What C.S. Lewis Means to Me

Clive Staples Lewis died today, November 22, in 1963. I simply cannot imagine what my life would be like if this man were not a towering figure in it. This past summer I tried to capture a little bit of the debt of gratitude I feel toward him when we gave our newborn son the middle name “Lewis.” One of the great pleasures I have right now is looking forward to telling Charlie Lewis about the professor whose name he bears, and what a wondrous world he let me enter.

I read Lewis for the first time in high school. Mere Christianity hit me like a battering ram of clarity and reasonableness; it gave a logical shape to the faith I (thought I had) inherited from my parents, but which seemed so often to not fit into the world around me. What Lewis gave me in Mere Christianity was not a mere step-by-step proof of Christianity, nor an unassailable list of “defeaters” for atheism. He gave me something infinitely more important: A reason to believe that the claims of Jesus Christ and the New Testament were reasonable and beautiful. Of course, one doesn’t need Lewis to see the self-authenticating glory of the gospel. But by mowing down arguments–especially the snobbish mentality of modernity that Screwtape calls “an inarticulate sense of actuality”–Lewis paved the way in my mind for Christ.

As I look at the influence Lewis has had on me, I see four characteristics that have shaped (or, that I hope shape!) my thinking and my feeling in my life.

1) A gentle absoluteness

Lewis’s work is consistently characterized by a calm, winsome, yet irresistible firm absoluteness. Lewis did not see a conflict between empathy with those who disagree and unyielding conviction that they were wrong. His book Miracles is a wonderful example of his ability to sympathize with the atheist-materialist worldview in a way that gives his case against it a moral and emotional credibility. Of course, much of this comes from the fact that Lewis spent much of his adult life as an unbeliever. I constantly come back to this fact whenever I am gripped, as many Christians are nowadays, by a fear of “wasting my life.” No life that finds Christ, however late and however feebly, is wasted.

2) A love of the written word

Lewis, professor of English, was a master at saying. I don’t just mean he was a master of writing, or even a master at thinking. I mean he was a master of saying. There is a crucial difference between the ability to talk, or write, and the ability to say. Putting one’s thoughts or one’s research on paper is an exercise between a person and the material. But saying involves a third party–the reader, the listener, the neighbor. Lewis’ ability to say–to say meaningful things in beautiful but precise ways–was one of his great gifts, and I’ve tried and will keep on trying to make it my own as long as I may.

3) A humble time for others

If you want to know what Lewis thought of others, perhaps the best thing to show you is this massive, wonderful 3-volume collection of his collected letters. Lewis made a point of responding (where health permitted) to anyone who corresponded with him. The day before he died, Lewis penned a reply to a young admirer who loved the Narnia books. The note, perhaps Lewis’ last ever, perfectly sums up so much about Lewis himself:

There are simply not many people who would advise a world-renowned academic, novelist, and philosopher to spend time on his deathbed responding to children’s fan mail. But Lewis did, and even as I write, his example shames me in my self-centeredness. “And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” (1 Cor. 13:2)

4) An ability to see

Lewis could see. He could see the way ideas work together. More importantly, he could see the human condition. He understood that modernity was making a case not only against God, but against the individual. He understood that the Christian life isn’t lived in the “big” moments, but it can most certainly be thwarted in the small ones. He understood that materialism was attractive for an educated, postwar Western culture, but that it had a gaping hole at the center.

He also understood that truth was not, contra the linguistic philosophers, a mere power play by subculture against subculture. It’s sometimes said that Lewis would not have fit in with the fundamentalist evangelicals who love to claim him. That’s probably true. But it’s equally true that he would not have sailed quietly among those progressive revisionists, deconstructing the faith for a “new era.” In the Abolition of Man, Lewis exorciated modern teachers who urged their disciples to “see through” the claims of religion:

“You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things forever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that a window should be transparent, because the street or the garden beyond is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.”

That quote has stayed with me since the first time I read it. Is there a better summation anywhere of the folly of learned unbelief?

I sometimes hear it said that the church needs a new C.S. Lewis for today. But that’s not quite right. What the church needs is the old C.S. Lewis of yesterday. And it needs preachers and teachers and moms and dads and children whose souls are shaped by the same transcendent “Joy” that captured Lewis.

I am thankful to C.S. Lewis, and to the Hound of Heaven who chased him–and me– down relentlessly with jealous love.

