A Baptized Imagination

Chad WalshThe first book to analyze C. S. Lewis and his popularity was written by an American, Chad Walsh, an English professor at Beloit College in Wisconsin. It came out in 1949 with the title C. S. Lewis: Apostle to the Skeptics.

Walsh had Lewis to thank for his own conversion. “In my case there was no childhood faith,” Walsh wrote in an account of how he eventually found the Christian path. “If I ever believed in God as a small child, no memory of the time remains with me. I regarded myself as an atheist from the moment I learned to read—and, indeed, pamphlet editions of Ingersoll, et cetera, were part of my earliest reading.”

At the University of Virginia, Walsh, as a student, found himself free of the dominant Christianity of his small hometown of Marion, Virginia, and flourished as a convinced atheist—at least until world circumstances forced him to think more seriously.

The rise of Hitler in Germany, and the growing awareness of the actions of that regime, forced him to confront the problem of evil in the world. Walsh’s companions in atheism and/or agnosticism, when challenged by Walsh to come up with a response to what Hitler was doing, would provide excuses, albeit excuses that were actually consistent with their worldview.

Walsh recounts, “They agreed with me that the world was a senseless jungle. Very well, they reasoned, if the world is a jungle, it’s absurd to speak of right and wrong. Everything is relative. Hitler thinks he’s doing right to invade Poland and murder the Jews. Very well, it is right for him. It’s all in the way you look at it.” That response shook him. He knew he had to come to grips with the reality of evil.

Coming to grips with evil also meant coming to grips with the whole idea of right and wrong and where the concepts originated. That led him to finally consider not only the existence of God but what his response to this God might entail. In this transition period of his life, Walsh came across some of Lewis’s writings. One, in particular, changed his life forever.

PerelandraIt was in either 1944 or 1945, he recalls, on a short vacation to Vermont, that a friend enthusiastically lent him a book she had just finished reading; she just knew he would love it. That book was Perelandra, the second in Lewis’s Space Trilogy in which the protagonist, Elwin Ransom, is transported to Venus to save an innocent world from falling into sin.

Walsh was transported as well: “I quickly consumed it from cover to cover. I was struck first of all by the sheer beauty of the book. It transported me into a kind of Elysian Fields—or better yet, an unspoiled Eden, inhabited by the innocent and unfallen.”

A second revelation was that, even though he had always been a science fiction fan, he had never read any science fiction like this, where it could be used as a “vehicle of great philosophic and psychological myth.” The third revelation, though, was the greatest of all:

Finally, and most importantly, in Perelandra I found my imagination being baptized. At the time I was slowly thinking, feeling, and fumbling my way towards the Christian faith and had reached the point where I was more than half convinced that it was true. This conviction, however, was a thing more of the mind than of the imagination and heart.

In Perelandra I got the taste and smell of Christian truth. My senses as well as my soul were baptized. It was as though an intellectual abstraction or speculation had become flesh and dwelt in its solid bodily glory among us.

As Walsh looked back on this event years later, he came to the realization that the way he found Lewis was quite typical. A person reads something by Lewis, becomes so enthused that he/she lends the book to a friend, who in turn catches that enthusiasm and passes it on to others.

For Walsh, “The result was that I began buying everything else by him that was available in America and also passed along word of the discovery to other friends. It was as though I had discovered a new ingredient in my intellectual, emotional, and spiritual diet that I had unconsciously desired but had not previously found. I think many others, coming on Lewis for the first time, felt the same way.”

As you might guess, the above is excerpted from my new book, America Discovers C. S. Lewis, which will be available in a few short weeks.

Celebrity “Conversions”: The Trump Report

In my decades as a Christian believer, I’ve witnessed a number of claims about celebrities who recently became Christians. In my early years, each claim was very exciting, as it seemed to show how God’s mercy reaches to everyone no matter how morally depraved they have been.

Then I would expectantly wait for their lives to be changed and their testimony to be life-changing for others. Most of the time, I have been disappointed; they seemed to continue on their former path, albeit with some vague language about God that might not have been there previously.

Let me be clear: There were some reports that were accurate; some lives were changed, so I’m not discounting all such stories of conversion. However, I have become skeptical of most of these reports based on what has transpired over the years.

James DobsonThe latest celebrity “conversion” was made public a couple of days ago by Dr. James Dobson, who passed on the word that he heard from someone else that Donald Trump recently gave his life to the Lord. Now, I’ve always admired and respected Dr. Dobson, so I’m not trying to undermine all the good work he has done or the word of his testimony out of some kind of disrespect. Yet you can color me more than a little skeptical of this news.

