Archive for the ‘ Christians & Culture ’ Category

Lewis: Surprised by Joy [Davidman]

Out of My BoneI’ve been reading the letters of Joy Davidman, who, before her untimely death from cancer at the age of 45, was, for the last few years of her life, the wife of C. S. Lewis.

If you’ve ever seen the movie Shadowlands, you’ve seen an attempt by Hollywood to portray the relationship between the two, but it falls far short of reality. There are historical inaccuracies—even for the sake of artistic license, one must not stray too far—and C. S. Lewis himself is hardly recognizable; false perceptions abound, particularly of his presumed Oxford ivory-tower existence and his shaken faith at the end when Joy dies. Joy’s strength of character comes through in the film, but very little of her own vibrant Christianity.

Born into a Jewish household in New York City, with an atheist father and mother, Joy followed in their train, declaring at a young age that she was an atheist also. Her materialism led her into the Communist party, where she served as an editor and book and film critic on the New Masses, the party’s weekly magazine. She was an accomplished writer who had won a prize for a collection of her poems, and had some success also as a novelist. But it was all in service to the Communist party.

She became critical of the party over time. Her mind couldn’t rest in the platitudes, so she finally read Marx and Lenin seriously. She was appalled by the illogical nature of their arguments and the massive misinformation upon which they based them. Even prior to her disillusionment, she had begun reading outside the approved party list of books; C. S. Lewis was one of the authors she chanced upon.

In a letter to Chad Walsh, an English professor who had written the first book about C. S. Lewis, she explained how he impacted her:

We more than share your feeling for Lewis; with us it was not the last step but the first that came from reading his books, for we were raised atheists and took the truth of atheism for granted, and like most Marxists were so busy acting that we never stopped to think. If I hadn’t picked up The Great Divorce one day—brr, I suppose I’d still be running madly around with leaflets, showing as much intelligent purpose as a headless chicken.

Joy Davidman 1Joy began writing letters to Lewis, and he liked them, drawn to her intellect and wit. In another letter to Walsh, she details how they had been arguing certain points in those letters, and how he had answered her. It’s an insight into her mental capacity and willingness to be corrected:

Just got a letter from Lewis in the mail. I think I told you I’d raised an argument or two on some points? Lord, he knocked my props out from under me unerringly; one shot to a pigeon. I haven’t a scrap of my case left. And, what’s more, I’ve seldom enjoyed anything more. Being disposed of so neatly by a master of debate, all fair and square—it seems to be one of the great pleasures of life, though I’d never have suspected it in my arrogant youth. I suppose it’s unfair tricks of argument that leave wounds. But after the sort of thing that Lewis does, what I feel is a craftsman’s joy at the sight of a superior performance.

Her own faith grew exponentially through her contact with Lewis, and she saw increasingly that one had to accept Jesus Christ on His terms, not create Him in one’s own image. As she related to another correspondent,

In many of them [the correspondent’s poems] you are explaining and sympathizing with Jesus, rather than accepting him—you are, indeed, not following Jesus but trying to get him to follow you; using him as an agency of your own special revolutionary theory.

I did this myself in the early days of my conversion; explained away what I didn’t like in the Gospel, valued Jesus not as the gateway to my own salvation, but as a means which I could use to support my own ideas—until it dawned on me that unless Jesus was God he was nothing, just another man with a handful of random ideas, and that all I valued such a man for was the accidental support his ideas gave my own position.

You see, I was still being my own God!

Although I’ve known and read about Joy Davidman Lewis for many years, this is the first time I’ve delved into her thought. Before, she was primarily just C. S. Lewis’s wife for a few short years, and that was why she was interesting to me. Now, I have a different perspective. She is interesting in her own right, and she has much to offer us through her writings. There is a reason why a confirmed bachelor like C. S. Lewis would abandon that lifestyle in his later years; he found a mind and heart that resonated with his.

Lewis: The Longing for Beauty & Joy

20140808_125732How appropriate, a day after writing about my visit to Wheaton’s Wade Center and researching C. S. Lewis that I would offer you some more of his insights. I’ve been doing this every Saturday and don’t see any reason to stop—his spiritual wisdom shines through everything he wrote. As with last week, I’m going to share more of his famous sermon The Weight of Glory.

