The Only Question That Really Matters: Lewis’s Final Interview

The final interview C. S. Lewis gave was with Sherwood Wirt of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Wirt spoke with him at Cambridge University in May of 1963, just six months before Lewis died. I was re-reading that interview this morning and found it enlightening as to Lewis’s thoughts during that final stage of his life—although, of course, he didn’t realize he was in the final stage.

At first, Wirt was interested in drawing out Lewis on the type of writing Christians should do. When asked his opinion of the kind of Christian writing being done at that time, Lewis was blunt:

A great deal of what is being published by writers in the religious tradition is a scandal and is actually turning people away from the church. The liberal writers who are continually accommodating and whittling down the truth of the Gospel are responsible.

I cannot understand how a man can appear in print claiming to disbelieve everything that he presupposes when he puts on the surplice. I feel it is a form of prostitution.

Strong words.

As the interview proceeded, Wirt asked Lewis how Christians can help foster an encounter of people with Christ. “You can’t lay down any pattern for God,” Lewis replied, but added that he had learned to be cautious in passing judgment on different approaches to delivering the Gospel. Above all, he urged commitment to the message:

As Christians we are tempted to make unnecessary concessions to those outside the Faith. We give in too much. Now, I don’t mean that we should run the risk of making a nuisance of ourselves by witnessing at improper times, but there comes a time when we must show that we disagree. We must show our Christian colours, if we are to be true to Jesus Christ. We cannot remain silent or concede everything away.

Lewis also decried the increasing use of obscenity in literature in order to create what some called a more “realistic atmosphere.” He viewed that development with dismay, seeing it as “a symptom, a sign of a culture that has lost its faith.” There is a progression, Lewis warned: “Moral collapse follows upon spiritual collapse. I look upon the immediate future with great apprehension.”

Modern culture, he felt, was in the throes of de-Christianization. While he refrained from commenting on the political aspects of this development, he did have “definite views” on what was happening within the church:

I believe there are many accommodating preachers, and too many practitioners in the church who are not believers. Jesus Christ did not say, “Go into all the world and tell the world that it is quite right.” The Gospel is something completely different. In fact, it is directly opposed to the world.

The interview concluded with Wirt asking Lewis what he thought would be occurring “in the next few years of history.” Lewis’s response was quite practical—and Biblically based:

I have no way of knowing. . . . The world might stop in ten minutes; meanwhile, we are to go on doing our duty. The great thing is to be found at one’s post as a child of God, living each day as though it were our last, but planning as though our world might last a hundred years.

He then echoed words he had written in more than one of his earlier writings:

We have, of course, the assurance of the New Testament regarding events to come. I find it difficult to keep from laughing when I find people worrying about future destruction of some kind or other. Didn’t they know they were going to die anyway? Apparently not.

My wife once asked a young woman friend whether she had ever thought of death, and she replied, “By the time I reach that age science will have done something about it!”

Unlimited faith in man’s science is a fantasy. We all will die. The only question that really matters is whether we have remained at our post as a child of God, continuing to do His will until the end comes. Lewis did exactly that in the six months he had left. We need to follow his example.

Prophet? Priest? Both?

As a Christian, what am I supposed to be when commenting on politics? Am I to be the prophetic voice, warning against the dangers of voting wrongly and following wrong policies? Am I to be the compassionate voice that draws people to God by staying away from controversy?

Is it possible to be so prophetic in one’s approach that people are turned away from the truth? Likewise, is it possible to be so open and compassionate toward those with differing views that you never lead them to the truth, for fear of offending?

For those of us who believe that the Lord is the be-all and end-all of life, that nothing is more important than a relationship with Him, it may appear unseemly at times to get embroiled in the criticisms of the political scene. After all, isn’t this life just a temporary waystation on the way to eternity?

Yet God has put us in this world to make a difference while we are here. What we do–and how we do it–will influence the future of this nation as well as the eternal destiny of individuals. And there can be a link between the two. In a nation that honors God and follows His principles, there is liberty to teach His ways openly to all. If that nation instead passes laws that shut down those who teach the Gospel truths, more people will remain lost in spiritual darkness.

How do we combine the prophetic role with the priestly one? I look at the example of Jesus, who welcomed all who came to Him, whether prostitutes or Pharisees. Yet He was direct and harsh at times with those who set themselves up against the ways of God. He called some Pharisees whitewashed tombs, pretty on the outside, but full of dead men’s bones within. He did turn over the moneychangers’ tables in the Temple.