One of the things that bothers me most about modern evangelicalism is the tendency to call someone a Christian on the basis of some kind of mental assent to the deity of Jesus or for having prayed a prayer to “accept” Jesus.

While I try to avoid such clichés, I agree with the critique of what some have called “easy believeism,” or “cheap grace.” The entrance into the kingdom of God comes at a cost. Yes, Jesus paid the price for salvation at the cross, but there are conditions we must meet before He accepts us.

First, we must recognize our sins. This goes beyond some facile statement that says, oh, yes, we’re all sinners, so I must be also—sure would like to go to heaven so I’ll admit that I’m a sinner, too.

Frankly, an acknowledgement of sin must go deeper than that. There needs to be a corresponding sense of guilt and remorse over how one has destroyed what God intended for good. There must be a great desire to turn away from sin and seek a life that pleases God in all ways.

Repentance 2Second, that desire to turn away from sin has to be manifested in a thorough repentance. The word means a total change of thinking about God and oneself. It means that from now on we earnestly want to serve Him supremely and not our own selfish interests. It means we dethrone ourselves and put God exactly where He belongs as not only Savior, but also as Lord—the One who has the right and the authority to tell us how to live.

Third, we then turn to the cross of Christ and see that He humbled Himself on our behalf and took the penalty of sin for us. The love manifested through the life and death of Jesus should then break down our rebellion and lead us into a life in which we are constantly figuring out how best to follow Him and please Him in all ways.

When those steps occur, salvation is real. Anything less is a superficial mental agreement to certain doctrinal statements without any real impact on the relationship with God or how we live. Unless those steps occur, we are still in our sins; nothing has been accomplished except stark hypocrisy.

How are we to know if Donald Trump has experienced a genuine conversion? Dr. Dobson cautions us to realize that a baby Christian doesn’t change overnight. Well, I agree up to a point. Yes, a new Christian has a lot to learn and needs to continually grow in the faith. But, as the apostle Paul noted, when a person is in Christ, he becomes a new creation.

That means that the motivation for life changes right from the start. There should be evidence immediately that something has happened. A true conversion signifies that the person now has a new humility and purpose; it’s now all for God’s glory, not his own.

Donald TrumpHere are some ways that Donald Trump can convince me he has undergone a genuine Christian conversion:

  • His hubris will come to an end. He won’t be bragging about how great he is, how wonderful he always has been, and how he is the answer for everything that’s wrong with America.
  • He will finally acknowledge that he has sinned greatly in the past and has now gone to God for forgiveness for those sins.
  • Specifically, he will apologize publicly for the many things he has done in this campaign that impugned others: his disparaging comments about Carly Fiorina’s face; his conniving to plant stories about Ted Cruz being a serial adulterer; his despicable depiction of Heidi Cruz in a photo that compared her to his own wife; his mocking of a disabled reporter by imitating his disability; his manipulative ways to undermine opponents, particularly in his silly questioning of Cruz’s American citizenship and his attempt to link Cruz’s father to the Kennedy assassination.
  • He will stop throwing out a constant barrage of personal insults via Twitter, and instead will try to point people to the faith he now has taken to heart. [Note: after writing this, I became aware of a number of snarky tweets Trump sent out about conservative commentator George Will, who announced he was leaving the Republican party because of its embrace of Trump—no change yet in Trump’s responses to people who go against him.]

If he were to do all of these things, I would be more inclined to believe a conversion has taken place. Even then, because he is in the midst of a presidential race in which he knows he needs the support of the evangelical community to have any chance of winning, I would still have my suspicions that this could all be more manipulation.

Judging OthersI can hear the voices already, putting forth the usual objection: judge not that you be not judged. Well, when you say that, aren’t you judging me?

Check out that passage again if you haven’t done so recently. It’s found in Matthew 7. The context makes it clear that judgment is supposed to take place, but only after ensuring that one isn’t being a hypocrite.

Jesus also said in that same chapter that we would know by the fruit of a person’s life whether he is genuine or not. That requires some judgment, doesn’t it?

I’m also reminded of a verse in the fifth chapter of the book of Hebrews, in which the author tells us, “Solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.”

We are to be a discerning people. That means we don’t accept everything we hear without first examining all reports through the lens of Scriptural truth.

Let me be clear again: I would welcome the news that Donald Trump has done a 180-degree turn via a real recognition of sin in his life, a true repentance from that sin, and a sincere faith in Christ that will transform his every thought and action from now on.

I’m just not going to believe it until there is adequate evidence for it. I urge fellow Christians not to blindly accept this news without testing it first. Love is not synonymous with naivete.

