And as you read Lewis I think you’ll find that his writing has a sort of rhythm, a melody to it, which shows that there is someone there who knows how words work and is able to do things through them.


Well he talks about this a lot as you would expect. Remember Lewis was a professor of English at Cambridge having previously served a long time as Magdalen College’s tutorial fellow in English Literature and Language. And the view he expresses is this: Literature is a way of enhancing our vision of reality. It is something that can be immensely enjoyable, and that’s good. But it can also be enjoyable and enriching in that it gives us a different way of seeing things and invites us to ask how reliable that way of seeing things is.

Now I mentioned Lewis was converted let’s say 1930. We also know what sort of influences impacted on that event. And one of them was his reading of literature. And he read people like George Herbert, to a lesser extent John Donne, Thomas Traherne, but he felt that George Herbert’s rendering of reality seemed much more authentic, much more realistic than that, for example, he found in Virginia Woolf or H.G. Wells.

And he began to say, look, you know, literature is able to articulate a worldview and let us judge that worldview by how well it chimes in with our deepest intuitions and what we observe in the world around us.

So as I was saying earlier, in the 1930s Lewis says, look, the writer, the poet, is not someone who points at themselves, but rather someone who says, look at things this way. Let me provide you not with a spectacle at which you look, but with a set of spectacles through which you look at the world and you judge the reliability of this way of thinking by how well the spectacles bring things into focus.

And that’s a very characteristic theme in Lewis’s writings. He’s very, very clear that literature is there to enrich our vision of reality. And that’s very, very characteristic of the way in which Lewis speaks and thinks.

Here is a quote from a late writing which is called, a late writing, sorry a minute, called An Experimenting Criticism. And many of you have read these words, but listen to them: My own eyes are not enough for me. I will see through those of others. In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but is still I who see.

And the point he’s making is that each of us is inalienably subjective. We are who we are. We can’t break free from that. But reading is a way of enriching, enhancing, expanding our vision of reality by which we borrow other people’s way of thinking, try it on for size, and if it works and we like it, we adopt it and appropriate it.

So Lewis clearly is saying literature is not simply something you enjoy, but it is that. It’s also something that expands, challenges, develops, is what the Greeks called sikagogia, expansion of the mind. And Lewis is very, very clear that that’s something he hoped to do himself. And of course one of the works in which he does this is the Chronicles of Narnia.


So perhaps I ought to speak about that, because I think that’s a very important theme. Every biographer writes for an audience. You don’t just write for anybody who happens to be interested. You usually have a group of people in mind. And in writing this biography, the group of people I had in mind were those who have read Narnia or seen the movies and wondered who this guy C.S. Lewis is and what else did he do.

How did he come to write Narnia? What’s it all about? How can we get more out of our reading of Narnia? And that helps you understand the structure of this biography. Most traditional biographies of Lewis do things on a year-by-year basis. In 1931 this happened, in 1932 this happened, and that makes quite good sense.

But the problem is that Lewis’s reflections on Narnia from beginnings to final publication of the last volume in the series are spread out over roughly 15 years. And that means that you have to smear out what is potentially a very interesting discussion so it loses any sense of continuity and focus.

In this biography I organize material around the worlds that Lewis inhabited, real or imagined. So there’s a very long section on Oxford. There’s a shorter section on Cambridge. And then between them there’s a section on Narnia in which I talk specifically about how Narnia took shape in Lewis’s mind, how he wrote it, the ideas he was bringing together, and then finally I go on to explore what Narnia is all about.

And when you read Narnia there are really two different things you can do. They’re not incompatible, they can be brought together. The first is you say, look, it’s like exploring a house. Let’s look at the various bits that Lewis brings together in Narnia. And that’s enjoyable. It’s like drawing a map and saying, here are all the people, here are all the places, now you can get more out of the reading. And that is useful, but it’s clearly not what Lewis intended.

Lewis intended to keep the HOUSE ANALOGY going, that we should see Narnia as being like a house with different rooms and the rooms have windows. And we look out of these windows and we see things in a different way. And what Lewis is trying to do is to use the narratives of Narnia to enable us to see things in a different way.

So one of the points I want to try and make is that Narnia is about the enactment of one of Lewis’s fundamental themes, namely that literature is meant to enable us to see things in different ways.

But Narnia, I think, is interesting in many ways. And I’m sure that those of you who have read Narnia will have thought about this long and hard. And so forgive me if I just sketch some things which need much more discussion.

