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|Jack: A Life of C.S. Lewis
by George Sayer
Published by Harper & Row, 1988 (Republished by Crossway Books, 1994)
Recommended by: Greg Slade
I have long complained about what I call "non-news": the endless discussion of the most private and/or trivial aspect of the personal lives of assorted actors, musicians, sports figures, and other celebrities. However, through reading this biography, I have come to realise that it's just human nature to want to know everything there is to know about people we admire. While I would argue that Lewis was a for more significant person than 99% of the people the gossip shows and tabloids love to natter on about, my interest in him is really no different in kind than the interest of those people who keep watching those shows and reading those publications which I so despise.
All of which is by way of saying that I am somewhat ambivalent about this book. On the one hand, it is far and away the most complete biography of Lewis which I have yet read, and reveals a good deal about him which I had not previously known. (Among other things, Sayer details the books which Lewis read at different points in his life. Were you to gather all of those books together into a single list, it would represent a prodigious amount of required reading in order to understand just one aspect of the influences which shaped Lewis' mind.) Then, too, Sayer departs from the usual portrayal of Janie Moore, the mother of one of Lewis' army friends, whom he took care of until her death in 1951. Mrs. Moore is usually described as a domestic tyrant who made Lewis' life miserable, but Sayer paints quite a different (and, I suspect, fairer) picture. On the other hand, Sayer makes use of material from the letters of Lewis and others which those people quite obviously intended to keep private. (For example, Lewis blacked out portions of some letters, and his lifelong friend Arthur Greeves destroyed some letters outright.) While I am certainly interested in knowing everything that it is possible to know about Lewis, I cannot help but feel a certain amount of guilt in reading things which he quite obviously intended to keep private.
That guilty feeling aside, I can whole-heartedly recommend this biography as a means of better understanding Lewis. Among other things, Sayer gives detailed analyses of the major works which were published during Lewis' lifetime, and uses those analyses to shed light on the development of Lewis' thought. He also includes interesting personal glimpses of Lewis and others, drawn from his own acquaintance with Lewis, which spanned nearly 30 years.
But in the end, the most telling insight comes, not from scholarly discussion of Lewis' literary influences, nor from an examination of the character and motivation of Lewis' family, friends, and colleagues, but rather from the mouths of babes:
No wonder my little stepdaughter, after she had read all the Narnia stories, cried bitterly, saying, "I don't want to go on living in this world. I want to live in Narnia with Aslan." (p. 319)
That is Lewis' towering achievement: whether in his fiction or in his non-fiction, he made God, and His presence, appealing to people. Without making this world look unattractive, he pointed the way to an even better one. In the end, we should not become so caught up with the details of his life, trying to determine how he came by the ability to point the way so appealingly, that we lose sight of where he was pointing. (June, 2005)
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