Archives For Conversion

The Artistry of Nature

September 1, 2016 — 5 Comments

flamingoes
This picture of flamingos is delightful. That they “randomly” arranged themselves into a silhouette of themselves is amazing. Or, perhaps a divine hand painted this glorious portrait?

“What a fanciful thought,” poets muse.

“How absurd!” atheists groan.

“Is he serious?” realists wonder.

“Now that’s something to ponder…” people of faith think.

“Of course God has fashioned nature’s beauties with his hands,” the eremite smiles.

I happen to believe God was speaking literally when he said through the Psalmist:

For every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills. I know all the birds of the hills, and all that moves in the field is mine (Psalm 50).

It was on the fifth day of creation that the Lord spoke into existence for the first time “every winged bird according to its kind.”

And God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth” (Genesis 1:22).

And, to reveal God’s concern for the creatures he has made did not end with their genesis, allow me one more biblical citation . . . a familiar one. In reminding us of how precious we are to our Father, Jesus describes that God’s concern extends even to the least of his creation.

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father (Matthew 10:29).

C.S. Lewis touches on the preciousness of creation in a 1956 letter to one of his regular correspondents.

I think God wants us to love Him more, not to love creatures (even animals) less. We love everything in one way too much (i.e. at the expense of our love for Him) but in another way we love everything too little. No person, animal, flower, or even pebble, has ever been loved too much—i.e. more than every one of God’s works deserves (Letters to an American Lady).

Now, does God’s concern for his creatures, in this case flamingoes, mean that he takes the time to direct their flight, their nesting, and the shape of their earthly “congregations?” Of course not. But even in saying that, it is wise to note that if he chose to do so, he could. And there are, of course, some scriptural examples of his using animals in specific ways.

It’s possible, and even likely, that this was a mere coincidence. Like the clouds whose shapes sometimes mirror actual things, even in minute detail. While there are rather odd people who believe cloud shapes can foretell the future, I don’t believe there are any Christians who would base their decisions upon the physical arrangements of a flock, colony, gaggle, or flamboyance (with is fancy name for a group of flamingos).

That said, I still believe that the divine Artist is not above occasionally enjoying some playfulness with the tapestry he has fashioned here on earth, and in the heavens.

Lewis & Flamingos

On 12 July 1956, C.S. Lewis attended a garden party at Buckingham Palace hosted by Queen Elizabeth II. Below you will find excerpts from two letters mentioning the subject. They were written to Ruth Pitter (1897-1992), a well-regarded poet with whom Lewis enjoyed a strong friendship.

Lewis wondered if she might be attending the same event, and suggested they might accompany one another, if so. Less than a week later, following the event, he shares with her his delightful observations of the teeming gathering.

Dear Ruth

Do you play croquet with the Queen on Thursday? (Croquet is not mentioned in the invitation but I am well-read enough to know that a royal garden party will involve hedgehogs, flamingos, soldiers, Heads-man, and the grin of a Cheshire cat). If so are you coming via Oxford? I was thinking of going up by 1.58 and returning by the 6.45 or 7.35 on either of which we could dine. You are an experienced courtier and it would give me great moral support to arrive in your company!

Apparently Pitter was not in attendance at this particular outing, also she had been the first woman to receive the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry the previous year. Two decades later the Queen would appoint her a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for her contributions to English literature. Two days after the extravaganza, Lewis wrote again.

Dear Ruth

You were well out of it. I learn from the papers that I was one of 8000 guests and also that the Queen was present, a fact of which I had no evidence from my own experience. One could not even get a cup of tea for the crowd round the refreshment tables was reminiscent of Liverpool Street station on an August bank holiday. Most people didn’t know one another. One saw many married couples pathetically keeping up between themselves a dialogue which was obviously wearing very thin. If I hadn’t run across Archbishop Matthew I’d have been in a vast solitude.

There are flamingoes: metal silhouettes of them round the lake—a tasteful device which we perhaps owe to Prince Albert. In a word, it was simply ghastly. Two pints at the little pub on Praed St. were necessary afterwards.

A Postscript on Pitter

Ruth Pitter was a talented poet, but because she was a traditionalist—something quite agreeable to Lewis—she has not been accorded the respect she merits. One scholar who published her letters in 2014 writes:

Pitter, in contrast to T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and W.H. Auden, is a traditional poet in the line of George Herbert, Thomas Treharne, Thomas Hardy, A.E. Housman, W.B. Yeats, and Philip Larkin. Unlike the modernists, she rarely experiments with meter or verse form, nor does she explore modernist themes or offer critiques of modern English society.