My own feeling is that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is the best in the series and that it ought to be read first. In other words, even though The Magician’s Nephew seems to come before it chronologically, in terms of literature, it comes after it.

If you read The Magician’s Nephew first, you know all about Narnia, you know all about Aslan, you start to read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which says, now, you know, nobody knows about Aslan any more than you or I do, but you already know a lot because you’ve read The Magician’s Nephew. So it kind of way subverts the slow disclosure of Narnia that is such a central theme of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

I want to suggest to you that the order of publication is the best order in which to read these novels. And to see later novels as exploring what happened next or what must have happened beforehand to bring Narnia to the place that it was in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

But Lewis, I think, is trying to encourage us to see Narnia as a window through which we look at our own worlds. It’s an approach that Lewis inherited from others. You might think of E. Nesbitt, who he read back in the early 1900s as a young man. But the point I want to make really is this: Lewis, in effect, introduces us to a strange world called Narnia. They do things differently there. But as we read and as we think, it begins to give us thoughts about our own world.

And I think one of the main points to make is this: One of the core themes of Narnia is this: Who can we trust? What story about things is the most reliable?

And you might like to remember what happens when the children enter Narnia for the first time. They hear different stories. Is it really the realm of the White Witch? Or is it really the realm of this mysterious figure called Aslan who one day is going to return?

And the children have to make judgements. They have to say, we think this story is right and this story is wrong. And one of the most intriguing features of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is how the children begin to make judgements about the reliability of the stories and the reliability of those who tell them.

And the point that Lewis is making is this: That in our world, as opposed to Narnia, we hear different stories. Are we here simply randomly, purposelessly? Or is there some deeper logic, some deeper structure to reality that we can discover which actually makes sense of who we are and what this world is?

And one of the points that Lewis is trying to make is that we need to be critical about the stories that we are told.

Now, of course, the story that Lewis tells in Narnia is not one that he invented. It’s a retelling of the grand Christian narrative of Creation, Fall, Redemption and Consummation. And what Lewis does is to transpose the story to his own realm of Narnia. I think that’s a very important point to make.

If we compare Lewis and Tolkien for a moment, many will have read Tolkien’s masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings. And interestingly, as some of you may know, Lewis was the midwife behind those books. Tolkien was getting bogged down in detail, he was getting lost, he was getting discouraged and Lewis said, look, you’ve got to finish this, this is good. And in the end, Tolkien did.

But think of the great theme behind that. There are these rings. They are dangerous. They confer power on those who hold them. But it’s a kind of power that is dangerous, so dangerous that once you find the master ring, the only thing that can be done is to destroy it. Because in promising to give power, it simply enslaves.

In Narnia, we find a rather different theme. The children hear different stories. And one of these stories turns out to be a master story. That is to say, a story that makes sense of other stories and positions them. And what Lewis is saying is that when you find this master story, you embrace it, you appropriate it because it makes so much sense of what you experience within you and what you see in the world around you.

So, in Narnia, what Lewis is doing really is inviting us to reflect on the stories that we hear. And Lewis retells these stories using narrative, using imagery, that really steal past the logical watchdogs and make us feel this can’t be right. And Lewis in many ways is saying, look, just go with the flow. Enter into this world and see how much sense it makes of what you observe around them.

So, it’s important, I think, to realize that Lewis sees Narnia as a way of exploring this Christian way of looking at things.

Now, many of you will say, well, there are problems with Narnia, and there are. Let me mention one problem. Let me also mention one theme which most of you probably won’t have noticed.

The problem is this: Lewis isn’t that good in relating to women. And you will notice this in Narnia that somehow most of the major roles seem to go to males. And I think that’s a fair comment. I need to qualify it in a number of ways.

First of all, if there is a central character in Narnia apart from Aslan, it’s Lucy. I think that really does need to be said. But at other points you can see the concern. Lewis in many ways is reproducing the social world of 1940s middle-class England. Now, that was his world, so we can’t really blame him for this.

And also, if you think of Lewis’s history, his mother dies before his tenth birthday, he goes to all boys’ boarding schools, he goes into the British Army, he goes to all male Oxbury colleges. I mean, you know, that kind of way has an impact on you. And so maybe we shouldn’t be that surprised that Lewis doesn’t relate all that well to women. But it is, I think, a concern.

But on the other side, there’s a point at which Lewis is way ahead of his time. And most of you won’t know anything about this, so let me tell you about it tonight.

