Review: If I Had Lunch with C. S. Lewis

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.

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There are 11 Comments

Mark_Smith's picture

but I don't get it. People quote Lewis like he is Paul or something. I've tried to read Narnia again after I tried as a teen. Doesn't interest me (and as a teen I read all kinds of fantasy). As a Christian, I've tried to read Mere Christianity and other books. I just don't get it. Doesn't resonate with me. I'd rather read MacArthur, Sproul, or any commentary.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

The Narnia series is it's own thing, for sure, and the Perelandra, etc. series even more so.

Still, I've never read Lewis without finding the experience a feast of food for thought. Most consistently, my reading is interrupted by pondering important questions I didn't know enough to ask. His answers, if he provides them, are sometimes clearly wrong, but even then not entirely wrong, and the right parts are often accompanied with lots of, "yes, of course! I never saw that before!" moments.

For me, he's on the short list of writers most certain to be worth reading.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

josh p's picture

Yeah I really don't get it with Lewis. He is no doubt brilliant and creative. I've read many of his books and still don't understand the fascination with him.  

M. Osborne's picture

A teacher at BJU who was also an editor at BJU Press said, "Good writing is good thinking and thinking is hard work." Lewis's prose is effortless. He is often wrong, IMO. But he says it so well. Part of it, I think, is he did have a very clear and coherent vision of reality. And then he could write. There are good writers and then there are wow writers: Lewis, Chesterton, Packer, Kidner are among my favorites.

McGrath has a fuller biography of Lewis, too. I own it as audio book and listened through it once.

I agree that The Abolition of Man is probably the toughest Lewis book to work through, although you can get it in narrative form if you read That Hideous Strength. I think that's the other fascinating thing about Lewis: his non-fiction and his fiction are mutually interpreting...principles and theses on the one hand, and examples on the other.

 

Michael Osborne
Philadelphia, PA

Paul Henebury's picture

Not everyone is going to like Lewis, and there's no reason they should.  But I think they're missing out.  

His chief virtue, aside from his prose, is perhaps his supernatural worldview.  He weaves it into all of his thought, and especially in his understanding of human existence.  He also communicates it in non-technical language with excellent use of metaphor and logic.  One thinks of essays like "Man or Rabbit?" or "Two Lectures" or "Meditation in a Toolshed" (all in God in the Dock), which force us to see things from another oft forgotten perspective.  Too, his view of "reality" as shown in The Last Battle and The Great Divorce expand our understanding of the connection between life and the afterlife. 

His "Argument against Naturalism" in Miracles is brilliant, and has been expanded by Alvin Plantinga.   

Further, I think he displays Christian ethics in practice in his works.  It is not strident and loud, but humble and compassionate.  So whether you like him or not, Lewis is certainly a front rank Christian writer with few equals in the contemporary Church.    

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

josh p's picture

Thanks Paul. I have never read “God in the Dock” so maybe I’ll try it out.

Andrew R.'s picture

I like (and quite agree with) what Dr. Minnick said years ago (paraphrasing here):

Lewis said a lot of good things and a lot of nutty things, but all of them are thought-provoking.

Paul Henebury's picture

Many more good things than nutty things. 

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Andrew K's picture

M. Osborne wrote:

A teacher at BJU who was also an editor at BJU Press said, "Good writing is good thinking and thinking is hard work." Lewis's prose is effortless. He is often wrong, IMO. But he says it so well. Part of it, I think, is he did have a very clear and coherent vision of reality. And then he could write. There are good writers and then there are wow writers: Lewis, Chesterton, Packer, Kidner are among my favorites.

McGrath has a fuller biography of Lewis, too. I own it as audio book and listened through it once.

I agree that The Abolition of Man is probably the toughest Lewis book to work through, although you can get it in narrative form if you read That Hideous Strength. I think that's the other fascinating thing about Lewis: his non-fiction and his fiction are mutually interpreting...principles and theses on the one hand, and examples on the other.

 

Did you ever notice how Eustace in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is a classic "boy without a chest"? 

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Read Problem of Pain, interestingly, right before COVID broke out.

One stand out idea, well argued, was that it would probably be impossible to make a world with free will in it that also has no pain. A second was that--given what pain alone can potentially do for human beings, given our nature--it would be cruel to put us in a pain free world (we aren't ready for such a world until we are fundamentally changed).

Picking up God in the Dock.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Andrew R.'s picture

For the record, Paul, I totally agree. (I wanted to present the statement as I remembered it, even if I couldn't get it exactly.)

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