If I Had Lunch with C.S. Lewis

Alister McGrath, If I Had Lunch with C. S. Lewis: Exploring the Ideas of C. S. Lewis on the Meaning of Life. Tyndale, 2014. 256 pages. Hardcover. $17.99

Back in 2010, C. S. Lewis scholar Michael Ward pulled off a publishing coup that I would like to see imitated more often. Two years after publishing his brilliant, scholarly, heavily footnoted Planet Narnia, C. S. Lewis scholar Michael Ward released a more popular and accessible version of the same book under the title The Narnia Code (2010). Though some might dismiss this as a clever marketing ploy, I believe that Ward's willingness to write The Narnia Code honors the legacy of C. S. Lewis.

Throughout his writing career, Lewis divided his time equally between academic studies that were highly respected in the academy (The Allegory of Love, A Preface to Paradise Lost, The Discarded Image, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama) and more popular works of apologetics that spoke to common people--and still speaks to them--in what Wordsworth called "the real language of men" (Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain, Screwtape Letters, etc.). Though many of Lewis's fellow academics criticized him for "sinking" to the level of a popular audience, Lewis persisted in his calling to address both the literati and the common man in the appropriate language and style.

It was therefore with considerable joy that I discovered that a second Lewis scholar, Alister McGrath, has had the courage to follow in the footsteps of Lewis. After spending several years poring through the life, works, and letters of C. S. Lewis, McGrath, Professor of Theology, Ministry, and Education at King's College London, decided that he could only do justice to his subject by writing two books: one a biography (C. S. Lewis--A Life); the other a collection of essays on various aspects of Lewis's thought (The Intellectual World of C. S. Lewis). Taken together, these companion books (both published in 2013, the fiftieth anniversary of Lewis's death) provide a thorough, carefully-researched guide to the greatest apologist of the twentieth century, who also happened to be one of its greatest professors.

But McGrath did not stop with these books. Like Ward, he wanted to ensure that the things he had learned about Lewis would reach the widest possible audience. As a result, he released, in the following year, a splendidly readable, highly accessible book with the beguiling title of If I Had Lunch with C. S. Lewis: Exploring the Ideas of C. S. Lewis on the Meaning of Life. Midway through his new book, while discussing Lewis's skills as an apologist, McGrath even pays homage to his mentor's ability to speak to academics and common men alike: "The great lecture theatres of Oxford demanded one way of communicating--a technique that Lewis had mastered. Popular communication demanded something rather different. And Lewis mastered this as well. He was 'bilingual' in that he could say the same thing in one way to one audience, and in another way to a different audience" (p.117). This is an accurate description of C. S. Lewis, but it is equally accurate as a description of Alister McGrath.

Although McGrath's controlling metaphor--that we are having a series of eight lunches with Lewis in which we discuss with him such topics as the meaning of life, friendship, fiction, education, pain, and heaven--doesn't really work on the narrative-dramatic level, that hardly takes away from the effectiveness of the book. Each chapter is skillfully shaped and written, beginning with biographical and historical background from Lewis's life and times, then moving into a concise overview of the subject illustrated by well-chosen passages from Lewis's works, and then, especially in the latter chapters, concluding with some friendly debate that assesses the relevance of Lewis's thought in the twenty-first century.

Running throughout all the chapters, McGrath engages in irenic dialogue with the new atheists, demonstrating at each turn that Lewis's Christian worldview provides a better lens for viewing reality than that of materialism. "For Lewis," McGrath explains, "the Christian faith offers us a means of seeing things properly--as they really are, despite their outward appearances" (p.16).

McGrath freely admits that Lewis does not "prove" Christianity in the narrowly logical sense. Indeed, he takes great pains to show that, though Lewis upheld the creeds of the church, he was careful not to reduce Christ "to neat little doctrinal formulas" (p.94). Reason alone cannot grasp the fullness of God; imagination is needed as well. For Lewis and McGrath, true Christianity is "an encounter with the living God, something that can never be accommodated without radical imaginative loss. A God that is reduced to what reason can cope with is not a God that can be worshipped" (p.96).

Borrowing a metaphor from Austin Farrer, a close friend of Lewis who possessed an intimate understanding of Lewis's uniqueness as an apologist, McGrath distinguishes between puzzles and mysteries. Whereas puzzles can be solved once all the pieces are put into their proper places, mysteries lie "beyond the ability of the human mind to grasp" (p.176). Though McGrath uses this distinction in his chapter on pain, it applies equally well to all the chapters, highlighting Lewis's gift for balancing sharp argumentative skills with a sense of awe and wonder. 

In that regard, McGrath presents us with two Lewises who complement rather than contradict each other. On the one hand, we have the Lewis of Mere Christianity who uses logic to show that Christanity, far from being irrational, lines up perfectly with common human experience and provides a framework for making sense of the world. On the other hand, we have the Lewis of The Chronicles of Narnia who "wanted us to understand that we live in a world that is shaped by stories--by narratives, which tell us who we are, and what really matters" (p.69). In sharp contrast to postmodern critics who dismiss the existence of a metanarrative, McGrath hails Lewis for constructing his Narnia books around an "imaginative retelling of the Christian 'big story' or 'grand narrative' of Creation, the Fall, redemption, and final consummation" (p.71).

If I Had Lunch with C.S. Lewis is filled with such insights, even offering along the way capsule analyses of the undragoning of Eustace in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and the attempt by the witch of The Silver Chair to convince the children that what they know to be real is just a shadow, a Freudian wish-fulfillment. And it is peppered throughout with priceless biographical nuggets that McGrath no doubt culled from the extensive research he conducted for C. S. Lewis--A Life. How many Lewis fans, or even scholars, will know that Lewis recorded his lectures on The Four Loves before writing the book (pp.32-3), or that he was awarded five honorary degrees (p.127), or that he "proposed Tolkien for the 1961 Nobel Prize in Literature, citing The Lord of the Rings as a justification for this honour" (p.43), or that he "was elected a Fellow of the British Academy, the greatest honour a British academic can hope to achieve" (p.143)? 

Such bits of trivia linked with far-from-trivial insights await the reader willing to sit down and spend his lunchtime with C. S. Lewis and Alister McGrath.

Louis Markos is Professor in English and Scholar in Residence at Houston Baptist University, holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities; his books include Lewis Agonistes, Restoring Beauty: the Good, the True, and the Beautiful in the Writings of C. S. Lewis, and On the Shoulders of Hobbits: The Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis.