Alister McGrath’s book If I Had Lunch with CS Lewis is an invitation to understand, converse and learn about one of history’s greatest apologists and children’s writers. The concept of the book is straightforward and simple: learned professor and Lewis biographer gets together with interested students to eat lunch and chat about Lewis’ ideas. McGrath adds plenty to the written conversation by filling out the story beyond Lewis’ books.
The book divided into 8 of Lewis’ ideas which are the luncheon topics. Well organized and accessible, the topics are deeply examined with great enthusiasm. Readers will most likely devour the chapters on Narnia as the insights into the “true country” is well critiqued and explained. The book doesn't rest on Narnia’s shores alone though: I was pleased to find that Lewis, upon a career turn to radio, had to practice and develop as a speaker, to train his keenly academic style to a more comfortable audience. There’s something wonderfully human about the idea of this accomplished teacher having to start again, to figure things out in a new dimension of communication. I’m glad he did and didn't give up and I’m glad McGrath brings it to our attention the way he does.
An early chapter covered Lewis’ atheism. It’s not McGrath’s writing, but the topic of Lewis’ atheism itself that bores me. I’m thrilled he had a re-conversion, but I don’t often find the history of that portion of his life to be stimulating. However, it is not dwelled upon for long and McGrath’s insights into Lewis’ re-conversion are a nicely laid out as an indicator of Lewis’ habit of thought and reasoning. Additionally, the insights into Lewis’ books on pain and grief in later chapters are deeply thought provoking. Knowing Lewis’ work well, McGrath supplies the reader with fantastic comparative readings of The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed, notably different books for and from different parts of Lewis’ life.
One additional thing this book did, other than making me want to re-read everything Lewis wrote, was to spark the desire to engage in the community of writers, readers and thinkers. Lewis found great value in learning from others, in debating and critiquing creative ideas. McGrath might hold that company in the same high regard. For a creative type who has an office job One might feel her soul drying up by week’s end from lack of inspired engagement, but this book, as well as the subsequent desire to find a discussion or reading group of my own, was a lovely spring of theology, creativity and criticism moistening the dryness of my imagination.
McGrath doesn't attempt to hide his loyalty as a “Lewis man” by drawing unnecessary comparisons between friends and fellow writers Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. His criticism of Tolkien is shallow at best and distracting throughout his chapters on the development of Narnia. I actually ended up feeling quite sore about this point, leaning towards defending Tolkien. As the book wasn't about Tolkien, and as far as I’m aware McGrath is not a Tolkien scholar, he seemed too forward in his categorization of this great writer. The world over people have been deeply attached to and affected by the stories of his imagination and he deserved better than what McGrath gave him here. McGrath is immaturely flippant about other scholars’ criticism of Lewis’ “loose ends” in his story writing (among other things) and Tolkien’s “sensitivity” about apparent plagiarism of his work by Lewis. Apparently, not only can Lewis do no wrong, but he’s above reproach and criticism according to McGrath. I like Lewis’ work and have been deeply affected and challenged by his writings, but he’s still just a man, prone to imperfection, and people are entitled to their criticism of him. If I got this impression of McGrath wrong, his editor should have done him a better service.
Another unfortunate casualty of most writers who are Lewis devotees is his brother Warnie. Warren Lewis is spoken of little and when he is everyone makes the point that he was an alcoholic. Why do writers think that Lewis would have approved of his “best friend” and co-founder of the Inklings to be a footnote to his life? How disrespectful to his devoted brother can these critics be to continue to use Warnie’s unfortunate troubles with alcohol as the only notable part of his life? I hesitate to mention it now, except that it’s worthy of criticism. Why must this be Warnie’s legacy: alcoholic brother of CS Lewis? Lewis found his brother valuable – do writers about Lewis ever lead into their notes about Warnie with that in mind?
It’s a short and mostly enjoyable work, but one unfortunate creative absence on McGrath’s part was inviting us to a place at the table, in such-and-such pub, with these particular young people… I imagine there would have been a change in luncheoning venue from time to time, different items on the menu, sounds, smells, regretted dining choices perhaps. It would have been charming to have been in the scene with them as they ate and discussed these particular great ideas. The closest he gets is mentioning the overcast conditions of their last meal together, but it was as benign as any note about the weather could be.
Tyndale House Publishers provided me with a complimentary copy of this book for review.