McGrath writes as someone who truly understands the Oxbridge academic world in which Lewis spent his entire working life. As research, he re-read everything that Lewis wrote in his lifetime in chronological order. It was time well-spent. The result is a comprehensive, confident and balanced assessment of Lewis’ life and work. Thankfully it avoids descending into the kind of hagiography which books by-Christians-about-other-Christians are prone.
Against the tide
There is lots to praise in the book – but one aspect of Lewis’ life that I was not been aware was his willingness to swim against the tide of fashionable in intellectual opinion of his time. In the 1920s and 30s, there was a rise in the belief in science and technology had the answers to all the big questions. Writers like H.G. Wells ‘used fictional narratives to argue that science was both prophet and saviour of humanity, telling us what is true and saving us from the human predicament’ (p234). Lewis used both his nonfiction and fictional writing to expose the dangers of scientific progress without necessary concern for ethics.
One example is his continued targeting of cruelty to animals and the use of animals for experiments. Lewis included a chapter on ‘Animal Pain’ in The Problem of Pain and wrote in his essay ‘Vivisection’:
“The victory of vivisection marks a great advance in the triumph of ruthless, non-moral utilitarianism over the old world of ethical law; a triumph in which we, as well as animals, are already victims, and of which Dachau and Hiroshima mark the more recent achievements. In justifying cruelty to animals we put ourselves on the animal level.”
His later depiction of heroic talking animals in the Narnia story and the Lion Aslan as a Christ-like figure are part of this approach to use fiction to transmit counter-cultural ideas.
However, at the time experiments on animals was seen as vital to the cause of progress. As McGrath notes ‘Lewis’ views on this matter lost him many friends at Oxford and elsewhere’ (p.237).
More sinister was the popularity among progressive intellectuals at the time of eugenics. Writers like J.D.S. Haldane ‘advocated the optimisation the human gene-pool by preventing certain types of people from having children’ (p235). In 1929 Bertrand Russell advocated the compulsory sterilization by the state of all those regarded as ‘mentally deficient’. He believed that reducing the number of “idiots, imbeciles and feeble-minded” people would benefit society (p236).
Eugenics has since become so tarnished through association with the Nazis that few advocate it today. But in the inter-war period major conferences were held to discuss these ideas and they ‘found embarrassingly wide support in socially liberal circles in Western Europe at the time’ (p.275).
Lewis’ vocal opposition to both vivisection and eugenics were not rooted in sentimentality about animals nor even an emphasis on human rights – but in a theological understanding of a created order. As Lewis wrote:
“Once the old Christian idea of a total difference in kind between man and beast has been abandoned, then no argument for experiments on animals can be found which is not also an argument for experiments on inferior men” (p275).
Challenging accepted wisdom
These examples are important because today we also need to be willing to think independently and critically about the state of society. As McGrath states: ‘Although Lewis was often conservative in his views, this work shows him to have been a prophetic voice, offering a radical challenge to the accepted social wisdom of his own generation.’ (p236)
We can all take up the challenge to swim against whatever political correctness holds sway within the circles we are in. It is relevant whether we are politically on the right or the left.
I know how easy it is to talk about social inequality in the voluntary-sector-Guardian-reading circles, but it’s far harder to advocate about the importance of marriage and commitment. Likewise, if you move in Daily Mail circles it can be hard to speak up for a more balanced view on migrants or those on benefits.
Of course it’s far easier to keep your head down, go with the flow and not create waves. But this is not the route Lewis took.
McGrath’s book tells the full story of how Lewis put his formidable intellect and creative genius to work in articulating Christian perspectives. And these books have survived the test of time – encouraging and inspiring millions of people for generations.
And, like many other parents across the world, its an inspiration I will be sharing later tonight when I’ll read my daughter the next chapter of the Chronicles of Narnia …