Sunday, October 20, 2013

Devin Brown: A Life Observed

A book review

     Devin Brown, a professor of English at Asbury University, has just published (2013) A Life Observed:  A Spiritual Biography Of C. S. Lewis.  He was in town last month, along with Lewis' stepson, Douglas Gresham (now in his late sixties), to talk about the famous Christian writer, and his life, and the new book.  I went to the presentation, enjoyed listening to both Brown and Gresham, and bought the book.  It is good.

     The book lives up to its title, and exceeded my expectations:  it is, indeed, a spiritual biography, weaving Lewis's life experiences, the development of his personality, his long and indirect journey to faith, his imaginative and spiritual insights, his friendships, and his feelings, from his birth in Ireland in 1898 to his death in England in 1963.  I have read several other biographies, or commentaries, on the life of Lewis, and they have been pretty good; but I would rate Dr. Brown's recent book as the best.

     I am one of many thousands of Christians who have been decisively influenced by C. S. Lewis.  I remember discovering him when I was about nineteen.  I picked up two of his books on the same day: Screwtape Letters, and Miracles.  It was Miracles that did it for me; it was as if Lewis had awakened my mind; and from then on I would see things differently, and think differently.  In the years following, I read just about everything that Lewis had written; and I would venture to say that there have been very few years since then that I have not re-read one or two of his books.  Like anything by G. K. Chesterton, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, Wendell Berry, and a handful of others, they can always be counted upon to be a benefit and blessing to the mind.

     Brown's biography of Lewis avoids the temptation to be a hagiography, and it avoids the opposite temptation to "reassess" Lewis or "reinterpret" him.  It is simply a well-written history of his life and the development of his thinking.  Here is a paragraph where he quotes Austin Farrer, speaking at Lewis' funeral:

     "Farrer commented that, as a writer, Lewis had a unique way of integrating his thoughts, emotions, and imagination -- not compartmentalizing them -- and that it was this 'feeling intellect' and 'intellectual imagination' that gave power to the many works Lewis had left behind.   'There lived in his writings,' Farrer told those who had come to honor their friend,  teacher, and colleague, 'a Christian universe which could be both thought and felt, in which he was at home, and in which he made his reader at home.' "

     At the book-signing, I said to Douglas Gresham that I hoped that one day I would get to read his biography.  He immediately replied that I could: it is called Lenten Lands, and he wrote it many years ago.  I was able to get hold of a copy, and enjoyed it, too.  His focus is on his childhood and teenage years in the Lewis household, but he goes on to talk about his own later life, travels, marriage, and family.  His stories are interesting, insightful, and well told.

     In times like our own, when George Orwell's prophetic warnings about our society's nature are especially and immediately troubling, remembering C. S. Lewis is a good thing.


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