June 16, 2004
“C. S. Lewis”
The Reverend Brad Mercer
First Peter three, beginning in verse thirteen. This is a challenge to us.
“Who is going to harm you for doing good? But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed. And do not fear their intimidation, and do not be troubled, but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to anyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness. And keep a good conscience, so that in the thing in which you are slandered those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.”
Might we all keep that in mind and consider it, even as we consider C. S. Lewis.
As you know, we are working through worldviews this summer, and from time to time, we’ll do what we're doing tonight. We’ll take a “think break.” And you’ll remember that we said a worldview is a set of presuppositions or assumptions that we hold about the basic makeup of the world. And we took from James Sire's book, The Universe Next Door, seven questions: “What is reality? What is really real? “What is the nature of external reality?” The world around us; number three, “What is a human being?” These are questions that we should be asking about any worldview. “What happens to a person at death? “ Number five, “Why is it possible to know anything at all?” Number six, “How do we know what is right and wrong?” and “What is the meaning of human history?” These are the kinds of questions we should constantly be asking ourselves as we evaluate any worldview.
Now the design of these “think breaks” every once in a while throughout the course of the summer is to take an orthodox Christian worldview and apply it to some particular issue, or to look to a particular person who can show us how to apply a Christian worldview. For instance, later in the summer we’ll be looking at same-sex marriage. How do we apply a Christian worldview to the hot topic of same-sex marriage. And we’ll also be looking at J. Gresham Machen later in the summer as he offers a devastating critique–don't miss this!–a devastating critique of liberalism, in his little book Christianity and Liberalism. As you’re wrestling with ‘what's the difference between orthodox Christianity and liberalism, and Machen is very helpful there.
Tonight, we're looking at C. S. Lewis. In 1965, Chad Walsh wrote that “C. S. Lewis had an impact on American religious thinking, and indeed, on American religious imagination which has been rarely, if ever, equaled by any other modern writer.” Love him or hate him, C. S. Lewis is ubiquitous. He's everywhere. You will find him in secular bookstores, you’ll find people in universities discussing C. S. Lewis–he is a presence, and it is amazing. You will find his image depicted in stained-glass windows. There's even been a Broadway musical, calendars, internet sites, television documentaries, an estimated two million Lewis-authored books are sold every year in the United Kingdom and the United States. C. S. Lewis societies, reading groups, journals, magazines, dissertations…you might not know this, but a film–if it stays on schedule, there's going to be a film made about The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and Peter Jackson, who did The Lord of the Rings series, his workshop has been hired to do the special effects. And they’re supposed to start filming that this summer in New Zealand, and it's designated to be released in December 2005. So it should be interesting to see The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe come out.
C. S. Lewis once said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe the sun has risen. Not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” I believe in Christianity as I believe the sun has risen, not only because I see it, because by it I see everything else…now that's a wonderful way to speak of a Christian worldview.
What comes to mind when you think of C. S. Lewis? Don't answer out loud, just think. Cock your head and think. What comes to mind when you think of C. S. Lewis? Defender of the faith? A writer of imaginative fiction books from a Christian perspective? A writer of children's stories? A man who had a movie made about him and his wife came out recently? I want you to think of Lewis in a way–maybe you haven't ever thought about him before–and that is, C. S. Lewis as evangelist. Now, I'm going to flesh this out for you in just a minute, but C. S. Lewis as evangelist.
I. First, Lewis the layman.
This manifests itself in his life and in his writings in three ways that I will emphasize tonight. Over and over and over, C. S. Lewis emphasizes in his writings–short writings, long writings–I'm just a layman. I'm just a simple layman. Now, we wonder sometimes if he's being completely honest or if there's some false humility there, but he says it all the time: I'm just a layman. I want to learn. And he's genuinely speaking honestly when he says I want to learn, I am just a sheep needing a shepherd. Lewis, remember, was not an officer in any church, and he was never ordained. And he was far from perfect.
Let me say this: as you consider reading C. S. Lewis and studying C. S. Lewis, I’ll say it right up front. Don't go to C. S. Lewis for getting your theological categories straight. Don't do that. Go to The Westminster Confession of Faith. Go to any number of creeds and confessions and theological books, systematic theologies, to get your theology straight.