The True Value of Halloween

A woman once wrote to C.S. Lewis in great distress. It appeared, she said, that England was becoming a very pagan nation. By “pagan”  the woman meant the culture of Britain was reverting back to pre-Christian belief systems of spiritism, idolatry, and nature-worship. She expressed this concern earnestly to professor Lewis to see what analysis or prescription he could give to the state of the nation.

Lewis’s reply was unexpected. “You fear England’s returning to paganism,” he wrote. “Oh that it would!” Lewis explained that, though paganism was false, it was truer than materialism and a much preferable place for a culture to be. A “pre-Christian” culture, Lewis argued, would at least entertain ideas about reality that allowed for the unseen, the metaphysical, and the supernatural. The militant, materialistic atheism of Lewis’s 20th century Oxford had no such upward view.

One of Lewis’s great gifts was pointing that which is so obvious that we probably missed it. Christians have a completely different definition of reality than the rest of the world, but nowhere is the difference more significant than with materialists and philosophical naturalists. The gospel cuts across every rival worldview, whether spiritualistic or agnostic, but for the person who believes that things like resurrections and advents cannot happen in this world, Christianity is totally unintelligible. Christianity doesn’t merely feature the supernatural and miraculous, it demands them. Christianity is an universe in which the otherwordly and metaphysical are not just occasional guests but permanent residents. The Gospel tells us that that the natural world is not the only world; in fact, the natural world isn’t the realest world.

I’m afraid that this fact isn’t just a stumbling block for atheists, but for many Christians as well. This time of year many Americans will be celebrating Halloween. Even as many evangelical Christians have deep concerns with the casual costuming of the demonic and the spiritually dark (and those concerns are valid!), it’s possible that we may have missed an obvious fact: Halloween is one of the few cultural institutions we as a country have left that invites contemplation on the realities beyond our immediate physical world, realities like death, spirits, and evil.

In a way, American thinking about Halloween is more Christian than its thinking about Christmas, a holiday that has been overwhelmingly loaded with secular symbols of youth and and wealth and Western self-satisfaction. What is Santa Claus but a secular savior, a perpetually positive grandfather who stops by once a year to tell you what a good life you are living?

Santa Claus, as a symbol, requires no serious thought about the permanent, the unseen, and the immortal. By contrast, the ghoulish symbols of Halloween may be less “family-friendly” than Santa, but they are grounded much more deeply in fundamental truths about good, evil, and death. There is no jolly old man waiting to give gifts to the good children, either in the North Pole or in heaven. Death, however, is real. Demons are real. Evil is real. In our contemporary society, it’s almost as if the doctrines of Christianity are much more evident in the ghastly images of Halloween than the comfortable, consumeristic images of Christmas.

That is a tragedy. It’s a tragedy because, in truth, Christmas is not merely a contrast to Halloween but an answer to it. The deathly realities of October are no match for the advent realities of December. It’s true that evil and death are real, but they are not as real as Immanuel. In Halloween, death takes on flesh. At Christmas, life takes on flesh, as Jesus Christ enters the world to destroy the works of the prince of demons. To lose either of these realities is to filter the gospel through what is ultimately a materialistic, unbelieving lens.

I’m not at all saying that Christians must lose whatever reservations they have about Halloween. After all, if there are indeed spiritual realities in the symbols of Halloween, we must take how we treat such symbols more seriously, not less. There are good reasons to place practical boundaries on ourselves and on our children for how we engage the holiday. And the same is true of Christmas. It is no good to ban Halloween from our families and our churches on account of its darkness, and then celebrate the Christmas season just like our materialistic, legalistic culture. Both Christmas and Halloween have the potential to be nothing more in our lives than monuments to our worship of fun and food. But it doesn’t have to be that way, not if we know the gospel that gives weight and meaning and history and truth to these days.

I’m probably going to see some Christians on Facebook this weekend decry the ugly, offensive symbols of Halloween, and implore parents to remind their children that they must not associate with such things. I won’t protest that. But I do hope that, in an age where most young people grow up to ultimately believe not in ghosts, Holy or otherwise, but mostly in themselves and their own right to self-actualization, we do not despise every opportunity to remind ourselves that life and youth do not last forever.

 

Atheism Is Not Endearing

While looking for something else, I stumbled across this quote from the actor/atheist Hugh Laurie.

I find my atheism is becoming more marked with each passing year. I once prided myself on a relaxed and respectful attitude to other people’s beliefs, but I’m finding it harder to keep that up. I might find myself taking a tougher line with people about certain beliefs that are so painfully nonsensical. Because nonsense is not endearing or eccentric anymore – it’s causing death, destruction, and endless torment for millions of people around the world.

