Alister McGrath on what we can learn from CS Lewis about faith and life
Christian apologist and theologian Alister McGrath enjoyed widespread praise for his biography on CS Lewis (published by Hodder and Stoughton last year).
Alister is back this spring with his second book on Lewis: Deep Magic Dragons & Talking Mice, which makes the bold claim that reading CS Lewis can change your life. We caught up with the Oxford based professor to find out more.
CT: Congratulations on winning the 2014 Christian Book Award for Non Fiction (CS Lewis: A Life). The biography has been very well received. Why do you think people have resonated with it so much?
AM: I think it's partly that Lewis is so interesting as a person, not just as a writer. Many of those who love his writings have written to me, telling me how much more they now get out of reading Lewis because of their new appreciation of the difficulties he faced in his life.
I think helping people to see Lewis as someone who experienced trauma, rejection, failure, and isolation helps them appreciate his brilliance, and also to relate to him as a person.
CT: Your new book Deep Magic Dragons & Talking Mice contains biographical details about CS Lewis, so where does it differ from A Life?
AM: My new book is about learning from Lewis, not learning about Lewis. When I was researching Lewis, I kept noticing how many people I spoke to regarded him as a kind of mentor or guide - a sort of spiritual coach, who could help them think about their Christian faith and life.
Deep Magic Dragons & Talking Mice sets out to show how Lewis can give us new insights into some big questions - like the meaning of life, why friendship is so important, and why stories can be so helpful in communicating faith.
Lewis gives us lots to think about! And above all, Lewis helps us connect faith and life - he shows us how what we think affects the way in which we live.
CT: The subtitle claims reading CS Lewis can change your life. How has Lewis changed your life?
AM: When I came to faith in 1971, I was faced with lots of questions that needed answering. I had an inquiring mind, and wanted to sort things out properly. Sadly, I never really found someone to help me with these questions until 1974, when someone suggested I read Lewis.
I still have those Lewis paperbacks that I bought back then! I never looked back. Lewis was someone who reassured me that Christianity made sense, and helped me discover its deep logic and imaginative appeal. And the nice thing about Lewis is that you can re-read his works, and notice things that you missed that last time round.
CT: How can the book assist people who are new to CS Lewis's writings?
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AM: The book will introduce you to Lewis, and let you hear his voice as he reflects on eight big questions. Each chapter includes very specific recommendations about what works by Lewis you should read to take things further. It's a book that aims to show how Lewis engages questions that really matter - what the philosopher Karl Popper liked to call "ultimate questions".
If the book makes people want to read more by Lewis, I will be a very happy man. The book is written in a way that will make it interesting to non-Christians, who are thinking about the meaning of life. Lewis might well help them begin to find some answers.
CT: You've debated with Richard Dawkins in the past. But if Lewis were alive today how do you think he would respond to a book like The God Delusion?
AM: I think Lewis would be astonished that Dawkins has attracted so much attention for what are, when all is said and done, rather inadequate arguments. Lewis himself went through that kind of phase when he was a young man. He spoke of his "glib and shallow rationalism" - a phrase that seems to me to be a brilliant summary of the outlook of the "New Atheism".
If Lewis were alive today, he would argue that the "New Atheism" limits us to the very narrow world of what human reason can prove, which is simply inadequate as a basis for serious human existence. Lewis's brilliant demonstration that faith is not irrational, but transcends the limits of reason, is a highly important antidote to the more dogmatic assertions of Dawkins and others.
CT: You're happy to admit you're a great admirer of Lewis, but which of his arguments or opinions do you personally disagree with and why?
AM: I respect Lewis enormously, but don't agree with him on everything. For example, I think he treats women unfairly, although I can understand why, given his cultural background. And I'm not persuaded by this "trilemma" - the argument that is often framed in terms of Jesus being either mad, bad, or God.
The important thing is to respect Lewis, not idolise him. He is the best kind of teacher - someone who helps us think for ourselves, not someone who demands we agree with him at every point.
CT: You're known for your work in science, theology and now as an expert on Lewis! Which areas do you expect to be focusing your attention on in the coming months?
AM: Now that I'm back in Oxford as the Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion, I shall be focusing on researching the big questions of God, science and faith. Watch out for a book on these themes from Hodder in 2016!
But I imagine that I will return to Lewis from time to time. He has some very interesting things to say on the interaction of science and religion. And I am delighted that I will be able to give an annual course of lectures at Oxford University on the life and thought of Lewis. Hopefully, this will help a new generation of Oxford students discover the intellectual depths of one of Oxford's best-known writers.