Monday, February 06, 2006

Jack's Life: The Life Story of C. S. Lewis

Jack's Life: The Life Story of C. S. Lewis by Douglas Gresham, Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2005.

"Imagination is the only way we have of getting beyond the evidence of our own eyes and reaching for God" - Doug Gresham

First, a declaration of personal interest: I met Doug after his conversion (reconversion?) to Christianity in the late 1980s in Tasmania, and Doug and Merrie and Jan and I are friends. We have stayed in each others’ homes (Ireland, Melbourne), and Doug and I correspond regularly by email. (But he knows all that won’t stop my being constructively critical of his latest book).

Clive Staples Lewis, (or ‘Jack’ as Doug affectionately calls his step-father) was, by general consent, the premier Christian apologist in the 20th century English-speaking world. Until recently he was certainly the most widely-read in that field (and his children’s books are also still best-sellers). I’ll never forget my ‘aha’ experience as a tertiary student in the early 1960s while devouring Mere Christianity. The Problem of Pain is the only book apart from the Bible I’ve read five times! Evangelicals around the world still love and admire C S Lewis (despite his being a chain smoker, who liked his pints, told ribald jokes, and was a liturgical traditionalist!). ‘If you are someone who reads’, writes Doug in the first paragraph of Jack’s Life, ‘then you have read something by C. S. Lewis.’ True.

Douglas Gresham (or ‘Doug’ as we’ll call him) was born in New York City in 1945. His parents divorced when he was young, and his mother had struck up a pen-pal correspondence with Lewis. The friendship deepened, and Joy and her sons, Douglas and David, moved to England in 1953. A few years after they married she died of cancer (1960), and Jack took over the guardianship of the boys until his own death in 1963 (on the same day as another famous ‘Jack’ was assassinated; Aldous Huxley also died that day – facts which creep into many preachers’ sermons!). So by the age of eighteen, Douglas was orphaned and on his own.

In the 1993 film Shadowlands, starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger, Doug is the little boy sitting on the steps with the bereaved and distraught C S Lewis after Joy’s death. (The stage play of Shadowlands depicted only Doug and not David. The brothers are not ‘close’, Doug says. David converted to Judaism and they went their separate ways, but correspond occasionally by email.) So of those still living who knew him best, Doug is the most qualified to inform us about this amazing man (he was much closer to his step-father than David was). The informal address Doug uses to refer to Lewis is indicative of the intimacy they shared for ten years.

Doug has chronicled the story of his childhood and youth with Joy and Jack in his 1988 autobiography Lenten Lands (publisher’s subtitle: ‘My childhood with Joy Davidman and C. S. Lewis’). I have a shelf-full of books about Lewis the academician, Lewis the lay-theologian, Lewis the prolific author/poet... but Lenten Lands is the only intimate account of the man ‘around-the-house’. It’s a very good read.

During the past five years Doug Gresham has been co-producing the recently-released film The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. So these days he’s a busy man. In the past couple of months his emails have emanated from all over the world as he ‘rides the speaker’s circuit’…

Now, to Jack’s Life. Doug of course is not a dispassionate observer: this memoir is not a ‘warts and all’ biography. It’s almost in the genre ‘hagiography’. He claims several times that ‘Jack’ was the finest man and the best Christian he has ever known. In the foreword Christopher Mitchell writes that ‘some readers will feel that the author has drawn an overly pious picture of Lewis. But one must remember that [he] believes that Lewis, indeed, was a saint, and a saint of the most real kind, not someone without flaws but rather one who aspired to overcome those flaws and in fact did so in many cases.’

In an interesting interview with the magazine Christianity Today Doug was asked ‘What were Jack's flaws, and which ones did he overcome and which ones did he take to his grave?’ Doug’s response: ‘Jack was very conscious of his own conceit. And of course, in humor, my mother would often rub it in too. But I think he overcame that… because he always came across as the most humble of men. And Jack was, at times, impatient and intolerant. But he overcame that also because no one would ever have known if they didn't live with him. He was never impatient or intolerant with me, but I could see he was struggling on occasions not to be… Jack was also enormously conscious of his own almost incredible intellectual gifts. And I think when he was an atheist, he was very proud of those gifts. But when he committed his life to Christ, he realized that our intellect is given to us by God. So I think he overcame that too. I don't really know of any major vice that Jack took to his grave.’ [1]

This book is not a theological/academic memoir: there’s hardly anything here of Lewis’s thinking (Doug recommends the biographies by George Sayer and Walter Hooper – but definitely not that ‘awful’ one by A N Wilson - for all that).

