Clive Staples Lewis, November 29th 1898 – November 22nd 1963

(Repost from last year, slightly adapted)

On this day fifty-three years ago, the great C.S. Lewis died.

Because of the assassination of President Kennedy on the same day, the death of Lewis has always been somewhat overshadowed. Far be it from me to downplay Kennedy and what he stood for, but for me, Lewis was by far the more influential man.

In the early 1990s I lent a United Church minister friend a copy of Lewis’ Mere Christianity; when he gave it back to me, he said, “Do you have any idea how much this man has influenced you?” Mere Christianity came along at just the right time for me; I was seventeen and had begun to feel the lack of a rigorous intellectual basis for my faith. In this book, Lewis gave me just that. I went on to read pretty well everything he had written, including the various editions of his letters which seem to me to contain some of the best common-sense spiritual direction I’ve ever read. I’ve parted company with Lewis on a few issues (pacifism, Conservative politics, the ordination of women), but for the most part I still consider him to be one of the most reliable guides available to a rigorous, full-orbed, common-sense Christianity.

Lewis was a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, and, later, of Magdalene College, Cambridge, and in his professional career he taught English literature. Brought up in Ireland in a conventionally religious home, he became an atheist in his teens. Later, in his late twenties and early thirties, he gradually came back to Christianity (he told the story himself in his book Surprised by Joy) and went on to become a popular writer and speaker on Christian faith. He claimed for himself Richard Baxter’s phrase ‘Mere Christianity’; although he lived and died entirely content to be a member of the Church of England (‘neither especially high, nor especially low, nor especially anything else’, as he said in his introduction to Mere Christianity), he had no interest in interdenominational controversy, preferring to serve as an apologist for the things that most Christians have in common.

Nowadays evangelicals (especially in the United States) have claimed Lewis as a defender of a rigorous Christian orthodoxy (despite the fact that he did not believe in the inerrancy of the Bible and was an enthusiastic smoker and imbiber of alcoholic beverages). Likewise, Roman Catholics have sometimes pointed out that many fans of Lewis have gone on to convert to Roman Catholicism (something he himself never did, because he believed that Roman Catholicism itself had parted company on some issues with the faith of the primitive church), and have resorted to blaming his Irish Protestant background as somehow giving him a phobia about Catholicism that made it psychologically impossible for him to convert to Rome. Lewis himself, I believe, would not have approved of these attempts to press him into the service of advancing a particular Christian tradition or denomination. I believe we should take him at his word: he was an Anglican by conviction, but was most comfortable with the label ‘Christian’.

What about his books? Well, there are many of them! In his professional discipline of literary criticism he wrote several influential books, including The Allegory of Love (on the medieval allegorical love poem), The Discarded Image (an introduction to the world view of medieval and renaissance writers), An Experiment in Criticism (in which he examines what exactly it means to take pleasure from reading a book), A Preface to Paradise Lost (in which he introduces us to one of his favourite works of literature, John Milton’s famous poem Paradise Lost), and English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama (this is only a selection of his works of literary criticism).

Turning to his more specifically ‘Christian’ works, in The Screwtape Letters Lewis gave us an imaginary series of letters from a senior to a junior demon on the art of temptation; along the way, as Lewis intended, we get some penetrating insights into practical, unpretentious, daily holiness. Miracles and The Problem of Pain are intellectual defences of Christian truth (the first examining the question of whether miracles are possible, the second dealing with the issue of evil and the goodness of God). Reflections on the Psalms is a series of meditations on the issues raised by the psalms (including an excellent chapter on the ‘cursing’ psalms), while Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer gives us accurate guidance on what a life of prayer is really all about. In the ‘Narnia’ stories and the Space Trilogy, Lewis baptizes our imagination, using the genre of fairy story and science fiction to present Christian truth in a fresh and compelling way. And in Mere Christianity he presents his case for the truth of Christianity and a good explanation of its central ideas.

These are just a few of his books; there are many websites that give exhaustive lists.