In it, as in a number of his works, he explains the inner longing within each person for something “outside” of oneself that brings a deep sense of longing, or joy. Some people, he says, call it nostalgia or Romanticism, but just the fact that the longing exists points to something beyond the longing. We must realize, though, that whatever we remember from our past that sparked this longing is merely a remembrance, and not the “thing” itself. We find this joy only through union with Christ:

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing.

These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.

Do you think I am trying to weave a spell? Perhaps I am, but remember your fairy tales. Spells are used for breaking enchantments as well as for inducing them. And you and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us for nearly a hundred years.

That inner longing does come from God, and it is not to be dismissed. What should be dismissed, however, is the idea that it can be fulfilled through anything the world has to offer. Once that enchantment is dissolved, we can see the real Source of the longing and find its fulfillment in Him.

Researching C. S. Lewis

Now that I’m on sabbatical, projects have seemingly sprung up out of nowhere to keep me busy. One that has been in the back of my mind for a while has now taken a prominent place in my active imagination. I’ve always wanted to write something about C. S. Lewis. While reading a recent biography of him, I grabbed hold of an idea that I hope will come to fruition. I would like to assess, as much as possible, the impact Lewis has made on America and Americans individually. For some reason, America embraced him and his writings far more eagerly than his home nation of Britain. Why was that? How much documentation is there of his influence on Americans?

I thought that might be worth investigating, so since I was at Wheaton College this past week, I made sure to carve out some time to visit the Wade Center, which is a fantastic repository of all things C. S. Lewis and other key British authors such as J. R. R. Tolkien and Dorothy Sayers. It’s really rather amazing that a small Christian college in America has all these treasures. Amazing . . . and a real blessing for researchers like me.

The Wade Center is not huge, but it is welcoming and very helpful to researchers. I was staying at a guest house on campus, and the Wade Center was just across the street, so this is what greeted me every time I left the guest house:

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Where else, in America, can one go to see some original C. S. Lewis artifacts? For instance, here’s the desk he used both at Oxford and in his home later:

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If you are wondering where he got the idea for children to walk into a wardrobe and then into a land called Narnia, perhaps you don’t need to look any further than this piece of furniture that belonged to him:

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I even enjoyed viewing his teapot, tea cup, and pewter mug. How very British of him:

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And there was the research room itself, a veritable sanctuary for those of us who love to immerse ourselves in musty manuscripts and really good books:

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I found a place to call my own:

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My time at the Wade was a time I could enter into another “world,” if only briefly. This was just the beginning stage of the research. Will a book result from this? Perhaps that’s where faith comes in.

Sabbatical Update: Wheaton College

I’ve written previously in this blog about the blessing I’ve received for the coming academic year: a sabbatical to do research and writing. I also promised to provide updates. For the past week, I’ve been at Wheaton College in Illinois, delving into the papers of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) and also materials relating to C. S. Lewis. I’ll talk about Lewis in tomorrow’s post; today, I’ll focus on Graham.

As a reminder, one of my projects during this sabbatical is to examine the relationship of presidents with their spiritual advisers. An obvious starting place for that is the life and ministry of Billy Graham, who has known each president from Dwight Eisenhower to George W. Bush. Wheaton is the repository for the records of the BGEA. Those records are housed in a magnificent building called the Billy Graham Center.

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I want to offer my sincere thanks for all the help I received while burrowing through the mass of material for more than three days. The staff members are excellent. Their spirit of service is greatly appreciated.

The Center has a very interesting museum depicting the history of evangelism and how America fits into the overall picture of the spreading of the Gospel. It also has some valuable artifacts, such as a copy of the first Bible printed in America during the American Revolution:

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I was also gratified to see a prominent display on the significant contribution of Charles Finney to evangelism in the nineteenth century:

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Naturally, the last half of the museum concentrated on the ministry of Billy Graham, but the spirit of it was excellent, as the focal point was not really Graham himself, but the message he preached and the lives that were changed. The Gospel message was central, as can be shown by this beautiful crystal display of the crucifixion with the poignant Scriptural message underneath:

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My attempt to capture the solemnity and grandeur of the room with the crystal display doesn’t do it justice. There is a sense of awe as you enter that room. The sacrifice of Christ on the cross goes directly to the heart. If you are ever in Wheaton, you must visit this museum and come away inspired by what the Lord has accomplished through so many who have been faithful to His calling.