There are at least half a dozen strong indications of Doug’s overt faith, sometimes accompanied by his quaint phrase ‘the Holy Spirit of God’… There is some debate as to whether the Narnia stories (and now of course The Narnia movie) are to be viewed as ‘evangelistic’: Lewis simply interwove various mythical themes into these tales: Norse, Greek and other myths also have a dying-and-resurrected god. (But with Lewis’ Christian commitment so strongly pervading his thinking and writing, I’d personally put that opinion into the category ‘But that I can’t believe!’).

Doug occasionally ‘waxes lyrical’ (eg about springtime at Oxford, p 36), and offers quite a bit of detail about quarries, kilns, the lake (with its ‘grooblies’) and the layout and routines of Lewis' house 'The Kilns’. There are several graphic descriptions of life at the front in the trenches, with young men ‘living up to their necks in mud formed with the earth mixed with the blood of their former comrades, with rats as big as cats and lice everywhere…’.

I enjoyed this book immensely. We learn about a very human C S Lewis in Jack’s Life. The boy was mostly unhappy at school. He yearned for a more overt demonstration of his father’s love. Jack’s relationship with the somewhat neurotic Mrs Moore (the mother of his friend Paddy who was killed in the war) whom he cared for until her death, has produced a lot of speculation. Doug suggests Jack was really her personal slave to some extent. (They were probably not ‘lovers’, Doug has said at various times, though in this book he is more equivocal: ‘The truth is that nobody knows, and nobody ever will’ p 39).

If you wanted to be picky (I’m sure C S Lewis would have been!) bits of the story are repeated here and there, and we sometimes go back and forth chronologically. This was probably deliberate given the target-audience of children-of-all-ages! For this reason also we can forgive Doug for some very ‘English schoolboy’ words and phrases (‘beastly’, ‘horrid’, ‘dashingly dramatic’, ‘the dog… finally up and died’, ‘people are always "rabbiting on" about falling in love’, he ‘flipped out and went utterly bonkers’ etc. ).

Stylistically an editor should have been hired to correct the repetition of identical words or phrases too close to each other (eg. there are four ‘sents’ in 10 lines pp. 50-51). But then again, it’s written – conversationally – primarily for young people.

A more serious criticism is based on my own expectations as a writer of a publisher’s responsibilities. Broadman & Holman should have had it proof-read it thoroughly, to eliminate words which run into each other (‘fresh orwell preserved’ p 4; ‘boys alittle older’ p 27; the 10th line of p35 starts with hyphenated portion of a word ‘ure,for’ etc. etc.), some occasional redundancies (‘[She] made some immediate changes… almost straight away’) and some grammatical quirks (‘If he fit well, he would be invited back’ p 110).

All that said, I happen to like Doug’s non-stuffy conversational writing style.

The book is a gold-mine of interesting – and insightful - information about C S Lewis. This great teacher, as a lad, suffered ‘the worst school in England’ (p 13). He hated boarding school. His mother died when he was young. All the other characters are fascinating: the flawed, but loyal older brother Warnie; the dowdy and somewhat neurotic Mrs. Moore; Joy Davidman the intellectual and linguistic equal (according to Doug) and only love of Jack's life; Paxford, the gardener and handyman, who like Lewis was a World War I veteran, and who slept in his own small dwelling on the property; and of course the band of colleagues and friends known as the Inklings.

Two items in the ‘Did you know?’ category: C S Lewis never forgot anything he read (p 26). And (this I didn’t know): T S Eliot was a friend of Jack’s in spite of Lewis being openly critical of Eliot’s poetry.

The refrain through the whole story is simply that Jack put his Christian duty before any other consideration. I would recommend Lewis' own Surprised by Joy and George Sayer’s Jack: A Life of C S Lewis for more about all that. And for an in-depth book on Lewis's work, you can’t do better than read the magisterial C.S. Lewis : A Complete Guide to His Life & Works by Lewis scholar Walter Hooper.

In an interview somewhere Doug tells this story: ‘A guy approached Jack on the street one day and asked him if he could spare a few shillings. Jack immediately dove into his pocket and brought out all his change and handed it over to this beggar. The chap he was with - I think it was Tolkien - said, "Jack, you shouldn't have given that fellow all that money, he'll just spend it on drink." Jack said, "Well if I had kept it, I would have only spent it on drink".’

The book comes with a ‘Conversation with Douglas Gresham’ on DVD. .



[2] Jack’s Life p 26

Interviews with Doug Gresham:,,


Rowland Croucher

February 2006

1 comment:

Gavin White said...

Excellent Post on one of my favourite authors and thinkers - C.S Lewis has certainly provoked and inspired many people in their walk with God


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