This website by Lewis’ publishers is of course focussed on trying to sell books – Lewis’ own books, collections of his writings published since his death, and many of the books that have been since written about him. Personally, I like Into the Wardrobe better; it isn’t trying to sell me anything, but includes a biography, a collection of papers, articles, and archives, and some excellent links.

Since his death Lewis has become almost a cult figure, especially in the U.S., and the number of books and articles about him continues to grow. He himself was uncomfortable with the trappings of fame, and I believe he would have been horrified with the growth of the C.S. Lewis ‘industry’ today. It seems to me that the best way to observe the  anniversary of his death is to go back to his books, read them again (or perhaps for the first time), ponder what he had to say, and pray that his work will lead us closer to Christ, as he would have wanted.

Rest in peace and rise in glory, Jack. And once again, thank you.

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God Sits for His Portrait Again

‘You know what happens when a portrait that has been painted on a panel becomes obliterated through external stains. The artist does not throw away the panel, but the subject of the portrait has to come and sit for it again, and then the likeness is re-drawn on the same material. Even so was it with the All-holy Son of God. He, the Image of the Father, came and dwelt in our midst, in order that he might renew mankind made after himself’.

– Athanasius, ‘On the Incarnation of the Word of God‘, Chapter 3 (written about 318 A.D.).

Clive Staples Lewis, November 29th 1898 – November 22nd 1963

(Repost from last year, slightly adapted)

On this day fifty-two years ago, the great C.S. Lewis died.

Because of the assassination of President Kennedy on the same day, the death of Lewis has always been somewhat overshadowed. Far be it from me to downplay Kennedy and what he stood for, but for me, Lewis was by far the more influential man.

In the early 1990s I lent a United Church minister friend a copy of Lewis’ Mere Christianity; when he gave it back to me, he said, “Do you have any idea how much this man has influenced you?” Mere Christianity came along at just the right time for me; I was seventeen and had begun to feel the lack of a rigorous intellectual basis for my faith. In this book, Lewis gave me just that. I went on to read pretty well everything he had written, including the various editions of his letters which seem to me to contain some of the best common-sense spiritual direction I’ve ever read. I’ve parted company with Lewis on a few issues (pacifism, Conservative politics, the ordination of women), but for the most part I still consider him to be one of the most reliable guides available to a rigorous, full-orbed, common-sense Christianity.

Lewis was a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, and, later, of Magdalene College, Cambridge, and in his professional career he taught English literature. Brought up in Ireland in a conventionally religious home, he became an atheist in his teens. Later, in his late twenties and early thirties, he gradually came back to Christianity (he told the story himself in his book Surprised by Joy) and went on to become a popular writer and speaker on Christian faith. He claimed for himself Richard Baxter’s phrase ‘Mere Christianity’; although he lived and died entirely content to be a member of the Church of England (‘neither especially high, nor especially low, nor especially anything else’, as he said in his introduction to Mere Christianity), he had no interest in interdenominational controversy, preferring to serve as an apologist for the things that most Christians have in common.

Nowadays evangelicals (especially in the United States) have claimed Lewis as a defender of a rigorous Christian orthodoxy (despite the fact that he did not believe in the inerrancy of the Bible and was an enthusiastic smoker and imbiber of alcoholic beverages). Likewise, Roman Catholics have sometimes pointed out that many fans of Lewis have gone on to convert to Roman Catholicism (something he himself never did, because he believed that Roman Catholicism itself had parted company on some issues with the faith of the primitive church), and have resorted to blaming his Irish Protestant background as somehow giving him a phobia about Catholicism that made it psychologically impossible for him to convert to Rome. Lewis himself, I believe, would not have approved of these attempts to press him into the service of advancing a particular Christian tradition or denomination. I believe we should take him at his word: he was an Anglican by conviction, but was most comfortable with the label ‘Christian’.

