Recently it was my great privilege to interview and photograph Dr. Alister McGrath when he was in Houston presenting at the Lanier Theological Library and the Champion Forest Baptist Church. Dr. McGrath was speaking about his biography titled C.S. Lewis: A Life and about the legacy of C.S. Lewis 50 years after his death.
Alister McGrath is an extraordinary person. This is a phrase often used but, in truth, not often deserved. In this instance, however, it actually seems more of an understatement. Theologian, priest, intellectual historian and Christian apologist, Dr. McGrath has been a professor at both the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford. He is currently Professor of Theology, Ministry, and Education at Kings College London and Head of the Centre for Theology, Religion and Culture. A towering intellectual, prolific author across a range of subjects rarely equaled by any other writer, superb in debate, Dr. McGrath is also a generous and compelling speaker.
What impresses me most deeply though about Alister McGrath are his kindness and how very gracious he is – two qualities that are hallmarks of great men. Those qualities infuse his extraordinary gifting and accomplishments with a significance of character far extending the impact of his intellectual achievements alone. I am very moved and grateful for Dr. McGrath’s kindness to a younger, less famous scholar when he could have just dismissed him. In that single gesture I saw the presence of Christ reflected in front of my own eyes and a man whose work I have respected and admired for many years from afar become a champion of Christ-likeness to me personally.
LES: Dr. McGrath, you have written across a remarkably wide range of subjects during your career. What prompted you to take an interest in addressing a biography specifically on C.S. Lewis when there has already been a great deal written about him?
AEM: There’s lots about Lewis in the market, but there is room for more – especially when it tries to get things right. I began reading Lewis back in 1974, and had internalized many of his works over the years. My own professional skills as a theologian and intellectual historian allowed me to make sense of some important aspects of Lewis’s development. I felt that there was a lot more that needed to be said about Lewis, and perhaps also some things that needed to be corrected. Lewis and I both grew up in Belfast, we both went to Oxford, initially as students and then as dons, and we both discovered Christianity during our time there. I felt that this would help me make sense, for example, of the significance of his Irish background for his social location in Oxford.
LES: You have done something rather unusual with your work on the Lewis material – you have written two different works about him being published within roughly a month or so of each other. C.S. Lewis: A Life, the biography published by Tyndale House – speaks to a general reading public who may have first encountered Lewis through reading Narnia and is devised to tell a story for the sake of understanding Lewis as a human being. Then as someone thoroughly familiar with the history of ideas, in a book titled “The Intellectual World of C.S. Lewis” you bring to bear your perspective as an intellectual historian. When you started the project did you always intend to divide the material into two approaches or did the need for that become apparent as you worked with the growing mass of material? What distinguishes these two books from each other and how did you define your audience as your wrote them?
AEM: I began work on Lewis back in September 2008, after moving from Oxford to London. My initial intention had been to write a new biography to mark the 50th anniversary of his death in 2013. However, my research threw up so much new material and forced me to so many new readings of Lewis that I realized that I would need to produce two books – one a narrative account of Lewis’s life aimed at a wide readership, and the other a detailed engagement with some core aspects of his thought and significance, aimed at a more scholarly readership. You can’t do conceptual analysis in a biography, as the narrative quickly loses its place, and I would lose my readers!
LES: What are you hoping to accomplish through these two books given their different focuses and audiences?
AEM: I am sure that there will be a significant overlap in readerships. The biography tells a story, aiming to give an historically reliable, intellectually credible and above all an interesting story. It will be read by two groups of people: Lewis fans, and Lewis scholars. The style is pitched midway between these two groups, aiming to help fans get more out of their reading of Lewis, and to provide a reliable foundation for future Lewis scholarship. On the whole, given the likely readership, I only reference English-language scholarship. The Intellectual World of C.S. Lewis is quite different. This is given over to rigorous intellectual analysis of Lewis’s intellectual and cultural projects, setting him against an informing context of the western literary tradition. I draw extensively on French, German and Italian sources and studies to help us understand how Lewis fits in to a bigger picture. This is primarily a book for Lewis scholars, but I have no doubt that fans will get a lot out of it – especially my analysis of the literary character of Surprised by Joy, and Lewis’s use of visual metaphors of knowledge.
