The Latest Book Reviews

For February 2014

Mid-Winter Reading for February 2014

 

Reviews for the following books:

LETTERS TO MY BROTHERS:  Words of Hope and Challenge for Priests. By Stephen J. Rossetti (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2013), 180 pp. $15.95. (Reviewed by Rev. John J. Conley, S.J.)

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LIFTED BY ANGELS: The Presence and Power of Our Heavenly Guides and Guardians. By Joel J. Miller.  (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson) $15.99, 185 pages. (Reviewed by Ken Colston.)

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OPEN MIND, FAITHFUL HEART: Reflections on Following Jesus. By Pope Francis (Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio) Edited by Gustavo Larrazabal. Translated by Joseph Owens. (New York, NY: Crossroad Publishing Co., 2013) 298 pp., $22.19 (Reviewed by Matthew Chicoine.)

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RACE WITH THE DEVIL: My Journey from Racial Hatred to Rational Love. By Joseph Pearce. (Charlotte, N.C.: Saint Benedict Press, 2013), 248 pp., HC $19.40. (Reviewed by Matthew Chicoine.)

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C. S. LEWIS: A Life.  By Alister McGrath.  (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2013.  ISBN: 978-1-4143-3935-1.)  431 pp.,  $24.99. 

THE INTELLECTUAL WORLD OF C.S. LEWIS.  By Alister E. McGrath.  (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014.  ISBN: 978-0-470-67279-2.)  191 pp., $32.95.

Both books reviewed by Peter A. Huff.

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LETTERS TO MY BROTHERS:  Words of Hope and Challenge for Priests. By Stephen J. Rossetti (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2013), 180 pp. $15.95.

Monsignor Stephen Rossetti is best known for his work as president of Saint Luke Institute, a therapeutic center for priests and religious in Silver Spring, Maryland.  This series of open letters attempts to console priests as they struggle with their ministry during a season of scandal.  Although the opening letter, “Thank You, Father,” is a gushing tribute to the priests who have served us, the collection as a whole is remarkably sober about the situation of the American priest in a church confronted by an increasingly hostile culture.  Rossetti’s skill as a theologian and a sociologist, as well as his vast experience as a psychologist, is on display.

“A Voice That Will Never Be Silenced” studies the contemporary assault upon religious freedom, which is intertwined with the palpable decline of religious practice in the nation, especially among young adults.  “Religious freedom was one of the prime motivations for our ancestors coming to this new land.  Through the judicial system and in the public forum, we are fighting for those freedoms again.”  He astutely describes the irrational anger against priests which has sprung out of this new militant secularism.  “I must admit I find it unnerving when people focus their attention on me with so much rage.  It is upsetting to feel their hostility and their anger.”

The problems in the priesthood are not caused solely by hostile cultural currents; clerical culture itself needs serious repair.  “A Narcissistic Minefield” sketches the traits of the priest who mistakenly believes that it’s all about him; in his incapacity to love he becomes a danger to himself and his parish.  In “A Fallen Brother,” Rossetti argues that the dangers inherent in certain priestly personalities were exacerbated by the lax psychological screening and poor theological formation offered in many seminaries from the 1960s to the 1980s.

At the heart of Rossetti’s message to priests is his insistence on the reality and depth of the spiritual combat which every priest must undergo.  “Faithful in Little Things” warns priests that neglect of simple, daily spiritual duties easily opens the road to later catastrophic falls.  It is hardly news that many priests ensnared in the sex-abuse scandals had long ago abandoned the practice of daily Mass, daily meditation, spiritual direction, and an annual retreat.  “This is not a simple matter of spiritual housekeeping.  Lured by the surrounding hedonistic culture, the priest can easily ignore the spiritual warfare he must conduct.”  “Understanding Sin” underscores the lethal danger posed by sin in our lives and the need to face this truth lucidly through prayer and sacrifice. The reality of hell and the demonic is squarely affirmed in “Parish Priest as Exorcist.”  The spiritual combat of the priest is cosmic in dimension and eternal in its consequences.

