Archive for the ‘ Christians & Culture ’ Category

Lewis & America: A Conclusion

Yesterday was the final class for my C. S. Lewis course at SEU. This is the third time I’ve taught the course, and probably the best, as I’ve grown more comfortable sharing what I’ve learned about Lewis and his writings.

The students read a lot of Lewis, from autobiography to apologetics to fantasy. Some have testified that taking the course at this time was a great help to their faith, as they were struggling in different ways. That kind of testimony is what I love to hear the most. If a course doesn’t aid in solidifying one’s faith, what is the reason for even offering it?

In the last few weeks, I’ve had them read my own book on Lewis that focuses on his relationship with Americans and his impact on this country. I summarized both the book and the course with the following words:

Lewis has developed a true fan following in America. This book has shown his many interactions with Americans of his day. He became good friends with many of them, whether in person or via mail. His correspondence is overflowing with responses to Americans on the full panoply of issues, and he was quite willing to share the progress of his personal life and faith with them as well.

He married an American. The man he thought would serve best as his personal secretary was an American. Thousands of Americans he never communicated with or met, both during his lifetime and after, have testified to their lives being changed by his words. Societies bearing his name have cropped up all over the United States. One institute has developed a discipleship program inspired by him. An American foundation named after him bought his home in Oxford and uses it as a study center. That same foundation is now working to establish a college named after him.

While it is impossible to quantify his impact on America and Americans, the documentary evidence is plentiful that American Christians look to him in a way that is unique among all the Christian writers and teachers, both past and present, available to them as mentors.

In one of Lewis’s essays, “Is Theology Poetry?” we see a shining example of all the features of his writing that appeal, not only to Americans, but to all who thrill at hearing words of truth communicated elegantly. In this essay, he says,

The Pagan stories are all about somebody dying and rising, either every year, or else nobody knows where and nobody knows when. The Christian story is about a historical personage, whose execution can be dated pretty accurately, under a named Roman magistrate, and with whom the society that He founded is in a continuous relation down to the present day. It is not the difference between falsehood and truth. It is the difference between a real event on the one hand and dim dreams or premonitions of that same event on the other.

That essay then concludes with the words that can be found on Lewis’s commemorative stone in Westminster Abbey’s Poets Corner: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.

Through C. S. Lewis, a multitude of Americans have learned to believe in Christianity because they have seen it come to life in his writings, and by those writings he has shown them how to see everything through the lens of the Christian faith. That is his legacy. That is what a man who never saw America has given to Americans—an illumined Christianity that lights up all of life.

A Largely Unknown Hero of the Faith

I love learning about great men and women of Christian faith of whom I was entirely ignorant. This is one such man and one such ministry. I am indebted to the Christian History Institute for the story of his life and faithfulness.

BORN IN CONNECTICUT in 1801, Titus Coan almost did not survive to adulthood. When he was seven, he defied his father by sledding on a frozen pond with his friend Julius. The ice broke, plunging him into freezing water. He bobbed to the surface, screaming and grabbed the edge of the ice. It snapped. Again and again the ice broke. “At length, however, I came to firmer ice, and clung to it as with a death grasp, calling on Julius for help. The timid boy approached slowly until his hand reached mine; and with his help and God’s mercy I was delivered from a watery grave….”

His first near-death experience, however, did not immediately lead him to Christ. It took until he was twenty-five for Coan to become a Christian. A severe illness made him bed-ridden for four months. Lying in bed he reached a decision: he would train for the ministry.

After graduating from seminary, Coan worked with leading evangelists of the Second Great Awakening, visited prisoners, explored Patagonia, married cheerful young Fidelia Church, and sailed to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) as a missionary. Titus and Fidelia arrived in June 1835. They would soon be at the center of an amazing revival.

Once Coan mastered the Hawaiian language, he visited every one of Hilo island’s 16,000 people, making notes on each person so he could pray intelligently. Later he revisited each to check on them. Many Hawaiians fell under conviction of sin and soon revival was roaring across Hilo. Coan wrote, “In places where I spent my nights they filled the house to its entire capacity, leaving scores outside who could not enter.” The Coans’ congregation became the largest in the world at the time, surpassing 13,000 members. To become a member, a convert had to show a genuine life change over a period of several months.

