Monday, April 21, 2014

"If I Had Lunch with C. S. Lewis" by Alister McGrath: A Review

These are people we trust and respect, who can walk alongside us and help us move on in life and get more out of it. They are not just knowledgeable. They are something more important than that. They are wise.

It's like that party game people sometimes play, in which they're asked to name three people they would like to have lunch with. Who would the guests be? And why? What would the people hope to talk about? I'd like to have lunch with C. S. Lewis - and so would most of the people I know! It would be wonderful to sit down and discuss the greatest questions of life with him over some food and drink. After all, as Lewis himself pointed out, there are few greater pleasures than sharing food, drink, and companionship. See this book as my invitation to you, my reader, to sit down with Lewis and me in some quiet place to think about some of the persistent questions and dilemmas every human being faces in this life. (viii)
What would it be like to share a meal with CS Lewis - one of the greatest writers, thinkers, storytellers, and apologists of the twentieth century? What would it be like to pick the brain of the man in whom we've read his stories and contemplated his prose? 2013 marked the fiftieth anniversary of Lewis's death. To mark the occasion. Alister McGrath, one of England's brightest Christians, published a major biography called C. S. Lewis - A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet. Following its release, McGrath discovered that many of his students did not want to just learn about Lewis, but from him (vii). And rightly so. Not only was Lewis a great writer who had a gift to penetrate the heart and soul with his pen but he has a story that bleeds on paper. McGrath writes:
Lewis is a rare example of someone who had to think about life's great questions because they were forced on him by his own experiences. Lewis is no armchair philosopher. His ideas were forged in the heart of suffering and despair. (vi)
Here is a man who suffered the lost of his mother at a young age, was wounded in war, and content in his atheism until God interrupted. He was, as he described himself, a "reluctant convert" and he continues to be a tool that God uses today. So what would it be like to have lunch with CS Lewis? That is the question at the root of Alister McGrath's book If I Had Lunch with C. S. Lewis: Exploring the Ideas of C. S. Lewis on the Meaning of Life.

What proceeds is a series of eight chapters covering eight specific issues and topics prevalent in Lewis's writings and life. These include "conversations" on friendship, Narnia (and stories), apologetics, education, suffering, and heaven. Each chapter is not a conversation with Lewis as imagined by the author. McGrath does not put words in Lewis's mouth. Rather, McGrath grants us insight into what Lewis wrote and said and what the lunch conversation might include.

In essence, this is a book that highlights Lewis's thought. There are available books that zero in on what Jack believed about theology, philosophy, apologetics, etc. In many ways this is what McGrath does here yet in a style easier to follow. This is not an academic book on Lewis's theology, but an engaging look at Lewis weaving in both his writings and biography.

Perhaps few examples from the book are in order. The most memorable section for me is found in his chapter on Narnia. The author suggests that the main message of Narnia is a simple question, Which story are you in? (57). To McGrath, Lewis is addressing the questions at the core of our lives (58) He then writes:
Each of us naturally lives within a story, a "metanarrative" that shapes our lives, whether we are aware of this fact or not. Some of us live under the assumptions of the Western story of societal progress, that civilisation - technologically, socially, or morally - is continually improving. Others live under the story of individual progress of the sort peddled on daytime talk shows, that the self is the most important thing there is and that more or better information will organically produce better selves. Still others subscribe to the victim metanarrative, that their personal choices have little impact on the world they live in. (58)
McGrath then notes that one false story is a growing one in the West. McGrath writes:
In his 1941 sermon "The Weight of Glory," Lewis declares that our age is held captive. We are spellbound, caught up in a secular and secularising metanarrative that insists our destiny and good lie in this world. We are told - and come to believe - that the ideas of transcendent realms, of worlds to come, are simply illusions. Our educational system, Lewis notes with obvious sadness, has colluded with this modern myth - that the sources and goals of human good are "found on this earth." (59)
As it relates to some of the content of Narnia and the role Aslan plays in the book, McGrath provides really good insight into the "undragoning" of Eustace Clarence Scrubb (who almost deserved the name!). The climax comes when McGrath writes:
Eustace has been trapped by forces over which he has no control. The one who would be master has instead been mastered. the dragon is a symbol, not so much of sin itself, as of the power of sin to entrap, captivate, and imprison. It can be broken and mastered only by the Redeemer. (77)
Another rich chapter regards McGrath's "conversation" regarding education. Tthe author brings to the forefront an issue that mattered greatly to Lewis that is often overlooked. Lewis's infamous "men without chests" lecture/chapter is rooted in his deep concerns of modern thinking on education. The task of the modern educator Lewis had said is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts (133).