In the 1940s, Lewis became very unpopular at Oxford. There are many reasons for this. One was his book sold rather well, rather better than his more donnish friends did. They also felt that in many ways Lewis had given up on academic writing and had simply written popular works. But Lewis incurred hostility from a very different source, from the scientific community at Oxford.

WHY? Because Lewis was a very vociferous critic of vivisection. In fact, most of you Americans may well have read a tract produced by the New England Society Against Vivisection in the late 40s, which reproduces a section of one of Lewis’ essays.

And Lewis says something like this: As human beings, we owe it to those who are not so high in the order of things, in the evolutionary sequence, if you like, to give them respect, maybe a respect they don’t deserve. But nonetheless, we are under an obligation to treat them well and to think of them well.


Well, let me explain. Lewis tells stories which make you think of things in a different way. And in Narnia, you have Mr. Beaver, you have Reepicheep, you have, you know, animals portrayed in ways which make us identify with them and treat them as moral agents, as sentient beings.

And you might say, or maybe it’s just Lewis going back to his childhood, sentimental world of dressed animals. But actually it’s not. It’s Lewis’ way of trying to get us to see the non-human world in a very different way. And I think it’s an interesting aspect of Narnia that hasn’t really been given the seriousness it deserves.

So let me begin to wrap up. Let me make a few points in closing.

First of all, I need to ask why people keep on reading Lewis. Lewis did not expect to be read after his death. In a very famous conversation with Walter Hooper, he said, I expect people will give up on me five years after my death. Lewis died in 1963. We’re still reading him. And the sales figures for his works today are bigger than at any point during his lifetime.

So clearly there is something that needs to be explained. WHY DO WE READ LEWIS?

In the biography, one of the things I do is to look at the bestseller list for 1947, a year I chose completely at random, and hardly any of those books would be recognizable to us today. A book may be popular in its own day and is then forgotten. Why do we keep reading Lewis?

And I think Lewis himself gives us an answer. He says, he’s talking about Coleridge, he says, the criterion that judges a writer is history. And the key judgment factor is enjoyment. Do people find in someone’s writing something that speaks to them, that engages them, that enriches them?

And I think that’s what people have found with Lewis. I think that Lewis would be surprised at the people who are reading him. There are two groups, I think, particularly in North America, who read Lewis avidly. And I want to identify them and point out how surprising it is that they read Lewis with such enthusiasm. One is American Roman Catholics. Lewis was an Ulster Protestant, and that doesn’t bode well for a Catholic readership.

But you see, the thing is that Lewis had Catholic friends like J.R.R. Tolkien. He admired G.K. Chesterton, a well-known Catholic writer. And many Catholics began to think, well, Lewis isn’t one of us, but he might be interesting. And they began to read him and found in him something that was a bit like G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown series. And they began by enjoying the narratives, and then began to dwell on the ideas they found behind them.

And what most American Catholics will tell you is they find in Lewis an imaginative vision of the Christian faith, which works very well for them because it’s not obviously Protestant.

Now, let me linger on that point. Take the title of Lewis’s famous book of 1952, Mere Christianity, based on those broadcast talks given not far from here at the BBC.

WHY DID LEWIS CHOOSE THAT TITLE, MERE CHRISTIANITY? It’s basically a form of Christianity that is denominationless. In other words, it’s saying, look, there is a basic vision of Christianity, which we all share. And I’m not here to tell you which one you should accept. I’m just saying this is what lies at its core.

And certainly because Lewis is not aligned with any denominational vision of Christianity, he has secured their readership, which transcends denominational boundaries.

The other surprise is that Lewis is widely read by American evangelicals. And that really is surprising because shortly after Lewis’s death, he was roundly condemned by evangelicals here in the United Kingdom, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and by many in America who disliked the fact that Lewis smoked and drank and apparently did both with quite some enthusiasm, if I can put it like that.

WHY THE SEA CHANGE? Well, I think there are several factors involved. One of them is this. In the 1970s and 1980s, many people converted from a secular way of thinking to Christianity and cited C.S. Lewis as the agent or a major factor in their conversion. The late Charles Coulson is a very good example.

And Lewis began to be read by those who thought, well, he helped him, maybe he’ll help me. And so word of mouth began to generate this sense that Lewis is the man to read. But there’s more to it than that.