On the morning of September 16, 1881, Coan suffered a stroke and lingered for eight weeks. Asked if he had any fears, he replied, “When I look at myself, I see no reason why I should be in heaven; when I look at Jesus, I see such a Savior I have no fears, not one, not one.” He died on 1 December 1881. His last whispered word was “Jesus!”

The “Rumour” Is True: We Shall Get In

The reading assignment I gave my C. S. Lewis class for yesterday was his magnificent sermon, “The Weight of Glory.” As always, I went through with them some of Lewis’s key passages, marveling at the way he chose to express the almost-inexpressible.

Looking it over again this morning, I thought I would highlight a section that didn’t stand out to me as much yesterday but most certainly did this morning. Isn’t that the way it is, whether reading someone like Lewis or or the Bible, that no matter how often you may have read it before, something new seems to come to the forefront?

I did mention to the class that there is a strong connection between what Lewis said about longings in this sermon and what he eventually wrote in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy.

For instance, when commenting on those longings and how we tend to refer to them as beauty, Lewis reminds us that “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.”

Lewis warns that we can turn even good things into “dumb idols.”

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.

Men, he says, have been laboring under a false concept for many decades—“the evil enchantment of worldliness” brought to us through faulty education that “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.”

Everything I’ve mentioned thus far I did bring out in class. The next part I didn’t, and wish I had. Lewis says that men invent philosophies that try to fill in the vacuum in our lives, and that each one actually, without even realizing it, points back to the void that our longings seek to fill. They attempt to give earthly solutions to something eternal that is above and beyond the earth.

When they want to convince you that earth is your home, notice how they set about it. They begin by trying to persuade you that earth can be made into heaven, thus giving a sop to your sense of exile in earth as it is.

Next, they tell you that this fortunate event is still a good way off in the future, thus giving a sop to your knowledge that the fatherland is not here and now.

Finally, lest your longing for the transtemporal should awake and spoil the whole affair, they use any rhetoric that comes to hand to keep out of your mind the recollection that even if all the happiness they promised could come to man on earth, yet still each generation would lose it by death, including the last generation of all, and the whole story would be nothing, not even a story, for ever and ever. [emphasis added]

Later on, Lewis returns to this theme and notes that whenever we have experiences of beauty, they are fleeting, and never truly satisfy: “Beauty has smiled, but not to welcome us; her face was turned in our direction, but not to see us. We have not been accepted, welcomed, or taken into the dance.”

But we’re not left with this dismal ending, not if we find our life in Christ. We will not be separated perpetually from what we long for. Lewis’s words resonate within my soul:

At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see.

But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in.

This is what awaits us: the very presence and essence of God and His heaven. The “rumour” is true.

The Enemy–He Is Ourselves

I was reminded this morning of some prescient words from Whittaker Chambers—prescient because they clearly foretold what we see today. In a letter he wrote to William F. Buckley in 1954, Chambers offered this analysis of the state of Western civilization:

I no longer believe that political solutions are possible for us. I am baffled by the way people still speak of the West as if it were at least a cultural unity against Communism though it is divided not only by a political, but by an invisible cleavage.

On one side are the voiceless masses with their own subdivisions and fractures. On the other side is the enlightened, articulate elite which, to one degree or other, has rejected the religious roots of the civilization—the roots without which it is no longer Western civilization, but a new order of beliefs, attitudes, and mandates.

His first sentence set the tone, and I agree that our ultimate solutions will never come from our politics. Yet, for many, politics has become the be-all and end-all of life. Everything is seen as political. We believe, by and large, that government can handle all of our problems.

How very wrong.

His second point is truly poignant, as he demolishes the illusion that we are still somehow a cultural unity. Most people today at least see the great divide that now exists between the Christian worldview and the secular. Chambers succinctly and accurately describes the self-identified “enlightened” elite who have rejected our religious roots, and who have created “a new order of beliefs, attitudes, and mandates.”

The America of 2018 is only faintly reminiscent of the America I recall from my younger days. And I’m not just some old-timer speaking out of bitterness or nostalgia. My observation is based on a lifetime of analyzing culture from the Biblical worldview that has now been largely rejected.