Rossetti’s collection of letters is not yet another exercise in priestly self-affirmation; it is a critique of cheap grace in the priesthood.  It soberly describes the asceticism necessary for the priest to maintain his integrity and happiness in his vocation.  It lucidly describes a surrounding culture which offers little in sympathy and support in the inner struggle for that integrity.

-Rev. John J. Conley, S.J.
Loyola University Maryland
Baltimore, Maryland      

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LIFTED BY ANGELS: The Presence and Power of Our Heavenly Guides and Guardians. By Joel J. Miller.  (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson) $15.99, 185 pages.

Since the angels are way smarter than us, it’s a wonder that so much has been written about them. Joel Miller has culled through the rather extensive loci of angelology in Scripture and the Church Fathers and Christian iconography to give us a better picture of these invisible beings.

He begins with an epigraph, taken from Augustine’s City of God, that states that the angels are in fellowship with humans.  That claim immediately narrows the scope of Miller’s inquiry.  His book is not interested in what the angels might be in themselves, which is of utmost concern to Thomas Aquinas’ speculations (14 questions, 72 articles).  Miller doesn’t pursue, for example, how angels might know, or how they might move.  He’s not concerned with whether they can foresee the future, or be in two places at once, or know our secret thoughts, or understand the Trinity.  Instead, Miller concentrates on the angels’ relationship with us as it has been reported by the Divine Word, and early Christian traditions, both in the East and West.

Thus, his outline offers only one chapter in the essence of angels per se, and it’s mostly a review of the nine orders of angels, hinted at in Scripture, and described in Pseudo-Dionysius’ The Celestial Hierarchy.  The remaining five chapters investigate the angels’ relationship with us: their fall from grace prefiguring our own, their care for Israel, their subjection to Christ, their guardianship of us, and their participation in divine liturgy with us.

Miller condenses these early traditions about the angels, which are, in fact, no less speculative than the scholastic questions.  We learn, for example, that the fall of the angels had two patristic explanations: one, envy in the creation of man; and two, jealousy of God’s power.  Some Fathers thought that they were created with the heavenly bodies; others, like Augustine and Isaac the Syrian, that they came into being with light itself on the first day.  Whatever their origin or early nature, they ministered to ancient Israel, to Moses, Abraham, Jacob, David, Ezekiel, Daniel, and even Job.  Sometimes this ministry came as violent opposition to disobedience.  In Exodus 4:24 of the Septuagint (Miller’s extensive footnotes are very helpful), for example, an angel (God in the Masoretic text) sought to kill Moses in order to urge him to circumcise his firstborn.  In 2 Samuel 24, an angel punishes David, and his people, with a plague for resisting the Mosaic census.  Angels have to do the Lord’s dirty work.

On the other hand, they are, in Miller’s words, the “original evangelists,” announcing Christ and even, in the Protoevangelium of James, feeding Mary with their famous bread, mentioned in Psalm 78 and Wisdom 16.  In exorcising the demons, of course, Christ confronts the evil-minded angels.  Ephraim the Syrian tells us that in baptism, we take on the white clothing of the angels.  The guardian angels are busy in the New Testament, helping Peter escape, and comforting Paul in a storm, but in keeping the latter locked up so that, according to John Chrysostom, his jailer would be comforted.  Exodus and Revelation both affirm that the cherubim and seraphim assist at the worship of the Lord.  The Letter of Jude suggests that the archangel Michael contended with Satan for the soul of Moses, and the story of Lazarus tells us that the angels carried the poor man to the bosom of Abraham.  Miller reminds us that the angels will be with us always.

Miller’s book supplements the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which affirms the existence of angels, and quotes Augustine in distinguishing their name (their nature, “spirit”) from their office (what they do) (CCC, 329); it is this latter aspect that occupies Miller. The Catechism catalogs their role in salvation history, which Miller further details: “they closed the earthly paradise; protected Lot; saved Hagar and their child; stayed Abraham’s hand; communicated the law by their ministry; led the people of God; announced birth and callings; and assisted the prophets” (CCC, 332).  Miller’s extensive sources will appeal, not only to readers of Scripture, but also students of patristics, apocrypha, and iconography.  If you want to know if the angels possess morning or evening knowledge, however, you’ll have to read the Summa Theologicae, First Part, question 58, article 7.