LES: As an Irishman with some striking parallels to Lewis’ own life, your early academic focus was in the sciences, very unlike Lewis with his strong literary background. Despite those two sharply different intellectual fields, did you see similarities in your own intellectual development? Did anything emerge from your work on Lewis’ intellectual development that caught you at all by surprise?
AEM: I was slightly surprised that Lewis turned out to know so little about science, although that is not a difficulty, given the focus of his writings. I think the parallels between us are significant, especially our move from atheism to Christianity – for related reasons, although for me the sciences played a more significant role in my conversion.
LES: One of the great resources that you had access to as you worked your way chronologically through the entirety of Lewis’ work was his collected letters, assembled and edited by Walter Hooper (C.S. Lewis’s private secretary at the end of Lewis’s life and now trustee and literary adviser of the C.S. Lewis estate). These were not available to biographers writing 20 years ago. The massive collection of Lewis’s correspondence is of enormous value and the debt we owe Mr. Hooper is very great.
LES: Among the manuscripts kept at the Wade Center in Wheaton, Illinois is one labeled by Mr. Hooper as “Early Prose Joy” and from that manuscript as well as others you came to the conclusion that Lewis had mis-dated his conversion from atheism to Theism. Interestingly, roughly during the same period you were doing your research another Lewis scholar, Andrew Lazo, transcribed “Early Prose Joy” and came to the same conclusion about the date discrepancy and asserted that opinion in a paper being published in VII: An Anglo-American Literary Review in April 2013. While the date discrepancy perhaps isn’t perhaps a profoundly significant issue in context of great matters like Lewis coming to faith and experiencing the grace of God in his life, it does matter in regard to attending to details faithfully and being stewards of accuracy. You and Mr. Lazo happened to meet recently while you were in Houston at the Lanier Theological Library to present your lecture “C.S. Lewis and the Post Modern Generation: His Message 50 Years Later.” Is it at all validating as a researcher to find another researcher coming to a similar finding when you are working independently or does it seem more like competition?
AEM: I began to work through Lewis’s published writings – including the three volumes of his correspondence, which I think is Hooper’s greatest editorial achievement – at the beginning of my research. It took 15 months, and raised endless questions for me, above all about the trajectory of Lewis’s intellectual development. By the beginning of 2011, I was convinced that the narrative of his conversion in Surprised by Joy could not be sustained in the light of his correspondence. Two points struck me as particularly problematic: the date of his reconversion, which Lewis assigns to Trinity Term 1929; and the essentially continuous narrative of his conversion to Christianity, with Tolkien helping him “over the final style”. It was obvious that Lewis did not start believing in God in 1929. Given his tendency to get dates wrong in Surprised by Joy, it was not difficult to suggest that Trinity Term 1930 was the correct date. Late in 2011, I met with Michael Ward, who had made such a good job of looking at planetary symbolism in Lewis. I put the case for a Trinity Term 1930 conversion to him. After a few days of reflection, he came back to me, and told me he thought that I was right. This was a relief! The TS was sent off to the publishers in early 2012 for copy-editing and bound copies for reviewers and senior Lewis scholars were sent off late in 2012. I also posted a little “teaser” video in November 2012, indicating that the re-dating of Lewis’s conversion would be a major theme of the biography.
AEM: Andrew Lazo has come to a similar conclusion, though for different reasons. It is very good to have confirmation of my analysis, and I am very grateful to Andrew for what I regard as an excellent piece of work. Our lines of inquiry are convergent, but not identical. This, in my view, strengthens the case for the re-dating considerably. I also provide some more arguments for the re-dating, based on literary considerations, in The Intellectual World of C. S. Lewis, which is due to be published in April 2013. Lewis scholarship is collegial and collaborative, and I am delighted to be part of a process which involves other talented and gifted academics. The important thing is to advance our knowledge of Lewis, rather than get too concerned about who advanced it at this or that point!