Because Lewis in effect provides a rational foundation for faith, which resonates well with American evangelicalism, but also he enables you to build on that with a rich imaginative vision of the difference that Christianity makes. And that seems to have captivated the imagination.

And so American evangelicals remain evangelicals, but nevertheless have this added level of vision of the Christian faith, which they find transcends the rather limited version they sometimes find in other evangelical writers.


Well, I don’t know. What I do know is that it is a surprise that we still read him today. Maybe it’s because nobody else has arisen to displace him, or maybe it’s that there’s something about him that really speaks to us as few others do.

We live in a world that’s polarized between modernity and postmodernity. For those of you who are into modernity with this emphasis on reason, Lewis gives you this reasonable vision of faith. It makes sense. It makes sense in itself. It makes sense of things.

But he also provides a vision of Christianity which resonates with those of you who are into stories, who want to talk about emotions and a sense of longing for something that’s really significant. And interestingly, Lewis does both those things at the same time.

I think he’s been around for a long time. I think he’s going to be around for longer. In writing my biography, I hope it will help you to get a better sense of C.S. Lewis, the man. A man who had actually quite a rough time, but was able to draw on that raw experience and write some remarkable works.

And I think here’s the final thing I want to say tonight. If my biography helps you to get more out of your reading of Lewis, then I will be a very happy man. You may remember Lewis’s 1942 work, A Preface to Paradise Lost. In fact, he’s saying, look, read this and then go and read Milton and it will help you make more sense of what you find and you will enjoy it more.

And in many ways in writing this biography, I’m trying to say, read this and it will help you get much more out of your reading of Lewis. And let me assure you, there’s a lot there waiting to be discovered by you.

Thank you so much for listening.

MODERATOR: Thank you, Alister. We’re going to take a comfort break of about five minutes or so, after which we’ll reconvene for some questions and comments.

Those of you who are joining us by livestream, you too please feel free to put some questions together through your hosts and we’ll be able to take some of those as well.


MODERATOR: Since we started, we’ve apparently got 35 groups who’ve been joining us via live stream, including a group from New Zealand. Welcome the New Zealanders, where it’s around about, it must be now around about 7am in the morning. So there’s dedication for you.

Alister is now going to take around about half an hour or so of questions, both from here in the audience and also from the live stream audience. And then he’s kindly agreed, for those who’d like him to sign a copy of the biography, he’s kindly agreed to stay behind shortly afterwards to do that, but needs to nip away quite soon after 9pm in order to catch a train. So if you want your book signed, you’ve got a window of opportunity to do it this evening. So, Alister, over to you.

ALISTER MCGRATH: So we’re now taking questions and I think we’re looking for people here or elsewhere to raise issues they’d like me to talk about and I’m very happy to do that. Who’d like to begin?

MALE AUDIENCE: Alister, I really appreciate your talk tonight. You mentioned about the conflict that Lewis had with the science. Can you elaborate on that?

ALISTER MCGRATH: This hasn’t been well explored in literature and I think that one of the things that’s not appreciated is that one of Lewis’s colleagues at Magdalen was Peter Medawar, who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1960. So there’s clearly a very interesting dynamic there.

Lewis basically didn’t really understand science all that well. I mean, in his science fiction trilogy, he talks about some real concerns he has about science. In particular, the kind of what we might now call a scientistic vision you find, for example, in H.G. Wells. Particularly the idea of eugenics, that the human gene pool will be improved if we prevent certain people from breeding. And Lewis also objected to that. He said that was just inhumane.

So certainly there is a side to Lewis there which hasn’t really been brought on properly, which is this tension with the Oxford scientific establishment. Now the reason that happened was because of the Oxford College structures. Because if Lewis was working in a regular university, he wouldn’t have met any scientists. But because he was based at Magdalen College, it meant he was rubbing shoulders with scientists all the time at dinner and so on. And so this really, I think, highlighted the importance of this concern for him.

Lewis, I think, has no problems with the scientific method. He does have a concern with metaphysically and morally inflated understandings of where science takes us. Thank you.

MALE AUDIENCE: You didn’t say anything really about Lewis’s political views. Have you formed any opinions of those in your research? Because I have noticed when reading some of his stuff some lines which are politically interesting, but I don’t know how they fit in the bigger picture of his outlook on life.