- Ken Colston
Retired Chairman, English Dept., Jefferson School
St. Louis, Missouri

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OPEN MIND, FAITHFUL HEART: Reflections on Following Jesus. By Pope Francis (Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio) Edited by Gustavo Larrazabal. Translated by Joseph Owens. (New York, NY: Crossroad Publishing Co., 2013) 298 pp., $22.19

Coming from the pen of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, this work is a collation of the Jesuit thinker’s life experiences and vocational work as priest, shepherd, and spiritual guide. Primarily being a book on spirituality, there is no reason for readers to be deceived into viewing these writings as being of an inferior style. On the contrary, Pope Francis demonstrates a creative and calculated use of language to articulate the eternal truths to be mined from the Scriptures. In fact, Archbishop Jose Maria Arancedo says in the prologue, “Another characteristic important to note is the cardinal’s familiarity with scriptural texts, which gives evidence of a solid biblical theology” (p. xiv). The plethora of Bible passages cited help ground the reader in a concrete reality of living out the Gospel.  Listed at the end of each of the 48 meditations are insightful tools, entitled “For Prayers and Reflection,” to enhance the Christian’s spiritual life (p. xv).

Though Open Mind, Faithful Heart: Reflections on Following Jesus might appear to be organized in a nebulous fashion, the book is clearly divided into four sections, and united under the twin-fold theme of prayer and consistency (p. xv). Moreover, it is composed in the spirit of St. Ignatius, and has a distinct flavor which will facilitate the reader’s interior relationship to God, and employs a liberal use of Scripture in line with patristic pedagogy.

The first part provides an encounter with Jesus through numerous dialogues found in the Gospels. Pope Francis spans the entire gambit of human responses to Jesus in the New Testament: hesitancy, joy, fear, courage, hopelessness, humility, and hope. A relevant message for today’s world is found in the initial meditation when Bergoglio shows biblical examples of people who wanted to encounter Jesus, so long as it meets their conditions. For example in John 3:1-21, Nicodemus agrees to meet Jesus, but only under the clandestine cover of the night sky (p. 3).   Conversely, other persons like the Pharisees (John 8:1-11) seek to entangle Jesus in a contradiction with Jewish law. Reflecting on these words, and bringing the message to our daily situations, helps Christians shift their priority back to Christ.

Another salient point from this first section comes from the fourth meditation, Joy and Perseverance (p. 19). The pope states, “True joy is forged in work and in the cross” (p. 19). Every member of the Church Militant should be daily reminded of this statement. Getting caught up in the mundane happenings of life, the Argentinian Jesuit says, Christians may mistake Jesus as asleep, or distant to their sufferings (Matt 8:245-25). His words point out the apathetic tendency in the spiritual journey, and that getting wrapped up in the little details of life sometimes cause humans to have a myopic view of God’s plan (p. 21). Bergoglio’s reflection, at the end of this meditation, lays the problem bare, and has the reader contemplate dependence on God (p. 23).

The theme of hardship and fear, in light of the mission of the Cross, are taken up again throughout the rest of section one. Acknowledging persecution as a normal experience for an authentic Christian, the Latin pope also reiterates the traditional Church stance, that remembering and carrying out the Cross of Jesus, brings consolation and peace (p. 70). Linked to the hardship and joy of the cross, is the notion of sin leading to despair. Using the example of David, Bergoglio shows the ultimate effects of hopelessness. Only the grace of God can pull a person out of such misery and decadence (p. 78-83).