Instead, she works with familiar meters and verse forms, and her reluctance to alter her voice to follow in the modernist line explains in part why critics have overlooked her poetry. She is not trendy, avant-garde, nor, thankfully, impenetrable.

As mentioned above, their friendship was deep. Lewis’ friend George Sayer says Lewis once volunteered that if he had not been a confirmed bachelor, Pitter was just the sort of woman to whom he could be happily married.

They influenced one another professionally, sharing poetic advice and critique. Pitter also attributed her spiritual reawakening, her conversion to Christianity, to Lewis’ influence. In 1948 she wrote to a friend:

Did I tell you I’d taken to Christianity? Yes, I went & got confirmed a year ago or more. I was driven to it by the pull of C. S. Lewis and the push of misery. Straight prayer book Anglican, nothing fancy . . . I realize what a tremendous thing it is to take on, but I can’t imagine turning back. It cancels a great many of one’s miseries at once, of course: but it brings great liabilities, too.

In 1985 she wrote to a correspondent about the same subject.

As to my faith, I owe it to C. S. Lewis. For much of my life I lived more or less as a Bohemian, but when the second war broke out, Lewis broadcast several times, and also published some little books (notably The Screwtape Letters), and I was fairly hooked. I came to know him personally, and he came here several times. Lewis’s stories, so very entertaining but always about the war between good and evil, became a permanent part of my mental and spiritual equipment.

Since we have been introduced to this unique woman now, it’s fitting to close with one of her poems. A poem inspired by another of the avian wonders created by our artistic God.

stormcock

Stormcock in Elder

In my dark hermitage, aloof

From the world’s sight and the world’s sound,

By the small door where the old roof

Hangs but five feet above the ground,

I groped along the shelf for bread

But found celestial food instead:

For suddenly close at my ear,

Loud, loud and wild, with wintry glee,

The old unfailing chorister

Burst out in pride of poetry;

And through the broken roof I spied

Him by his singing glorified.

Scarcely an arm’s-length from the eye,

Myself unseen, I saw him there;

The throbbing throat that made the cry,

The breast dewed from the misty air,

The polished bill that opened wide

And showed the pointed tongue inside;

The large eye, ringed with many a ray

Of minion feathers, finely laid,

The feet that grasped the elder-spray;

How strongly used, how subtly made

The scale, the sinew, and the claw,

Plain through the broken roof I saw;

The flight-feathers in tail and wing,

The shorter coverts, and the white

Merged into russet, marrying

The bright breast to the pinions bright,

Gold sequins, spots of chestnut, shower

Of silver, like a brindled flower.

Soldier of fortune, northwest Jack,

Old hard-times’ braggart, there you blow

But tell me ere your bagpipes crack

How you can make so brave a show,

Full-fed in February, and dressed

Like a rich merchant at a feast.

One-half the world, or so they say,

Knows not how half the world may live;

So sing your song and go your way,

And still in February contrive

As bright as Gabriel to smile

On elder-spray by broken tile.

_____

The Bible verses quotes above are taken from the ESV, the English Standard Version.

The “stormcock” in whose humble honor Pitter dedicates this poem is also called the Mistle Thrush. Its informal nickname arises from its eagerness to sing its songs in every sort of weather.

barthOne wonders what sort of fireworks might have erupted if J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis had spent an evening with theologian Karl Barth. Although their lives overlapped, and all three were Christian academics, it is questionable how much they would have agreed upon.

And yet, there were several subjects where I think they would have enjoyed firm consensus.

Tolkien (1892-1973) was a devout Roman Catholic. Lewis (1898-1963) was a committed “low church” Anglican. Barth (1886-1968) was a Reformed theologian who rejected the liberalism that had become dominant in European academies. All three thus believed in the reality of the Christian gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ.

All three men hated war, and the two Brits had served in the trenches of WWI. All opposed Nazism and Barth was the primary author of the Barmen Declaration which challenged the Christian faith of all who supported the Nazi government.

And we’ll consider another shared attribute in just a moment.

First, though, we need to acknowledge that presumably the Inklings never met the Swiss clergyman. Their circles did not overlap. I have not been able to uncover any evidence of Tolkien referring to Barth, or of Barth mentioning either of the Inklings.