We can speak forcefully and directly. Being a Christian does not mean you have lost a backbone; in fact, it means you have finally found one. Yet we are always admonished to speak the truth in love. Notice both parts of that: we are to be loving in everything we say, but we speak the truth simultaneously. And that truth can be pointed and contain dire warnings. We must continually check our hearts to be sure we have the proper attitude. This portion of Psalm 51 jumps out at me today:

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me away from Your presence and do not take Your Holy Spirit from me.

Restore to me the joy of Your salvation and sustain me with a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors Your ways, and sinners will be converted to You.

Something in Us Which Is Not Temporal

Sheldon Vanauken was an American who went to Oxford in the early 1950s to study literature. He considered himself an agnostic. Although C. S. Lewis was not one of his tutors, he happened to read Lewis’s Space Trilogy—Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength. Sensing in Lewis someone he might approach with his religious questions, he began sending him letters.

Explaining that he had “embarked” on a “voyage that would someday lead me to God,” he was writing to find out if Lewis, who had already “linked certainty with Christianity,” might be able to give him “a hint of how it’s to be done.”

He continued, “Having felt the aesthetic and historical appeal of Christianity, having begun to study it, I have come to awareness of the strength and ‘possibleness’ of the Christian answer. I should like to believe it. I want to know God—if he is knowable. But I cannot pray with any conviction that Someone hears. I can’t believe.”

His deepest question was how to believe, out of all the religions in the world, that just one could be true. Perhaps, he reasoned, because he lived in a ‘“real world’ of red buses and nylon stockings and atomic bombs” and had never seen an angel or heard the voice of God, that it cannot be easy to connect with Him.

Why write to Lewis? “Somehow you, in this very same world, with the same data as I, are more meaningful to me than the bishops of the faithful past. You accomplished the leap from agnosticism to faith: how?”

One might not ordinarily expect an extremely busy Oxford don to reply to a total stranger, yet Lewis saw an opportunity to aid someone’s honest quest for truth.

He began by questioning the assumption that everyone really wanted Christianity to be true. Certainly Hitler and Stalin never wished to submit to an eternal standard established by God, and most people don’t want a deity acting as judge over their actions, he asserted. They would instead, in their very heart of hearts, want to tell God to stay away from what they considered their private business.

Lewis shared that this was his own reaction early in his life, a reaction against the idea that Someone transcendent would have the right to tell him what to do.

Lewis’s thoughtful letter encouraged Vanauken to write again that same month. He wished that God would not require so much to believe; why not instead be “as clear as a sunrise or a rock or a baby’s cry?” He agreed with Lewis’s assertion that most men, not only Hitler and Stalin, “would be horrified at discovering a Master from whom nothing could be withheld. . . . Indeed, there is nothing in Christianity which is so repugnant to me as humility—the bent knee.”

He would perhaps be willing to be humbled if he knew it meant that death was not a leap into “nothingness,” and that it would mean “Materialism was Error as well as ugliness,” and “above all, that the good and the beautiful would survive.” Lewis, in response, maintained that there could be no demonstrative proof of Christianity in the same sense as a mathematical proof. He then aimed at Vanauken’s concepts of ugliness and beauty:

You say the materialist universe is “ugly.” I wonder how you discovered that! If you are really a product of a materialistic universe, how is it you don’t feel at home there?

Do fish complain of the sea for being wet? Or if they did, would that fact itself not strongly suggest that they had not always been, or wd. not always be, purely aquatic creatures?

Notice how we are perpetually surprised at Time. (“How time flies! Fancy John being grown-up & married! I can hardly believe it!”)

In heaven’s name, why? Unless, indeed, there is something in us which is not temporal.

Vanauken, through his correspondence with Lewis, became a Christian. Before he left Oxford and returned to America, he and Lewis met often face-to-face and an enduring friendship was established. “No man,” he wrote later, “ever did so much to shape my mind, quite aside from Christianity, which of course shaped my whole life. I have never loved a man more.”

Teaching the Controversial Civil War Era

For the 6th time in my tenure at Southeastern, this fall I will be teaching my course on the Civil War Era. The topic is one of intense interest for many students, albeit one of continuing controversy. I do my best to deal fairly with those controversies—this is a part of American history that still lingers with us today.

It’s not merely a course that describes battles. Rather, it begins with a discussion of issues that led to the conflict: slavery and race relations and interpretation of the formation of the nation and the proper role of states’ rights.