ALISTER MCGRATH: Yes, that’s a very interesting question. Lewis was quite politically engaged as an Irishman. You must bear in mind that Lewis grew up in Ireland during the period when Home Rule was becoming a real issue. And Lewis had very strong views in favour of Home Rule for Ireland. And then he becomes dislocated from his original context. He goes to England and he’s an outsider. And he doesn’t understand English politics.

And so there’s a certain sense in which Lewis just disengages. Indeed, one of the comments you find made by Lewis’s contemporaries of Oxford is that he seemed to know virtually nothing about current affairs. And it wasn’t that he was ignorant. It’s just that he was politically disengaged because he came from a political system where certain questions were being debated and then moved into a different situation where quite different questions were being debated and he felt slightly ill at ease.

I think Lewis was intrinsically quite a conservative person. I don’t necessarily mean that in a political sense, but certainly socially he was quite conservative. And one of the reasons why he rejected Winston Churchill’s offer of a CBE was his feeling that that would actually taint him politically. In other words, being awarded by a conservative prime minister, this might in effect imply I also am a conservative.

So I think Lewis may deliberately have disengaged from politics, feeling that as an apologist he had to stay out of a whole range of debates that might lose him an audience in certain very important places. Thank you.

MALE AUDIENCE: I just wondered if you would comment a little bit further on the relationship between the master story, as you described it, that Lewis developed in Narnia and the master story that Tolkien developed in Lord of the Rings. You sort of set that up as a slight tension or different types of master story. I just wondered if you could say a little bit more about how those two related, and whether one or other informed each other more than the other one in their relationship.

ALISTER MCGRATH: Well, the relationship between Lewis and Tolkien goes back to the 1920s. Indeed, one of the most delightful things is reading Lewis’s correspondence, where he talks about his first meeting with Tolkien. He describes him in unflattering terms, if I can put it like that. And one of the most amazing things is to read this correspondence of the late 1920s between… talking about Lewis and Tolkien, meeting to talk about myths and giants and heroes. And you and I both know these are two giants in 20th century literature, but at the time nobody had heard of either of them.

So it’s an alliance beginning to emerge when nobody had either — heard of either of them. They both share a very important interest in how stories mediate reality. And both of them come to develop a very strong sense of the importance of myth. Now, myth is a word used by them not to mean stories told to deceive or palpably untrue stories, but rather a story that engages the imagination and conveys rational truth and is grounded in a deeper order of things. And both of them realize that telling stories was a way of saying, here is a way of thinking about things, looking at things that helps you position and make sense of other stories.

One of the reasons that Lewis decided to embrace Christianity, not just an abstract belief in God, was this realization that Christianity was right. It made sense of the Nordic myths he loved so much, so he didn’t have to give up on them. They were anticipatory or they were fragmentary gleams of a true light, that sort of thing.

In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien is, in effect, talking about how humanity is corrupted by the quest for power. And it’s rather like an old English proverb in a collection at Durham. We’re very used to the slogan, Lord Acton, power tends to corrupt, absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely. But this proverb, which Tolkien knew, says something like this, when you can do what you like, it shows the kind of person you really are. And so Tolkien is really saying, look, power does corrupt, but it also brings out the kind of people we really are. It’s like a mirror, when you can do what you want, you show the way you really are.

And so those two themes are there side by side in The Lord of the Rings. Power corrupts through the ring, but it also brings out the character, and brings home the importance of character in resisting power. So that’s a very important theme, and the point I was making is that for Tolkien, the ring — the master ring — is dangerous. And you think, I’ll look after this, it’ll be safe. But actually, you yield to it.

And so Tolkien is simply saying, that’s human nature for you, it’s got to be destroyed, otherwise you’re not safe. Lewis doesn’t really develop that theme all that much in the Narnia chronicles, but he does develop the idea of a master story. Once you see the big picture, once you see the narrative that unifies all other narratives, that’s the thing you embrace. So in effect he’s using Narnia to show how, once you see what the big story is, then all the little stories kind of way make sense as its chapters or subplots. And so for Lewis, Narnia is about finding that right story and embracing it, because you realise, this works, this makes sense, I can live by this. Thank you.

Right at the back, please.

FEMALE QUESTION: This is a question from Belfast. Why did Lewis never go into ordained ministry?

ALISTER MCGRATH: Well, greetings Belfast. Why did Lewis never go into ordained ministry? Well, I’ve got to be careful here because I’m going to offend some people called clergy. If you read Lewis’s novels, his depictions of clergy are not very flattering. And you may remember that Lewis always emphasised, I am but a layman of the Church of England. And you can say that’s being modest, but actually there’s a hidden agenda here. I’m a layman and I’m glad. In fact, I’m not in a position of religious power. I’m writing from the margins. I’m writing for ordinary people.

