Monday, June 08, 2020

C S Lewis Was Right, These Other Guys Are Wrong

Back to Sinai.

I had read the Chronicles of Narnia before recommitting as a Christian, and those were influential in conversion.  But my intense period of reading Lewis came after, from 1975-1995, and he formed my Christian thinking. As I had grown up in a social gospel UCC church, there were places where I thought him wrong. I was also a full two generations after him, and thought him wrong in other places where I believed the world had successfully moved on fro a few beliefs.  I was running with a fairly fundamentalist crowd early on, who were heavily into believing the world's end was imminent, so I thought he missed some important items in That Hideous Strength and "The World's Last Night."

Over time I decided he was right and I was wrong, repeatedly.  Amazing, eh, that a person who had read everything of importance in Western Civilisation and the history of the Church and devoted his life to understanding and exemplifying it knew more than me. I can recall a few essays in God In The Dock where I could see where he was going in the first paragraph and shook my head that he was never going to convince me of that. Ten minutes later I would see my arguments shredded, and reluctantly have to accept that Lewis had thought this through far better than I had.

At every turn, as new cases arise there are writers I follow and many books that are recommended. Still, I find that the best word on a subject turns out to be Lewis's.  People swerar by other authors, and I have no objection.  I have a friend who has followed the thought of Dallas Willard closely, and two others who attend to NT Wright. I would approve of those who hew closely to Luther, or Calvin, or Wesley, but I find that a good many of those are actually students of those giants as filtered and mediated by modern writers.  They follow a curated Luther, a curated Wesley, or a curated Calvin.  That may of course be fine, but I have seen it go in popular directions that the originators might not have approved of.  Once we start picking and choosing, our modern eyes gravitate to this season's fashionable colors. Luther as played by Brad Pitt. Hmm, maybe not. Yet if you choose an old, solid author other than Lewis I am unlikely to object, claiming that I am of Paul and you are of Apollos.

St Paul did the same thing when he told the Galatians he went to Arabia and to Sinai.  He identifies this clearly as not relying on the authority of men alone, but on ancient wisdom and on the law. (NT Wright has an interesting bit here.) He was a student of the law, and the Nabateans were mages, prophets, and deep thinkers about the nature of God. Paul was not just making a listening tour.  He was reverting to what he knew to be solid about the nature of God, in order to understand his dramatic experience of this Jesus who equated himself with God. He mistrusted even his own experience without solid confirmation.

I had a great advantage in that there was no CS Lewis scholarship then, no one to tell what the important parts were.  I could only read everything he wrote as it came back into print and I could afford it. Lewis (of course) strongly advocated that we should read works in the original and not only in the commentaries of modern critics about them, in his On The Reading Of Old Books, his introduction to a new edition of Athanasius.

Here is something I have learned from Lewis, which seems appropriate today.  The great danger to the church is not from clinging too closely to the habits of the generation just past, but from following with eager eye the attractions of the present world.  That which is going out of fashion will go out on its own, and if there is anything worth saving we might pray that the Lord will defend it. Our danger is not there.  Our danger is in current events, both in the large popular sense of what is in the newspapers and on Twitter, but in the nearer, dearer sense of what is currently fashionable in denominational headquarters, seminaries, and denominational colleges - or are those virtually synonymous and equally beholden to secular academic fashions.

I would ask you all to pray that The Wild Hunt would sweep by and draw unto itself every volume on a pastor's bookshelf dated later than 2000, but these days it may not be the books that are the problem, but online sources.

If the church is in crisis, then go back to your reliable sources.  I would say we should go back to scripture, and ultimately we must, but I found while reading fundamentalists in the old days that those who say they are going back to scripture are usually culture bound, and the same fault is playing out from another quarter today.


Donna B. said...

I now mostly consider myself agnostic. Both the church I was raised in and the one I converted to as a young adult have changed their theology so much, and so frequently, that it is hard to trust them. Reading various biblical versions doesn't help so much. I find that reading C.S. Lewis reveals a guideline to behavior that is helpful, though not always comfortable.

Tom Bridgeland said...

The original Calvin and Luther are hard. A problem for anyone not very intelligent and well-read is that the lessons get too deep, too fast. So we need interpretations. Lewis stands out in that he is approachable for normally bright people.

engineerlite said...

In perspective, Luther and Calvin are relative newbies, as 3/4 of Christian writing occurred before them. And, the earlier the writing, the better chance it is closest to the original message.

Perhaps a better criterion than the age of the writing, is whether the writer points back to Jesus, as the source.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Yes, that latter. Once you get a couple of generations off Jesus, I think it's about even up whether they are reliable or not. We can go astray and fall away very quickly, it seems. They were responding to cultural influences as well.