Alister McGrath on C. S. Lewis: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet
C.S. Lewis Blog
In November, Will Vaus, author of four books on C. S. Lewis, sat down with Dr. Alister McGrath at Harris Manchester College Oxford to discuss his forthcoming biography on Lewis, intriguingly sub-titled: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet….
WV: C. S. Lewis, about whom you have now written a biography due out in March 2013, was quite a prolific author, but so are you. How do you manage to write so many books?
AM: There are two reasons. One is that I love reading. The other is that I genuinely like writing. So when I want to relax, others might go for a walk, but my instinct is to read or to write. I find it very easy to write books. I’m Irish and the Irish are supposed to have this innate ability to write. The other thing is that I read an awful lot of stuff that I find very stimulating and I want to share what I am learning. One reason why I wanted to write this biography of C. S. Lewis is, and you know this, he is simply fascinating. I thought there were some connections I could make that perhaps had been overlooked and tell the story in a fresh way.
WV: You have certainly done that. I noticed one thing about your book that was different than the other biographies of Lewis was that you had set him in context, the context of intellectual ideas that were current during his lifetime, as well as setting his life in the context of world events.
AM: It’s a rounded picture I think. But there’s more that needs to be done. I just thought this book would get the discussion underway.
WV: So when did you first read C. S. Lewis?
AM: I can tell you within a year or two. I did not read him as a child. The first book by C. S. Lewis that I bought and dated was in 1975. So that goes back quite a long way. I was twenty-two and I’d been a Christian for a couple of years. And people kept saying to me, “There’s this guy C. S. Lewis and you ought to read him.” In that phase of my life I was a scientist and was very busy in that and it took me a while to get around to reading Lewis. And the first book I read by him I think was the collection of essays entitled Screwtape Proposes a Toast.
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I enjoyed the title essay, but the one that really intrigued me was The Weight of Glory. When I read it I thought to myself, “I haven’t quite got this but there’s something here that is worth taking further.” And so I thought, “I really must get to grips with this guy.” And ever since then I just read and read and read. Actually, I don’t know whether this is a testimony to the fact that I am a very strange person or whether it is a testimony to just how interesting Lewis is but I still enjoy reading him and I keep finding new things when I do.
WV: How would you say Lewis has shaped your own thought, theologically and otherwise?
AM: It’s been a long extended slow burn. I was an atheist and I came to faith when I came to Oxford. And I think the thing that really drew me to faith was a realization that Christianity made sense of things. It was an intellectual conversion. And when I read Lewis for the first couple of times I welcomed him as an exponent of rational apologetics. He reinforced my sense that Christianity really does make sense of things. But as I read him I realized there was a lot more than that: a lot about the imagination and a lot about experience, longing, yearning, and that didn’t really make much sense to me. But actually, as I grew older, my vision of the Christian faith began to expand. Now, here is what I don’t know.
Was it that by reading Lewis that my vision of Christianity expanded? Or was it that my vision of Christianity was expanding and I found in Lewis someone who spoke to me at multiple levels?. And you know it could be a bit of both. Lewis is a great dialogue partner. What I found was that Lewis really was a writer who helped me deepen my vision of the Christian faith. And because apologetics is very, very important to me Lewis actually gave me lots of new ideas of how I could defend Christianity. I found him very, very stimulating.
He also enriched my vision of personal faith. And while I think there would be many in Oxford who would say, “Lewis is not really a theologian,” I think I would disagree, and I think you would probably disagree as well. Actually he is a kind of theologian who writes for ordinary Christians and can be grasped by them, and I find that enormously encouraging because people need help with their faith. And Lewis is doing what many professional theologians have not thought worth doing or that they couldn’t do, so I admire him enormously.
WV: Lewis has at least four apologetic arguments: the argument from morality, from reason, from longing and from Christ. Was there a particular argument that appealed to you when you first read Lewis, or as a former atheist did you think some of Lewis’ arguments shallow?
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