Margaret Thatcher: Unintended Consequences

I’m taking my time reading through Margaret Thatcher’s The Path to Power, going one section at a time, as I try to increase my knowledge of the history of the United Kingdom in the late twentieth century. As I’ve followed her life from her time with her family, to her university years at Oxford, to her early political career, I’ve been fascinated with her observations of the era.

I was struck particularly by a section of the book dealing with the cultural shift in Britain in the 1960s. Thatcher, from the perspective of hindsight, details the loss of the Christian foundations in her country:

Path to PowerBy now (1968) the left-of-centre consensus on economic policy was being challenged and would continue to be so. But the new liberal consensus on moral and social matters was not. That is to say that people in positions of influence in government, the media and universities managed to impose metropolitan liberal views on a society that was still largely conservative morally. The 1960s saw in Britain the beginning of what has become an almost complete separation between traditional Christian values and the authority of the state.

She freely acknowledges that she didn’t catch the drift at the time. In fact, she voted in favor of a couple of bills that haunted her later. One decriminalized homosexual conduct between consenting adults over the age of twenty-one. The other allowed abortion “if there was substantial risk that a child would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped, or ‘where the woman’s capacity as a mother would be severely overstrained.'”

She was influenced, she said, by her concern for other people’s suffering, but didn’t see at first the moral ramifications of what she helped start. Her analysis of those issues changed considerably later, as she explains:

As regards abortion, homosexuality, and divorce reform it is easy to see that matters did not turn out as was intended. . . . Instead, it could be argued that they have paved the way towards a more callous, selfish and irresponsible society. Reforming the law on abortion was primarily intended to stop young women being forced to have back-street abortions. It was not meant to make abortion simply another “choice.” Yet in spite of the universal availability of artificial contraception the figures for abortion have kept on rising.

Homosexual activists have moved from seeking a right of privacy to demanding social approval for the “gay” lifestyle, equal status with the heterosexual family and even the legal right to exploit the sexual uncertainty of adolescents.

Divorce law reform has contributed to—though it is by no means the only cause of—a very large increase in the incidence of marriage breakdown which has left so many children growing up without the continual care and guidance of two parents.

Margaret ThatcherThatcher concludes with these reflections:

Knowing how matters have turned out, would I have voted differently on any of these measures? I now see that we viewed them too narrowly. As a lawyer and indeed as a politician who believed so strongly in the rule of law, I felt that the prime considerations were that the law should be enforceable and its application fair to those who might run afoul of it.

But laws also have a symbolic significance: they are signposts to the way society is developing—and the way the legislators of society envisage that it should develop. Moreover, taking all of the “liberal” reforms of the 1960s together, they amount to more than their individual parts. They came to be seen as providing a radically new framework within which the younger generation would be expected to behave.

Margaret Thatcher was able to own up to her mistakes and learn from them.  In the same vein, when Ronald Reagan saw the consequences of a liberal abortion law he signed as governor of California, he delved into the subject and came away a staunch pro-lifer. He always regretted his earlier action. While I wish neither Reagan nor Thatcher had made those mistakes, I am heartened by the fact that those who have a Biblical foundation to their thinking can see their missteps and make amends for them later.

Persecution of Christians: It’s Real

Persecution of Christians worldwide seems to be increasing. China is tearing down crosses. The Islamic regions either outlaw Christian evangelism (ex., Saudi Arabia) or are dominated by radical Islamists who seek to wipe out Christianity entirely. The poster child for this new persecution, sadly enough, is Iraq, where the U.S. has expended so much effort to turn that nation into a civilized ally. As the country falls apart, and sections of it are overpowered by the latest Islamist terror organization, ISIS, Christians are becoming nearly non-existent.

Their new overlords lay out the options: either convert to Islam, pay a fine for “protection,” or leave. Those who refuse to bow to any of those options are executed.

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Mosul, a city that, until recently, had 60,000 Christians, now has none. Those that refused to leave were slaughtered. This is a new genocide, but not one that seems to get the attention it deserves. Rarely, in the mainstream media, is this a feature. It’s the silent genocide, as far as the media is concerned.