Lewis & Humility

Sheldon VanaukenSheldon Vanauken was an American studying in Oxford in the early 1950s. He was supremely pagan in worldview and lifestyle. Then he started reading C. S. Lewis. As a student of literature, he immediately was drawn to Lewis’s Space Trilogy, then began digesting his apologetic works. He decided, since Lewis was at Oxford also, to contact him, and a correspondence between them developed.

Lewis dealt with all of Vanauken’s major questions: the uniqueness of Christianity with respect to all other religions; the need for humility and “bending the knee” to Christ as Lord of all things in one’s life. Vanauken, with Lewis’s help, bent his knee one day and became a convinced Christian. Vanauken’s wife also gave her life to Christ as a result of reading Lewis.

What’s interesting is to see Lewis’s perspective on the role he played in the Vanaukens’ conversion. It gives insight into Lewis’s own character, and the prominence of humility in someone who could easily have puffed up his role. Instead, here is how he explained his contribution:

C. S. Lewis 8I hope my interest in you both is something less blasphemous than that of a Creator in a creature (it wd. anyway be begetting not creating, see Philemon 10).

My feeling about people in whose conversion I have been allowed to play a part is always mixed with awe and even fear: such as a boy might feel on first being allowed to fire a rifle. The disproportion between his puny finger on the trigger and the thunder & lightning wh. follow is alarming.

And the seriousness with which the other party takes my words always raises the doubt whether I have taken them seriously enough myself. By writing the things I write, you see, one especially qualifies for being hereafter “condemned out of one’s mouth.” Think of me as a fellow-patient in the same hospital who, having been admitted a little earlier, cd. give some advice.

God will always use a person for His purposes who doesn’t think too highly of himself. I believe Lewis’s books and essays continue to bless readers today, in large part because of the quality of his personal character. It shines through in everything he wrote.

Finney & God’s Providence

Charles Finney 5Charles Finney relates a very unusual story in his Autobiography, one that has stayed with me ever since I first read it back in the mid-1970s. He was carrying out his ministry as a traveling evangelist when he was approached by an elderly man who asked him to come preach at his village, a place that had never had any religious services.

Finney went with the man and, as was his custom, simply relied on the Lord for guidance as to what to say. He had no prepared text, he didn’t know the name of the village nor the man who had brought him there. Things didn’t start well as the singing was so awful he had to put his hands over his ears to endure it. When it came time to preach, he felt led to speak about Abraham receiving the Word of the Lord regarding the destruction of Sodom. Finney spoke of the evil practices of the people of Sodom and how Lot was the only righteous man living there. I’ll let him tell the next part:

While I was relating these facts I observed the people looking as if they were angry. Many of the men . . . looked at each other and at me, as if they were ready to fall upon me and chastise me on the spot. I saw their strange and unaccountable looks, and could not understand what I was saying that had offended them. However, it seemed to me that their anger rose higher and higher as I continued the narrative.

As soon as I had finished the narrative, I turned upon them and said that I understood that they had never had a religious meeting in that place; and that therefore I had a right to take it for granted . . . that they were an ungodly people. I pressed home upon them with more and more energy, with heart full almost to bursting.

I had not spoken in this strain of direct application, I should think, more than a quarter of an hour, when all at once an awful solemnity seemed to settle down upon them; the congregation began to fall from their seats in every direction, and cried for mercy. If I had a sword in each hand, I could not have cut them off their seats as fast as they fell. Indeed nearly the whole congregation were either on their knees or prostrate, I should think, in less than two minutes from this first shock that fell upon them. Every one prayed for himself who was able to speak at all.

The people stayed in that state all night and into the morning. Most were converted. The next day, Finney finally got an explanation for this overwhelming reaction to his words.

I learned that the place was called Sodom, but I knew it not; and that there was but one pious man in the place, and him they called Lot. This was the old man that invited me there. The people supposed that I had chosen my subject, and preached to them in that manner, because they were so wicked as to be called Sodom. This was a striking coincidence; but so far as I was concerned, it was altogether accidental.

Let’s call this one a providential accident, if that’s not too much of an oxymoron. God places people in circumstances and gives them what is needed for the moment. Life should be comprised of this kind of constant trust and guidance.

Noah Webster & the Wisdom of Earlier Ages

Noah WebsterI spent a number of years researching Noah Webster, who became the subject of my doctoral dissertation. He’s known primarily for two things: his Speller, which taught Americans to read and write correctly; his dictionary, a monumental effort of about twenty years of his life, and which defined terms in the context of his Biblical worldview.

Webster started out his career as a devotee of the Enlightenment, that movement of the eighteenth century that gave far more credit to human reason than human reason should allow. But he came to the end of his faith in human reasoning that sought to separate itself from God’s revelation. In 1808, he experienced a solid Christian conversion that affected all his works from then on. All his educational efforts were henceforth directed to pointing men to the One to whom they all must answer someday.

