Saturday, May 24, 2014

Review: If I Had Lunch with C.S. Lewis by Alistair McGrath

Most modern evangelicals would probably love to have lunch with C.S. Lewis.

Lewis is one of the most revered thinkers of the last century, and his students and personal letters suggest he was something of a gregarious figure and wonderful conversationalist.  This is not surprising considering his body of written work, which includes Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, and the beloved Chronicles of Narnia.

Thus, Alister McGrath’s recent work, If I Had Lunch with C.S. Lewis, seems as much a piece of wish fulfillment as it does exploration of Lewis’ ideas. McGrath is wise, however, in not really placating this desire for the reader via a fictional dialogue. Rather, out of respect for Lewis (and the reader), McGrath carefully crafts scenarios of what we might expect from Lewis in conversation, rather than provide a narrative of what would occur.  This difference is subtle but useful, as it avoids the “well, I don’t think it would play like that” criticism that would plague any book containing imagined interactions with historic figures.

This particular element of the book’s design created a great deal of good will from me, for it showed two important facts about the McGrath. First, his intention was not so much focused on his personal dialogue with Lewis so much as Lewis’ continued dialogue with his readers. By focusing on general topics that Lewis may address, McGrath consistently redirects attention to Lewis' ideology more than a characterization of it. Second, the author’s methodology allows for the exploration of broader ideas that will likely draw the reader further toward Lewis’ original, nuanced writings. These are both splendid outcomes of the book's execution.

Indeed, a more appropriate title for the book may have been, "Lunches with C.S. Lewis”, which is not only shorter but also more reflective of the book’s layout.  McGrath introduces the idea of food and fellowship with Lewis before setting the expectation of the experience he intends to create, that were we—his readers, Lewis, and the author himself—to come together on a regular basis, we would likely direct a question to Lewis and in turn receive a thought-provoking answer, albeit one that could fit into a lunch-hour discourse.  

In this way, each chapter highlights a specific type of conversation we might have and the types of ideas Lewis might convey, as well as anecdotes he would use. McGrath provides constant reminders that this is not Lewis speaking so much as how we might expect him to speak given what he’s said in his other texts and collected works. Herein lies the book’s most fascinating element. McGrath distills his longtime knowledge of Lewis into clear, broad ideas that pull from a variety of texts; and in doing so, he gives the reader a wonderful overarching view of Lewis’ work while also showing the cohesion of Lewis multi-faceted concepts and rounded approaches to life’s bigger ideas and challenges.

This makes for a good read, particularly for someone like myself who has read some Lewis but not much. Time and again I was reminded of why I like Lewis’ work while I also felt the need to seek out more of it. If anything, the book could serve as a C.S. Lewis primer, a book for a young person who has read and re-read Narnia and would like to know a bit more about the author and his opinions prior to diving into Lewis’ nonfiction. This is not to suggest that McGrath makes light of Lewis' nuances or misrepresents him, but it is to affirm the book’s strength in making the late author directly accessible.

Overall, I enjoyed the If I Had Lunch with C.S. Lewis. This was not what I had expected, but it was good—both in terms of presentation and content. The only real criticism I have is that following McGrath’s thought process—where he ends, Lewis begins, and so forth--can be tedious at times; however, I feel this is a minor critique given the integrity of McGrath’s approach—an approach both respectful of Lewis and useful to the reader. While this is not the type of work I’ll revisit cover to cover, it is one to which likely I’ll return on particular subjects, such as imagination and creation. Alistair McGrath has created a good piece of material here; and while imperfect, the Lewis reader may find the book not only informative but also charming and enjoyable.

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