Lewis was not a systematic theologian, he was not a theologian at all, although he certainly thought and communicated in theological categories, but the strength—-the strength, in my view, of C. S. Lewis is ethics, and the application of ethics to a Christian worldview. Lewis will show us, he will teach us and show us, how to live and to think as Christians. He recognized the importance of theology and systematic theology and expository preaching–all of those things–but he never claimed to be a theologian. One reviewer of The Screwtape Letters said, “Mr. Lewis possesses the rare gift of making righteousness readable.” And you've probably experienced that to some extent yourself. There's a connection with C. S. Lewis when you read him.
Now the other thing I want to emphasize–Lewis as a layman and having an evangelistic thrust to his work–is Lewis was no ivory-tower recluse, as he sometimes comes off in the movie–by the way, I’ll say this briefly. Shadowlands is an excellent movie, the music is great, it has excellent acting, beautiful story–it's just not about C. S. Lewis! There are many things left out, but again, an excellent movie, great themes, warm-hearted, all those things, but there are some key aspects that are left out of the film.
Lewis's mother died of cancer when he was nine years old; he was estranged from his father for many years; his brother was an alcoholic. He fought in the trenches in France and was left for dead in World War I. Throughout the Second World War, he had many young children come from London and live in his home with him in Oxford, because of the bombing. Also during World War II, he joined the Home Guard. He volunteered for the Home Guard, and picture this: C. S. Lewis walking around in the middle of the night from one-thirty to four-thirty in the morning with a gun, guarding Oxford, when he's a professor there. But he volunteered.
He was invited by the BBC, during World War II, to give a series of very evangelistic, outreach oriented, radio addresses gave that would become Mere Christianity, and C. S. Lewis's voice became the second most recognized voice in England, behind only that of Winston Churchill.
And I wonder, I do wonder sometimes…there were troops stationed in England, obviously before D-Day, and Lewis was giving these radio addresses, and many troops from all over the world heard Lewis give radio addresses. I wonder, I do wonder…if that could have eventually contributed to Lewis's worldwide popularity.
He traveled and spoke at Royal Air Force stations and churches throughout the country during World War II. He gave a high percentage of the royalties of his books to charity, consistently, after his conversion. One of his best friends died unexpectedly at a young age, and of course his wife died of cancer. Lewis lived a full, active life with great joy and great pain.
After his conversion in 1931, he was addressing a group of clergymen in the Church of England, his church, and he said, “Woe to you if you do not evangelize.” And then he goes on to say this: “My feeling about the people in whose conversion I've been allowed to play a part is always mixed with awe and fear.”
Again, Lewis was not a theologian by vocation, he was a college tutor, a lecturer, a literary historian. He lectured in Medieval and Renaissance Literature and English Language and Literature. But he found himself, after his conversion, in a church filled with modernism and liberalism, and he didn't hesitate to criticize it. In a paper he read at Cambridge in 1959, he admits that many of the current, modern theological issues are confusing, and he is just a sheep, but he says, “I am a bleating…” as in a sheep bleating “…layman to modern theology, and I'm going to tell the church what only a sheep can tell them.”
In Pilgrim's Regress he criticizes the drift of his own church, the Church of England, for its anti-supernaturalism and dry, arid intellectualism, and he has a character who he uses to portray modernism or liberalism in the Church of England named “Mr. Broad.” And Mr. Broad says this: “Ah, Mother Kirk! I love and honor her from the bottom of my heart. I trust that loving her does not mean being blind to her faults. For the moment there is no denying that she has let herself get a little out of date.” This is a liberal speaking. “She has let herself get a little out of date. Surely for our generation there is a truer, more acceptable message in all this beautiful world around us. The church…” And we can almost today hear Bishop John Shelby Spong in Newark, saying something exactly like that, practically coming to the point and proclaiming that he is an atheist. Lewis says this, again as a layman: “Missionary to priest in one's own church is an embarrassing role. Though I have a horrid feeling if such mission work is not soon undertaken, the future history of the Church of England is likely to be short.” Very prophetic.
II. Second, Lewis as what I would
call a smuggler and translator.
Lewis lived in the literary world. He was constantly considering the claims of literary culture, and yet, and yet, he says this: “The glory of God, and, as our only means of glorifying Him, the salvation of human souls is the real business of life. It is unlikely that in the next forty years England will have a government which would encourage or even tolerate any radical Christian elements in its state system of education.” So Lewis goes after adults, and his primary thrust or goal consistently is to convince people in this culture that is rapidly becoming engulfed, entrenched, soaked in modernism and in liberalism, is that there is a universal moral law. If we disobey it, we sin. There is a Lawgiver, and this should impart despair rather than comfort. We are fallen sinners, and we need Jesus Christ.