Overall, this is a great read especially for those that want an easier-to-read with an engaging style book on Lewis and his thought. But in the end, it seems right to allow McGrath to have the last word as it relates the legacy of Lewis:
When I was researching my  biography of Lewis, I came across many photographs of Lewis and his friends from the 1910s and 1920s. Some showed Lewis in small groups of people; others in larger gatherings. It was easy to identify Lewis himself and some of those who played an important role in his life - such as his father, his brother, and his childhood friend Arthur Greeves. But time after time, I could not identify some of the other people in the photographs. Nor could any of those I consulted, ho had expert knowledge of Lewis's family history. All too often, I had to pencil the word "unknown" against my copies of these images. Whoever these people were, we do not know their names. we probably never will.

Yet it was obvious from the photographs that they were important members of Lewis's circle of family and friends. Once they mattered; now they were forgotten, reduced to anonymous traces on photographic paper. Their memory and identity had simply faded out of history, like the ink on a piece of writing paper being washed away by a spilled glass of water. Memory is fragile. we are so easily forgotten. Lewis is one of the few who have left footprints on history - footprints by which he will be remembered.

Yet Lewis himself might helpfully remind us at this point that the most important things is that each of us, whether remembered by others or not, is remembered by God. And that's what really matters. Human history may forget about us, as it has forgotten so many. But our names are engraved on God's hands, and written in the Book of Life - a fitting, even inspiring, thought with which to end our series of lunches with Lewis. (206-207)

This book was given to me courtesy of Tyndale House Publishers for the purpose of this review.

For more:
"CS Lewis: A Life" by Alister McGrath: A Review
McGrath on the Memory of Lewis
"Letters to Malcom" by CS Lewis: A Review
"Screwtape Letters" by CS Lewis: A Review  
"A Mixture of Fool and Knave": CS Lewis on Theological Liberalism
Lewis on Practical Theology
Lewis on the Why of Democracy
From Uncle Screwtape:  Christianity and Politics 
Theology As a Map: Lewis, Practical Theology, and the Trinity
The Most Unpopular of Christian Virtues: Lewis on Chasity - Part 1
The Most Unpopular of Christian Virtues: Lewis on Chasity - Part 2
The Most Unpopular of Christian Virtues: Lewis on Chasity - Part 3 
"Willing Slaves of the Welfare State": CS Lewis on Freedom, Science, and Society - Part 1
"Willing Slaves of the Welfare State": CS Lewis on Freedom, Science, and Society - Part 2
He is Not a Tame Lion: Aslan, Jesus, and the Limits of Postmodern Inclusivism  
To Be Undragoned: Aslan, Christ, and the Gift of Regeneration 
Lewis on Practical Theology  
Lewis on the Why of Democracy
From Uncle Screwtape:  Christianity and Politics      
Theologians I Have Been Influenced By - The Dead
"The Magician's Twin: C.S. Lewis and the Case Against Scientism" Full Documentary

From Lewis' Pen Series:
From Lewis' Pen: Not Idealistic Gas
From Lewis' Pen: But He's Good
From Lewis' Pen: Read Old Books
From Lewis' Pen: When Love Becomes a Demon
From Lewis' Pen: Until You Fully Love God
From Lewis' Pen: As the Ruin Falls
From Lewis' Pen: Screwtape on Marriage
From Lewis' Pen: Lay Down Your Arms
From Lewis' Pen: Aslan is on the Move
From Lewis' Pen: Lead us, Evolution, Lead us
From Lewis' Pen: Lead us, Evolution, Lead us
From Lewis' Pen: An Exaggerated Feminine Type
From Lewis' Pen: Theology as a Map
From Lewis' Pen: A Lot of Wrong Ideas
From Lewis' Pen: Children Know Better Than Grownups
From Lewis' Pen: The Historical Jesus
From Lewis' Pen: Aim at Heaven
From Lewis' Pen: Satan Speaks
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