Between the second and third parts of the book, there is some overlap−both focusing on the Church. The former’s purpose is to instill an evangelical fervor, and zestful work for the Church, whereas the latter is a delineation of concrete situations in the Church’s life. An implicit motif in section two seems to be summed up in two words: alertness and wonder. Citing Matthew 24:42, Pope Francis reminds the reader of Jesus’ message to avoid a kind of “drowsiness of the soul” (p. 115-116). He also asserts that infidelity and lack of vigilance are wedded at the hip. Among the most holy people in the Gospels, these were also the most heedful: John the Baptist, Simeon, Anna, and Joseph of Arimathea (p. 117).  To combat spiritual torpidity, the Jesuit pontiff proclaims, “Our watchfulness should entail prayer, and daily examination of conscience” (p. 118). In subsequent mediations, the Argentinian pope reflects how God’s plan of salvation was revealed in historical deeds and steady stages. If the Christians want their life to become part of God’s plan, they must delve into human history, and be alert to the Holy Spirit’s grace (p. 130). Arguably, the most insightful words to flow from the former Argentinian bishop’s ballpoint are, “The light of Christ was rejected because its lumosity is different from what was expected” (p. 138). It is through the vigilance gained by the Holy Spirit, that the Church was able to ascertain Jesus’ message.

Part three is Cardinal Bergoglio’s meditations on Revelation 2-3, to show the diversity within the local churches, and the spiritual lows and highs they faced. For instance, the ailment of the Church in Ephesus was being sucked into the vortex of hapless argument, and losing its initial fervor (pp.175-177). Conversely, Revelation speaks of Philadelphia as a model of apostolic joy, and success in relation to the other six churches (p. 204). It is an apropos reflection because it is important to realize that each diocese suffers from various spiritual sicknesses, and has different gifts to grow the Body of Christ.

The final section in Open Mind, Faithful Heart concerns prayer practically lived. Nothing is more natural and concrete than the frustrating experience of migration, or leaving one’s home. Francis speaks of Abraham’s departure from Ur as the “prototype” of those who leave their homeland. “Those who set out on an exodus from themselves make a definite option: they prefer time to space,” he states (p. 218). Freely detaching himself from possession of the land, Abraham trusted in God’s promise. The pope notes the importance of prayerful remembrance, and not to get sealed into space (i.e. Lot’s wife). “Memory undergoes a malignant metamorphosis when it disregards the mandate to “remember” in Deuteronomy (5:15; 8:2-20; 32:7). To avoid an alluring nostalgia, Pope Francis, in keeping with St. John of the Cross urges a purification of the memory (pp. 219-220). He concludes this section with biblical examples (David, Moses, Job, Simeon, Judith). He shows how their prayer lives lifted them out of despair, and gave meaning to suffering. The last meditation discusses that prayer is a no-holds-bar activity because humanity’s best example, Jesus, held nothing back in his conversations with the Father (p. 292).

Written with the same fluidity and spiritual capacity of Saints Francis de Sales, and Ignatius of Loyala’s works, and the acumen comparable to Pope Benedict XVI, Open Mind, Faithful Heart: Reflections on Following Jesus is a fantastic prayer companion. Pope Francis’ healthy use of biblical citations, and command of language, make this book both readable for any faithful Catholic, and is able to whet the intellectual palate of biblical theologians. This work should be in circulation in diocesan churches and Catholic bookstores for many years to come.

-Matthew Chicoine, Graduate Student, Theology
Franciscan University of Steubenville
Steubenville, Ohio

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RACE WITH THE DEVIL: My Journey from Racial Hatred to Rational Love. By Joseph Pearce. (Charlotte, N.C.: Saint Benedict Press, 2013), 248 pp., HC $19.40.

A harrowing account, Race with the Devil: My Journey from Racial Hatred to Rational Love, is an autobiography of Joseph Pearce’s radical conversion from a man heavily steeped in Nazistic tendencies, to a man who found his final “resting place” in the Catholic Church. Being a prolific Catholic biographer, many of the authors he writes about implanted seeds of faith during his two stints in incarceration. Composed with gripping detail and a candid style, Pearce shows how the power of God’s grace works in mysterious and amazing ways.

Chapter one begins with a memory of Pearce’s second imprisonment after being convicted for inciting racial violence. In a divinely providential way, this jail sentence coincided with the great Christian mystic, St. John of the Cross’s feast day on December 14th, 1985. Reflecting back, the Englishman realized he was just about to enter a “dark night of the soul” (p. 3).  The remaining pages of the chapter discuss reasons for Pearce’s anti-Catholic sentiment. Influenced by his father’s bigotry toward Catholics, this prejudice gained steam during Pearce’s involvement with the Protestant Loyalists of Northern Ireland (p. 5).

