Devin Brown, A Life Observed: A Spiritual Biography of C. S. Lewis. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2013, xiii + 241 pages, pbk., n.p.
Reviewed by Donald T. Williams, PhD
I have read a good handful of biographies of C. S. Lewis, and I have also read most of the primary materials from which they are constructed. It is therefore rather hard for a new one to hold my attention. Is it going to give the basic facts better than Green and Hooper, capture the individual personality better than Sayer, go over every detail more meticulously than McGrath, be more creative (er, perverse and tendentious) than Wilson? Fat chance. So if a new one is going to avoid having me nod off, it has to be well written, go over the familiar facts from a fresh perspective, and have some real insights. It’s a tall order. Devin Brown fills it admirably.
What enables him to do so? First, he knows his stuff but approaches the subject with admirable humility. “There is a kind of biography,” he notes, “that claims to understand Lewis’s life better than Lewis himself did” (54). Brown hasn’t written one. Second, he tells the story of Lewis’s life from a particular standpoint, that of his spiritual journey. So we have the autobiography of Surprised by Joy with its focus on Lewis’s conversion put into context and then extended to cover the rest of Lewis’s life after he met the Lord. Third, Brown relates the Christian books Lewis was writing at each period to that spiritual journey as the story of his life unfolds. Thus he is able also to give us a literary biography as well without departing from his stated purpose.
Finally, Brown’s approach as described above approach often yields fresh insights. For example, he notes that Lewis described the death of his mother as a loss of the happy security of his early childhood. The “great continent was gone,” and Lewis was now adrift in a sea of sorrow interrupted only by “islands” of happiness. “All security seemed to be taken from me; there was no solid ground beneath my feet” (45). Brown relates that passage from Surprised by Joy to the floating islands of Perelandra with its prohibition of sleeping on the fixed land. “Lewis would find a different kind of security. This security would not be the kind that put it in his power to command what would happen to him but the kind that required trust. Years after his mother’s death, Lewis would find a way to live with confidence in a world of sea and islands” (46). I must confess I had never connected those passages. I’m glad that now I have.
Too much of Lewis scholarship is just people paraphrasing Lewis’s brilliant language into their own mediocre prose. My usual reaction to it is that people would better spend their time reading Lewis instead. I am always delighted to discover an exception to that rule. Whether this is your first biography of Lewis or your nth, Devin Brown’s A Life Observed is that rare work of Lewis scholarship that is actually worth reading.
Dr. Donald T. Williams, R. A. Forrest Scholar and Professor of English at Toccoa Falls College, is the author of ten books, three with Lantern Hollow Press: Stars Through the Clouds: The Collected Poetry of Donald T. Williams (2011), Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (2012), and Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters (2012). They can be ordered ($15.00 each, + shipping) at http://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/. And don’t miss his latest work, Deeper Magic: The Theology behind the Writings of C. S. Lewis (Baltimore: Square Halo Books, 2016). To order that one ($16.99 + shipping), go to www.squarehalobooks.com.