Chambers is usually known as a pessimist regarding the future of Western civilization. In his final paragraph to Buckley, he begins with this:

The enemy—he is ourselves. That is why it is idle to talk about preventing the wreck of Western civilization. It is already a wreck from within.

Don’t blame outside forces, he counsels. Look within instead. Then he provides, in his own inimitable writing style, what little hope he can look toward:

That is why we can hope to do little more now than snatch a fingernail of a saint from the rack or a handful of ashes from the faggots, and bury them secretly in a flowerpot against the day, ages hence, when a few men begin again to dare to believe that there was once something else, that something else is thinkable, and need some evidence of what it was, and the fortifying knowledge that there were those who, at the great nightfall, took loving thought to preserve the tokens of hope and truth.

Are we of that company—the few—who are willing to keep alive the basis of our civilization? What are we doing to further the truths of God—that Biblical message of sin, repentance, and redemption?

Whittaker Chambers was somewhat of a twentieth-century prophet; he saw the demise that was coming and already had begun in his day. The prophetic mantle has now been placed on the current generation of Christians who need to take the calling seriously.

Will we?

The Greatest Drama Ever Staged

Official Christianity, of late years, has been having what is known as a bad press. We are constantly assured that the churches are empty because preachers insist too much upon doctrine—dull dogma as people call it. The fact is the precise opposite.

It is the neglect of dogma that makes for dullness. The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man—and the dogma is the drama.

Those bold words come from Dorothy Sayers, contemporary and friend of C. S. Lewis, fiction writer in her early years, turning to specifically Christian apologetics and imaginative plays afterward. She also made a name for herself near the end of her life doing a new translation of Dante’s The Divine Comedy.

Although raised in a clergyman’s home, Sayers’s early life didn’t reflect a serious commitment to the faith. Maturity, though, seemed to draw her back and turned her into one of the most stalwart Anglicans of her time.

The above quote comes from an essay called “The Greatest Drama Ever Staged,” which posits that Christianity is exciting, not in the least boring. Take the drama of Christ’s life, for instance:

He [God] had the honesty and the courage to take his own medicine. Whatever game he is playing with his creation, he has kept his own rules and played fair. He can exact nothing from man that he has not exacted from himself.

What does she mean?

He has himself gone through the whole of human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair, and death. When he was a man, he played the man.

The Christian story, and the “dogma” attached to it is “the tale of the time when God was the underdog and got beaten.” He came to men—those he had made—as a man, “and the men he had made broke him and killed him.” This is not dull, Sayers cries; rather, it is a “terrifying drama of which God is the victim and hero.”

She continues,

If this is dull, then what, in Heaven’s name, is worthy to be called exciting? The people who hanged Christ never, to do them justice, accused him of being a bore—on the contrary, they thought him too dynamic to be safe. It has been left for later generations to muffle up that shattering personality and surround him with an atmosphere of tedium.

We have very efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified him “meek and mild,” and recommended him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies.

And then there was that Resurrection. How does one top that for drama?

One is free to disbelieve the entire story and the dogma attached to it, Sayers admits, but “if we are going to disbelieve a thing, it seems on the whole to be desirable that we should first find out what, exactly, we are disbelieving.”

As you can tell, Sayers is not one to mince words. Near the end of the essay, she summarizes succinctly:

Now, we may call that doctrine exhilarating, or we may call it devastating; we may call it revelation, or we may call it rubbish; but if we call it dull, then words have no meaning at all.

That God should play the tyrant over man is a dismal story of unrelieved oppression; that man should play the tyrant over man is the usual dreary record of human futility; but that man should play the tyrant over God and find him a better man than himself is an astonishing drama indeed.

Any journalist, hearing of it for the first time, would recognize it as news; those who did hear it for the first time actually called it news, and good news at that; though we are likely to forget that the word Gospel ever meant anything so sensational.

If your concept of Christian faith is that it is dull, boring, and static, you need to investigate further. This is the greatest drama of all ages, and it has eternal consequences. That is pure dynamism.