The next chapter, titled: A Childhood in the Shire, hints at Pearce’s love for J.R.R. Tolkien’s works, but also shows the naivety in which he grew up. The irony is that while he grew up in the tumultuous 1960s, the rustic carapace of Arcadia sheltered Pearce from the maelstroms of that decade (p. 14).

Pearce then goes on to outline his ethereal connections to Catholicism in his formative year,s and how his father framed the writer’s worldview. He goes on to describe England as “Christ-haunted,” due to the nation’s break from Rome (p. 15). Subconsciously inheriting an anti-Catholic bent, Pearce, and his adolescent peers, succumbed to an irrational fear of Catholic monks (p. 17).  Such bigotry reached its apex on Guy Fawkes Night. Burning papal effigies became a common tradition, and displays a serious misunderstanding of Catholicism (pp. 18-19).  While Pearce himself did not exhibit prejudice against Catholicism to the degree listed above, his life was marked by religious apathy. “At school assembly, we parroted the Lord’s Prayer as a compulsory part of the school day, but I have no recollection of religion playing any other part in my formal education,” remembers Pearce (p. 21). Having a strong impact on the younger Pearce’s life, his father, oftentimes, linked racial heterogeneity with disrupting the social order and proud tradition that England was founded on (p. 27). However, although the senior Pearce displayed anti-Semitism, he never reached the extreme of Nazism. Furthermore, his loathing of communism spurred Joseph to side with Protestant nationals, and hold a tentative sympathy for Hitler (p. 30).

The fifth chapter centers around Pearce’s personal adherence to his former school’s motto “This above all: To Thine own self be true.”  Later, he recognized that the motto, carried to its logical conclusion such a subjective cipher of the adage, that it might lead one to relativism (p. 48). During his school years, he lashed out at teachers that preached Marxist doctrine. His rage got so bad that, during one incident, Pearce chucked a chair at a Pakistani instructor! (p. 42). Unable to control his emotions in a healthy manner, Pearce began to become embroiled in politics. At the young age of 15, he engaged in activity with the National Front, a violent and racially discriminatory, English political party. Admitting that he never physically involved himself in gang donnybrooks, Pearce, nevertheless, was guilty of sin by omission for his failure to prevent such violence (p. 53).  Among the first riots Pearce participated in was the Battle of Lewisham, where he almost got himself killed (pp. 56-60).

Pearce then goes on to delineate for several pages his life as a racial violence instigator and puppet for the National Front. Launching the Bulldog, a youth magazine, in 1977, Pearce gained a reputation for being a neo-Nazi. The following year saw his publications soar from hundreds to thousands of copies (p. 62). While he gained fame and prestige within the National Front, it came at a cost−his first jail time in 1982 (p. 67).  In chapter nine, Pearce explains how The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, and anti-Semitic authors, ultimately framed his mindset during the nadir of his life (pp. 79-84). Pearce does state that he recognized, implicitly, inconsistencies within the neo-Nazi doctrine, and wisely quotes Chesterton, “When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing, but in everything” (p. 88).

Chapters twelve and thirteen talk about soccer hooliganism, and punk rock, as concrete ways in which racial hatred reared its ugly head in England. Aggressive racism became part of the fabric of the Chelsea soccer team’s identity during the 1970s. Pearce capitalized on this racial anger by selling the Bulldog at games (p. 120). Amidst such animosity, Pearce did experience a moment of grace through a police officer’s charitable act of allowing the National Front devotee to return to a soccer game (p. 122). Pearce’s most revered musical idol was David Bowie. He eventually came to understand the influence that rock music had, and harnessed it to politics through his Rock Against Communism campaign (p. 128).

His prison stays marked a turning point for Pearce, because during this time, he encountered God’s mercy in various ways. First, Pearce was humbled by the sheer amount of birthday cards−thousands−that inundated the jail cell (p. 148). A second major sacramental moment for the former racist occurred because of his solitary confinement. Encountering the wit and wisdom of Chesterton, Belloc, and Tolkien, Pearce began to have a little sympathy for the Catholic political doctrine of a decentralized government. Perhaps, the most salient saying occurs in chapter sixteen, when he states, “The sense of exile, paradoxically, orients us to our homeland” (p. 170).

