In a post a couple weeks ago, I referenced a new book about C. S. Lewis I was reading. Alister McGrath’s C. S. Lewis, a Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet, while not a full biography, nevertheless provides a satisfying interpretation of what motivated Lewis at various stages of his life. Its primary value, though, is his analysis of the significance of the variety of Lewis’s writings, noting how he shifted his emphases throughout his literary career. He began as an apologist and science fiction author, then altered his focus toward the imaginative world we all know as Narnia, as well as the engaging novel Till We Have Faces and commentaries on Biblical themes.
Beyond that, I appreciated the insight into his academic world—the rigors of daily tutorials, the struggle to research and write the kinds of works required in academia, and the dismay of university politics, which, in his case at Oxford, led to one disappointment after another, as he was always turned down for promotion. This was in spite of his fame and popularity in the wider world. McGrath explains that it was that very popularity that grated on his colleagues. They felt his popular writings were “beneath” him. Ah, the elegant snobbery that emanates from prideful hearts.
After completing this book, I had a great desire to return to another book I hadn’t read for over thirty years. I had often thought I wanted to reread it, but it took the Lewis biography to inspire me to do so. A bestseller in the late 1970s, A Severe Mercy relates a tale that involves Lewis directly. The author, Sheldon Vanauken, shares the true story of his relationship and marriage to Jean, better known as “Davy.” They began as pagans—Vanauken’s own term for them—who sought to selfishly guard their love against all distractions or threats. Gradually, their pagan love is transformed into love for God, which opens the door for a new understanding of godly love for one another.
One of the catalysts for this change is the time they spend in Oxford as graduate students. It is there they come under the influence of a number of Christian authors, the chief of which is Lewis. He befriends the Vanaukens and aids in the regeneration of their minds, helping them see the world through Christian eyes. The book includes a generous sampling of letters from Lewis to Vanauken that were newly revealed at the time of its publication.
The greatest lessons learned, though, come through Davy’s illness and death. Vanauken has a way with words, as befits a disciple of Lewis, and the poignancy of his experience with his wife’s death, the manner in which it teaches him the difference between selfishness and genuine love, and Lewis’s role in helping him to see the death as one of God’s severe mercies, is riveting. There are tears as Vanauken tells the tale, but also joy and the revelation of a closer walk with the God who is mercifully severe with us, for our own good.
I highly recommend these two reads. They engage both the mind and the heart.