What about his books? Well, there are many of them! In his professional discipline of literary criticism he wrote several influential books, including The Allegory of Love (on the medieval allegorical love poem), The Discarded Image (an introduction to the world view of medieval and renaissance writers), An Experiment in Criticism (in which he examines what exactly it means to take pleasure from reading a book), A Preface to Paradise Lost (in which he introduces us to one of his favourite works of literature, John Milton’s famous poem Paradise Lost), and English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama (this is only a selection of his works of literary criticism).

Turning to his more specifically ‘Christian’ works, in The Screwtape Letters Lewis gave us an imaginary series of letters from a senior to a junior demon on the art of temptation; along the way, as Lewis intended, we get some penetrating insights into practical, unpretentious, daily holiness. Miracles and The Problem of Pain are intellectual defences of Christian truth (the first examining the question of whether miracles are possible, the second dealing with the issue of evil and the goodness of God). Reflections on the Psalms is a series of meditations on the issues raised by the psalms (including an excellent chapter on the ‘cursing’ psalms), while Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer gives us accurate guidance on what a life of prayer is really all about. In the ‘Narnia’ stories and the Space Trilogy, Lewis baptizes our imagination, using the genre of fairy story and science fiction to present Christian truth in a fresh and compelling way. And in Mere Christianity he presents his case for the truth of Christianity and a good explanation of its central ideas.

These are just a few of his books; there are many websites that give exhaustive lists.

This website by Lewis’ publishers is of course focussed on trying to sell books – Lewis’ own books, collections of his writings published since his death, and many of the books that have been since written about him. Personally, I like Into the Wardrobe better; it isn’t trying to sell me anything, but includes a biography, a collection of papers, articles, and archives, and some excellent links.

Since his death Lewis has become almost a cult figure, especially in the U.S., and the number of books and articles about him continues to grow. He himself was uncomfortable with the trappings of fame, and I believe he would have been horrified with the growth of the C.S. Lewis ‘industry’ today. It seems to me that the best way to observe the  anniversary of his death is to go back to his books, read them again (or perhaps for the first time), ponder what he had to say, and pray that his work will lead us closer to Christ, as he would have wanted.

Rest in peace and rise in glory, Jack. And thank you.

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I’m an evangelical Christian because…

I get a little tired sometimes of evangelical Christianity being identified by what it’s against. “You know, they’re the ones who hate gays, and bomb abortion clinics, and oppose teaching evolution in schools” (For the record, none of those three describes me). I’d rather define ‘evangelical’ by what I’m excited about.

I’m an evangelical Christian because I’m excited about Jesus. To me he really is the light of the world; his life and teaching shine a brilliant light on what God is like and what human life is meant to be like. ‘Like father, like son’; I feel in my gut that if there is a God, God has to be like Jesus. As someone once said, ‘In God there is no unChristlikeness at all’.

I’m an evangelical Christian because I love the story of the Cross: it shows us how God treats his enemies – with love and forgiveness – and so becomes the the way of reconciliation with God for all people. I also love the story of the resurrection, which tells me that love is stronger than death (love wins!), and that God has made Jesus Lord of all.

I’m an evangelical Christian because I’m excited about grace – God’s unconditional love poured out on all people, the good, the bad, and the ugly, not because we deserve it but because God is love. Grace is the hope of the world; if there’s no grace, we have no hope. For me, this is bedrock; because God is graceful, I don’t need to be afraid.

I’m an evangelical Christian because I’m excited about the Bible, in all its mystery and wonder. Evangelical Christianity wants to get back as close as possible to the original story of God’s grace in the life of Jesus and the early church, and we believe that the books of the New Testament are the best window we have into that exciting and foundational time. I love the Bible, even though I often don’t understand it and it regularly infuriates me, because when I take it as a whole and understand it through the lens of the story of Jesus, it is indeed ‘a lamp for my feet and a light to my path’.

I’m an evangelical Christian because I’m excited about evangelism. Jesus continues to make a huge difference in my life, and as I talk to people who are spiritually curious, I love helping them come closer to the light of God in Jesus. And I love the fact that I can relax and enjoy this process, because at the most fundamental level it’s God’s work, not mine.

