A Life Observed: A Spiritual Biography of C. S. Lewis by Devin Brown
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Why of all the biographies of C.S. Lewis, including his own Surprised By Joy, should you read this biography? That’s a fair question but rather than try to answer that outright, I will tell you what I liked about this particular biography.
First, it is a sympathetic biography without being a hagiography. Brown accepts Lewis on his own terms while also recognizing his faults and foibles–particularly his priggishness as a young scholar prior to his conversion. The only place where this might be open to criticism is on the subject of his relationship with Mrs. Moore. Some might think he handled Lewis’s relationship with his war-time friend’s mother with kid gloves. I’d say he was probably being circumspect with regard to matters open to speculation.
Second, this is a good work of scholarship, which exposes the reader not only to writings they would already know, but also to his correspondence, some of which has only recently been released. We hear Lewis in his own words and see the care with which he writes to friends and total strangers. And Brown does all this in a book of modest length.
Third, Brown explores a motif of Lewis’s life, his ideas about Joy throughout his life. One sees a person who not only discovered Joy as a signpost to greater realities, but also one who tremendously enjoyed his life–his scholarship, his friends, his wife, appropriately enough named Joy, and even his last years and the anticipation of his own passing. We follow Lewis from boyhood to his last years, which while punctuated by the death of his mother and of Joy, and a horrendous grammar school experience, was a journey into Joy.
Finally, I appreciated some of the new insights this book brought me into his conversion and the role played by friends like Hugo Dyson and J.R.R. Tolkien. It was also delightful to read Brown’s account of the Inklings and the ways Lewis and Tolkien in particular encouraged each other in their writing projects–would we have the Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings otherwise? Likely not.
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In the US, many today will be remembering the assassination of John F Kennedy. Indeed, the memory of where I was when I heard this news and the images of that weekend are seared in my mind. But another man died that day, C. S. Lewis, and the impact of his work has been far more pervasive in my life than the memories of JFK’s presidency and tragic death.
C. S. Lewis modeled for me communication of one’s faith in a manner that was logical, thoughtful, and connected to the experience of everyday people, even though he was an Oxford and later Cambridge don. It is an ideal I strive after in my own life, speech and writing, if poorly. Mere Christianity is a masterpiece of such writing.
Lewis taught me in the Screwtape Letters and elsewhere that one could use wit to convey a very serious matter, the warfare for our souls. In an age where humor has been reduced to the sexual and scatological, and thus avoided by most believing people, Lewis teaches us how it can be used redemptively.
Lewis was not the greatest fiction writer by any stretch and yet his children’s books and his space trilogy imaginatively integrate Christian themes into memorable stories. And who cannot forget delightful characters like Reepicheep or the nobility of Aslan. One of the best book discussions I’ve participated in wrestled with Till We Have Faces. The themes the havoc that can be wrought by disordered love is a cautionary tale to any parent or lover than one can love overmuch.
Lewis was also a fine scholar, writing a classic work on Paradise Lost, and a number of scholarly works. I am currently working through his Studies in Words, which gives one a great appreciation for the uses and abuses and changes in language over time. Lewis winsomely demonstrated how one could be both a fine scholar and a devout Christian at the same time.
So much more could be (and has been) said about Lewis! Perhaps it is simply appropriate today (and Lewis would like this!) to raise a glass, or fill a pipe, and give thanks to God for the life and work of this saint!
This morning I had a chance to re-read C. S. Lewis’s “Learning in War-Time?”, a sermon he gave at the outset of World War II. He made the observation at one point that it is never the case actually in war that we focus only on war. He writes, “Men are different. They propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, discuss the last new poem while advancing to the walls of Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopylae.” In other words, we will always be thinking of the significant (and commonplace!) matters of life. He goes on to argue that if we suspend serious intellectual and cultural activity in such times, we will only replace it with worse–“if you don’t read good books, you will read bad ones.” All of this is part of his encouragement to those whose calling is student during the war.
I equally wonder about the question of learning in peace-time? War in some ways raises really important spiritual and philosophical questions. When we are at peace, we often are more inclined to think about where will we eat? What movie will we see this weekend? Will I buy this shirt or that? What I wonder about in these times is whether our comfort and relative affluence results if anything in our being more distracted by the commonplace and content with the banal? When it seems that “life is good” do we resist the demanding intellectual and aesthetic work required to break new intellectual and aesthetic ground?
Lewis as a Christian appeals to a basic Christian precept of “doing all to the glory of God.” He contends that this does not mean forcing all intellectual life to be “spiritually edifying” in some way. Rather, he writes:
I mean the pursuit of knowledge and beauty, in a sense, for their own sake, but in a sense which does not exclude their being for God’s sake. An appetite for these things exists in the human mind, and God makes no appetite in vain. We can therefore pursue knowledge as such, and beauty as such, in the sure confidence that by so doing we are either advancing to the vision of God ourselves or indirectly helping others to do so.”
Lewis reminds me that we all have appetites for the good, the true, and the beautiful. What the passion for God’s glory in our work does is encourage us to give these to the best and most worthy things–to read (and write) good books rather than bad. We often talk around the educational world of “lifelong learning.” One of the questions that I often wonder about is what drives us to continue to learn, to grow, to change?