At the start of the course, students are reading two books alternately. One is an excellent detailing of the furor over runaway slaves, the abolitionist movement, and the development of the Underground Railroad.

Ann Hagegorn’s Beyond the River tells that story, but with a special emphasis on the role of Rev. John Rankin, a leader in the abolitionist crusade.

Never heard of his name? You wouldn’t be alone. Modern accounts give more attention to the primary attention-getter of the abolitionists, William Lloyd Garrison. Yet Rankin, at the time, might be considered the premier abolitionist, particularly since he was attacking slavery from his Christian beliefs, unlike Garrison, who was not an evangelical.

Rankin lived in Ripley, Ohio, just on the freedom side of the Ohio River. His house on the hill was a beacon of freedom for slaves seeking to escape the South. It was a beacon in more than figurative language; Rankin always put a light in the window at night so the slaves could see where they needed to go.

Rankin’s house, therefore, for many, was the first stop on the Underground Railroad.

Hagedorn’s book is the best type of narrative history, as the reader is drawn into the lives of people; it’s a living narrative, not a dusty tome of facts.

The other book students read simultaneously is Mark Noll’s The Civil War As a Theological Crisis. This one is a must-read, since it lays out both sides in the emerging conflict and shows how Christians took opposing points of view on the issue of slavery, with both attempting to use Scripture for their support.

In one sense, it is a difficult book because it forces readers to deal with a deep divide between Christians and their interpretation of Scripture. Yet that’s precisely why it is so important for this course. We need to understand where people are coming from when we disagree with them. We can’t simply denounce everyone who has a different belief when they are seemingly using Scripture as their basis.

Both of these books provide the background for the war itself. I make good use of Ken Burns’s classic documentary on the Civil War for many of the battle details, along with my PowerPoint slides to emphasize key points. Besides battles, though, there were the political maneuverings throughout the war that were just as significant.

A book that portrays the opening stages of the conflict is Adam Goodheart’s (yes, that’s his real name) 1861: The Civil War Awakening.

This book is a latecomer to my course, but a most welcome addition, as it continues the fine narrative quality that the Hagedorn book gives the students. They are taken into the intimate lives of those affected by the outbreak of the war in the same manner as they have previously been introduced to the historical figures involved with abolitionism.

One of my goals is always to give students books that keep their attention. 1861 does that admirably.

The same can be said of a book that I’ve used every time I’ve taught this course: Jay Winik’s April 1865: The Month That Saved America. No superlatives can adequately describe how well written this book is. Even though the title suggests nothing outside of that particular month, in actuality, it offers all the background necessary to understand why the book has as its subtitle, The Month That Saved America.

By the time students finish reading Winik, they grasp, perhaps for the first time, how differently things might have turned out without some key decisions that were made during that crucial month, especially considering the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

Speaking of Lincoln, no, I don’t minimize his role, although my recitation of the books I’m using may seem to indicate that. The final book for the course is very Lincoln-centered. Ronald White’s Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural delves into the mind of Lincoln in a comprehensive way, in particular, his spiritual growth during the agony of the war.

Lincoln’s religious beliefs have always been a fertile field of study and interpretation for historians, and, naturally, there is disagreement. What White accomplishes is a step-by-step account of how Lincoln’s views of God and Scripture led him to write the specific words we see in that second inaugural, which has been called, with credibility, the most theologically oriented address ever given by a president. And it was not a speechwriter who cobbled it together; it all came directly from Lincoln’s own meditations.

The Civil War Era was a tragic time in American history, but there is much we can learn from it and apply today. Teaching a course like this is not just some listing of battles; rather, it’s an opportunity to meditate deeply ourselves about the impact Christians can make in the world and how the events from this era still reach down to our society now.

Two Errors: Privatizing & Collectivizing the Faith

“No Christian and, indeed, no historian could accept the epigram which defines religion as ‘what a man does with his solitude,” began C. S. Lewis in his “Membership” essay. “It was one of the Wesleys, I think, who said that the New Testament knows nothing of solitary religion.”

Why is that? “The Church is the Bride of Christ. We are members of one another.”

Lewis continues by pointing out that modern society tries its best to confine religious beliefs and practices to the private life, and what he said in this essay decades ago is even more true today. He then notes the paradoxical nature of the “exaltation of the individual in the religious field . . . when collectivism is ruthlessly defeating the individual in every other field.”

