Aggravate Schism or Heal It?

My study of C. S. Lewis’s correspondence has been primarily his letters to Americans. While one of my delightful projects for the future is to read all of his letters, I’ve only grazed the surface of those outside his American connections.

I have noted, though, some of his correspondence with his Catholic friend, Don Giovanni Calabria. The Anglican-Protestant Lewis kept up a lively and friendly interchange with that friend. Some of those letters deal with the divisions in the church universal. Lewis’s commentary on that is thought-provoking.

Is it sin that makes Christians divide into different denominations? Lewis offers this opinion:

That the whole cause of schism lies in sin I do not hold to be certain. I grant that no schism is without sin but the one proposition does not necessarily follow the other.

He then notes that both Catholics and Protestants deplore what some on their respective sides have done, using the friar Tetzel (who sparked Luther’s 95 Theses) and England’s Henry VIII (a Protestant only because he wanted a divorce) as prime examples.

But some don’t fit that characterization. Two martyrs—Thomas More and William Tyndale—both lost their lives under that same Henry VIII, but for different reasons. What of them?

But what would I think of your Thomas More or of our William Tyndale? All the writings of the one and all the writings of the other I have lately read right through. Both of them seem to me most saintly men and to have loved God with their whole heart: I am not worthy to undo the shoes of either of them.

Nevertheless they disagree and (what racks and astounds me) their disagreement seems to me to spring not from their vices nor from their ignorance but rather from their virtues and the depths of their faith, so that the more they were at their best the more they were at variance.

Lewis, of course, knew all about the Catholic-Protestant schism, having grown up in Northern Ireland. In another letter to Calabria, he tells of a coming holiday in his homeland, leading to more thoughts on the issue:

Tomorrow I am crossing over . . . to Ireland: my birthplace and dearest refuge so far as charm of landscape goes, and temperate climate, although most dreadful because of the strife, hatred and often civil war between dissenting faiths.

How does Lewis view this type of “dissent”?

There indeed both yours and ours “know not by what Spirit they are led.” They take lack of charity for zeal and mutual ignorance for orthodoxy.

I think almost all the crimes which Christians have perpetrated against each other arise from this, that religion is confused with politics. For, above all other spheres of human life, the Devil claims politics for his own, as almost the citadel of his power.

Let us, however, with mutual prayers pray with all our power for that charity which “covers a multitude of sins.”

As someone who has been actively involved in teaching students about government and politics for nearly three decades, I have to admit I don’t like Lewis’s conclusion that this realm of human activity is a special haven for Satan’s devices. I want Christians to know that government is established by God and that it has godly purposes.

However, I have to acknowledge that the Devil certainly knows how to use politics for his goals. Currently, the divide in politics is not between Catholic and Protestant, but between differences of opinion among Christians as to whom we should support in the political arena.

That divide is now beyond the simple liberal vs. conservative stances. Conservatives, after this last presidential election, are more divided than ever over how much, and in what ways, to support the winner.

We should be free to share our views, but in that sharing, we should never lose our charity toward fellow believers.

I like, especially, this caution from Lewis:

Disputations do more to aggravate schism than to heal it: united action, prayer, fortitude and (should God so will) united deaths for Christ—these will make us one.

We must never forget that, regardless of our views on the current state of politics, we are one in God’s kingdom. Lewis’s comment may be prophetic: we may have to suffer together unto death, and that will ultimately show us how petty the differences are compared to what we have in common.

I sincerely hope it doesn’t come to that, but it’s a sobering reminder that we should be focused on the eternal above all else.

The Question of the Dishonest Question

“Can’t I lead a good life without believing in Christianity?” That’s the question posed by many people. Is it an honest question or one that simply seeks to avoid truth? C. S. Lewis deals with it in his short, yet insightful, essay, “Man or Rabbit?” It can be found in God in the Dock.

Lewis clears away the unhelpful underbrush of the query and reveals the path such a person asking the question is attempting to follow. As he does so, he sheds light on the essential dishonesty in what at first appears to be an honest question.

Anyone who asks this question already knows about Christianity and is really saying, “Need I bother about it? Mayn’t I just evade the issue, just let sleeping dogs lie, and get on with being ‘good’? Aren’t good intentions enough to keep me safe and blameless without knocking at that dreadful door and making sure whether there is, or isn’t someone inside?”

Lewis is blunt: “The man is shirking. He is deliberately trying not to know whether Christianity is true or false, because he foresees endless trouble if it should turn out to be true.”

