Charles (Chuck) Colson (1931-2012)

When Chuck Colson broke free from his earthly body this past Saturday, the evangelical world lost one of its foremost spokesmen. He didn’t start out as a Christian leader; in fact, he was considered a political hatchet man and became embroiled in the Watergate controversy, over which he went to prison. But his life changed dramatically.

I remember the events of Watergate quite clearly. Just out of college, I followed the fallout from the foolish break-in at the Democrat headquarters that occurred during the 1972 presidential campaign. Colson was a White House operative under Nixon. He in no way participated in the break-in plans, but did get involved with the attempted coverup afterwards. As a result, he was found guilty of obstruction of justice and served seven months in a federal prison for his actions.

Yet by the time he went to prison, he already was a different man. The ordeal made him rethink his entire life, and where ultimate meaning really resides. He began to delve into Scripture and into the works of C.S. Lewis. The combination convinced him to turn his life over to the Lord. This was particularly meaningful to me at the time since I was reading Lewis rather heavily myself; he was fast becoming my favorite author. Hearing how Lewis’s works had helped bring Colson to salvation, I naturally wanted to know more about what had transpired.

I didn’t have long to wait, as Colson’s spiritual confessions were in print shortly after his release. The book’s title, Born Again, was not inventive, but it certainly was descriptive. It was the beginning of a witness to the truth of the Gospel that Colson would maintain for the rest of his days. It made an impact on me. As I sit here writing, I see my copy of the book in my bookcase across the room, a book I’ve now had in my library for thirty-six years.

The cynics watched and waited. They fully expected this was a foxhole conversion that wouldn’t hold. Colson surprised them. He started a ministry called Prison Fellowship, which ministered to the incarcerated. It continues unabated today. If you’ve ever participated in the Angel Tree program at Christmas, you’ve been touched by the life of Chuck Colson.

More than that, he sought to educate Christians into a more comprehensive, consistent Biblical worldview—another key component of his ministry, separate from the prison ministry but just as significant. In his later years, he devoted the largest share of his time to speaking out on how to apply Biblical thinking to our culture and politics.

Although his family and friends will surely miss him, everyone who knew him has the deep assurance that he now has a greater reason to rejoice than those who have been left behind. I hope to meet him someday. Death is not the end for those who name the name of Christ. As the apostle Paul explained,

For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality. But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”

On Saturday, death lost again.

God's Original Intent

The last two days, I’ve promoted a book of devotionals based on the writings of C. S. Lewis. Id like to offer one more example from that book today.

I comment on politics and government regularly, and often I speak of the concept of original intent—how we need to look back at what the author or authors meant when they wrote their words rather than taking them out of context or ignoring their original meaning. Lewis applies that same principle here, to both literature and the Bible. I hope you receive some edification from this commentary on his thoughts.

But is is not enough to make sense. We want to find the sense the author intended.

In this passage Lewis was addressing the laughable work of scholars who draw seemingly “brilliant” interpretations of literature that have not the faintest connection with the author’s original purpose. Unfortunately, that kind of arrogance and error is not limited to the world of literature.

One aspect of the Bible’s beauty is its timelessness: the perpetuity of its messages and the universality that makes it vital to every culture, time, and individual. But the Bible is not so universal that it has abandoned definite meaning. We have wearisome examples of those who fail to uncover those truly biblical messages and instead warp Scripture to match their predetermined agendas as they claim support for ungodly rhetoric and actions.

Less reprehensible, but more common, is the individualistic devotional treasure hunt of seeking what the Bible has to say to me, for me, which can result in the same type of twisting. Those who narrow their reading to that lens can easily find “support” for decisions they’ve already made, “guidance” that matches their prized wishes, and “values” that replicate their pet interests. They can dismiss all that is uncomfortable and challenging by ignoring other passages or crafting an interpretation to make the words parrot their desired message.

But that is not truly reading God’s Word, and it involves no communion with its author. Instead, it is a ludicrous approach. Think of God’s nature, his unfathomable goodness and wisdom. What self-fabricated message could exceed the meaning that God has already embedded in his words? God’s Word is worth our devotion, study, meditation, and memorization only when we are disciplined to approach it with integrity and with an eagerness to uncover what God is saying through it. But to do so, we have to put ourselves and our agendas aside, consciously and humbly giving up our filters and allowing ourselves to perceive God’s true intention, which in the end is the only sense that matters.

Open my eyes to see the wonderful truths in your instructions. Psalm 119:18

Modern Verbicide

Yesterday, I recommended a new book of devotionals based on the writings of C. S. Lewis. Today, I’d like to give you a sample of what you will find inside. One of Lewis’s lesser-known works is Studies in Words, which is primarily academic. However, there are salient points from those pages that apply to everyone. Here’s one entry that deals with the meanings of words, and how we often dilute those meanings. It begins with a quote from Lewis, then commentary, and closes with a verse from the Scripture:

Verbicide, the murder of a word, happens in many ways. Inflation is one of the commonest.

Through language we can be used by God as his means of healing in the world, to bring hope, light, freedom, comfort, encouragement, joy. But we can also dull language’s capacity to be used for God’s purposes by stretching words beyond true meaning. Lewis had cause to critique this misapplication. What strength or truth is there in the description “God is love,” when the same descriptor is lazily parceled out to describe not only relationships but also our affinities for clothes, desserts, and sports? Awesome has long since been worn out from common overuse and underappreciation, so that it no longer approaches an accurate description of God.

In speech and in print, divergent meanings are crowded into one word without thought, resulting not in the communication of ideas or truth but merely in noisy air. Words are “puffed up” until they have no substance and have lost any power to heal or impart grace. With such flabby language, how can we hope to communicate God’s message to the world, a message that is truly awesome and incredible, literally unbelievable apart from his Spirit?