The society of Lewis’s day, as he describes it, tried to denigrate any time for the individual as it pushed the idea of collectivism.

There is a crowd of busybodies, self-appointed masters of ceremonies, whose life is devoted to destroying solitude wherever solitude exists. . . .

If a really good home . . . existed today, it would be denounced as bourgeois and every engine of destruction would be levelled against it. And even where the planners fail and someone is left physically by himself, the wireless has seen to it that he will be . . . never less alone when alone.

We live, in fact, in a world starved for solitude, silence, and privacy, and therefore starved for meditation and true friendship.

One wonders how much more Lewis would emphasize this if he were to witness what takes place in our day with the barrage of entertainment and social media drowning out genuine solitude and friendship. We think we are reclaiming both through social media platforms, but we may be fooling ourselves.

Both in Lewis’s day and in ours, the world “says to us aloud, ‘You may be religious when you are alone,'” yet “it adds under its breath, ‘and I will see to it that you never are alone.'”

Make Christianity a private affair and then banish all privacy is how Lewis explains that approach. Christians then fall into the trap of reacting against this “by simply transporting into our spiritual life that same collectivism which has already conquered our secular life.” He calls that “the enemy’s other stratagem.” Here’s what he means:

Like a good chess player, he is always trying to manoeuvre you into a position where you can save your castle only by losing your bishop.

In order to avoid the trap we must insist that though the private conception of Christianity is an error, it is a profoundly natural one and is clumsily attempting to guard a great truth.

Behind it is the obvious feeling that our modern collectivism is an outrage upon human nature and that from this, as from all other evils, God will be our shield and buckler.

So, we have a tendency to accept an error (collectivism) in our attempt to reject the privatization of our faith.

Collectivism is found primarily in politics. Lewis goes on to make this statement, one that I find quite appropriate to our current societal state:

A sick society must think much about politics, as a sick man must think much about his digestion; to ignore the subject may be fatal cowardice for the one as for the other. But if either comes to regard it as the natural food of the mind—if either forgets that we think of such things only in order to be able to think of something else—then what was undertaken for the sake of health has become itself a new and deadly disease.

We are a society immersed in politics. For many, it is the be-all and end-all of life. Any society in that state remains sick.

Christian faith should be our focus, not politics. Yet this faith cannot be either a private thing or a copy of secular collectivism. We lose if we go in either of those two directions. The true Body of Christ as explained in Scripture is of another nature entirely.

What is that nature? I’ll deal with that as I conclude Lewis’s thoughts in this essay in a future post.

Here’s the scenario: the culture is in decline due to a loss of Biblical principles; beliefs based on those principles that used to hold the society together are attacked as bigoted, narrow, and intolerant; the government is increasingly dysfunctional and policies, despite the best efforts of honest and caring representatives, move further away from Biblical norms.

What’s someone to do about this, especially when one feels called by God (to some, that’s a rather presumptive and/or arrogant statement right there) to warn of the decline and the loss of a proper perspective on life?

One can choose to rail against this decline. After all, it is Biblical to warn sinners of the error of their ways. Purely on the governmental side, one can continually point out the false ideologies, hypocrisies, and evil deeds of our generation.

Pointing out the problems is something that must be done. However, there is a limit; after a while, if all one does is constantly harp on the negatives, one runs the risk of being a Johnny-one-note that people begin to ignore.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve started to notice the down side of some conservative commentary. While the commentary is most often true, depicting accurately the perfidy, the dishonesty, and the radical agenda of progressivism, one gets tired of hearing nothing but angst.

I’ve also noticed that some of those commentators are far more shallow in their thinking than I at first realized. They have certain talking points they repeat, and that’s all the farther they go. The repetitive nature of that approach makes it easy to tune them out.

As regular readers of my blog know, I’ve gained a lot of understanding through the words of Whittaker Chambers in his wonderful/tragic autobiography Witness.

Once Chambers left the communist underground and got a position writing for Time magazine, he eagerly used his position to try to point out the communist threat he knew from personal experience. He was so committed to warning about it that people got tired of hearing his warnings. He was kept from writing anything on the subject.

That seemed like a defeat. As Chambers relates,

My tacit exclusion from writing Communist news at first exasperated me, for I saw no one around me (except the Communists, of course) who knew anything at all about the subject.

He could have protested this treatment. He could have caused a ruckus and further divided the staff over his actions. But he kept calm and came to a new realization about tactics:

But gradually I welcomed the ban. I began to see that the kind of sniping that I had been doing was shallow and largely profitless; anybody could do that.