Pulling no punches, Lewis continues,

He is like the man who deliberately “forgets” to look at the notice board because, if he did, he might find his name down for some unpleasant duty.

He is like the man who won’t look at his bank account because he’s afraid of what he might find there.

He is like the man who won’t go to the doctor when he first feels a mysterious pain, because he is afraid of what the doctor may tell him.

This avoidance of truth gets to the heart of what is behind the question of whether one must be a Christian to be good. Someone who asks that may be looking for an “out.” At bottom, it’s not genuine honesty at all; the question is not a real question but a hope that one doesn’t have to hear the actual answer.

The man who remains an unbeliever for such reasons is not in a state of honest error. He is in a state of dishonest error, and that dishonesty will spread through all his thoughts and actions: a certain shiftiness, a vague worry in the background, a blunting of his whole mental edge, will result.

He has lost his intellectual virginity.

Lewis knows that God will forgive anyone who has mistakenly rejected Christ and then repents of that rejection. But that’s not the kind of person he is addressing here.

But to evade the Son of Man, to look the other way, to pretend you haven’t noticed, to become suddenly absorbed in something on the other side of the street, to leave the receiver off the telephone because it might be He who was ringing up, to leave unopened certain letters in a strange handwriting because they might be from Him—this is a different matter.

You may not be certain yet whether you ought to be a Christian; but you do know you ought to be a Man, not an ostrich, hiding its head in the sand.

Even if you can get a person to acknowledge his avoidance of finding the truth, there is another issue that Lewis says is an indication of the lowering of intellectual honor: the plaintive cry of “Will it help me? Will it make me happy?” Lewis challenges that approach with more bluntness:

Here is a door, behind which, according to some people, the secret of the universe is waiting for you. Either that’s true, or it isn’t. And if it isn’t, then what the door really conceals is simply the greatest fraud, the most colossal “sell” on record.

Isn’t it obviously the job of every man (that is a man and not a rabbit) to try to find out which, and then to devote his full energies either to serving this tremendous secret or to exposing and destroying this gigantic humbug?

Faced with such an issue, can you really remain wholly absorbed in your own blessed “moral development”?

What’s needed, Lewis explains, is the realization that we can’t ever be “good” in the sense that God intends for us. “Mere morality is not the end of life. You were made for something quite different from that.”

What, then, is that “something quite different”?

We are to be re-made. All the rabbit in us is to disappear. . . . We shall bleed and squeal as the handfuls of fur come out; and then, surprisingly, we shall find underneath it all a thing we have never yet imagined: a real Man, an ageless god, a son of God, strong, radiant, wise, beautiful, and drenched in joy. . . .

Morality is a mountain which we cannot climb by our own efforts; and if we could we should only perish in the ice and unbreathable air of the summit, lacking those wings with which the rest of the journey has to be accomplished.

For it is from there that the real ascent begins. The ropes and axes are “done away” and the rest is a matter of flying.

I don’t know about you, but I would like to fly.

Celebrating the Resurrection

Tomorrow we celebrate—and that most certainly is the best word to use—the Resurrection. Nothing like it appeared in history before that tremendous event and nothing like it followed afterward.

It is the central event in all of history, never to be topped by anything else.

The Nativity, which we call Christmas, was essential only because it was to lead to this event. The Second Coming of Christ and the Judgment to follow would be the most awful occurrence for everyone if not for the Resurrection, which showed God’s triumph over death, Satan, and hell.

As a result of Christ’s death and resurrection, millions now have access to the very throne room of God.

C. S. Lewis calls the Resurrection “the central theme in every Christian sermon reported in the Acts.” He reminds us that when we talk about the gospel, we are focusing on the Resurrection.

What we call the “gospels,” the narratives of Our Lord’s life and death, were composed later for the benefit of those who had already accepted the gospel. They were in no sense the basis of Christianity: they were written for those already converted.

The miracle of the Resurrection, and the theology of that miracle, comes first: the biography comes later as a comment on it.

Lewis mustn’t be misunderstood as in any way denigrating the four gospels; he’s simply stating a fact: the whole reason for the writing of the gospels later was the stunning truth of the Resurrection.

Nothing could be more unhistorical than to pick out selected sayings of Christ from the gospels and to regard those as the datum and the rest of the New Testament as a construction upon it. The first fact in the history of Christendom is a number of people who say they have seen the Resurrection.