I’m an evangelical Christian because I’m excited about conversion. I have a conversion story of my own – the time when the light of Jesus first flooded into my life – and I’ve seen other people get converted too. To me, it’s a beautiful miracle, and there’s no thrill like being a part of it in the lives of others.

I’m an evangelical Christian because I love the vibrant community of people who know Christ and want to know him better, and who want to meet to learn more about him and to share his love with each other and the world around them. Small group learning and larger gatherings for worship with these folks are awesome experiences for me!

I’m an evangelical Christian because I love a simple approach to worship. I’m not against a written liturgy (I’m an Anglican, after all!) – in fact, I love the way a written liturgy gathers all the different elements of worship together in a way that all can participate in. But I don’t like it when it’s too wordy and too full of rituals. I don’t like crowded worship services; I love worship services that leave me lots of room to sense the touch of the living God.

I don’t think evangelical Christianity has everything right, and I don’t think there’s nothing we can learn from other Christian traditions. But at the end of the day, this tradition is my spiritual home, not because of what it’s against, but because of what it’s for. I’ve been blessed to be part of it, and it continues to bring great blessing into my life, and for that I’m very grateful.

Why am I a Christian – Part 2

Yesterday I answered the question ‘Why am I a Christian?’ in terms of the process by which I became a Christian, outlining very briefly the story of my conversion as a young teenager. This is a very important story to me and I have no doubt that without it my life would have taken a radically different course.

But why am I still a Christian today? Why don’t I find the arguments of the new atheists persuasive? Why aren’t I so discouraged by the imperfections of the church that I follow the lead of many others of my generation and drop out altogether?

Quite simply, the most important answer is ‘Jesus’. It is the person of Jesus who is the centre of my Christian life, and it is the story of his life and teaching that keeps me in the faith today.

I find his vision of the Kingdom, or Reign, of God compelling. It’s so much more attractive to me than the Kingdom of the American empire, of the Kingdom of Google, or the Kingdom of Big Oil, of the Kingdom of ‘Whatever makes you feel good…’ The idea that the world is broken by evil but still loved by God, and that God is quietly working through individuals to spread his reign of justice and love, inspires me and gives me hope. And it makes perfect sense to me that this Kingdom is about love, justice, compassion and community, not about profits or power or ‘the one who dies with the most toys wins’.

Jesus has such a knack for getting right to the heart of the issue. When he asks, “What good is it for a person to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Mark 8:36), we know instinctively that he’s right. Ditto, when he says, “Life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Luke 13:15), or “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life?” (Luke 13:25). The way he sums up God’s commandments in terms of our primary relationships – ‘Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself’ – is so profound and yet so challenging (‘all my heart?’ ‘as myself?’).

I love the fact that Jesus walks around quietly ignoring the power structures and authorities of his day. His contemporaries assumed that the best place to meet God was the Temple in Jerusalem, but Jesus seems to assume that he is the Temple: if you want to meet God, be forgiven, be healed, come to him and ask! He reaches out to outcasts and ‘sinners’, heals even the servants of enemy soldiers, and forgives those who crucify him. He’s not above speaking harsh words to hypocrites and he’s not afraid to make it hard for people to follow him.

Jesus defies categories. He’s not conservative and he’s not liberal; he’s not capitalist, but he’s not socialist either. He’s not judgemental (except when he is), but he’s not a wishy-washy ‘come to me and carry on living just the way you were’ kind of guy either. Conservatives like to paint Christianity as being all about family, but in fact Jesus doesn’t have much to say on that subject (although what he does say is challenging, especially about divorce). Liberals like to paint him as all about inclusivity, and it’s true that he reaches out to people seen as ‘beyond the pale’ by the respectable, but he sets the bar pretty high for his followers too. He annoys me as well as inspiring me, and I like that. After all, if I think I agree with everything he says, then I’m probably following me, not him, right?