Interestingly when he wrote Out of the Silent Planet, which is the first of the space science fiction trilogy, and he realized that the reviewers of this book did not recognize the subtle imagery in this book, he got an idea. He said, “if only there were someone with richer talent and more leisure, I believe this great ignorance might be a help in the evangelization of England. Any amount of theology can now be smuggled into people's minds under the cover of romantic or imaginative literature, without their knowing it.”
We see that in Narnia. We see the Narnia books in secular bookstores and kids reading them all the time. Then one day when they hear the Gospel–“where have I heard that story before?” Then one day when they come face to face with Jesus Christ, “where have I met Him before? Yes! I remember Him in The Chronicles of Narnia.”
But again, he is realizing that maybe, as a layman, as a literature professor, I can use my uniqueness and talents to smuggle Christian theology. And he says this: “I thought I saw how stories, fairy stories, could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralyzed much of my own religion in my childhood. Could one not thus steal past these watchful dragons? I thought I could.” We see this in Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, The Chronicles of Narnia, Till We Have Faces – a number of Lewis books, where the Christianity is latent. It's subtle. And people are getting some pretty sound Christian theology and ethics, but it's subtle and they may not even realize it.
Secondly, as a translator. Lewis firmly believed, particularly in this culture which was advancing toward modernism faster than American culture, we've got to translate our faith into terms that people can understand. And you see this all through C. S. Lewis. Lewis was brilliant. He had a photographic memory. Students would come in to be tutored by him, he’d “Pick out a book and read the first line.” They’d pick out a book and read the first line, and he’d quote the rest from memory. He was brilliant, he had a photographic memory, and he believed that “We must translate every bit of our theology into the vernacular, and this theology must be taught, not because it helps marriages or families or cultures or any other pragmatic purpose, but because it's true. It is objectively, unchangeably true.” Not just because it might help in some pragmatic fashion. It is a truth that does not change, and we must teach this in a way that people understand in this culture that is rapidly becoming post-Christian. He said “We serve One who said “Heaven and earth shall move with the times, but My word shall not move with the times.”
Lewis strongly believed that every person, every layperson, especially, in his or her calling can be characterized by an excellence. He gives this example from the publishing industry. And hear this: “What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects.” He goes on to say, “If every time someone wants quality, he or she finds that a Christian is the one that provides the most quality, what a witness! What a witness! Whether you’re building cars or publishing books, Christians should shine.” He says, “Our business today is to present that which is timeless in the particular language of our own age. The bad preacher does exactly the opposite. He takes the ideas of our own age and tricks them out in the traditional language of Christianity. A liberal gives traditional terminology a new meaning; a conservative falls into clichйs and platitudes. We must communicate in basic, clear, understandable language.” He says, “Any fool can write learned language. The vernacular is the real test. If you can't turn your faith into it, either you don't understand it or you don't believe it. You must be able to communicate your faith so a child can understand.” Then he goes on to say “any fool can write learned language.” To communicate clearly and simply is the test.
Christopher Mitchell, who is the director of the Marion Wade Center at Wheaton College, where much of Lewis's personal library is located, says this: “Lewis was seeking to translate the thinking and teaching of the church, its basic theology, and serve it up in a way in which the common person could understand and appreciate, and make an intelligent decision as to whether to embrace it or not.”
Now certainly Mitchell or C. S. Lewis would not deny the initiating work of the Holy Spirit in someone coming to Christ, but Lewis wanted to be used in this particular way of translating and speaking clearly. He says, “I'm preaching and teaching to storekeepers, lawyers, realtors, morticians, policemen and artisans. Most of my books,” he says, “are evangelistic, addressed to tus exo, those outside. And if real theologians in my church,” he was saying, “ had done this years ago, there would be no need for me.”