The reality of the Resurrection should be just as much the central feature of our lives as it was for the first Christians. When Don Giovanni Calabria, one of Lewis’s regular correspondents, shared with him his concerns for the world’s troubles, Lewis, responding to him the day before Easter, replied,

Tomorrow we shall celebrate the glorious Resurrection of Christ. I shall be remembering you in the Holy Communion. Away with tears and fears and troubles! United in wedlock with the eternal Godhead Itself, our nature ascends into the Heaven of Heavens.

So it would be impious to call ourselves “miserable.” On the contrary, Man is a creature whom the Angels—were they capable of envy—would envy. Let us lift up our hearts! “At some future time perhaps even these things it will be a joy to recall.”

I know how the weight of the world can get one down. Yet when we compare these temporary weights to the glory that awaits because of the Resurrection, we get the proper perspective. As the Apostle Paul said,

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. Rom. 8:18

And in one of my favorite passages, Paul expounds that theme further:

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. 2 Corinthians 4:16-18

Those who have committed their lives to the Lordship of Christ can rest and rejoice simultaneously. Through Him, we have overcome the world and will share in the glory of the Resurrection.

A Holy Week Meditation

We’re about to enter into what the Christian church throughout the centuries has called Holy Week. Now, of course, if we really understand the faith, we realize every week is Holy Week, every day Holy Day, and every minute Holy Minute.

Yet we use this designation for the upcoming week because it makes us pay attention to the events approximately two thousand years ago that have made possible the Great Restoration, the Great Redemption of our souls.

As wonderful and inspirational as the Nativity is, this week announces the essence of Christian faith: the suffering, death, and resurrection of the Son of God that we might become children of God ourselves.

This week is awash in the supernatural, culminating in the Resurrection, without which we would have no hope.

We believe in the God who is above nature—super-natural—and in the miracle of the New Birth.

As C. S. Lewis reminds us in his essay “Christian Apologetics,”

Do not attempt to water Christianity down. There must be no pretence that you can have it with the Supernatural left out. So far as I can see Christianity is precisely the one religion from which the miraculous cannot be separated. You must frankly argue for supernaturalism from the very outset.

So many over the years have stripped the faith of its faith. Follow the moral guidelines, we are told, but reject those silly stories about miracles; some early Christians surely added those in later to augment/falsify the story of Jesus.

We even have a group of scholars—I use the term loosely—called the Jesus Seminar who periodically meet and decide whether certain passages of Scripture are genuine or if they are spurious. Then they make their grand public proclamation about which parts they now consider phony.

Well, that which is phony is found within themselves, not in God’s Revelation.

“The Christian story is precisely the story of one grand miracle,” Lewis writes in another essay with that exact name: “The Grand Miracle.” He continues,

The Christian assertion being that what is beyond all space and time, what is uncreated, eternal, came into nature, into human nature, descended into His own universe, and rose again, bringing nature up with Him.

It is precisely one great miracle. If you take that away there is nothing specifically Christian left.

The reality of God becoming man—growing up in a human family, working at a human occupation, walking the dusty roads with humans, suffering for them, dying for them—is the story of the entire reason of Creation.

Then there was Resurrection on the third day.

One of Lewis’s most-often quoted lines—indeed the one emblazoned on his commemorative stone in Poets Corner at Westminster Abbey—is a fitting conclusion to this Holy Week meditation:

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.

The Horror of the Same Old Thing

Every Wednesday evening since early January, I’ve had the joy of teaching a class on C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters. A local Episcopal church invited me to do so, and I accepted the offer with relish. A group of eager learners comprises this class (approximately fifty each week), which has made it one of the highlights of this new year for me.

I’d read Screwtape a number of times over the years. Lewis himself famously commented that a really good book should never be read only once. Yet I’ve never had to dissect Screwtape in this manner before. If I’m going to explain anything to a class, I need to go beyond an outline and provide depth of understanding.

Along with a deeper understanding of a book such as this one comes the conviction of the Holy Spirit, as He shows me areas in my life that need to be solidified in righteousness.

One caution for all Christians occurs in Letter 25, which I will be teaching about in a couple of weeks. It deals with the concepts of “Christianity And . . .” and “The Same Old Thing.”

Screwtape—the senior devil—instructs junior tempter Wormwood to lead his “patient” away from mere Christianity (where he will flourish) into something else:

What we want, if men become Christians at all, is to keep them in the state of mind I call “Christianity And.” You know—Christianity and the Crisis, Christianity and the New Psychology, Christianity and the New Order, Christianity and Faith Healing, Christianity and Psychical Research, Christianity and Vegetarianism, Christianity and Spelling Reform.