Never Mind

In the midst of all the awful news, there was one bright light: the rescue of Meriam Ibrahim from Sudan, where she had been under a sentence of death for not renouncing her Christian faith. She held firm and is now safely out of that country, soon to be in the U.S. with her husband, who is an American citizen. Ibrahim sought refuge in the U.S. embassy in Sudan, but apparently it was the Italians, not the American government, that took the necessary steps to get her out of the country. Another epic fail for this administration’s foreign policy, which doesn’t seem in the least focused on atrocities against Christians. Upon arriving in Italy, Ibrahim met with Pope Francis:

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I can only imagine the joy she felt upon her release. I pray she won’t find that type of persecution in her new home in America. However, that is not a certainty.

While Christians in the U.S. are not told to renounce their faith, they definitely are starting to feel pressures quite alien to the history and tradition of the nation. Obamacare’s attempt to force Christian organizations to fund abortions is only the beginning. President Obama’s new executive order mandating so-called non-discrimination in hiring as it relates to homosexuals is another broadside against those who hold to a strong Biblical morality. That order specifically does not exempt religious organizations.

Now, that only applies currently to those who want to receive federal funding in any way. I’ve always argued against Christian institutions taking federal funds, for fear it would lead to control over the message. Since all student loans are now coming directly from the federal government—an almost invisible change made in the early days of the Obama administration—all Christian colleges and universities may find themselves faced with a hard choice. What if the government refuses to give students any aid if they attend a college that continues to hire based on its Biblical beliefs, which includes viewing homosexuality as sinful? For me, the choice is not hard: we should never back down on the truth of God’s Word.

Are we only a few steps away from outright persecution? This seems an appropriate spot to mention a movie that has come out recently that dares to ask that question. The title is simple and to the point: Persecuted. Persecuted MovieIt’s fictional, but not far from what could easily become factual. A nationally known pastor is pressed by the government to come out in support of a bill that promotes “tolerance” of all beliefs. The catch is that it will mean a blurring of the line with respect to truth: no one can claim there is only one way to salvation.

The pastor refuses to bend the knee and finds himself in a nightmare world of false accusations; he has to flee for his life. The film has a top-notch cast, which lends itself to fine performances all around. It doesn’t wrap everything up in a neat little box at the end, and it not only deals with government corruption but corruption within the Christian world also. I highly recommend seeing it before it disappears. It will make you think, and we are a point where God wants us to be thinking about what we would do if the movie’s scenario should become reality.

I’m not a whiner. I believe God is able to lead us through trials and through outright persecution. My main concern is that we be ready to do His will, regardless of what we will face in the future. We need to be prepared.

C. S. Lewis on the Second Coming of Christ

As a college student back in the 1970s, and caught up in the Jesus Movement of the era, I anticipated the Second Coming to be very near, probably sometime in the 1970s, of course. Even though I was spiritually immature at the time, that doesn’t mean the Second Coming is some kind of fantasy. As C. S. Lewis explains, it is essential to a proper understanding of the Christian faith. In an essay entitled “The World’s Last Night,” he had this to say about the doctrine:

Second Coming 2It seems to me impossible to retain in any recognisable form our belief in the Divinity of Christ and the truth of the Christian revelation while abandoning, or even persistently neglecting, the promised, and threatened, Return. “He shall come again to judge the quick and the dead,” says the Apostles’ Creed.

“This same Jesus,” said the angels in Acts, “shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven.” “Hereafter,” said our Lord himself (by those words inviting crucifixion), “shall ye see the Son of Man . . . coming in the clouds of heaven.” If this is not an integral part of the faith once given to the saints, I do not know what is.

Later in the same essay, Lewis juxtaposed the doctrine of the Second Coming with modernist thought:

The doctrine of the Second Coming is deeply uncongenial to the whole evolutionary or developmental character of modern thought. We have been taught to think of the world as something that grows slowly towards perfection, something that “progresses” or “evolves.”

Christian Apocalyptic offers us no such hope. It does not even foretell (which would be more tolerable to our habits of thought) a gradual decay. It foretells a sudden, violent end imposed from without; an extinguisher popped onto the candle, a brick flung at the gramophone, a curtain rung down on the play—“Halt!”

The curtain will come down someday. I no longer try to guess when that will be, but if the time was short in Jesus’ day, how much shorter is it now?