Quite simply, when I look around at the world today, I can’t seen anyone else who seems to understand the root causes of its problems the way Jesus does. I can’t see anyone else who has as compelling a vision for the transformation of the world as Jesus does. Deep down in my heart, I know instinctively that if there is a God, he has to be like Jesus. ‘Like Father, like Son’ makes sense to me; I believe that Jesus is the Son of God, because I believe the vision of God that Jesus gives me, and Jesus himself reminds me of that vision.

Why am I a Christian today? Because of Jesus. I believe that following him is the best way of being human and the best way of knowing God. And I have to say that every day I continue to live serves only to strengthen that belief in me.

Why Am I A Christian? – Part 1

A good question for all Christians to ask themselves sometimes is ‘Why am I a Christian?’

Atheist writers have sometimes challenged us by saying, “Your faith is predetermined by the fact that you grew up in a Christian country. If you’d been born and raised in Saudi Arabia, you’d be a Muslim”. Well, there’s some truth in this, of course, but it isn’t working too well these days. Anyone seen the church attendance statistics in the ‘Christian countries’ of the west lately? Yeah – that’s a thing of the past! Obviously the Christian countries were good at making people who went along with conventional Christianity, but not actual disciples of Jesus.

Being raised in a ‘Christian country’ (actually, I don’t believe there is any such thing) definitely didn’t make me a Christian. Being raised in a Christian country meant I was subjected to ‘Christian worship’ at school, much of which was led by people who weren’t Christian. My first year of high school Religious Education was taught by a man who self-identified as an atheist.

Nor am I a Christian because I was baptized as a baby. Many, many people were baptized as babies when I was growing up, and very few of them went on to follow Jesus. Infant baptism wasn’t enough to bring them to a living faith in Christ; something else was needed. Even those who went to church didn’t necessarily ‘catch’ faith; I’ve talked to many lifelong churchgoers who readily admit that they don’t really know God in any personal way.

No: the main reason I am a Christian today is that, when I was a young teenager, I had a conversion experience. It began with reading Dennis Bennett’s Nine O’Clock in the Morning, and reached its fruition a few months later when my dad gave me a gentle challenge: ‘You’ve never given your life to Jesus, have you?’ Later that night I sat on my bed in my room and prayed a simple prayer giving my life to Jesus. Not long after that my dad taught me how to have a daily prayer and Bible reading time, and I started attending a midweek prayer and study group.

These were the events that brought faith alive for me. I haven’t had dramatic mystical experiences in my faith life, but I do regularly experience a sense of the presence and peace of God. I have also experienced the guidance of God in terms of ‘hunches’ about what I should do (which have almost always worked out well). So I’m happy to say ‘God is a living presence in my life’ (although I don’t want that to sound more dramatic than it really is).

So far, of course, I’ve answered the question in the past tense – not so much ‘Why are you a Christian?’ as ‘How did you become a Christian?’ It’s a valid way to answer the question – how I became a Christian has a lot to do with why I am a Christian today – but there’s more to it than that. Come back tomorrow for the second part…

Don’t look to Christianity to make you happy!

Today we’ll have a quote from the great C.S. Lewis. He was once asked which of the world’sLewis religions made its practitioners the happiest. Here is part of his reply:

“I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”  (C.S. Lewis: ‘God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics‘)

He went on to say that he hadn’t become a Christian because he thought it would make him happy – rather, he had come to Christian faith because he had decided it was true. In case you’re interested, he tells the story of how he came to that conclusion in his autobiography ‘Surprised by Joy‘.

I think this is exactly right. Yes, Jesus promised us joy, but he’s not in the business of confirming us in our selfishness and self-centredness. His business is to transform us into people who can truly be happy forever, and in order to do that, he has to help us leave behind a lot of things we think are essential to our happiness. This is because he knows a lot better than we do what is good for us and what isn’t. So the best thing to ask, as he says in the introduction to ‘Mere Christianity‘, is ‘Are these doctrines true? Is holiness here?’ Put happiness first and we probably won’t find it. Put truth, loving action, and holiness first, and we’re likely to get happiness thrown in as a by-product when we’re least expecting it.