That last sentence is all too true. Anyone with an axe to grind or an ability to channel anger can do that. There are multitudes of those kinds of people. Chambers tried a new approach, one that more fully reflected the Christian spirit he was developing at that time in his life:

It seemed to me that I had a more important task to do, one that was peculiarly mine. It was not to attack Communism frontally. It was to clarify on the basis of the news, the religious and moral position that made Communism evil.

I had been trying to make a negative point. Now I had to state the positive position, and it was a much more formidable task than attack.

It’s deceptively easy to mount attacks. What Chambers now understood was that he had to do the harder job: help readers grasp the underlying Christian viewpoint of what constituted “good” and contrast that with the evil in communism.

It meant explaining simply and readably for millions the reasons why the great secular faith of this age is wrong and the religious faith of the ages is right; why, in the words of the Song of Roland, the Christians are right and the heathen are wrong.

This affected Chambers’s character in a positive way as well:

This change in my mood and my work reflected a deepening within myself.

The challenge before those of us who might take on the mantle of cultural warrior is perhaps to learn how to conduct the battle in a different manner. We need to leave the tactic of shallow anger and dull repetition and move on to deeper reflections on the nature of God, man, and His principles, and thereby help others gain a greater understanding of the battlefield.

That has always been my intent in this blog—hence its title, Pondering Principles: Reflections on God . . . Man . . . Life. My commitment to that goal is refreshed today.

If the World Hates You . . .

Christians are to be the leaven in society that permeates the whole. We are to be the salt that preserves the taste for God and His ways. We are to be lights that reflect the greater Light to show others the path to knowing the One who loves them and seeks to bridge the sin gap that separates.

We cannot do that, though, if we become just like the society and fit into the culture. We fail in our mission when we dilute God’s truth in order to be accepted by those who spurn His truth.

There is always the temptation to water down the straight gospel message because we don’t want to suffer. Most of us don’t want to be in the shoes of those who bake cakes and have to go all the way to the Supreme Court to maintain the civic right to hold to our Christian convictions. We don’t want to be that photographer who is being coerced into taking same-sex wedding photos.

Victories can be won in the Supreme Court, but what of the next attack from those with a cultural/political agenda?

Will we stand when we are told we must make a choice? Are we standing now even before that choice becomes so stark that it threatens our livelihood and liberty?

We have to get over the false idea that everyone will love us because we are Christians. In fact, throughout history, it’s been the opposite. Why? We call out the sin, and that’s not appreciated.

We call out the sin not because we don’t love others, but precisely because we do. We want them to know the love of God that comes through forgiveness and the grace of God that provides the strength to live a life free from the bondage of sin.

But it’s not often received in the same spirit in which we offer it.

Jesus told us this would happen, didn’t He?

If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.

Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the one who sent me. –John 15: 18-21

We are not greater than Jesus, who never did harm to anyone, but instead revealed the heart of God. As He said to Nicodemus when that man came to inquire of Him,

This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.

We need to understand that people cling to their sins and don’t like having them exposed. They are blinded by the mini-god of this world, a mere fallen angel whose goal is to deceive.

There is a song whose lyrics have always made me think deeply about this. It’s called “There Is a Line,” and it begins with this thought:

It’s hard to tell just when the night becomes the day
That golden moment when the darkness rolls away
But there is a moment none the less

In the regions of the heart there is a place
A sacred charter that should not be erased
It is the marrow; the moral core that I cannot ignore

The second stanza continues the theme:

Ask the ocean where the water meets the land
He will tell you it depends on where you stand
And you’re neither right or wrong

But in the fathoms of the soul that won’t ring true
Cause truth is more than an imposing point of view
It rises above the changing tide
As sure as the morning sky

The chorus then zeroes in on the stance a Christian must take:

Within the scheme of things
Well I know where I stand
My convictions they define who I am
Some move the boundaries at any cost
But there is a line, I will not cross

No riding on the fence – no alibis
No building on the sands of compromise
I won’t be borrowed and I can’t be bought
There is a line, I will not cross

Those words resonate in my soul: my convictions define who I am; I won’t be borrowed and I can’t be bought.

There is a line I will not cross.

Find your moral core in Christ. Don’t be bought. There is a line we never should cross.

Here’s the song for those who would like to hear it and meditate further on the words.

https://youtu.be/KIGbgZbzvGw