If they must be Christians let them at least be Christians with a difference. Substitute for the faith itself some Fashion with a Christian coloring. Work on their horror of the Same Old Thing.

How often do we take our natural interest in something else, link it with our Christian faith, and then allow that other thing to become more important than the faith itself?

In American history, one example I can use is the very worthy cause, prior to the Civil War, of abolishing slavery. The cause was good. Many prosecuted it in the name of Christian faith, as they should have. Yet I am aware of some abolitionists for which the cause of abolition became primary and the faith merely a vehicle for attaining it.

Anytime we subordinate the faith to the cause it inspired, we miss the mark.

Lewis, through Screwtape, is asserting that we are drawn to this error through our desire to spice up, shall we say, the basic Christian faith, as if it is not enough inherently. Hell loves this attitude, as Screwtape explains:

The horror of the Same Old Thing is one of the most valuable passions we have produced in the human heart—an endless source of heresies in religion, folly in counsel, infidelity in marriage, and inconstancy in friendship.

Man’s quest for novelty, which is not a bad thing, can become a very bad thing indeed when novelty takes on an exalted status: it must be “new” and “fresh” or it will be boring. And boredom must be a sin, right?

Change is not synonymous with progress. It depends what that change actually is.

Screwtape again:

Once they [the humans] knew that some changes were for the better, and others for the worse, and others again indifferent. We have largely removed this knowledge. For the descriptive adjective “unchanged” we have substituted the emotional adjective “stagnant.”

There are some things that never should change—eternal right and wrong, for instance—and Someone who never will. Change is not always good. Yet if those who seek change that isn’t for the better can win the semantic war—“let’s call it stagnant instead”—the perceptions of an entire society can be altered.

I’ll leave it for you to make application to the culture in which we live today.

America Discovers C. S. Lewis: A Review

The new edition of Sehnsucht: The C. S. Lewis Journal has some marvelous articles, and tucked into the back of the journal in the book review section is a review of my recent offering, America Discovers C. S. Lewis: His Profound Impact.

The review was undertaken by Lewis scholar Charlie Starr. It’s always nice when a reviewer catches the spirit of the book he is analyzing; Starr accomplishes that admirably when reporting on what I’ve written.

“We might ask,” Starr begins, “what else can be written about Lewis?” He continues, “One answer to that question: we can examine C. S. Lewis’s relationships with Americans and his influence on America. In revealing that answer, K. Alan Snyder does not disappoint.”

Words like that are a balm to an author’s soul.

Starr then asks the following: “If there is a test for ‘yet another’ book on Lewis, it is this question: does it teach the audience something new? Snyder’s book accomplishes that task throughout.”

Commenting on the chapter in which I detail the relationship between Lewis and his first biographer, Chad Walsh, Starr notes,

In this chapter, we also get what is one of the highlights running throughout Snyder’s book: an account of first impressions. Before meeting Lewis, Walsh’s image was of a “sad-eyed,” and “world-weary” man—an impression drawn from pictures of Lewis, and one which made no sense given the vibrancy and life Walsh found in Lewis’s books.

This mystery disappeared once Walsh met Lewis and he realized that the dust-jacket pictures resembled Lewis “as much as a mummy resembles a living man.”

In my book, I offered a number of first impressions people had of Lewis. When one of his American students, William Brown Patterson, first saw Lewis, he didn’t know who he was, and since he was in “baggy trousers” and a “shapeless tweed jacket,” Patterson concluded this must be the gardener.

“The best moments in Snyder’s book,” Starr testifies, “are these storied moments, and the author manages the historian’s art: to tell a story of the past.”

One of my concerns was whether I could add anything new to the Lewis story. Starr believes I did, although he did point to one omission on my part:

In giving us the biographies of people influenced by Lewis, Snyder adds something to the biography of Lewis himself. Clyde Kilby’s story is worth knowing. Sheldon Vanauken’s account is one of the most powerful stories in the book (66-73), carrying much of the potency in this abbreviated telling that is to be found in Vanauken’s own account, A Severe Mercy.

Even more profound is the story of Joy Davidman Gresham, one which Snyder tells with charm and restraint, although the history here suffers from a failure to use the most recent discoveries about Joy and Lewis, particularly the love sonnets she wrote for him.

