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Tuesday, March 11, 2014

"If I Had Lunch With C.S. Lewis" (Alister McGrath)

TITLE: If I Had Lunch with C. S. Lewis: Exploring the Ideas of C. S. Lewis on the Meaning of Life
AUTHOR: Alister McGrath
PUBLISHER:  Carol Streams, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2014, (256 pages).

Many of us have been blessed and intrigued by the brilliant mind of one of this century's greatest Christian thinkers and philosophers, Clive Staples Lewis, also known more popularly as simply CS Lewis. His books have sold millions. His thinking has taught many apologists. His life has remained a shining testimony and witness to Christ to a world full of questions about life. While many schools have supplied courses and seminars on CS Lewis's thinking and philosophical viewpoints, a vast majority of them are aimed at the works of CS Lewis. Very few are about actually conversing with the person up front. What if we have an opportunity to have coffee or a simple meal with Lewis? What if we are able to re-enact a time in which we can ask Lewis in person about the pressing issues of life? This book fills in the gap.

Unlike Anthony Hopkins's portrayal of Lewis as a "solemn, pompous, and rather tedious person" capable of boring people to death, McGrath prefers to see Lewis as a great lunchtime companion who can be quite fun to be with. Making use of a typical school term of eight weeks used at both Oxford and Cambridge, this book of imaginary lunches and conversations with Lewis covers a total of eight weeks. Week One begins with a favourite topic among philosophers: Meaning. Remembering Lewis was once an atheist, Lewis admits his brand of atheistic beliefs then, of rationalism are "glib and shallow." There must be something more. There are human emotions and intuitions that point to a world larger than ours. He reveals how he came to faith through the belief that the eyes of faith help one to see even more. Week Two is about friendship, and how his relationships with people helped him grow as a person and as a thinker. The book "The Four Loves" sums up Lewis's perspectives on love and relationships. McGrath shares of Lewis's various friendships, with older brother Warren, Oxford colleague J.R.R. Tolkien, and his circle of friends who are committed to one another in the search for truth rather than mere pleasantries. Week Three gives readers an insight into the contexts of Lewis's storytelling prowess and background. The story that we believe in will be the greatest impact on us. Thanks to friends like Tolkien, Lewis's single greatest achievement is the Narnia stories which help us understand this world in the terms of "competing narratives." Week Four conversation shifts to Narnia and the Christian Life. McGrath observes can the character of Aslan becomes the focal point of all the stories of Narnia. The Narnia series is essentially a search for a personal narrative in a Christ figure, using stories rather than reason to speak about life. In doing so, Lewis emphasizes the person more than mere ideas. Students of Apologetics will look forward to the conversation for Week Five. Lewis was an apologist, well read in works by Christian authors such as G.K. Chesterton. The three key tasks are to defend, to commend, and to translate faith. This requires us to understand our audience's contexts, recognize clues in this world, and how imagination plays a huge role in the life of Lewis, who moved initially from atheism to theism, before anchoring himself in Christ. Week Six is on Education where Lewis argues passionately that education is not merely instrumental, but instructional on reality, and objective morality. Lewis reads without forgetting, lectures without notes, and delivers without hesitation. He reads old books with the firm belief that it allows him to be able to look not just at the old era but to be able to see clearly what his own times look like from that angle. Every age believes they are more correct than others, which is precisely where it needs a corrective itself. Education is about learning to expand one's vision. Week Seven touches on the topics of pain and suffering, drawing lots of material from two of Lewis's most personal books, "A Grief Observed," and "The Problem of Pain." It was pain that pushes Lewis toward cynicism about religion. It was suffering that drew him back, especially when he recognizes the emptiness of atheism. For pain forces one to grapple with the meaning of good and evil and more importantly, the importance of the goodness of God. What made the two books significant is that while the "Problem of Pain" is "cooly logical and clinical," "A Grief Observed" is intensely emotional.   This shows us that Lewis not only has a brilliant mind, he has a big heart. The final week is on hope and heaven, where Lewis affirms the need to "aim at heaven" and we get earth thrown in together in the mix. Aim merely at earth and we lose both. There is the reality of hope everlasting. There is the reality of life temporal. Lewis provides three ways to look at heaven: 1) Actual existence of heaven as the ultimate reality; 2) Presence of God; 3) Living with our new bodies at the Resurrection.

So What?

Readers will find Oxford Professor Alister McGrath a reliable buddy to journey along this conversations with CS Lewis. Perhaps, some of us may wonder how realistic are the views of Lewis. Well, it is as realistic as the things that Lewis had put into writing. For McGrath has combed all the works of Lewis, pondered on them, and compiled them according to the themes in this book. This is no easy feat, considering Lewis is not simply a prolific writer but also a brilliant thinker. How can anyone summarize a person like CS Lewis? Thankfully, McGrath did not do that. Instead, McGrath makes use of some of life's most important questions to draw Lewis out, rather than to hem Lewis in any one particular box of ideas. This is the strongest point of the book. The downside of this book is not just the brevity but also the lack of actual conversations with an actual person, just like a novel or a play. Readers have to imagine themselves into the lunchtime talks. Moreover, those who have read Lewis's works will most appreciate the ideas and thoughts in this book. Those of us who enjoy reading Lewis will also benefit from the engagement processes.

At times the book looks like a mini-primer of the writings of CS Lewis. This is especially in the preface to each chapter prior to the imagined conversations. I gained additional insights into Lewis as a person, seen from the eyes of McGrath. One finds it hard to know more about Lewis by merely reading his books. This book of having lunch with Lewis gives us a more personal touch.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Tyndale House Publishers and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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