Lewis did, however mention Barth in his prolific correspondence. From his exposure to Barth it’s clear he did not share the opinion of Pope Pius XII that he was “the greatest theologian since Thomas Aquinas.” Heady praise . . . especially coming from a Roman Catholic.

In a 1940 letter to his brother Warren, Lewis reacted against what he perceived as legalism in some quarters of Protestantism that was alien to his understanding of the liberty of the Christian.

I am afraid the truth is . . . that the world, as it is now becoming and has partly become, is simply too much for people of the old square-rigged type like you and me. I don’t understand its economics, or its politics, or . . . Even its theology—for that is a most distressing discovery I have been making these last two terms as I have been getting to know more and more of the Christian element in Oxford.

Did you fondly believe—as I did—that where you got among Christians, there, at least, you would escape (as behind a wall from a keen wind) from the horrible ferocity and grimness of modern thought.

Not a bit of it. I blundered into it all, imagining that I was the upholder of the old, stern doctrines against modern quasi-Christian slush: only to find that my ‘sternness’ was their ‘slush.’ They’ve all been reading a dreadful man called Karl Barth, who seems the right opposite number to Karl Marx. ‘Under judgment’ is their great expression.

They all talk like Covenanters or Old Testament prophets. They don’t think human reason or human conscience of any value at all: they maintain, as stoutly as Calvin, that there’s no reason why God’s dealings should appear just (let alone, merciful) to us: and they maintain the doctrine that all our righteousness is filthy rags with a fierceness and sincerity which is like a blow in the face.

Sometimes the results are refreshing: as when Canon Raven (whom you and Dyson and I sat under at Ely) is sharply told in a review in Theology that ‘it is high time persons of this sort learned that the enjoyment of a chair of theology at Cambridge does not carry with it a right to criticise the Word of God’—that’s the kind of rap on the knuckles which has not been delivered for a hundred years!

Comparing Their Thoughts on the Nature of Myth

Many readers of Mere Inkling will know Tolkien and Lewis were deeply influenced by the significance of myth. They were also, in the creation of Middle Earth and Narnia, active in the act of mythopoeia, creating imaginary lands whose stories convey profound meaning.

But, despite the fact their literary products are fictional, that does not mean that all myth is “untrue,” in the sense of being unhistorical. Myth, for these great thinkers, is something far more complex and wonderful.

Without going into depth on this involved subject, I offer here the familiar story of how Lewis’ epiphany about true myth was key to his conversion.

I was by now too experienced in literary criticism to regard the Gospels as myths. They had not the mythical taste. And yet the very matter which they set down in their artless, historical fashion . . . was precisely the matter of the great myths. If ever a myth had become fact, had been incarnated, it would be just like this. And nothing else in all literature was just like this.

Myths were like it in one way. Histories were like it in another. But nothing was simply like it.

And no person was like the Person it depicted; as real, as recognizable, through all that depth of time, as Plato’s Socrates . . . yet also numinous, lit by a light from beyond the world, a god.

But if a god—we are no longer polytheists—then not a god, but God. Here and here only in all time the myth must have become fact; the Word, flesh; God, Man. This is not “a religion,” nor “a philosophy.” It is the summing up and actuality of them all. (Surprised by Joy)

This epiphany took place in 1931, during an all-night discussion (it lasted until 4:00 am) with Tolkien, and other Inkling, Hugo Dyson. Here’s how Lewis related the moment to his lifelong friend, Arthur Greeves.

It was really a memorable talk. We began (in Addison’s walk just after dinner) on metaphor and myth–interrupted by a rush of wind which came so suddenly on the still, warm evening and sent so many leaves pattering down that we thought it was raining.

We all held our breath, the other two appreciating the ecstasy of such a thing almost as you would. We continued (in my room) on Christianity: a good long satisfying talk in which I learned a lot . . .

A month later he elaborated on how the insights gained that evening were gestating in his mind and heart.

Now what Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: again, that if I met the idea of a god sacrificing himself to himself (cf. the quotation opposite the title page of Dymer) I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it: again, that the idea of the dying and reviving god (Balder, Adonis, Bacchus) similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels.

The reason was that in Pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even tho’ I could not say in cold prose ‘what it meant.’

Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths: i.e. the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things.’