Not learning his lesson after the first moments in prison, Pearce takes up the editorship of the Bulldog under a pseudonym−Captain Truth (p. 175-176). God had an ironic sense of humor because it was during Pearce’s second time in jail−once again convicted under the Race Relations Act−that finally pushed Pearce toward Catholicism (p. 200-205).  In his last chapter, Pearce discusses how “true love is truly rational” (p. 213). For all the harrowing bumps along the way, Pearce fittingly concludes his tale with the final climatic words of the Divine Comedy (p. 218). The post-script channels Pearce’s new life as a Catholic, in its highs (marriage and becoming a Catholic biographer) and lows (miscarriages).

Truly a page-turner, Joseph Pearce’s Race with the Devil presents a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction account of how God’s grace worked in the life of a former racist, transforming him into a disciple of Christ, and prolific Catholic writer. Although a definitive timeline of events would have been useful at the beginning of the book, this limitation is easily overcome by the witty and lucid style of this English Catholic wordsmith. This work should be a valuable tool for clergy, and their staff, to excerpt for a conversion example in R.C.I.A. and sacramental preparation classes.

-Matthew Chicoine, graduate student, Theology
Franciscan University of Steubenville
Steubenville, OH

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C. S. LEWIS: A Life.  By Alister McGrath.  (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2013.  ISBN: 978-1-4143-3935-1.)  431 pp.,  $24.99. 

THE INTELLECTUAL WORLD OF C.S. LEWIS.  By Alister E. McGrath.  (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014.  ISBN: 978-0-470-67279-2.)  191 pp., $32.95.

Both books reviewed by Peter A. Huff.

A half century after his death, C. S. Lewis, or “Jack” Lewis, as he preferred to be called by family and friends, is one of the most respected Christian writers of all time.  Adults and children admire him, and so do skeptics, seekers, and even popes.  Millions around the world see him as an unsurpassed witness to the faith “once for all, delivered to the saints.”  Some venerate him as something of a saint himself.  His ecumenical credentials, earned largely post mortem, are especially impressive.  Perhaps, the only thing the bookstores at Notre Dame, Wheaton College, and Brigham Young University have in common is a healthy selection of books by the father of Narnia.  In his second published autobiography, Lewis famously portrayed himself as Surprised by Joy.  Today, believers in a variety of communions are routinely surprised by Jack—surprised at the startling sweep of his appeal, and his stunning capacity for building bridges through the clarity of his thought, and the charity of his spirit.  Those of us committed to inter-church and interfaith dialogue stand in awe at the profoundly pontifical nature of his mind and heart.

The 50th anniversary of Lewis’s death offers us an invaluable occasion to reflect on the unrepeatable life that led to such a remarkable legacy.  Lewis died at the age of 64, on November 22, 1963, from complications due to heart trouble, and an inoperable prostate condition.  It was, of course, the same day President Kennedy was assassinated—and, as it turns out, the same day fellow writer, Aldous Huxley, lost his battle with throat cancer, taking his final LSD trip.  During this memorial year, the institutions of “Lewisiana,” the unofficial international network of C. S. Lewis literary societies and research enterprises, are busier than ever, sponsoring a record number of commemorative symposia, conferences, and lecture series on Lewis as scholar, poet, novelist, convert, apologist, teacher, and friend.  His induction into Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, with all due pomp and circumstance, invites us to reconsider, in a fresh way, the man who identified so closely with the pre-post-Christian worldviews of Spencer, Milton, and Austen, and who once called himself the “most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”

New publications are expanding the already broad range of the popular and critical literature on Lewis, subjecting his extraordinary life and letters to an unprecedented round of scholarly scrutiny and hagiographic appreciation.  Alister McGrath’s two volumes—a comprehensive biography and a collection of scholarly essays—significantly advance our understanding of the man, and the mind behind the Lewis phenomenon.  Widely respected for his work in historical theology and theological education, Oxford don and Anglican priest, McGrath is fast gaining a reputation as something of a successor to Lewis, at least in the realm of apologetics.  A native of Belfast, Lewis’ hometown, and currently professor at King’s College in London, he is, perhaps, best known today for his debates with the leading lights of the “new atheism” movement.  His recent contributions to Lewis scholarship betray an intuitive grasp of Lewis’ sense of intellectual vocation, and keen insight into the spiritual needs of the present age.