About Those Midterm Elections

Midterm elections mercifully come to an end tomorrow evening. That means we will be spared from the constant barrage of criminal charges against one’s political opponent. Although I’m no longer surprised by the extremely nasty nature of most political ads, I think they’ve raised the nasty factor a few notches this year.

I don’t needs ads anyway. My voting decisions are not based on ads that I know are designed to mislead. My vote is based on the principles that I believe are necessary for government to function the way God intended.

Despite my personal disappointment that Republicans have chosen the wrong man to be the public face of the party, I continue to believe that voting for Democrats will promote not only a government, but a society, hostile to Biblical principles and the morality that should naturally follow those principles.

The Democrat platform has drifted increasingly toward an affirmation of concepts that are not only opposed to Biblical principles but that have a track record of proven incompetence and failure.

That’s not the man I would follow.

Democrats also need to think through the logic of their positions more carefully.

Marxism is not simply a different point of view. History reveals it to be, in its very nature, a movement toward totalitarianism. You must agree or you will pay the penalty. What should we expect if Democrats don’t do as well as they hoped in these midterms?

Be prepared for a level of incivility and outright violence that will take most people by surprise.

How should Christians respond if this occurs?

Be on the alert. Stand firm in the faith. Be men of courage. Be strong. Do everything in love. I Cor. 16:13-14

Notice how one can be firm, courageous, and strong while simultaneously carrying ourselves in love toward others. That’s the goal. That’s God’s way.

Beginning Chapter One of the Great Story

It’s been a great C. S. Lewis semester for me: teaching my Lewis course at Southeastern University; enjoying the opportunity to teach his Mere Christianity along with my book, America Discovers C. S. Lewis, at my church every Wednesday evening; and having the privilege of sharing about my book at the Wade Center at Wheaton College.

I don’t take any of this for granted, and I appreciate all the doors the Lord has opened in the last four years since He inspired me to research and write about Lewis during the sabbatical I received from Southeastern.

Yesterday in the SEU class, we finished reading and discussing The Last Battle, Lewis’s climax to the Narnia series. I chose this one for the students to read because most had already read or were at least familiar with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

Yet there was another reason: the ending of The Last Battle contains one of the most wonderful depictions of the New Earth (even if it is in the fictional world of Narnia) that I have ever encountered. When God wraps up this tragi-comedy that we call “reality,” what will it be like? Lewis gives us a hint.

As all the characters that populated the seven Narnia books (except Susan, sadly) find themselves transported into Life after this life, they are trying to make sense of it all. The Lord Digory explains what has happened:

Listen, Peter. When Aslan said you could never go back to Narnia, he meant the Narnia you were thinking of. But that was not the real Narnia. That had a beginning and an end. It was only a shadow or a copy of the real Narnia which has always been here and always will be here: just as our own world, England and all, is only a shadow or copy of something in Aslan’s real world.

You need not mourn over Narnia, Lucy. All of the old Narnia that mattered, all the dear creatures, have been drawn into the real Narnia through the Door. And of course it is different; as different as a real thing is from a shadow or as waking life is from a dream.

Jewel the Unicorn captured it as well when he realized that he had “come home at last. This is my real country,” he proclaimed. “This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now.”

There’s a reason why we can see beauty around us on this earth, yet long for more. As Jewel concludes, “The reason why we loved the old Narnia is that is sometimes looked a little like this.” And our tired old earth, regardless of being marred by man’s sin, nevertheless retains hints of the Reality that awaits us.

The final page of The Last Battle offers us a revolution in our thinking about death that is worth quoting in full:

Lucy said, “We’re so afraid of being sent away, Aslan. And you have sent us back into our own world so often.”

“No fear of that,” said Aslan. “Have you not guessed?”

Their hearts leaped and a wild hope rose within them.

“There was a real railway accident,” said Aslan softly. “Your father and mother and all of you are—as you used to call it in the Shadowlands—dead. The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning.”

And as He spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them.

And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story.

All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.

If that doesn’t send a thrill up your spine, you’re not paying attention to the words. I look forward to getting past the title page and entering into the Great Story that goes on forever, and I am convinced, as Lewis says, that every chapter will be better than the one before.