AEM: How important is this re-dating of Lewis’s conversion? Let’s be honest: it’s not really very significant. It’s a matter of detail, and has relatively little impact on our interpretation of any of Lewis’s writings, apart from Surprised by Joy. I would regard this as a footnote in Lewis studies, not a chapter. I saw my re-dating of Lewis’s conversion as one element of the major reappraisal of Lewis’s life and thought that I set out in my biography, and consider some other aspects of my analysis to be more important – such as my reading of the significance of the interaction between Lewis and Elizabeth Anscombe.
LES: One of the really brilliant – and to my mind – most significant finds of your research was the letter where Lewis nominated Tolkien for the Nobel Prize and that, as far as we know, Tolkien never knew about. In many ways, I think that is more significant that the date discrepancy because it reveals an important and enduring truth about Lewis and the nature of friendship. And Tolkien wrote to his daughter Priscilla on hearing the news of Lewis’ death: “So far I have felt the normal feelings of a man of my age — like an old tree that is losing all its leaves one by one: this feels like an axe-blow near the roots.” How did you find this letter and what did you think of it when you first saw it? It is a remarkable discovery, adding a deep richness to the story of their friendship. It is striking to me that both Lewis and Tolkien revealed so much in their letters that we are still uncovering. I am sure that many who admire and respect both men are grateful for your service in bringing it to light.
AEM: Yes, that letter was one of my most important finds. Nobody knew about it. I came to suspect its existence – but could not work out its contents – from a letter that Lewis wrote in January 1961 to his former student Alastair Fowler. Lewis asked Fowler who he thought ought to get the Nobel Prize in Literature? That struck me as strange, as their correspondence was really about Fowler’s job prospects. I began to wonder if Lewis had been invited to propose someone for the Prize, as that would make sense of his musings at this point. So who had he nominated?
The Nobel Foundation embargoes its material for 50 years, so I checked the Swedish press in the opening days of January 1961, to see if they reported on any interesting findings when the archives for that year were opened. Nothing of any interest appeared. I tried again in the first days of January 2012, with only weeks to go before submitting the typescript. And to my delight I found an article by the journalist Andreas Ekström in the Sydsvenska Dagbladet, which explicitly mentioned that Lewis had proposed Tolkien for the Prize! I got in touch with Ekström, who was very interested in my project, especially because he could see how this letter would cast light on the Lewis-Tolkien relationship.
Given my status as a senior academic, he arranged for me to get in touch with senior figures in the Swedish Academy, who graciously sent me a high-quality reproduction of the letter, and allowed me to reproduce the entire letter in the biography. As you rightly say, this letter really is important, as it shows that Lewis never lost his respect for Tolkien, despite their alienation. Lewis’s description of the Lord of the Rings as a “celebrated romantic trilogy” was brilliant, as it helps us understand what Lewis mean by “romantic”!
LES: Dr McGrath, you mention in the short film you made in Lewis’ former home, The Kilns, that you began to plan this project back in 2008 when your admiration for Lewis had increased significantly. What caused your admiration to increase at that time? Was there something you found since then in the process of your research that helped bring you to a deeper conviction about him?
AEM: There was nothing special that caused me to admire him more; it was a cumulative process, especially based on my work as President of the Oxford Center for Christian Apologetics, which brought home to me how important Lewis was, especially as someone who could bridge the modern-postmodern divide. The thorough reading of his works that I mentioned earlier solidified this impression.
LES: Now that the book is completed, as you reflect on the writing / publishing process is there anything you wish you could have done differently or would have known before you launched into the project? Did you expect it to take as much time as it has to complete this?
AEM: I knew this would be a massive undertaking, and so allowed myself plenty of time, beginning in 2008 and publishing in 2013. As it happened, I needed all of that time to do the job properly – especially work in archives, which turned up some important (and unexpected) material. I was determined to do the job properly, partly out of respect for Lewis, and partly because of a strong sense of scholarly integrity.