So that's how he sees himself communicating. He recognized that with his own particular gifts he can smuggle and translate as a layman.III. Third, Lewis as an evangelist to modernists and to post-modernists
C. S. Lewis was educated in the mid-twentieth century in Oxford when you had the reign of the men I call the Four Musketeers of Modernism: Darwin, Freud, Marx and Nietzsche This is what he was hearing all the time: Darwin in biology, Freud in psychology, Marx in economics and Nietzsche in philosophy. A personal absolute God is absolutely absent from this venue. There is no God, there are no absolutes, the emphasis being natural, impersonal mechanistic forces. This is a world that champions the inductive method. Just as a doctor evaluates empirical data and arrives at a diagnosis, or a jury gathers evidence and declares a verdict. Lewis had a name for it: scientism. Science is the absolute. It is science deified. Science is the ultimate authority.
So how did he answer modernism? In a number of ways. Listen to this quote from one of his poems, an evolutionary hymn. Now, Lewis was open early in his career to evolution, and he became less and less open to it and even hostile to it as he got older. “Lead us, evolution, lead us up the future's endless stair./ Chop us, change us, prod us, weed us,/ for stagnation is despair. / Groping, guessing, yet progressing/ lead us–nobody knows where./ Wrong or justice in the present, joy or sorrow, what are they?/ Well, there's always jam tomorrow while we tread our onward way/ never knowing where we're going we can never go astray.” In his own creative way, ‘don't look to evolution–progressive, creative evolution, for your answers.’
At the beginning of The Problem of Pain he says, “Before I became a Christian, I would shake my fist at God,” how can there be a God with all this pain and suffering in the world, and then he realized, “wait a minute–I'm an atheist. For an atheist, there is no problem of pain. There is only a problem of pain for a Christian.”
So where do people get the idea that they will attribute pain and suffering and difficulty and trial to God? Where does that idea even come from? Lewis argues, in The Abolition of Man, an excellent little book and he says that's one of the reasons he came to Christ, he argues for a universal, moral law, and he points to cultures all over the world that affirm some form of universal moral law woven into the fabric of the universe.
And then, what one writer calls the ‘joy apologetic’ in the midst of this dry, arid modernism, Lewis says that “we are half-hearted creatures, fooling around with drink and sex and ambition, when infinite joy is offered to us. Like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum, because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea, we are far too easily pleased.” All he is doing is echoing Augustine: “Our hearts are restless, Lord, until they find their rest in Thee.” Don't you see, modernists, that we all have a deep desire for something other and outer, for peace and rest and contentment, and hope and fulfillment? That desire is not there by accident. And yet, he goes on to say, “Almost our whole education has been directed toward silencing this shy, persistent, inner voice. Almost all of our modern philosophies have been devised to convince us that the good of man is to be found here on Earth, and yet it is remarkable that such philosophies of progress or creative evolution themselves, bear reluctant witness to the truth that our real goal is elsewhere.”
And then, his devastating critique of naturalists. Naturalists who argue that all of life is irrational, it's mechanistic, it's all linked, and then they go on to say that we can stand back and interpret it. If everything that exists is interlocked into a chain that is mindless, how do irrational, impersonal forces give rise to minds and thinking, and reasoning and moral principles? Naturalism itself is self-refuting.
My point here, in a number of works–in Problem of Pain, in Abolition of Man, The Weight of Glory, Surprised by Joy–Lewis offers some very devastating critiques and shows the inconsistencies of a naturalistic, materialistic, modernist mindset. And we can only just skim over that. But his critiques are devastating.
Post-modernism. What does Lewis tell us in this age of New Agers and New Paganism? Lewis died in 1963, the same day as President John F. Kennedy. What can he tell us during this time in which we are witnessing–is fascinating! We've got this highly specialized technological culture based upon observable, objective facts and bottom lines, and in the midst of all of this, we have a bona fide resurgence of paganism. And interestingly, this arises from a number of places.
But what can C. S. Lewis do to help us as we face this? I had a professor at the University of Texas who taught philosophy, and I wrote a paper arguing for the existence of God, and he wrote a paper back arguing that God doesn't exist, and that's not rational, and you can't defend that, it makes no sense. And then he goes home and practices using crystals with his wife, and channeling. That's the kind of world we live in, the world of Tibetan monks and Zen masters and martial arts gurus and Shirley McLaine, all offering to help us fan into flame this spark we have. Many of these people are reacting to the dry, arid materialistic, naturalistic period that came before us, and they want something other and outer. They want something that is spiritual, they want something that is invisible. They’re searching.