McGrath is no newcomer to biography.  His books on John Calvin, and twentieth-century Protestant theologians, T. F. Torrance and J. I. Packer, demonstrate a pronounced ability to detect the form and dynamism in a life governed largely by adventures of the soul.  One problem associated with the work of intellectual biography is the fact that subjects often come with ready-made self-narratives in tow—narratives frequently astute, compelling, and, in some cases, unforgettable. St. Augustine, and his class of ill-fated biographers, automatically come to mind.  The would-be writer of the chronicles of Lewis faces a not too dissimilar challenge.  The temptation, it seems, must be threefold: (1) ignore Surprised by Joy completely, and render Lewis unrecognizable; (2) capitulate to Surprised by Joy, and simply gloss Lewis on Lewis; or (3) turn the biographical project into one sustained effort to debunk Surprised by Joy, (readers of The Abolition of Man will recall how much Lewis loathed the modern academic penchant for debunking on principle).

McGrath resists the biographical adversary, and offers us an original and perceptive narrative of his own—one that is comprehensive, without being encyclopedic; and empathetic without being uncritical.  His birth-to-death-to-legacy approach will be especially valuable to a new generation of Lewis readers, scholars, and disciples.  Marking the fiftieth anniversary of Lewis’s death reminds us that we have lost virtually all his colleagues, and most of his students.  Clearly, a second-generation biography, McGrath’s C. S. Lewis: A Life appropriately balances text and context.  It reviews the full range of Lewis’ corpus, dedicating two full chapters to Narnia, but also recreates the now, largely foreign world in which Lewis worked—especially its academic culture and its aesthetic and theological trends.  McGrath, for example, is sensitive to readers who might find the pre-Beatles, middle-class children of the Narnia saga both unintelligible and unattractive.  His organizational scheme, however—staging Lewis’ entire story on the landscapes of Oxford, Narnia, and Cambridge—only interferes with the natural flow of the life itself. Lewis would never banish his childhood and youth to 40 pages of a 70-page “Prelude.”  In any event, his life would be worth retelling even if Aslan had never sung Narnia into existence.

The book makes at least four noteworthy contributions to the strictly biographical concerns of Lewis research.  First, more than any other such study, it illuminates Lewis’s Irish background and character, describing his cultural identity as an “enigma” (9), and himself as the “wrong kind of Irishman” (13)—wrong, that is, according to what Lewis might call the “inner ring” of the Irish literary establishment. Second, the book devotes long-overdue attention to Lewis’ involvement in the First World War, recognizing how profoundly it defined, and even dominated, his university education—and arguably the development of his worldview, fixated as it was on the centrality of combat, broadly understood, in human existence.  Third, it takes seriously Lewis’ atheism, seeing it as a vital part of his distinctive mental makeup, not just a privative prelude to his theistic and Christian conversions.  In fact, it speaks of Lewis’ journey to faith (and away from non-faith) as a “slow conversion” (131).  McGrath, a former unbeliever himself, knows an “Ulster Protestant atheist” (107) when he sees one.  He also knows that every atheist has a different reason, or set of reasons, for the hope that is not in him.

Fourth, the book substantially challenges our sense of the timing of Lewis’ conversion.  Previous biographers have placed too much faith in Lewis’ auto-historical skills.  McGrath’s revised chronology—a bit of legitimate debunking here, based on examination of the documentary evidence (and independently discovered by American Lewis researcher Andrew Lazo)—assigns Lewis’ adoption of theism, not to Oxford’s Trinity term of 1929, as indicated in Surprised by Joy, but to the spring of the following year. What this means is that Lewis admitted that God was God only after his father’s death, not before, as we long assumed, and possibly just fifteen months prior to his acceptance of the divinity of Christ.  Evidently the finale of the largo conversion was marked accelerando.

