A review of If I Had Lunch with C. S. Lewis: Explaining the Ideas of C. S. Lewis on the Meaning of Life,* by Alister McGrath, Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2014, 241 pages, hdbk.
C. S. Lewis is an endlessly fascinating person. He was an Oxford Don with few equals as an intellectual. Anyone who is familiar with the three volumes of Letters is well aware that they are reading the correspondence of a man who had read (and often reread) just about every great work of literature in the Western canon. Lewis was a Medievalist, thoroughly at home in Thomas Aquinas, Dante and Boccaccio (in their originals), with Beowulf and the Nordic mythology, and with Edmund Spenser, Milton, and a whole roster of other poets and mystics and playwrights.
But Lewis not only knew the greats of the 10th to the 16th centuries, he was also immersed in Plato and Aristotle, the Tragedies, Virgil and Ovid, and Neo-Platonists, again, all in the original Greek and Latin. His Letters especially brim with references and allusions to these works as well as a host of British, French and German classics. He was, by any measure, a brilliant scholar.
But to say this about Lewis is not to get at the whole man. For C. S. Lewis was a man of down-to-earth uncommon sense. His faculties were aware of the limitations of the five senses and the realities of life and truth that dwelt beyond. He, like G. K. Chesterton, saw the miraculous everywhere.
This little book by Alister McGrath attempts to get across to us what Lewis regarded as the “intellectually capacious and imaginatively satisfying way of seeing things” which Christianity provides (16). The author is right to call our attention to the riches that lie within the Christian view of God and life, and how it should be the believers lot delve into that worldview and communicate it to others. As he says,
Christianity has to show that it can tell a more compelling and engaging story that will capture the imagination of its culture. (60)
McGrath introduces us to Lewis’s friends (Tolkien, Williams, Barfield, Dyson, Sayers, and others). He writes about the books, though not all of them. For example, we are given short but helpful introductions to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader,” Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain, Miracles, and A Grief Observed; not exhaustively by any means, but as a way of describing the shape of Lewis’s thought. The background to The Chronicles of Narnia is explained, and their world expounded (67-103, 197-205).
McGrath helpfully confronts us with Lewis’s question, “Which story are you in?” (57ff). Our story, yours and mine, are a part of an overarching “big story,” and, as the author says, “In one sense, faith is about embracing this bigger story and allowing our own story to become part of it.” (72, 93). This sense of our story being played out within God’s bigger story is perhaps what grounded Lewis, and why he had access to so many wonderful metaphors and illustrations, which seemed so ready-to-hand (17).
Being an apologist himself, the author does not miss out on surveying Lewis’s apologetic (e.g. 85-91, 108-132). On the whole, given the limitations of the book, and its introductory intent, I think McGrath does a good job. He is aware of his duty to speak in terms of his subject’s honest view of life, hope and trials. McGrath dips our toes in the water. The book can be handed to anyone as an invitation to read Lewis.
As for any slight criticisms of the book, I might name three in particular. The first is the title is a bit misleading. Instead of If I Had Lunch with C. S. Lewis it really should be entitled, If I Had Lunch with Alister McGrath About C. S. Lewis. The revised title may not arouse our interest like the chosen one, but I for one would not turn down the opportunity to hear McGrath talk for a long time on this subject.
The second little matter for me was that I should have liked a more concerted focus on Lewis’s preoccupation the greater reality that lies behind our present world; what Lewis called “longing” (14). This “Argument from Desire” is indeed mentioned, but it is not really developed in the book.
Lastly (and again this is a purely personal wish), when McGrath discusses Lewis’s important views on education (135-157), he opts not to interact with The Abolition of Man (138). Now I fully understand that Abolition is a tough book to read (it was the first Lewis book I read and I confess I didn’t understand it then and have had to return to it several times to really appreciate its argument), but I hoped that McGrath could break it down. It’s message is so vital for our day and I expected to see it unpacked in this book.
For anyone who like Lewis, or for anyone who would like to like Lewis, McGrath has written a very useful introduction to an increasingly important Christian thinker.
* Purchases using this link route a portion to SharperIron.
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.