What’s funny to me about this is that it describes perfectly my own attitude toward atheism. When I was an undergraduate I thought atheists were generally intellectual powerhouses who had serious and meaningful challenges to the existence of God. Or, perhaps they were deep thinkers who had endured such awful tragedy in their personal life, that no other narrative except unbelief could offer a reassuring explanation of their suffering. For a long time this was the idea that I had about the “skeptics” and the teachers they so enthusiastically emulated.

But over the last couple of years, I too have experienced a shift  from a “relaxed and respectful attitude,” and exactly for the reasons that Laurie mentions: The stakes are too high and the effects of this worldview are too toxic. Contrary to what my undergraduate self imagined, I have discovered that more than a few self-described “skeptics” remain skeptics chiefly because they have taken exhaustive efforts to never be challenged in this regard. The number of atheists I’ve met and corresponded with who will admit to not knowing one historic argument for the existence of God, or not having one acquaintance with a believer who can seriously argue his case, is astonishing.

Beyond this, I’ve seen that the intellectual case for atheism, which I had believed to be so formidable, is not just irreparably deformed from a logical perspective, but also from a humane one as well. To read the latest and most popular volumes of skepticism from people like Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins is to confront an intellectual system that is nakedly bankrupt in moral and aesthetic value. The efforts of “scientism” to explain away the transcendent phenomenon of beauty, and the personal experience of the numinous, is nothing less than a project to sweep the legs out from under hope and human freedom. The fruits of such a belief system are evident, too: Atheism is the undisputed ruler of the internet, but it reigns alongside the most twisted forms of pornography and human degradation imaginable. There is a reason that Reddit and 4Chan are bastions of sophomore skepticism on one wing, and factories of sexual nihilism and abuse in the other.

I’ve lost my patience with atheism, but I hope I haven’t lost my patience with atheists. I still enjoy very much talking about these things with the unconvinced. And, of course, as a Christian, I have an eschatological motivation in those conversations. But as Laurie succinctly said, I don’t find the whole thing endearing anymore. There’s just too much, and too many, to be saved from it.

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Hitchens at the Horns of the Altar

Today at Mere Orthodoxy I have a review of the new book The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: The Restless Soul of the World’s Most Notorious Atheist. It’s by Larry Taunton, a Christian and an academic who became close with Hitchens in the last few years of his life.

Part intellectual biography, part spiritual memoir, part “road trip,” Taunton’s book is a pleasure. Here’s an excerpt from my review:

September 11 may not have been have been Hitchens’s Damascus Road moment, but it did much to disarm his innate hostility to those outside his ideological family tree. By pivoting to the right on terror, Hitchens was forced to doubt the categorical identity politics that so often dominate American discourse. This doubt—this shaken faith in the inherited doctrines of the Left—created the space into which Christian friendship, and Taunton himself, entered….

…What Taunton accomplishes here is marvelous, equally for what it is not as much as it what it is. It is not the melodrama of an unbeliever humbled to submission by either his reading or his inner demons. Neither is Taunton’s work a shrine to the value of apologetics. Rather, The Faith of Christopher Hitchens is that most difficult, and most valuable, of memoirs: A record of virtue and of vice, of faith and faithlessness.

You can read the whole review at Mere Orthodoxy.

Why Should You Trust the Bible? 5 Questions With Pastor Greg Gilbert

 

Greg Gilbert, pastor of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky (full disclosure: Third Avenue is where I am a member), wants you to “get” Christianity. That’s why, for example, he has a Masters in theology from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a Bachelor’s degree from a little New England school called Yale. It’s also why Greg has written, to date, three short, easy-to-read volumes on the basics of Christian belief: What Is the Gospel, Who Is Jesus, and now, Why Trust the Bible.

Greg’s latest work Why Trust the Bible? is a brief primer on why and how the Bible stands up to even the most strident criticism and examination. I asked Greg if he’d be willing to answer 5 questions about Why Trust the Bible, and he graciously did so.

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How did doing an undergraduate at an Ivy League school help you prepare for articulating the kind of arguments you’re making in “Why Trust the Bible”?  

People ask me sometimes if I experienced any “culture shock” coming from a small town in East Texas to Yale.  Other than eventually forcing myself to love coffee, the main thing was that all of a sudden, essentially no one approached Christianity with the same deference and presupposed acceptance that was normal for basically everyone in my home town.  All of a sudden, every proposition of my faith was under question by peers and professors alike, and so I had to do the really hard work of figuring out not just what I believed, but why.  At first, I think I took a fairly defensive posture in the conversations I was having.  My main goal was just to be able to say, “I believe this, and that’s intellectually defensible.”  