McGrath’s second work, The Intellectual World of C. S. Lewis, takes up this same topic of Lewis as the unreliable narrator, along with a number of other issues in contemporary Lewis interpretation.  In this set of eight, stand-alone, essays, McGrath addresses an academic audience, but still with the direct and accessible prose that characterizes the more popularly framed life.  His purpose is to treat, in depth, a variety of key questions that lurk beneath the surface of the biographical project, and in the mind of the discerning reader—questions ranging from the nature of Lewis’ pre-conversion, philosophical loyalties, and the place of reason and imagination in his apologetic method to Lewis’ sense of Anglican identity, and his contested status as theologian.  On this last point, McGrath is refreshingly transparent, analyzing with candor and conviction the power structure of the contemporary theological guild, and its psychology.  “Only a highly attenuated definition of ‘theology,’” he says, “can prevent us from speaking of Lewis as a theologian” (175).

Perhaps, the collection’s most engaging essay is the exploration of Lewis’ view of myth. The roots of the inquiry stretch back to the night of September 19, 1931, the now-legendary night on which fellow literary scholars, J. R. R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson, in the course of an all-night conversation, performed one of the most important—and most creative—acts of evangelization in the 20th century:  inviting the theist, but pre-Christian, Lewis to accept the story of the Incarnation as “true myth” (62).  No other evangelistic strategy could have so perfectly jibed with the classically trained mind of C. S. Lewis.  It later informed his approach to non-Christian religions in Mere Christianity, and Miracles, and dramatically set the stage for his attempt to recast Christian truth in the genres of science fiction and fantasy.  McGrath’s account—rightly situating Lewis’ evolving understanding of myth in the context of mid-twentieth-century theology’s growing infatuation with programs of demythologization—portrays Lewis as primarily interested in the “grand narrative” or “big picture” of the Christian worldview (68), and only secondarily concerned with its doctrinal dimension.  For Lewis, he writes, Christian apologetics is “at its best when it out-narrates the ideologies of the world” (74).  McGrath is not at his best, though, when he defends Lewis on myth against the eclectic or eccentric charge.  His apparent endorsement of Lewis’ alleged consignment of doctrine to a derivative, or expressive, role will stimulate debate within the fellowship of Lewis scholars, and in the outer ring of intelligent Christians willing to reevaluate his canonicity and catholicity.

Both books aim toward reassessment and enlargement.  They take seriously the dynamic quality of the Lewis phenomenon and, frankly, chart its ups and downs.  McGrath acknowledges Lewis’ improbable status among American evangelicals, and devotes a paragraph in C. S. Lewis: A Life to Roman Catholic appreciations and appropriations of his work.  Unfortunately, he ignores Lewis’ rising significance in the ranks of Orthodox Christians and Latter-day Saints.  Even so, the overall message of the books points to this: our Lewis is too small.

Lewis’ reputation has grown enormously in the half century since his death.  So has the need for his kind of consecrated reason, and christened imagination.  In his introduction to a translation of Saint Athanasius, he eloquently commended old books for their ability to open our minds to the “clean sea breeze” of the centuries.  Now that his writings betray a certain antiquity of their own, they have begun to share this restorative quality of timely timelessness.  For McGrath, this development is consistent with Lewis’ immersion in, and transmission of, the historic Christian intellectual tradition.  McGrath’s books open a new chapter in Lewis interpretation, placing him in a context broader and deeper than Oxbridge, the 20th century, and the evangelicalism that has always been as ill-fitting as his trademark baggy trousers.  A generation of studies acquainted us with Jack.  Now, as Narnia’s creator might say, we realize they constitute only the title page of the unfinished story.  What emerges from McGrath’s devoted scholarship is something new—and something older: Lewis of Christendom.

-Peter A. Huff
Centenary College
Shreveport, Louisiana

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avatar About Fr. David Vincent Meconi, SJ

Fr. David Meconi, S.J. is professor of patristic theology at St. Louis University and editor of the Homiletic and Pastoral Review (HPR). Fr. Meconi would like you to know that he offers Mass each month for readers of HPR; please be assured of his prayers for you.

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