And Thomas Howard says this about Lewis's imaginative literature: “One way of putting what Lewis saw as his literary task would be to say that he wanted to lead his readers to a window, looking out from the dark, stuffy room of modernity, and to burst open the shutters and point us all to an enormous vista, stretching away from the room in which we were shut. He despaired of finding any furniture or pictures or objects in that small room which would suggest what he wanted to say to us, so he must come to the window and look out.”
In other words, Lewis takes us into other worlds. He takes us to Narnia. He takes us to Perelandra. He takes us back to an ancient Greek myth, and he retells it–the myth of Cupid and Psyche in Till We Have Faces. And he smuggles Christian themes into this work so people are getting healthy doses of Christianity, and not necessarily even knowing it.
For instance, it's the professor who says to your student, “Look. All over the world we have myths and fairy tales that bubble up in cultures all over the world. Who knows where they come from, but they bubble up in cultures all over the world. And they have the same theme. You see these common themes everywhere, all over the world. The same thing. You have dying and rising corn gods, the cyclical nature of the seasons. You have these stories everywhere of some kind of damsel in distress, who is taken away by some kind of evil person, and a prince or a king comes back to rescue her. We have these imaginative stories that emerge and bubble up in all kinds of different cultures. Don't you see that Jesus Christ is just another dying and rising corn god?” And Lewis says, “No! Don't you see the common thread and common theme? Don't you see that if this emerges everywhere” —your student needs to tell the professor–“if this theme emerges everywhere and if it's common and if you see it everywhere, maybe it really happened.”
Lewis calls these ‘good dreams.’ He would never say the only way of salvation is faith alone in Jesus Christ, but he is able to look at other religions and say there's some truth there. Come with me and I’ll show you more. You see that perspective: rather than say, “You’re a pagan, you’re lost, I'm having nothing to do with you” but “Now, there's some truth there, and I can understand why you’re looking in that direction. Come with me, I’ll show you more.” It's a faint echo of the True Prince, the True King. Tolkein's last book, The Return of the King – the King will return.
So you see, Lewis speaks to this age in a way that is quite unique. In The Chronicles of Narnia he touches on Freudian psychology and testing truth claims, and God's sovereignty and human responsibility. In The Screwtape Letters you see how Lewis understands the psychology of sin and temptation. Perelandra — I know a girl recently who's been struggling with Christianity for years, and she read Perelandra and she thought ‘I've got to know more about this Jesus Christ!’ He takes us to another world, puts us in Perelandra, and shows us a new Eve being tempted by a new Satan, or Unman. And it's fascinating, because we see Eve being tempted and fascinated by the idea of sin and evil. “Look, he's telling me how good sin and evil is. It's fascinating.”
But he takes us into another world, an imaginative world, and he teaches again–and this is not for everybody. Some of you are saying, “I don't want to study all that!” And this is not for everybody. Give me Mere Christianity, that's great. But for other people, for left-brains and right-brains, for those folk who like imaginative literature, Perelandra and Till We Have Faces will grab them and make them think, and challenge them in a way that Mere Christianity, Abolition of Man, Problem of Pain, and Miracles might not.
Let me close with this. And this really gets to the heart of C. S. Lewis. It's called An Apologist's Evening Prayer.
“From all my lame defeats, and oh! much more/ From all the victories I seem to score,/ From cleverness shot forth on Thy behalf, at which, while angels wept, the audience laugh;/ From all my proofs of Thy divinity, Thou who wouldst give no sign, deliver me./ Thoughts are but poems./ Let me not trust instead of Thee their thin-worn image of Thy head./ From all my thoughts, even from my thoughts of Thee,/ Oh, Thou fair silence, fall and set me free./ Lord of the narrow gate, and the needle's eye,/ take me from all my trumpery, lest I die.”
Let us pray.
Lord, we thank You again for the life of C. S. Lewis. We pray that we might glean from him how to apply what we so dearly love. Whether we are faced with folk who can't understand how a miracle could happen, or someone who believes in nothing but miracles and spiritual things that seem to have no purpose and no design. We pray that we would recognize again Lewis as a layman, as a man dedicated to evangelism in his own particular calling as a smuggler, as a translator, and as one who spoke to modernists and post-modernists. We pray that we might learn from him, and we pray again that You would continue as we next week touch on naturalism, and throughout the course of the summer, we pray that we might all grow and continue to be challenged to apply again what we so dearly love and what we believe about our Lord and Savior, in whose name we pray, Jesus Christ. Amen.
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