But over time, I think I finally got frustrated with that approach and decided to go on offense. I didn’t want to end the conversation just having shown that it was okay for me to be a Christian.  I wanted to show people that the pressure really was on them, not me.  They needed to defend themselves for not believing that Jesus rose from the dead. 

That was an intellectual revolution for me–to realize that the evidence for Christianity is actually so good that a Christian can go on offense with a non-believer and challenge them to defend their unbelief.

In your own ministry context, do you tend to see more people doubting the trustworthiness of the Bible due to intellectual/logical issues or due to personal/existential crises?

It’s almost always a tangle of issues.  Intellectual questions can introduce the kind of doubt that leads to personal crisis, and personal crisis can lead people to doubt the Bible on an intellectual level.  So it’s important always to deal with both sides at the same time; you have to get the wheel turning, and it’s impossible to make half of it turn if the other half isn’t turning as well.  Does that make sense?  

3. What’s one common mistake you see Christians making when it comes to dialoguing with non-Christians about the trustworthiness of the Bible and Christianity?

 I think the most damaging mistake is accepting the world’s assumption that we don’t really have good reasons for believing what we do.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen Christians get backed into a conversational corner and finally just throw up their hands and say something like, “Well I can’t prove it to you! You just have to accept it on faith!”  And of course when we do that, the unbeliever just chuckles and walks away thinking, “That’s what I thought.”  

But the Christian faith isn’t like that at all.  We don’t accept it on an empty “leap of faith.”  No, there are solid reasons for believing what we do about Jesus.  There are reasons for believing the Bible is trustworthy, for believing that Jesus really did rise from the dead, and for believing that he really is who he said he is.  And the thing is–they’re not just reasons that will be convincing only to those who are already convinced!  They’re reasons that, if we understand them and use them well, can challenge an unbeliever to rethink his unbelief.  I think that’s what Peter meant when he said, “Always be ready to make a defense for the hope that is in you.”  That word “defense,” doesn’t mean “defense” as we hear that word.  It means “case.”  Make a case.  Have reasons that will not only make you feel better, but will make an unbeliever feel unsettled.  

 What author(s) has been particularly helpful to you in thinking about these questions? Specific books?  

There are a lot, and many of them are mentioned in footnotes and also in an appendix in Why Trust the Bible.  None of the arguments I make in that book are original to me (well, maybe one or two!).  The idea was just to take the massive, detailed case Christians have made for centuries about the reliability of the Bible and put it in a form that Christians can read and grasp and use quickly and (I hope) easily.

If you had time to say only one sentence to an atheist to provoke them to consider Christianity, what would that sentence be?

“Did Jesus really rise from the dead, and how can you be so sure?”

Be sure to pick up pastor Greg’s new book Why Trust the Bible, available everywhere.

American Atheism’s Diversity Problem

Google the words “atheism” and “demographics” together, and the odds are you’re looking for information about the rise in the number of Americans who identify as atheist or agnostic. And that’s perfectly fair; there has indeed been an unmistakeable rise for atheism, or the “Nones,” over the past decade. Unbelief has never been more in en vogue in culture than it is right now.

Assuming, of course, that the “culture” we are talking about is white male culture.

It turns out that atheism in the United States is very male and very white. According to a new one-sheeter put out by Pew Research, 68% of self-identifying atheists in the country are male, while an astonishing 78% of them are white. That means that more than half of the US’s atheist population are Caucasian males.

Contrast that with the demographic data for religious groups in the country. Pew estimates that 54% of US Catholics are female, while only 59% are white. Evangelicalism–which many atheists endlessly lampoon as whitewashed and sexist–is more diverse than atheism, with more than half of US evangelicals being female and 76% being white. Collapsing all of the divisions under the “Christian” category in Pew’s data yields numbers that are significantly more diverse both in gender and in race than the numbers for American atheism.

I find this data so interesting because, in mainstream public forums like higher education and mass media, it is typically religion that is portrayed as stifling diversity and secularism as welcoming it. Much of the literature of the New Atheists takes massive broadsides, for example, at Christian churches that practice male-only eldership or that teach that husbands are to be spiritual heads of the home. It’s amusing to think that the same authors who are accusing religious people of practicing discrimination and prejudice are forming an intellectual culture that is actually less diverse than the churches they rail against.