So I can assure you Lewis had no interest in being ordained. He clearly saw what he needed to do. And like his colleague, Dorothy L. Sayers, who had very similar ideas and approaches, he felt that being denominationally engaged in that way would be a liability for his apologetic ministry. So he kept out of that and I think most of us would probably feel that was a wise decision on his part. Thank you.

Down here please. Towards the back.

MALE AUDIENCE: Given the view that you’ve explained of Lewis’s view of using literature, the spectacles idea, what would Lewis have thought of the Hollywood movies of the Narnia books?

ALISTER MCGRATH: Well, I think The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is quite good. But the real difficulty is that Lewis didn’t know how to write movie scripts. And so if you read Prince Caspian as a novel, it’s all over the place. And the reason they had to rework that, introduce new material, is that it was unfilmable. And that’s one of the big contrasts, I think, between Lewis and Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings has a deep narrative continuity and it just flows easily and naturally. It was a joyous film, I’m told, by some of those who were involved in it. There are relatively few changes made to the actual original novel.

With The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, I think they could manage that. They left out the Maypole scene, which certainly I may have to say. But with Prince Caspian, and I think with other novels in the series, there is a real problem here. My hunch is that we probably get more out of Tolkien in terms of the films than we do out of Lewis.

But as I was saying earlier, my hope is that the films will drive people back to reading the original books and perhaps picking up some of the things there that the films don’t convey because of the narrative structure, but that Lewis felt were very important things that needed to be conveyed. Thank you.

Please, here, beside the camera.

FEMALE QUESTION: You talked about the meta-narrative that comes out of the Narnia Chronicles and also in Tolkien’s work. Do you think there are any contemporary writers who are doing the same thing? At the risk of heresy, do you think there’s an element of that in the Harry Potter series? That you get the big picture and then you can see things in it?

ALISTER MCGRATH: There’s unquestionably a parallel with Harry Potter. I don’t enjoy reading Harry Potter very much, but I’m very happy that it has to be a criticism of me rather than Harry Potter. I think there’s another theme which actually occurs as well, and that is the quest for virtue. Narnia is very much about how do I become a better person, and very often the theme is transcending limits. You start off like this, then you’re inspired by something, and you try to become a better person. You certainly find that in J. K. Rowling as well. I think both of these have shown how children’s literature can be not just about exploring meta-narratives, but also saying if this is true, what difference does it make to life?

Again, going back to Narnia, one of the themes I didn’t talk about, but clearly is important, is that one of the themes you find is there are these children who see the big picture, but they live in a world in which the big picture seems to be contradicted by certain events, or doesn’t seem to make perfect sense. Do they give up on it, or do they keep going in the belief that one day these contradictions will be resolved or explained? So it’s a narrative about, in effect, inhabiting a world. You’re not simply saying it’s right, but actually living it out with all the joys and tensions that that implicates. So I think there are some other parallels there as well. Thank you. Over here, please.

MALE AUDIENCE: A continuation from a previous question. You mentioned Chesterton as being similar in many ways to Lewis in terms of story. Do you think we could see a successor, or would someone in the modern day look too derivative of the style and maybe even the content of Chesterton and Lewis themselves? Sorry, sorry.

ALISTER MCGRATH: One of the problems I have is that when you’ve read Lewis and you then read Chesterton, you kind of don’t really appreciate Chesterton all that much, because Lewis actually did pretty much the same thing, but did it better. But if you read Chesterton without having read Lewis, you know, you say it’s pretty good. The real problem is we got used to a higher standard, and so we read Chesterton and say, oh, he’s a bit like Lewis, but not quite so good. And I think that’s not fair to Chesterton, because we know that Chesterton’s Everlasting Man played a very significant role in making Lewis rethink things.

And I suppose you’re really saying, well, you know, will there be somebody else who will read later who will make us look at Lewis and say, well, that’s not all that good, because somebody else has come and done it much better. I very much hope that that will be the case, but it hasn’t happened. And so for the moment we have Lewis, A, because he’s quite good, but B, because there’s no one who’s come along who’s better. So we read Lewis for two reasons. A, because he is good, but B, because, well, we’re still waiting for the post-Lewis phenomenon, I think. Thank you.