Therefore it is true, not in the sense of being a ‘description’ of God (that no finite mind could take in) but in the sense of being the way in which God chooses to (or can) appear to our faculties. The ‘doctrines’ we get out of the true myth are of course less true: they are translations into our concepts and ideas of that which God has already expressed in a language more adequate, namely the actual incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection.

Does this amount to a belief in Christianity? At any rate I am now certain (a) That this Christian story is to be approached, in a sense, as I approach the other myths. (b) That it is the most important and full of meaning. I am also nearly certain that it really happened.

In a different setting, Barth argued for the very same truth. His context was a theological environment greatly influenced by the liberal doctrines of Rudolf Bultmann, who dismissively regarded anything miraculous in the Scriptures as primitive and ignorant thinking.

The Christian Church confesses that [what the world calls] “myth” is history itself. She recognizes herself by this myth, she recognizes her life, her true reality. She is the witness of witnesses, she recognizes through the Holy Spirit that this is the one really interesting story.

Then she turns back the historians’ weapon: She says to them: What you call “myth,” that is history! She will also add: What you call history, that is a myth! A myth, a made-up history, that fancies the fate of man as depending on his earthly vicissitudes, a myth, a made-up history, that confuses the immediate success of a cause with its truth, and so on.

The only true history is the history of Christ, in which the Church participates, and which is already the secret reality of all history, since it is history itself. (The Faith of the Church)

Now, there’s an argument the Inklings could truly have appreciated.

A Bonus, for Fans of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Barth was not the only Christian seminary professor who rejected the heresies of Bultmann, who sought to “demythologize” the Scriptures. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a fellow German, repudiated Bultmann’s rejection of the supernatural in God’s Word. In a recent book, Taking Hold of the Real, Barry Harvey writes:

In a prison letter [Bonhoeffer] criticizes Rudolf Bultmann for excising the “mythological” elements in an attempt to reduce Christianity to its “essence.” “My view,” he writes, “is that the full content, including the ‘mythological’ concepts, must remain—the New Testament is not a mythological dressing up of a universal truth, but this mythology (resurrection and so forth) is the thing itself.”

Bonhoeffer thus acknowledges that describing a way of seeing the world as mythic thus does not summarily dismiss it either as deceptive or as an archaic and feeble attempt at doing “science.” Indeed, a truthful description of the world and especially of human existence ultimately requires mythic form.

The tales that women and men have fashioned and passed down through the centuries to discern the overall sense and significance of their existence are “never just ‘lies,’” says Tolkien, as “there is always something of the truth in them.”

The Nones Have It

June 1, 2016 — 23 Comments

noneThe arrival of the “post-Christian” Western world is ahead of schedule. Great Britain just passed the point where those with “no religious preference” actually outnumber those who profess to be Christians.

With Europe leading the way, can North America be far behind?

You know what makes this even more shocking? The results come from a survey where all the people claiming to be disciples of Jesus needed to do, was simply check a box. One wonders how many among that 48% would still claim to be Christians if they lived in Iraq.

Ponder for a moment the sobering title of an article in London’s The Spectator.

“Britain Really is Ceasing to be a Christian Country.”

The secularization of the United Kingdom was a matter of great concern to C.S. Lewis. And this erosion was well underway during his lifetime.

The truth is that although Lewis excelled as a Christian apologist (defender of the faith), it was not a role he coveted. He much preferred to write speculative fiction, literary criticism and devotional works.

Yet, because the need to reach people with the simple truth of the Gospel had grown so dire, Lewis felt forced to offer a persuasive rationale for belief. Consider the following description of his self-understanding. These words were written in response to a public attack of his work by a theologian. The final sentence bears directly on the subject of this column.

When I began, Christianity came before the great mass of my unbelieving fellow-countrymen either in the highly emotional form offered by revivalists or in the unintelligible language of highly cultured clergymen.

Most men were reached by neither. My task was therefore simply that of a translator—one turning Christian doctrine, or what he believed to be such, into the vernacular, into language that unscholarly people would attend to and could understand. For this purpose a style more guarded, more nuance, finelier shaded, more rich in fruitful ambiguities . . . would have been worse than useless. It would not only have failed to enlighten the common reader’s understanding; it would have aroused his suspicion. He would have thought, poor soul, that I was facing both ways, sitting on the fence, offering at one moment what I withdrew the next, and generally trying to trick him.