This data is also interesting because it demonstrates the futility of trying to compact social trends under broadly sweeping statements like, “Americans are leaving religion.” As my friend Chris Martin has pointed out, those kinds of unqualified, all-inclusive sounding statements are always click-worthy but are more often than not simply incorrect. If what we mean by “Americans” is “white, male, college-educated Americans,” then the statement becomes more responsible. But of course, such synonymity is ridiculous; America is vastly more than its white, male, thirtysomething bloc.

It would be a mistake, of course, to act as if such demographic homogeneousness was itself some kind of sophisticated argument against atheism. It’s not, just like the homogeneously white history of my own denomination is not itself an indication that the resurrection of Christ is a false doctrine. But even if such facts do not affect the truthfulness of the biggest metaphysical claims being made, they do tend to reveal an internal logic to the belief system. My denomination’s pro-slavery origins reveals a white supremacist hermeneutic, for example, that struck at the very center of how my denominational ancestors would have understood the gospel of reconciliation. That’s the power of theology; it can either build slave plantations or build a biracial marriage.

So what does that tell us about the maleness and the whiteness of American atheism?  First, atheism, as a demographic, seems to be succeeding where most of the Christian denominations are failing–namely, with men. The appeal of atheism to younger men probably has less to do with its intellectual rigor and more to do with what Ross Douthat has identified as a kind of latent boredom in the West with religious and social traditions that have been undermined by progressive culture. There is a self-preserving, rebellious character to atheism that likely appeals to the atrophied moral imaginations of young men living in a lifeless sort of post-confessional, hyper-pluralistic society.

Secondly, atheism’s demographic shortcomings among minorities suggests that its appeal is not, in fact, to people who have been on the wrong side of privilege but on the powerful side. Atheism’s success on the college campus seems to be tilted generously towards white students and not towards minority students who we might instinctively think have more of a complaint against the “power structures” of religion. This too would be a significant corrective to the image of atheism and religion that is often presented in college and in media.

In any event, the whiteness and maleness of American atheism is a fascinating demographic reality and not one, I think, that many would expect or assume. Truth is sneaky like that, I suppose.

How “God’s Not Dead” fails Christian students

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I took the plunge that I had been studiously avoiding and turned on God’s Not Dead, the evangelical blockbuster movie from last year that has thus far raked in cash, awards, and even designation as the “best Christian movie of the year.” I had seen beforehand its 17% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and read thoughtfully critical takes on the movie. I was more or less prepared to watch a bad film, and indeed that’s what I got.

The failures of “God’s Not Dead” are particularly frustrating when you consider how easily they could have been avoided. There’s nothing wrong with God’s Not Dead that couldn’t be fixed by handing the script to a writer who isn’t eager to portray non-Christians in the worst light possible. The film feels less like a dramatic narrative and more like a propaganda reel, highlighting The Enemy in all their inglorious abominations.

It would be one thing for the movie to caricature non-evangelicals if it had no aspirations to realism in the beginning. I actually would be curious to watch a well-done diatribe against the secularist monopoly on higher education; the potential to learn something in that context seems high. But the medium of dramatic narrative is a higher medium than a lecture. It engages the imagination and moves the spirit in a more significant way. That’s why God’s Not Dead’s animosity towards its non-Christian characters is dangerous; if Christians come away thinking unbelievers in real life are like the unbelievers of God’s Not Dead (and that is clearly the message of the script), they will be carrying a spiteful fantasy into their relationships and evangelism that will be fatal to Gospel conversations.

Fairly representing those who disagree is not something that Christians should be bad at doing. Telling the truth about what people believe and engaging them like honest people isn’t a spiritual gift or an acquired skill. It’s basic honesty. How can I criticize the anathematizing of people like Brendan Eich and Ryan Anderson if after hours I myself enjoy caricatures of those who disagree with me?

I understand why people enjoy “God’s Not Dead.” It’s a brief moment of cinematic glory for Christians who, for good reason, often feel lampooned and marginalized in pop culture. But it’s a moment that comes at the expense of a helpful or even realistic perspective on the dialogues between faith and unbelief. The vast majority of atheists that Christian students will meet in college are nothing like the professor from God’s Not Dead. If these students go into school expecting the contrary, the cognitive dissonance that will result from seeing a reality that contradicts their assumptions will have a worse effect on their faith than a few hours of talking with a unbeliever could ever have.