Reading Literature through the Eyes of C. S. Lewis, Part 1

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            A central concern for Christians regarding literature is what value, if any, literature holds for the reader. Although this is not a new consideration, it is one C. S. Lewis referred to as a “living question” for its continued importance for discussion. Literature is often accused of being useless, merely entertainment, irrelevant to life, or immoral (Ryken, Windows to the World 18). Does a biblical Christian worldview allow Christians to enjoy literature, and if so, how should Christians decide what books they should read? In answering these difficult questions, one author in particular should be respected and consulted for answers: C. S. Lewis. This prominent Oxford and Cambridge lecturer and imaginative writer provides a thorough response for how Christians should engage the humanities and culture, particularly in the area of literary art.

            Lewis had the extraordinary privilege of teaching at the two most prestigious universities in the world for the humanities: Oxford and Cambridge. He first taught at Magdalen College, Oxford, from 1925 to 1954. He then earned the position of Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English at Magdalene College, Cambridge. In Reading the Classics with C. S. Lewis, Leland Ryken accordingly spells out some of the advantages of studying “with” such a learned scholar. First, Ryken notes that with Lewis’s literary criticism, readers are “in the presence of someone who simply assumed that the world of literature is a self-rewarding world of overwhelming importance” (24). Furthermore, he “had a knack for delineating the features of an author’s world” (24), and a way of attracting readers both to “individual works of authors” as well as immersing them into the “entire world of imaginative literature” (26). The key, according to Ryken, is Lewis’s vast array of reading experience; he states, “I know of no twentieth-century critic who refers to so many works and writers” (26). On a more personal level, Ryken observes, “To read literature with C. S. Lewis is to get to know Lewis himself, and this is part of the appeal of his criticism. Criticism as an impersonal scholarly inquiry did not occur as an option for Lewis. His own tastes and personality come through at nearly every turn” (28). Mark Noll considers the influence and importance of Lewis:

Lewis’s writing has constituted the single most important body of Christian thinking for American evangelicals in the twentieth century. His defense of supernatural Christianity, his ability to exploit learned culture, his example as a writer of fiction, his demonstration that the truths of the faith could be expressed in lively prose—all contributed an unusual measure of intellectual stimulation to evangelicals on this side of the water. (218)

As one of the greatest literary scholars and critics in the twentieth century, Lewis’s views on literature are vital for any Christian seeking answers to the questions of why one should read literature, what constitutes a good book, and how one should approach reading.

The most tragic reality students face in the secular university today is the absence of belief in absolute truth. Literature is typically not studied from the perspective of what the author is trying to communicate; instead, students are encouraged to decipher their own meaning and apply it to the text. In a society entrenched in postmodern ideologies, the understanding of what principles govern the reading of good literature is often lost. With postmodernity came the false presupposition that there are no objective standards to which literature must adhere. The result is “art for art’s sake” and the assumption that the reader, not the author, determines the meaning of the text. As postmodernists disregard absolutes, words, which form the foundation of literature, lose their essential meaning. Thus, words such as “Truth,” “Love,” “Wisdom,” “Beauty,” and “Justice” become mere abstractions which people subjectively understand. The loss of a stable language is detrimental to a student’s entire education. When words lose their function of communicating universal truth and meaning, students lose the ability to come to a meaningful understanding of truth and reality.

            Lewis, noticing the gravitation toward relativism in the contemporary worldview of his time, set forth concrete principles for interpreting literature. He believed in the importance of understanding the worldview of an author, as well as how readers’ worldviews affect the way that they interpret literature.  Yet Lewis argues that readers should not allow their own worldview to frustrate or impede a story; instead, they must “receive” rather than “use” a story (Experiment in Criticism 93). Thus, Lewis strikes a balance between two polarized forms of literary criticism. On one end of the spectrum, readers simplify a literary text to force it into a uniform category to argue that it advocates a particular worldview or universal truth. At the other extreme are those who deny the existence of absolutes and thus force the text to fit whichever meaning they subjectively wish to contend. Lewis’s approach, as a middle ground, encourages readers to interact with a text and to enjoy it for what it is worth, yet not to impose their personal agendas on the text to determine its meaning.

            Fiction is a unique vehicle for explaining and illuminating the reality of human life. Although a fictional story does not necessarily tell a true story, it is an instrument through which the reader can discover truth. Humans are, as beings created in the image of God, creators in their own right. Thus, a person who is crafting literature is creating a world. By entering the world of fiction, according to Lewis, the reader can later re-enter the real world with a refreshed perspective on reality. Emphasis on supernatural reality is one of the most common themes in Lewis’s work, particularly in his fiction. In his essay “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” Lewis explains that he uses the genre of fantasy as a vehicle to convey his message because other genres attempting to express a moral or principle may inadvertently cause the reader to feel obligation. According to Lewis, “an obligation to feel can freeze things” (37). In other words, when entering the imaginary world, the reader typically does not feel that he or she is being told what to do. Instead, while watching the story unfold, the reader can experience the abstract or concrete ideas evoked by the author in a natural, rather than forced, environment. Such an environment is most effective, for it allows the reader alone to decide how to act upon the underlying message.