His conversion also provided a more Biblical concept of government and education. As he wrote to one of his personal correspondents in 1836,

An attempt to conduct the affairs of a free government with wisdom and impartiality, and to preserve the just rights of all classes of citizens, without the guidance of Divine precepts, will certainly end in disappointment. God is the supreme moral Governor of the world He has made, and as He Himself governs with perfect rectitude, He requires His rational creatures to govern themselves in like manner. If men will not submit to be controlled by His laws, He will punish them by the evils resulting from their own disobedience.

Any system of education, therefore, which limits instruction to the arts and sciences, and rejects the aids of religion in forming the characters of citizens, is essentially defective.

In my view, the Christian religion is the most important and one of the first things in which all children, under a free government ought to be instructed.… No truth is more evident to my mind than that the Christian religion must be the basis of any government intended to secure the rights and privileges of a free people.

When I was taking doctoral courses in history, more than once my professors hinted at the idea that we, in our day, are naturally more knowledgeable and possess more wisdom than those in earlier, more primitive, ages. Well, when I read comments such as Webster’s above, I just kind of smile inwardly at the arrogance of our learned elite today. No, there are some things that earlier generations understood much better than we do now.

WebsterIf you would like to delve deeper into Noah Webster, his thoughts, and his times, I recommend my doctoral dissertation, which is now in book form. The latest version is found at the Barnes & Noble website: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/defining-noah-webster-k-alan-snyder/1005377905?ean=9781591600558

A lot of time and effort went into this book, and I can say I’m pleased with the result. I believe it has stood the test of time and offers some real insights into a man who devoted the last half of his life to promoting God’s truths.

Probably my favorite conversion account is that of Charles Finney’s. A lawyer with little knowledge of the Christian faith, Finney decided he needed to read the Bible since so much of the law was based on it. The more he read, the more convicted he was over his sinfulness. One day he determined to get right with God, so he went into the woods to pray. Yet every time he started to pray, he thought he heard someone in the woods, and he would stop, afraid that he might be seen praying. Finally, he realized the great pride in his heart, that it should bother him if someone saw him praying. It broke him down before the Lord. But that is only the beginning of his conversion story. He went back to his house, where God met him anew:

There was no fire, and no light, in the room; nevertheless it appeared to me as if it were perfectly light. As I went in and shut the door after me, it seemed as if I met the Lord Jesus Christ face to face. It did not occur to me then, nor did it for some time afterward, that it was wholly a mental state. On the contrary it seemed to me that I saw him as I would see any other man.

He said nothing, but looked at me in such a manner as to break me right down at his feet. . . . I fell down at his feet and poured out my soul to him. I wept aloud like a child, and made such confessions as I could with my choked utterance. It seemed to me that I bathed his feet with my tears; and yet I had no distinct impression that I touched him, that I recollect. . . .

As I turned and was about to take a seat by the fire, I received a mighty baptism of the Holy Ghost. Without any expectation of it, without ever having the thought in my mind that there was any such thing for me, without any recollection that I had ever heard the thing mentioned by any person in the world, the Holy Spirit descended upon me in a manner that seemed to go through me, body and soul. I could feel the impression, like a wave of electricity, going through and through me. Indeed it seemed to come in waves and waves of liquid love; for I could not express it in any other way. It seemed like the very breath of God. I can recollect distinctly that it seemed to fan me, like immense wings.

No words can express the wonderful love that was shed abroad in my heart. I wept aloud with joy and love; and I do not know but I should say, I literally bellowed out the unutterable gushings of my heart. These waves came over me, and over me, and over me, one after the other, until I recollect I cried out, “I shall die if these waves continue to pass over me.” I said, “Lord, I cannot bear any more;” yet I had no fear of death.

How long I continued in this state, with this baptism continuing to roll over me and go through me, I do not know. But I know it was late in the evening when a member of my choir . . . came into the office to see me. . . . He found me in this state of loud weeping, and said to me, “Mr. Finney, what ails you?” I could make him no answer for some time. He then said, “Are you in pain?” I gathered myself up as best I could, and replied, “No, but so happy that I cannot live.”

And so began one of the most effective ministries of the nineteenth century.

C. S. Lewis’s Conversion

As explained in his autobiography Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis was not the happiest of all converts. Later, though, he realized a deep truth about the character of God through his conversion experience:

In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed; perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. I did not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing; the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms.

The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape?

The words . . . compel them to come in, have been so abused by wicked men that we shudder at them; but, properly understood, they plumb the depth of the Divine mercy. The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation.