Book Review: Eccentric Prophet

By Matt O’Reilly –

Alister McGrath wrote C.S. Lewis – A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet for the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Lewis’ death in 1963, and McGrath is just the right man for the job. He makes excellent use of his well-honed skills as an historian to master the primary and secondary literature and produce a thorough account of Lewis’ life and work. McGrath is no second-rate wordsmith himself; his literary ability and engaging style is very impressive.

When the subject is a man like Lewis, you may wonder whether a new biography is warranted. What could be said to advance the discussion by making an original contribution to our knowledge of Lewis’ overly scrutinized life and work? Nevertheless, McGrath makes, for example, a fresh and compelling argument for why he thinks Lewis got the date of his own conversion to Christianity wrong in Surprised by Joy. Interestingly enough, I do find McGrath’s argument very sensible and persuasive.

One of the best features of the book is that it is not only organized into key periods of Lewis’ life, it is also organized around his key works of literature. Lewis was a major author; it only makes sense that his biography should be organized with a view to important writings. This is a real strength of the book. There are sections devoted to many of Lewis’ numerous well-known works such as Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain, and The Screwtape Letters, to name only a few. If there’s a particular work or works of Lewis in which you are especially interested, you can flip over to those sections and read them in whatever order you please.

It is very easy to idolize great writers. When you read only the sublime ideas of brilliant thinkers that have been revised, reworked, refined, and rewritten many times before publication, you may begin to think more highly of them than you ought. Lewis is one of those writers. You can read his work and come away wanting to think he can write no wrong, that he is perhaps more than a man. McGrath’s biography is an excellent corrective to such idolizing tendencies.

Lewis was a genius; there’s no doubt. But he was also a real person. He had his struggles and his weaknesses. He was a sinner. He knew it. We should, too. When you read this biography, you will not find the mere Lewis that you encounter in the final published editions of his works. Instead, you will find a complex Lewis, one who sometimes devised elaborate deceptions of family members; you will find a Lewis who was sometimes treated unfairly; who was occasionally frustrated by his students; and who fled from God only to be finally overtaken. You will find a man who was not only exceptionally gifted but rigorously disciplined. You will find one whose gifts and discipline led him to see the big mystery that most of us miss. You will discover how his writings were shaped both by success and failure. You will find a real man, and you will find someone whose life is, for that very reason, inspiring.

This book can’t be recommended highly enough.

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