Mea culpa. May I plead ignorance?

Starr loves my Preface, which he says “grips readers and draws them in,” but feels I sometimes fall into basic (actually, the word he used was “bland”) prose. But he does give me a little bit of an “out” for that, noting that it’s kind of difficult to maintain the prose level of the Preface when all you are doing is providing an overview of the various Lewis societies and organizations.

He was impressed with the “excellent testimonies” from Americans who responded to my survey about how Lewis has impacted them. And he likes the chapter devoted to Lewis’s correspondence with ordinary Americans:

Here Snyder is smart to track down not only new and surprising stories about Lewis’s correspondents, but also the best tidbits from Lewis’s letters. The three-volume set of Lewis’s letters is a daunting read. Snyder kindly offers some fine moments from an epistolary Lewis in a few pages.

Starr’s final paragraph in the review summarizes nicely, so I give it here in full:

There are times when Lewis scholars and fans should ask, “Is this new book about Lewis really needed?” It would be very easy to ask whether or not we need a book about Lewis and America, especially one that moves beyond Lewis and his generation to the generations after. However, K. Alan Snyder’s America Discovers C. S. Lewis illustrates the first foray into something very much worthwhile. Snyder’s book predicts about Lewis what usually takes centuries to recognize in philosophers, theologians, or poets: the need to look back, acknowledge, and analyze the profound influence of a great writer/thinker on our culture. Had Lewis faded in the sixties as he himself predicted, there would be no need for such a study. Yet, despite Lewis’s speculation, Snyder firmly demonstrates a powerful trend: C. S. Lewis has and still is influencing Christianity in America. He did so in his lifetime, and, as Snyder proves, he continues to do so today.

I’m grateful to Charlie Starr for this positive review. Need I say that I hope it may inspire those who read it to make my book part of their collection?

The Bible as Literature? Lewis Comments

When I was getting my undergraduate degree and only then solidifying my Christian faith, I took one course called “The Bible as Literature.” I was attending Purdue University, a large public institution with no leanings toward Christian faith, so I naturally was pleased to see such a course offered.

I didn’t go into it completely unaware of what a course like that might entail, given the probability that the professor would be someone who would view the Bible differently than I did. But I wanted to give it a chance and perhaps come out with something worthwhile.

I was disappointed with respect to getting anything worthwhile from the course itself, but it was tantamount to a graduate education on how the world outside my evangelical orbit viewed what I believe to be sacred writings.

C. S. Lewis, in a 1950 essay, “The Literary Impact of the Authorised Version,” tackled that whole approach of reading/teaching the Bible as literature, and, as usual, his perspective brings a freshness—even an audacity—to the subject.

In light of certain literary tastes, Lewis asks whether those particular tastes will help people appreciate the Bible more. He comes down on the side of what I experienced in that course taught by a professor who saw nothing sacred about the text:

Stripped (for most readers) of its divine authority, stripped of its allegorical senses, denied a romantic welcome for its historical sense, will it none the less return on the wave of some new fashion to literary pre-eminence and be read? . . .

I offer my guess. I think it very unlikely that the Bible will return as a book unless it returns as a sacred book.

Lewis was writing of the version we know of as the King James, which many might appreciate for its Shakespearean-era language. Yet he doubts that, in itself, will be sufficient to entice more readers.

Unless the religious claims of the Bible are again acknowledged, its literary claims will, I think, be given only “mouth honour” and that decreasingly. For it is, through and through, a sacred book. Most of its component parts were written, and all of them were brought together, for a purely religious purpose.

People may offer a modicum of “honor” to the Bible as literature, but they are merely going through the motions. They don’t really intend to treat it seriously; after all, it has all those outrageous doctrines that exclude all other religions. It claims to bring the only real truth—and they can’t accept that.

Neither Aeschylus nor even Virgil tacitly prefaces his poetry with the formula “Thus say the gods.” But in most parts of the Bible everything is implicitly or explicitly introduced with “Thus saith the Lord.”

It is, if you like to put it that way, not merely a sacred book but a book so remorselessly and continuously sacred that it does not invite, it excludes or repels, the merely aesthetic approach.

No matter which version of the Bible one reads today, Lewis’s point remains:

It demands incessantly to be taken on its own terms: it will not continue to give literary delight very long except to those who go to it for something quite different.

It the Bible is not the Word of God, it has no real value, at least not for eternity. If it is the Word of God, it is of the utmost value, and that is how it should be read and taught.