Let’s go down to the back, a gentleman in a blue jumper.

MALE AUDIENCE: How do you think the Narnia series would have been affected if it had not been illustrated by Pauline Baynes?

ALISTER MCGRATH: That’s a very good question, because Lewis didn’t really appreciate Pauline Baynes all that much. Their correspondence was perfunctory. There is a rumour that Pauline Baynes met Lewis to discuss the illustrations, and her diary for the day read, went to London, met C.S. Lewis, came home, made rock cakes, because it really made no impression on her. It’s very strange, because for many readers of Narnia, those illustrations are part of the text.

And interestingly, Pauline Baynes was recommended as an illustrator by Tolkien, and Tolkien had a very good relationship with her, and between them they produced illustrations, which really, I think, drew people into the narrative. Lewis doesn’t seem to have realised how important illustrations were, particularly for younger readers. I think that is surprising, because if you read Surprised by Joy, you may remember that there’s a very interesting discussion of his time at Magdalen College, which he didn’t like very much, but he began to get interested in Wagner.

And what got him interested in Wagner was not primarily the text or the music, but a book of illustrations by Arthur Rackham, which captivated his imagination, and made him want to read libretto as a result. So you would think he might have realised that for a lot of people, illustrations are a gateway to the text, or they amplify the text, and certainly, if you think of the [Form] and Lucy heading off into the distance, that’s a very well-known illustration, and I think it’s part of the charm of Narnia. So I personally think Lewis didn’t appreciate quite how significant they were. The publishers did, and they overruled Lewis on that one.

Incidentally, Lewis commented to a friend that Pauline Baynes was not good at drawing lions. And of course, in Narnia, there’s really only one lion to draw.

Thank you. Here, please.

FEMALE QUESTION: Thank you. I’d be interested to hear your comments on his marriage to Joy. It seems a rather untraditional and unlikely relationship, especially for a man whom, as you said, was not good at relating to women. So have you discovered anything more about that in your readings?

ALISTER MCGRATH: Yes, and that is slightly controversial. If you watch the movie Shadowlands, you have this romantic vision of a rather crusty old Oxford dom who’s socially withdrawn, can’t relate to people. His life being enriched and transformed by a feisty young New Yorker who kind of shows him the good things of life and sorts them out. I mean, I have to say that bears a tangential relation to the truth.

I mean, Joy Davidman, I think, was quite a complex person. And we don’t fully understand quite what’s going on there. And there are issues about whether Lewis found himself out of his depth, because Lewis kept Joy Davidman a secret from his best friends. And by the time they found out about her, they weren’t in a position to say, is this really wise? And so what really became a quite complex relationship got underway without really friends being involved with the extent they should have been.

My view is that, for reasons I set out in the biography, that probably Joy Davidman set out to initiate that relationship and Lewis found himself out of his depth. I think also that the evidence suggests that Lewis really did come to love her once she developed cancer. I think that there’s a clear turning point there, and it’s obvious in Lewis’s correspondence. So it is a complex relationship.

The relationship that is most interesting, in my view, is not that one. It’s the relationship with Mrs Moore, which I talked about earlier, where Lewis, in effect, sets up home with Mrs Moore and her daughter and stays with her until her death in 1951. That’s 30 plus years. And nobody really understands this relationship. Was it sort of wartime promise that Lewis said, if you don’t come back, I look after your family. If I don’t come back, you look after mine, sort of thing. Or was there something else going on as well? And I think there is something else going on as well. And I think there’s no doubt that Mrs Moore played a very important role in helping Lewis develop some social skills, and actually also in providing him with a family.

Because remember, his mother died when he was young. And Mrs Moore almost became a surrogate mother to him, particularly during a very difficult time when Lewis was unemployed. There were no jobs after he got his degrees, and eventually he found one at Magdalen College, but certainly she sustained him during what I think was a very difficult time.

Thank you. At the back.

FEMALE QUESTION: This is a live stream question. What do you think made Lewis a prophet in the end?

ALISTER MCGRATH: What do I think made Lewis a prophet? I would use the word prophecy to mean something like this. Someone who says things they believe to be true, but knowing that they are uncomfortable. And Lewis certainly did that quite a lot. He was very critical of what I suppose we call well-intentioned and quite trendy ideas of the 1920s. I’ve mentioned eugenics. That was very, very widely supported in the 1920s by H.G. Wells, especially by Bertrand Russell. And if you read contemporary Russell’s scholarship, they are embarrassed by this. You know, Russell saying, you know, we cannot allow this kind of person to procreate because they will damage the survival prospects of the human race.