Perhaps this seems an esoteric point, something to be reserved for grammarians and English professors. But God clearly values meaning and precision in language. Think of God’s careful preservation of his Holy Word. Think of Jesus’ pronouncement that not a letter of the law would be eliminated or lost (see Matthew 5:18). Consider also his condemnation of elaborate vows: “Just say a simple, ‘Yes, I will’ or ‘No, I won’t'” (Matthew 5:37).

Above all, think of God’s painstaking sacrifice of living and suffering as the Word made flesh in order to communicate the gospel in a way that his human creation could understand. View your words as a gift and a tool, and ask God to help you sharpen them so that you will be better equipped to speak truth to those around you.

I tell you this, you must give an account on judgment day for every idle word you speak. Matthew 12:36

The Soul of C. S. Lewis

Over the past few months, I’ve been using one particular book as a devotional. I was intrigued by the concept when I first read about it and hoped it would live up to its promise. It has.

If you are looking for a thought-provoking book to help you focus on Christian spirituality, I recommend you try The Soul of C. S. Lewis: A Meditative Journey through Twenty-Six of His Best-Loved Writings.

All of Lewis’s classics are represented here: each book in the Chronicles of Narnia series; his space trilogy; his autobiography, Surprised by Joy; his “devilish” work, The Screwtape Letters; other fanciful offerings such as The Great Divorce, The Pilgrim’s Regress, and Till We Have Faces; one of his best apologetic essays, The Abolition of Man; what I consider to be one of the most insightful sermons of all time, “The Weight of Glory”; and the poignant A Grief Observed, which reveals how Lewis dealt with the the death of his wife.

The editors also include some lesser-known works that normally might have a more restricted, scholarly audience, yet they draw worthy lessons from these as well, applicable to anyone, scholar or not.

Sections are titled “Pilgrimage,” “Temptation and Triumph,” “Going Deeper,” and “Words of Grace.” Within each section are six chapters, each with an introduction and ten separate meditations from a specific book. Each meditation begins with a quote from the work and ends with an applicable scriptural passage.

The next two days I want to take a break from political commentary and provide instead samples from this worthwhile volume. I hope you find the excerpts edifying.

The Weight of Glory

Yesterday, I employed a few choice quotes from C. S. Lewis. Today, I’d like to extend his remarks. This is a longer passage found at the end of a talk he gave entitled “The Weight of Glory.” I think it is sublime as it redirects our thoughts to how God would like us to view the potential He has placed within each person.

I urge you to read this passage all the way through and allow it to renew your mind:

We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered 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.

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, the 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.

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. Almost our whole education has been directed to silencing this shy, persistent, inner voice; almost all our modern philosophies have been devised to convince us that the good of man is to be found on this earth.

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. 

God, Reason, & C. S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis has popped up on this blog a number of times recently. I gave a thumbs-up to the movie Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and I commented on Sarah Palin’s reliance on Lewis for spiritual inspiration. Actually, that was more of a comment on the cluelessness of those who critiqued her for relying on an author of children’s books, thereby displaying for all to see the ignorance of the critics.

I would like those critics to read more of Lewis, so I’m going to use a few of his quotes today so they will understand the depth of his meditations. For instance, I wonder how many of those critics have pondered the issue of objective moral law vs. subjectivism. Here’s Lewis on that topic:

The very idea of freedom presupposes some objective moral law which overarches rulers and ruled alike. Subjectivism about values is eternally incompatible with democracy. We and our rulers are of one kind only so long as we are subject to one law. But if there is no Law of Nature, the ethos of any society is the creation of its rulers, educators and conditioners; and every creator stands above and outside his own creation.

We are seeing the fruit of that subjectivism in our society today.

For those who believe they have an argument with God for some reason, Lewis offers this caution:

There is a difficulty about disagreeing with God. He is the source from which all your reasoning power comes: you could not be right and he wrong any more than a stream can rise higher than its own source. When you are arguing against Him you are arguing against the very power that makes you able to argue at all: it is like cutting off the branch you are sitting on.

And finally, a very succinct observation and a word of instruction:

An open mind, in questions that are not ultimate, is useful. But an open mind about ultimate foundations either of Theoretical or Practical Reason is idiocy. If a man’s mind is open on these things, let his mouth at least be shut.

That one seems tailor-made for the Palin critics.

The Dawn Treader . . . & Beyond

I saw Voyage of the Dawn Treader last night. In preparation for it, I watched The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe and Prince Caspian earlier this week. It’s a great way to fill a week.

Watching these films took me back to the first time I read The Chronicles of Narnia. They were actually some of the last Lewis works I tackled, probably because I wasn’t attracted to the idea of spending my time with children’s books. Yet, once I started, I was drawn into them due to Lewis’s talent for storytelling and his ability to combine a fascinating narrative with striking Biblical truths.

The new movie has many strengths: special effects that, even while they have become a staple in the business, still are amazing; character development [as much as one can in two hours, as opposed to a book]; and an alarming message about the dangers of temptation, delivered in a non-preachy manner.

So I guess I’m offering a semi-review here that concludes with an enthusiastic endorsement. If you haven’t seen it yet, take the opportunity this week.

What would C. S. Lewis think of the transference of his books onto the screen? That’s speculation, but I hope he would approve, particularly now that the technology has advanced to the point where his flights of imagination can be realized visually. There are four more Narnia books, and if this one does well—and it was #1 at the box office its first week—another one will go forward, either The Silver Chair or The Magician’s Nephew. As long as the franchise stays faithful to the Christian message, I pray for its continued success.