Archives For Evangelicals

An Evolutionary Fluke

January 11, 2022 — 18 Comments

Did trees evolve from apes? An odd question, to be sure, but one humorously posed by C.S. Lewis in a letter to his father.

While this column does discuss the theory of evolution, it’s not doctrinaire. So, whatever your opinion of Darwin’s notions, read on, and you may enjoy a pleasant surprise.

C.S. Lewis, the brilliant Christian apologist was not an ironclad “evangelical” in the American sense of the word. Here in the U.S., that typically requires adherence to a handful of doctrines, usually including the affirmation of the infallibility of the Scriptural autographs and of the creation of humanity in the persons of our first parents, Adam and Eve.

As important as these matters are, very few Christians would deem them salvific, in the sense that people holding less “vigorous” views on these issues will be excluded from heaven.

C.S. Lewis was one of those who focused on the core of the Christian faith, rather than secondary doctrines. He referred to this as “mere Christianity,” and it was based on a trusting relationship with God through the Person of Jesus, God present with us in the Incarnate Word.

As for doctrines per se, like all good defenders of the faith, C.S. Lewis preferred not to get bogged down with secondary matters. This is consistent with the spirit of Paul’s advice to the young pastor, Timothy.

Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers. . . . Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone . . . (2 Timothy 2:14, 23-24).

Lewis’ 1927 Evolutionary Conversation

In March of 1927, C.S. Lewis wrote one of his eclectic letters to his father in Northern Ireland. As usual, he commented on his father’s previous correspondence and shared about his current health and activities. While his relationship with his father grew strained after his mother’s untimely death while he was still a child, Lewis’ letters to his father exude familial respect framed in the context of early twentieth century British sensibilities.

That said, Lewis was always eager to share curious or silly experiences he knew would amuse his solicitor father. He takes a humorous approach, for instance, to advising his father to consult a more skilled doctor to diagnose an ailment, rather than suffering with the incomplete work of the physician he has always known, he will simply be “offer[ing] up several months of pain as a sacrifice on the altar of an old acquaintance.”

At the same time, he acknowledges his personal inclination toward doing the same, stating that “if I lived at home [I] would continue to use Gillespie all my life.” Gillespie, it turns out, ran a taxi service long favored by the family despite his bumpy transportation. “I have never regretted Gillespie and his hexagonal wheel,” Lewis shares.

He returns to his argument, however, by saying his father’s health demands the attention of a competent physician rather than relying on past ties. He concludes with an illustration based on his own brother. “Hang it all, even you wouldn’t suggest that because I’ve known Warnie a long time I ought to trust him as an interpreter on a holiday in Spain.”

C.S. Lewis proceeds to share with his father current events at Magdalen College (“we are putting up a new building”) and a recent nightmare (“it was the sense of being on the moon . . . the complete desolateness, which gave the extraordinary effect”).

The letter includes other fascinating elements, but it is time now to consider the reference to evolution.

An Absurd Age

I absolutely love the way C.S. Lewis invites us to experience the following moment. His story is so vivid, it still lives a century after the described events transpired.

We live in the most absurd age. I met a girl the other day who had been teaching in an infant school (boys and girls up to the age of six) where the infants are taught the theory of Evolution. Or rather the Headmistress’s version of it.

Simple people like ourselves had an idea that Darwin said that life developed from simple organisms up to the higher plants and animals, finally to the monkey group, and from the monkey group to man.

The infants however seem to be taught that ‘in the beginning was the Ape’ from whom all other life developed – including such dainties as the Brontosaurus and the Iguanodon.

Whether the plants were supposed to be descendants of the ape I didn’t gather. And then people talk about the credulity of the middle ages! À propos of this can you tell me who said ‘Before you begin these studies, I should warn you that you need much more faith in science than in theology.’ It was Huxley or Clifford or one of the nineteenth century scientists, I think.

Another good remark I read long ago in one of E. Nesbitt’s fairy tales –‘Grown ups know that children can believe almost anything: that’s why they tell you that the earth is round and smooth like an orange when you can see perfectly well for yourself that it’s flat and lumpy.’

Ironically, immediately after this, Lewis introduces his next subject with the words: “Almost the only interesting thing that has happened to me lately was a visit from a young German.” You see, I wasn’t misleading you when I said his letters are filled with fascinating material.

One must assume that times have changed, and that English children are no longer being taught such simplistic distortions of actual theories. But that’s not the theme of this current post. Rather, I wish to show how wonderfully entertaining a simple family letter can be – especially when it comes from the pen of C.S. Lewis.

How long should a sermon be? There’s no universal answer to that question – unless you opt for the Holy Spirit gambit and claim you or your pastor preach inerrantly as the Spirit dictates.

The truth is, I can tell a lot about a person’s religious background or current preferences by their honest answer. That’s one of the first lessons a military chaplain learns. Different traditions possess vastly different expectations about sermon lengths.

There are plenty of individual exceptions to the rule, of course. But let me throw out a couple generalizations. People in mainline churches think the sweet spot is around 15 minutes. For many, 12 would be even more desirable, although most can tolerate 20 minutes before beginning incessant time checks on their watches or other devices. In the minds of some, brevity is next to godliness.

For many evangelicals, particularly pentecostals and more fundamentalist communions, a 15 minute sermon is an oxymoron. Anything less than half an hour is simply a devotion or meditation, and any preacher worthy of the title should be able to preach a 45 minute sermon without working up a sweat.

So, in the case of a chaplain preaching for two to three different congregations on a Sunday morning, you would need to tailor your sermons differently for various congregations. Otherwise, if you attempted to strike a happy medium, you ran the risk of having your evangelicals feeling shortchanged and your mainline protestants with eyes glazing over.

Recognizing these differences is helpful, lest we slip into that normal misconception that our assumptions/experiences/logic are shared by others. One evangelical seminary professor, clearly writing for others from a similar tradition as his own, illustrates my point.

The average sermon length, according to one poll, ranges 20 to 28 minutes. If this statistic is accurate, it is a telling indicator of the spiritual depth of today’s churches. Many churches have already discontinued their evening services. With the trend of reducing the length of Sunday morning sermons, our generation is receiving less than half the biblical teaching our parents sat under.

The better a person understands the Word of God, the more they will grow spiritually. . . . I find it difficult to believe that current pastors and their 20 minute sermon-ettes can reach any level of comparable depth to the 80 minutes (or more) pastors used to be given (between the morning and evening services).

I have been pondering this subject not because my own pastor’s sermons are too long. Actually, a few days ago the delightful newsnote, “Today in Christian History,” featured an intriguing note. It is one of Christianity Today’s free newsletters.

It described an incipient Crusade that was derailed before it set out, due to too much of a good thing (too much preaching).

September 26, 1460: Pope Pius II assembles European leaders, then delivers a three-hour sermon to inspire them to launch a new crusade against the Turks. The speech works, but then another speaker, Cardinal Bessarion, adds a three-hour sermon of his own. After six hours of preaching, the European princes lose all interest in the cause; they never mount the called-for crusade.

This is precisely the sort of event I cannot resist learning more about. In short, Pius was a talented orator who had written popular erotic literature during his pre-papal years. Bessarion was a Greek priest who coordinated the effort of Byzantine Emperor John VIII Palaeologus to reunite the Eastern and Western churches to protect Constantinople from the Turks. In 1463, a decade after the city fell to the Ottomans, Bessarion was appointed the Latin Patriarch of Constantinople.

If only Cardinal Bessarion had preached a shorter sermon, perhaps the glorious Hagia Sophia would still resound with the praise of Christ.

How to Measure Sermons

One of the worst ways to weigh a sermon, to consider its worth, is by considering its duration. There is nothing intrinsically better about a sermon that lasts 20 minutes than one of half that length. Barring extremes (e.g. Pius’ and Bassarion’s extended monologues or some jargon-laced, religious pop message modeled after fleeting modern commercials), duration matters little.

I think we could all agree that it is the substance of the message which is shared, that matters. This is where the Holy Spirit leads the way. The sermon should be based on God’s truths. It should be tailored to meet the needs of its particular hearers. And it should be timely, attuned to this specific moment.

Unfortunately, we do tend to associate sermons with extended lectures. In a 1962 letter to one of his regular correspondents, Lewis responds to her question about animals and heaven. After explaining his view, he concludes the letter with an apologetic “But this is turning into a sermon!” In truth, his comments are of the ideal duration to address the question at hand.

And that – an ideal length for the specific context – is the goal for which all preachers should strive.

A Mere Inkling Bonus

I’ve written about the importance of listening to sermons in the past. It includes an entertaining account of C.S. Lewis’ boredom during some of the sermons in his home parish. You can also read here about Lewis’ own experiences as a preacher.

One of C.S. Lewis’ rewarding essays is entitled “The Sermon and the Lunch.” Lewis uses the occasion of a sermon to explore the nature of family. The pastor offers a textbook endorsement of the importance of family, where “we can fling aside the weary disguises of the outer world and be ourselves.” Thereupon, he quickly loses the congregation’s attention.

Lewis’ own thoughts are distracted by his awareness of the pastor’s own family. Having been a guest in the home, Lewis knows the family dynamics fall far short of the ideal he is presenting. However, it is not hypocrisy which disturbs him. It is the fallacious premise upon which the sermon is based. You can read the entire essay at the link on its title in the previous paragraph, or you can listen to a reading of the essay on the link below. Here, however, is the reason for Lewis’ discomfort.

The memory of that lunch worries me during the last few minutes of the sermon. I am not worried by the fact that the Vicar’s practice differs from his precept. That is, no doubt, regrettable, but it is nothing to the purpose. As Dr. Johnson said, precept may be very sincere (and, let us add, very profitable) where practice is very imperfect, and no one but a fool would discount a doctor’s warnings about alcoholic poisoning because the doctor himself drank too much.

What worries me is the fact that the Vicar is not telling us at all that home life is difficult and has, like every form of life, its own proper temptations and corruptions. He keeps on talking as if ‘home’ were a panacea, a magical charm which of itself was bound to produce happiness and virtue. The trouble is not that he is insincere but that he is a fool. He is not talking from his own experience of family life at all: he is automatically reproducing a sentimental tradition – and it happens to be a false tradition. That is why the congregation have stopped listening to him.

How should Christians relate to modern culture? Should they try to identify with culture so they are indistinguishable from their secular peers? Or, would it be better for them to stand aloof from a society espousing a worldview diametrically opposed to their own?

C.S. Lewis would recommend a different course. He would be saddened by Christians who felt compelled to pander to the ideals of contemporary culture. At the same time, he would be offended by disciples of Jesus who deemed themselves too enlightened—or, God forbid, holy—to stoop to engage with modern civilization.

In his essay “Christianity and Culture,”* Lewis begins by pointing out that the omnipresence of culture makes us unconscious of its independence from our religious worldview.

At an early age I came to believe that the life of culture (that is, of intellectual and aesthetic activity) was very good for its own sake, or even that it was good for man. After my conversion, which occurred in my later twenties, I continued to hold this belief without consciously asking how it could be reconciled with my new belief that the end of human life was salvation in Christ and the glorifying of God.

After this epiphany, Lewis began to consciously explore the proper relationship a believer should have with culture. And, his conclusion rejected both of the aforementioned extremes.

Culture has been on my mind since reading the 2019-20 schedule of the Fellowship of Performing Arts. I have written about two of the Lewis-related plays presented by this wonderful theatrical community in the past. The Great Divorce and C.S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert were both superb. I’m hoping that The Screwtape Letters will return to Seattle soon. All of their work is deeply inspiring.

The founder of FPA, Max McLean, affirms how their mission—producing quality “theatre from a Christian worldview meant to engage a diverse audience”—continues to guide their efforts. This includes a new rendition of Paradise Lost which will debut on Theater Row in New York in January. You won’t get to see the new play outside of New York City, but check this site for a list of their touring casts to see what wondrous performances may be available near you.

McLean writes, “In the arts world, Christians are seen as cultural critics, not culture makers. Mainstream opinion is that Christianity is a regressive idea that has nothing to add to the cultural conversation.”

McLean, like C.S. Lewis, encourages us to challenge this misinterpretation. After all, even if some Christian communions have retreated from the modern Areopagus, most of the great cultural accomplishments of the Western world owe a great deal to Christianity. And that is a debt of gratitude we can increase when we choose.

Culture is Not Our Enemy

Lewis posed an interesting contrast in “Christianity and Culture.” Speaking of the positive aspects of culture (for there are assuredly many shortcomings), he writes:

Culture is a storehouse of the best (sub-Christian) values. These values are in themselves of the soul, not the spirit. But God created the soul. Its values may be expected, therefore, to contain some reflection or antepast of the spiritual values. They will save no man. They resemble the regenerate life only as affection resembles charity, or honour resembles virtue, or the moon the sun.

But though “like is not the same,” it is better than unlike. Imitation may pass into initiation. For some it is a good beginning. For others it is not; culture is not everyone’s road into Jerusalem, and for some it is a road out.

This final observation—that immersion in culture can lead one on a path away from Life—is profound. I have witnessed this in the action of some who make cultural sophistication an end in itself.

In a far different essay, “Learning in War-Time,” C.S. Lewis elucidates how culture is a given. Even the most earnest prayers of the eremites can dispel it. No cloister has walls so impenetrable that they make culture irrelevant.

In the context, then, of education, Lewis describes the necessity of Christians engaging deeply with culture.

If all the world were Christian, it might not matter if all the world were uneducated. But, as it is, a cultural life will exist outside the Church whether it exists inside or not. To be ignorant and simple now—not to be able to meet enemies on their own ground—would be to throw down our weapons, and to betray our uneducated brethren who have, under God, no defence but us against the intellectual attacks of the heathen.

Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered. The cool intellect must work not only against cool intellect on the other side, but against the muddy heathen mysticisms which deny intellect altogether.

Most of all, perhaps, we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion.

A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village: the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age. The learned life then is, for some, a duty.

And so, just as the “learned life” is a duty for some, so too is an “artistic life.” It is a good thing, perhaps even an excellent thing, when Christians excel at the arts and talents esteemed by one’s local culture.

What might change if Christians decided to forego their identity as mere cultural critics and strove to become cultural leaders? Now that’s a question worth pondering.


* T.S. Eliot wrote a book with the same title. Published seventy years ago, he assessed a cultural conflict that has only grown more acute.

The problem of leading a Christian life in a non-Christian society is now very present to us, and it is a very different problem from that of the accommodation between an Established Church and dissenters. It is not merely the problem of a minority in a society of individuals holding an alien belief.

It is the problem constituted by our implication in a network of institutions from which we cannot dissociate ourselves: institutions the operation of which appears no longer neutral, but non-Christian. And as for the Christian who is not conscious of his dilemma—and he is in the majority—he is becoming more and more de-Christianized by all sorts of unconscious pressure: paganism holds all the most valuable advertising space.