I may have made theological errors. My manner may have been defective. Others may do better hereafter. I am ready, if I am young enough, to learn. Dr. Pittenger would be a more helpful critic if he advised a cure as well as asserting many diseases. How does he himself do such work? What methods, and with what success, does he employ when he is trying to convert the great mass of storekeepers, lawyers, realtors, morticians, policemen and artisans who surround him in his own city? One thing at least is sure.

If the real theologians had tackled this laborious work of translation about a hundred years ago, when they began to lose touch with the people (for whom Christ died), there would have been no place for me. (“Rejoinder to Dr. Pittenger”)

It is the duty of each generation of Christians to share the faith with their neighbors. Likewise, it is the responsibility of each new generation of clergy to teach faithfully . . . and to live a God-pleasing life.

Whenever we fail to tackle the “laborious work of translation,” God is able to raise up another to do it. Still, men and women of the caliber of C.S. Lewis are few and far between.

May God have mercy on Britain, America, and all of those lands where we have taken for granted the heritage of faith bequeathed to us.

_____

If this subject interests you in the least, take a moment to read “Having Pity on Pittenger.” Anglican priest Dwight Longenecker describes a chance encounter with Dr. Pittenger decades after Lewis’ death.

I was alerted to this news account by Gene Veith’s fine blog, Cranach. The good doctor does an outstanding job of bringing newsworthy stories to the attention of those interested in Church and State relations.

csl & chesterton

Sadly, politics are by definition nearly always polarizing. In the linguistic battleground of political warfare, we seem to more and more frequently encounter a “take no prisoners” attitude. It’s ominous.

I recently read the following words which describe, quite well I think, the positions of the two main rivals in virtually all political campaigns. (And, in this sentence, I’m referring to the military definition of “campaign.”)

“The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.”

Some things never change. This cutting critique appeared nearly a century ago (in the 19 April 1924 issue of the Illustrated London News). It was penned by G.K. Chesterton, a British writer who was admired by many of his contemporaries, from a number of different perspectives. George Bernard Shaw, a Socialist, considered the conservative journalist a “man of colossal genius.”

Chesterton was one of the Christian writers whose faith made a significant impression on the unbelieving C.S. Lewis. Before encountering Jesus, the atheist Lewis resented the “intrusions” of Christian references into the writings of authors he otherwise enjoyed. He describes this conundrum delightfully in Surprised by Joy.

All the books were beginning to turn against me. Indeed, I must have been as blind as a bat not to have seen, long before, the ludicrous contradiction between my theory of life and my actual experiences as a reader. George MacDonald had done more to me than any other writer; of course it was a pity he had that bee in his bonnet about Christianity. He was good in spite of it.

Chesterton had more sense than all the other moderns put together; bating, of course, his Christianity. Johnson was one of the few authors whom I felt I could trust utterly; curiously enough, he had the same kink. Spenser and Milton by a strange coincidence had it too.

Even among ancient authors the same paradox was to be found. The most religious (Plato, Aeschylus, Virgil) were clearly those on whom I could really feed.

On the other hand, those writers who did not suffer from religion and with whom in theory my sympathy ought to have been complete—Shaw and Wells and Mill and Gibbon and Voltaire—all seemed a little thin; what as boys we called “tinny.” It wasn’t that I didn’t like them. They were all (especially Gibbon) entertaining; but hardly more. There seemed to be no depth in them. They were too simple. The roughness and density of life did not appear in their books. . . .

The upshot of it all could nearly be expressed in a perversion of Roland’s great line in the Chanson—Christians are wrong, but all the rest are bores. The natural step would have been to inquire a little more closely whether the Christians were, after all, wrong.

And C.S. Lewis, to his eternal joy, did just that. He inquired more deeply into the faith held by the writers he so respected. This included, of course, Chesterton. Echoes of Chesterton’s masterful expressions of Christian faith recur in the work of Lewis. For example, in his essay “Membership,” Lewis writes:

Equality is a quantitative term and therefore love often knows nothing of it. . . . Even in the life of the affections, much more in the body of Christ, we step outside that world which says “I am as good as you.” . . . We become, as Chesterton said, taller when we bow; we become lowlier when we instruct.

Similarly, in A Preface to Paradise Lost, Lewis describes how best to savor the historical work of writers from different eras. Although the reference to Chesterton here is given in passing, I will reproduce the larger passage in light of its insight into how best to benefit from what we read.

The things which separate one age from another are superficial. Just as, if we stripped the armour off a medieval knight or the lace off a Caroline courtier, we should find beneath them an anatomy identical with our own, so, it is held, if we strip off from Virgil his Roman imperialism, from Sidney his code of honour, from Lucretius his Epicurean philosophy, and from all who have it their religion, we shall find the Unchanging Human Heart, and on this we are to concentrate.

I held this theory myself for many years, but I have now abandoned it. I continue, of course, to admit that if you remove from people the things that make them different, what is left must be the same, and that the Human Heart will certainly appear as Unchanging if you ignore its changes. . . .

Instead of stripping the knight of his armour you can try to put his armour on yourself; instead of seeing how the courtier would look without his lace, you can try to see how you would feel with his lace; that is, with his honour, his wit, his royalism, and his gallantries out of the Grand Cyrus. I had much rather know what I should feel like if I adopted the beliefs of Lucretius than how Lucretius would have felt if he had never entertained them. The possible Lucretius in myself interests me more than the possible C.S. Lewis in Lucretius.

There is in G.K. Chesterton’s Avowals and Denials a wholly admirable essay called “On Man: Heir of All the Ages.” An heir is one who inherits and “any man who is cut off from the past . . . is a man most unjustly disinherited.” . . .

You must, so far as in you lies, become an Achaean chief while reading Homer, a medieval knight while reading Malory, and an eighteenth century Londoner while reading Johnson. Only thus will you be able to judge the work “in the same spirit that its author writ” and to avoid chimerical criticism.

G.K. Chesterton is well worth reading, and most fans of Lewis will appreciate his prodigious work. The best thing about Chesterton, is that since he entered the presence of his Lord in 1936, nearly everything he wrote is in the public domain. His essays, poetry, apologetic works—and even the tales of his fictional detective Father Brown—are readily accessible online.

For a friendly introduction to the relationship between Lewis and Chesterton, I recommend “Chesterton and Lewis, Side by Side.” In an issue devoted entirely to comparing the two pillars of Twentieth Century Christian apologetics, the St. Austin Review, we read:

In 1946, ten years after Chesterton died, Lewis wrote a short article defending Chesterton against the two charges with which he is still attacked—or dismissed—by most academicians: one, that he was popular, and two, that he was dated. Of course, Lewis is attacked for the same two reasons.

The entire article is available here. Those interested in one of the areas where Chesterton’s writing overlapped with that of Lewis and his good friend, J.R.R. Tolkien, will also enjoy “G.K. Chesterton: Fairy Tale Philosopher,” which is available here.

Jews Following Jesus

March 4, 2014 — 9 Comments

interfaithJewish poetry is breathtaking. The Psalms have nourished people of faith, as well as secularists, for millennia. C.S. Lewis wrote this about the providence of God in using the Jewish people as his conduit for blessing the world.

My enjoyment of the Psalms has been greatly increased lately. The point has been made before, but let me make it again: what an admirable thing it is in the divine economy that the sacred literature of the world should have been entrusted to a people whose poetry, depending largely on parallelism, should remain poetry in any language you translate it into.

He alluded to this in a letter to Sister Penelope, an Anglican nun and writer. In 1941 she sent him a copy of her new book, Windows on Jerusalem: A Study in the Mystery of Redemption. Lewis responded with gratitude. (Contemporary authors will find the detail of Lewis’ informal critique of her book illustrative of what he brought to the meetings of the Inklings.)

Thank you very much for the book. It has given me real help. What I particularly enjoy in all your work, specially this, is the avoidance of that curious drabness which characterises so many ‘little books on religion.’ Partly it is due to your Hebraic background which I envy you: partly, no doubt, to deeper causes.

Things that particularly pleased me were the true meanings of Beloved (p. 8) and Son (p. 9), the whole account of the Transfiguration (pp. 16 et seq), the passage on Sacrifice (p. 32), the passage ‘This was a shock’ (on p. 35), on our inability to understand sin (41 and 47), the very important bit about Hebrew & Roman ideas of ransom (52, 53): the really splendid account of how God can’t help deceiving the devil (56) and the allegorical close. There are, in fact, a good many Gifford Lectures and other such weighty tomes out of which I’ve got less meat (and indeed less efficient cookery!).

Judaism & Christianity

Jews and Christians have a complex relationship. This is even more true for Jewish people who come to accept Jesus as the promised Messiah. For most Jews, this automatically results in their expulsion from the Jewish community. However, for a growing number, there is a more gracious attitude developing.

A recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center revealed some interesting statistics. Note the percentage of United States Jews considering the following to be essential:

Remembering the Holocaust – 73%

Leading an Ethical & Moral Life – 69%

Caring about Israel – 43%

Having a Good Sense of Humor – 42%

Observing Jewish Law – 19%

Here is the most surprising part of the survey. Thirty-four percent of American Jews consider believing Jesus is the Messiah, is compatible with being Jewish.

Let me repeat that . . . 34% of Jews in the United States (35% of the ultra-Orthodox Jews) believe that “Messianic Jews” remain Jewish.

I find that amazing. I also find it encouraging, since it’s consistent with the understanding of the Jews in first century Judea who worshipped beside the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem until its fall.

Some years ago I heard a lecture by a prominent Jewish theologian who described how historical Judaism rarely rejected those who considered any particular rabbi to be the Messiah. Apparently this remains true today, as some modern Jews, for example, consider  Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994) to be the Messiah.

Returning to the case of Jesus of Nazareth, the improving attitude is encouraging to see. In part, because most Messianic Jews say accepting Jesus as the Messiah has made them more Jewish. By that, most mean that they now practice the traditions of their Jewish heritage more faithfully than they previously did.

Following his conversion, C.S. Lewis grew in his positive consideration of the Jewish faith and people. In 1933, as Hitler’s hatred for Judaism became more evident, he wrote in a letter:

I might agree that the Allies are partly to blame, but nothing can fully excuse the iniquity of Hitler’s persecution of the Jews, or the absurdity of his theoretical position. Did you see that he said “The Jews have made no contribution to human culture and in crushing them I am doing the will of the Lord.”

Now as the whole idea of the “Will of the Lord” is precisely what the world owes to the Jews, the blaspheming tyrant has just fixed his absurdity for all to see in a single sentence, and shown that he is as contemptible for his stupidity as he is detestable for his cruelty. For the German people as a whole we ought to have charity: but for dictators, “Nordic” tyrants and so on . . .

All of the civilized people of the world share Lewis’ revulsion with Hitler and his agenda. In that we definitely agree with the vast majority of Jews who regard “Remembering the Holocaust” as something essential.

Postscript:

As positive a sign as the 34% support of Messianic Jews remaining Jewish is, the survey includes a more sobering corollary. Exactly twice that number, 68%, agreed that you can remain Jewish even if you don’t believe in the existence of God. Shocking. But that’s a subject for another day.

csl and kingAuthor Stephen King surprised quite a few fans during a recent PBS interview when he expressed his belief in the universe’s intelligent design. In nature and the cosmos, like theist C.S. Lewis before him, he views a creation so complex and wondrous that he thinks it makes more sense to believe in a divine power than to dismiss faith.

During the interview, King said,

I choose to believe it, yeah. I think that . . . there’s no downside to that, and the downside—if you say, well, OK, I don’t believe in God, there’s no evidence of God—then you’re missing the stars in the sky, and you’re missing the sunrises and sunsets, and you’re missing the fact that bees pollinate all these crops and keep us alive and the way that everything seems to work together at the same time.

In an essay, “Christianity and Culture,” C.S. Lewis alludes to the “Theist” phase of his own life. He points out how limiting a faith that recognizes God only abstractly, in his handiwork, can be.

There is an easy transition from Theism to Pantheism; but there is also a blessed transition in the other direction. For some souls I believe, for my own I remember, Wordsworthian contemplation can be the first and lowest form of recognition that there is something outside ourselves which demands reverence.

To return to Pantheistic errors about the nature of this something would, for a Christian, be very bad. But once again, for “the man coming up from below” the Wordsworthian experience is an advance. Even if he goes no further he has escaped the worst arrogance of materialism: if he goes on he will be converted.

King is, of course, far from what one would properly call a “person of faith.”** Still, it may be that he is presently moving in a positive direction. The following words reveal his yearning for hope, criticism of institutional religion, and his as yet unanswered questions about why God allows suffering in our world.

It’s certainly a subject that’s interested me, and I think it interests me more the older that I get. And I think we’d all like to believe that after we shuffle off this mortal coil, that there’s going to be something on the other side because for most of us, I know for me, life is so rich, so colorful and sensual and full of good things, things to read, things to eat, things to watch, places to go, new experiences, that I don’t want to think that you just go to darkness. . . .