And Lewis critiqued that, again, even though it was very unpopular to do so. And again, at Oxford, he critiqued vivisection, which, again, as I was saying earlier, really did make him some enemies. He was a man who spoke his mind. And I think that that is one of the reasons why he generated enemies as much as friends. And I think that one of the things I say in the biography is that actually some of Lewis’s more prophetic utterances, not in terms of foretelling the future, but alerting us to dangers, actually are things we keep needing to think about.

Thank you. There, please. Gentleman, towards the middle of that row. Thank you. This may need to be our last question.

MALE AUDIENCE: You spoke about how subjective we all are, and we all engage with C.S. Lewis in different ways. Can I ask you about two people in particular? You mentioned how encouraging C.S. Lewis was of Tolkien. Can you talk a little bit about how Tolkien regarded C.S. Lewis’s writings, particularly Narnia, and a contemporary person who’s writing a lot is, of course, Michael Ward. Any comment on his thesis in Planet Narnia and the Narnia Code?

ALISTER MCGRATH: Yeah, thank you. That’s a very good question to end with. I think one of the things I need to say is that different people do get different things out of reading Lewis. That’s part of his joy. You know, actually, there’s works on literature, there’s works on apologetics, there’s works on fiction, especially Narnia, and there are those who read some of them and are unaware of the others. And I think that one of the things I try to do is to say, actually, these things all belong together rather satisfactorily.

We know what Lewis thought about Tolkien. He really regards him very, very highly. And indeed, one of the things I discovered in researching this biography was a new piece of evidence, which is a letter Lewis wrote in January 1961, that’s two years before he died, recommending Tolkien for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Now, that’s important, A, because it shows he’s saying Tolkien is a very significant writer, but B, as you may know, by that stage Lewis and Tolkien were not really best of friends. And it just shows that Lewis retained his regard despite the alienation, which incidentally was mainly on Tolkien’s side.

So, what did Tolkien think about Lewis? Well, to begin with, Lewis was Tolkien’s closest friend. They were soul mates. They had very similar ideas, they loved literature, they loved Nordic myths. Tolkien helped Lewis learn Old Icelandic, which seems to have been quite an achievement. And, as I was saying, Lewis really encouraged Tolkien to get the Lord of the Rings written. Tolkien began to drift apart from Lewis in the 1940s and 1950s, and I would identify three things that I think made this happen.

Number one, Charles Williams. Charles Williams arrived in Oxford, being evacuated from London, and Lewis and he become best friends, which by definition means somebody else who used to be their best friend isn’t any more. And Tolkien felt wounded that he’d been kind of way bumped by Lewis.

Secondly, when Tolkien read Narnia, he thought to himself, haven’t I seen this somewhere before? And he began to think Lewis had perhaps borrowed ideas of his without giving due acknowledgement. Now, that may be overstated, but I think there’s a concern there.

And then thirdly, when Lewis married Joy Davidman, he didn’t tell Tolkien about it at all. And Lewis, I think, may have made a big misjudgment there, because Tolkien really felt very, very hurt by that. Michael Ward, that book Planet Narnia, I think, makes some very good points. It makes the point that maybe Lewis is either hiding ideas for us to find, or else. Yes, I think my own feeling is maybe this might be right, that there are certain things that are so obvious to Lewis, maybe he assumes they’re obvious to his readers as well.

So it’s not a question of deliberately concealing, it’s just that they’re obvious to him, but we have to find these things. But I think in general terms, Michael Ward’s Narnia thesis, which is that Lewis used planetary symbolism to create a different atmosphere or mood for each of the Narnia novels, I think there’s something in that. It does help you make sense of the quite different identities that each of the novels of Narnia have, even though they’re part of the same series.

So I personally think that you need to take Michael Ward really quite seriously. Thank you.

For Further Reading:

C.S. Lewis: The Story of His Journey to Faith and Christian Apologist w/ Harry Lee Poe (Transcript)

Morality, The Lord of the Rings, and Awkward Jokes: Dr Peter Kreeft (Transcript)

The 10 Books Nobody Should Be Allowed to Die Without Reading: Dr. Peter Kreeft (Transcript)

Jocko Podcast: Facing your Inner Darkness. Breaking Your Wretched Loop (Transcript)


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