LES: The subtitle of C.S. Lewis: A Life is captivating – Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet. I am particularly interested in the use of the word prophet here in regard to Lewis. You do a superb job explaining why the word reluctant is the right term to fit with his public role but I find it interesting that the word prophet would be used specifically for Lewis. Malcolm Guite, who contributed the chapter on Lewis as Poet to the Cambridge Companion to C.S. Lewis, did a fascinating series of talks last year on the Inklings titled “The Inklings, Fantasists or Prophets?” I suspect that though you are both using the word prophet in regard to Lewis, I am not sure that you both mean quite the same thing by that term. Could you clarify for us how you are applying the term prophet to Lewis? Are you referring to the instances and ideas he presented in his fictional works that have seemingly come to pass or in the process of it? Or are you suggesting something different altogether?
AEM: I am using the word “prophet” to designate someone who believed that they had something that needed to be said, no matter how unpopular it might be. Of course, I primarily had Lewis’s concern to reconnect England with Christianity. But he was also a powerful critic of social trends in the 1920s and 1930s – such as the rise of eugenics – in which he showed himself to be ahead of his time.
LES: A key concept to draw from Lewis is from the well-known essay Meditations in a Toolshed. In this essay he talked about the difference between looking at and looking along. You mentioned a similar kind of concept in the preface to C.S. Lewis – A Life: ‘Authors should not themselves be a “spectacle”; they are rather the “set of spectacles” through which we as readers see ourselves, the world, and the greater scheme of things of which are a part.’ How does understanding Lewis as a real human being give readers a set of spectacles to look through?
AEM: In his writings, Lewis gives us an illuminating angle of gaze on reality. In The Intellectual World of C. S. Lewis, I explore his use of light as a metaphor for knowledge, and show how this way of thinking is deeply embedded in his own thought, and also in the western literary tradition. Lewis himself, as I see him, provides us with both a lived life and writings. While Lewis played down the importance of a writer’s history, many would question this. I personally think that Lewis’s life offers us a window on God and especially on the operation of divine grace. It’s interesting to note that Surprised by Joy challenges Lewis’s own account of things, in that it focuses on Lewis himself, making him a “spectacle”, and not simply a “set of spectacles”.
LES: Fifty years after Lewis’ death the interest in his work continues to thrive. Millions know and love Lewis as the author of Narnia and dozens of other literary works. And the number of books about Lewis continues to proliferate without any apparent decrease of interest from the general public or scholars. And yet Lewis himself wanted his readers to consider the ideas that he was bringing to our attention. What are some of the ‘big ideas’ you have identified that Lewis most grappled with and worked to give attention to that we still need to wrestle with in our own times?
AEM: There are so many of these, and I touched on some of them in my lecture for the Lanier Theological Library. For me, the one that stands out is the idea of a “big picture”.
This is a major theme in Christian apologetics, and Lewis deploys it with great skill. I also greatly value Lewis’s notion of “rationality”, which affirms the reasonableness of faith without limiting reality to what reason can tell us. The way in which Lewis weaves together reason and imagination is one of his most distinctive themes, and it is hugely important apologetically.
LES: Now that you have done such an exhaustive course of research on Lewis and have seen the books from that labour come to completion, what are you going to turn your attention to next?
AEM: You will not be surprised to learn that I am writing a third book on Lewis! Having done so much work on him, I realized that we could think of him as a “coach” – someone who can help others think things through, and make sense of life. So I am writing a short book using Lewis’s life and writings as a way of exploring his approach and answers to the big questions that we all ask. Hopefully, this will be out next year.
Many heartfelt thanks to Dr. Alister McGrath for his generous replies in this interview, for his splendid contributions to C.S. Lewis scholarship, and for all that he does to advance the Kingdom of God.
The images of Alister McGrath in the following interview series are (c) Lancia E. Smith and are used here with permission for Cultivating. If you wish to use the images please contact me directly regarding their usage. Thank you so much for your courtesy!
Here is a link to an excellent interview with Dr. McGrath done earlier this year by fellow Lewis scholar, Will Vaus
Lancia E. Smith is an author, photographer, teacher, and business owner. A grateful lover of the Triune God, Lancia is the Founder & Executive Director of Cultivating & The Cultivating Project. She has served in executive management, church leadership, boards, and Art & Faith organizations over 30 years. She & her husband Peter have parented 7 children, & have a flock of beloved grandchildren. Lancia loves garden and website design, beautiful typography, road trips, being read aloud to by Peter, & cherishes every book she ever read by C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and George MacDonald.