But as far as God and church and religion and . . . that sort of thing, I kind of always felt that organized religion was just basically a theological insurance scam where they’re saying if you spend time with us, guess what, you’re going to live forever, you’re going to go to some other plain where you’re going to be so happy, you’ll just be happy all the time, which is also kind of a scary idea to me. . . .

Everything is sort of built in a way that to me suggests intelligent design. But at the same time there’s a lot of things in life where you say to yourself, well, if this is God’s plan, it’s very peculiar. And you have to wonder about that guy’s personality, the big guy’s personality. . . . What I’m saying now is I choose to believe in God, but I have serious doubts.

For many intelligent people, like C.S. Lewis and Stephen King, coming to faith cannot be severed from their reason. They desire to make sense of the world. Some, sadly, determine that human beings perish forever with their final breath. With that worldview, using King’s words, “you just go to darkness.”

Fortunately many others—brilliant and simple people alike, for God shows no partiality—possess true wisdom and heed the words of Jesus, that he is the way, the truth and the life. Both of these writers experienced an ineffective exposure to the church when they were young. Unfortunately, it served as more of an inoculation than a foundation.

Eventually C.S. Lewis followed that path from theism to Christianity. It’s not impossible that Stephen King may, as well.

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* A full transcript of the PBS interview is available here.

** In the interview, King “commends” the entertainment value of enthusiastic, emotionally-charged preaching, while disparaging his own mainline upbringing.

I went to a Methodist church for years as a kid, and Methodist youth fellowship on Thursday nights, and it was all pretty – you know, think of a bottle of soda with the cap off for 24 hours. There weren’t very many bubbles left in that stuff by then. It was pretty – it was Yankee religion, Terry, and there’s really not much in the world that’s any more boring than that. They tell you that you’re going to go to hell, and you’re half-asleep.

Seeking the Living

March 31, 2013 — 9 Comments

tombOne of the readings at our celebration of the Resurrection, this Easter morning, came from the Gospel according to Saint Luke. It included the powerful words of the angels waiting beside the empty tomb. To Mary Magdalene and the other women who had arrived to complete the ceremonial preparations for Jesus’ burial, they said: “Why do you seek the living among the dead?”

That’s precisely what separates Christianity from every other religious faith; for two millennia, Jesus’ disciples have followed a resurrected and living Lord.

This is what non-Christians are ultimately unable to fathom. Christianity is far more than the adoption of a particular lifestyle. It is infinitely more than a cognitive acquiescence a set of doctrines. It is nothing less than a dynamic, living relationship with our Creator through his only begotten Son.

Many regard Jesus as a great teacher from an ancient epoch—whose words are worthy of preserving. This is a good thing . . . but it’s not Christianity.

Many consider Jesus the model of a noble life—and strive to emulate his compassion and humility. This too is a good thing . . . but it’s not Christianity.

Many regard Jesus as an object of superstition—and they spout religious jargon while living hypocritical lives utterly devoted to their carnal appetites. This is not a good thing . . . and it’s most certainly not Christianity.

C.S. Lewis refers to this inherent inability to “persuade” an unbeliever to see beyond Christianity as a creedal profession or even a simple lifestyle and comprehend it as a relationship.

Our opponents, then, have a perfect right to dispute with us about the grounds of our original assent. But they must not accuse us of sheer insanity if, after the assent has been given, our adherence to it is no longer proportioned to every fluctuation of the apparent evidence. They cannot of course be expected to know on what assurance feeds, and how it revives and is always rising from its ashes.

They cannot be expected to see how the quality of the object which we think we are beginning to know by acquaintance drives us to the view that if this were a delusion then we should have to say that the universe had produced no real thing of comparable value and that all explanations of the delusion seemed somehow less important than the thing explained.

That is knowledge we cannot communicate. But they can see how the assent, of necessity, moves us from the logic of speculative thought into what might perhaps be called the logic of personal relations. What would, up till then, have been variations simply of opinion become variations of conduct by a person to a Person. Credere Deum esse turns into Credere in Deum. And Deum here is this God, the increasingly knowable Lord. (C.S. Lewis, “On Obstinacy in Belief”).

Ultimately, inviting others to share the joy and peace that we disciples of Jesus know—undeserving as all of us are—is not about persuasion. It is about introducing them to Jesus.

It’s about echoing the words of the angels in that Judean cemetery. “Don’t seek Jesus among the dead. He is risen and living, and he offers eternal life to all who call upon his name.”