 

Comment

Lauren Platanos

Lauren Platanos graduated summa cum laude from Liberty University with a double major in English and Government. After developing a love for the wide range of works by C.S. Lewis, she furthered her study of his writings at Oxford University. After graduation, Lauren went on to study holistic health and became a certified integrative nutrition health coach. She now lives with her husband and two dogs in Virginia, where she coaches individuals through their healing journey through her online business healpeacefully.com.

Insights of C. S. Lewis Concerning Faith, Doubt, Pride, Corrupted Love, And Dying to Oneself in Till We Have Faces (Part 2)

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Pride, Devouring Love, And Dying To Self

Let us turn now to a second major theme in TWHF: pride and corrupted love. There are a number of insights concerning this theme that Lewis offers in his prose that are illustrated well in TWHF. Consider first the nature of pride and the fact that it blocks the knowledge of God. Lewis says that pride is the key sin that is central in Christian ethics. People recognize pride in others but often fail to see it in themselves.[1] Lewis says that pride is what often makes it difficult to convince unbelievers of their sin problem. It leads them to overlook their own sins yet feel that they can judge God for allowing the evils in the world; in short, it leads humans to think we are “on the bench and God in the Dock.”[2] Pride is the pathway to all other vices. It is the “complete anti-God state of mind” and is by nature competitive. We are not proud merely because we are smart or attractive but because we are smarter or more attractive than others.[3] Pride seeks power and puts one’s self forward. It always causes conflict with others and with God.[4] Lewis says, “The moment you have a self at all, there is a possibility of putting yourself first—wanting to be the centre—wanting to be God, in fact.”[5] Since God is “immeasurably superior” to all people, Lewis stresses that pride prevents one from knowing God. Pride involves “looking down,” but God can only be known by looking up. Prideful people may say they know God, but they cannot.[6] Those who truly know God will have their focus on God and not themselves. We cannot relate to God properly unless we humbly recognize Him as God.[7]

In TWHF, Orual fails to recognize her pride for most of the novel, and this prevents her from knowing the gods and discovering truth. So long as she was elevating herself and only looking down, she could not realize that the gods were above her. She could not know herself or the gods because she was a prisoner of her pride. As the novel opens, she seeks to put the gods in the judgment seat (i.e., in “the dock”) and is angry that they will not answer her.[8] By the end, however, she discovers that the accusations she had wanted to make against the gods for most of her life were indefensible. She realizes that this is why the gods “do not speak to us openly” about our concerns. It is because we do not know as much as we think we do and our pride blinds us to the truth. The gods cannot “meet us face to face till we have faces.”[9] This also illustrates why Lewis says that prayer would be far too dangerous for us if God answered every prayer.[10] Orual had prayed for the gods to reveal things to her, but they were silent. In the end, she knew it was good that they had remained silent and not answered her prayer.

A second insight within this theme is that pride corrupts love into a jealous hate that devours others. In The Four Loves, Lewis says that prideful self-centeredness and jealousy can creep into “every kind of love.” This may involve not wanting the one we love to “become brighter or more beautiful” or not wanting “the old ways to be changed even for the better.”[11] He gives the example of two siblings who share everything and are extremely close throughout life, but one of them experiences a change—a new interest that the other cannot share. Perhaps, he says, the change is that one “undergoes a religious conversion.” The one who did not change is liable to feel that she is losing the bond with the other. She is likely to mock the new love of the changed sibling and call it “nonsense.”[12] This is exactly what Orual experienced when Psyche found a new love that Orual did not share and did not want intruding into her love for Psyche. Orual admits that her hatred of the gods and her true motivation to separate Psyche from them were rooted in her belief that the gods stole Psyche’s love from her. Orual would rather Psyche be killed than have another come between her and Psyche. “Psyche was mine,” she says.[13]

Lewis also notes in The Four Loves that there is sometimes a need to be needed by the one we love, and this can be twisted into something like hate. Lewis gives the example of one who has the need to care for another person in a motherly way such that the other person is smothered by these efforts and does not desire them.[14] Love should express itself in wanting the other person to be self-sufficient and not require one’s support;[15] when it does not, this twisted sort of love “contains a good deal of hatred” and becomes “a god” in one’s life—an idol that “becomes a demon.”[16] This is reflected in The Great Divorce by the female ghost who, even in the afterlife, is obsessed with controlling her husband and desires to continue to rule over him and “make something of him”—a goal she believes she never fully completed in her earthly life.[17] She goes on and on describing how she met all of his needs and how he would be lost without her even though it was evident that he did not desire (or, in her mind, “appreciate”) her efforts. Her preoccupation with her husband needing her prevented her from knowing God and from seeing the destruction that her “love” produced in her own life and in the earthly life of her husband. In the end, this continual need to be needed sucked up her very existence.[18] This type of twisted love is clearly exemplified in Orual’s desire to control and rule over Psyche. Although Psyche assures Orual that her god husband must now be the one to guide her, Orual insists, “You cannot go your own way. You will let me rule and guide you.”[19] Although Psyche neither needed nor desired Orual to rule her, Orual had a need to be needed. She was so desperate to keep Psyche under her “loving” rule that she coerced her by threats. Mirroring what Lewis says in The Four Loves, Psyche tells Orual, “I am not sure I like your kind [of love] better than hatred.”[20] Orual, in revealing her true thoughts at the end of the novel, says she was not jealous of Psyche until the gods started to elevate Psyche and make her the “next thing to a goddess.” Orual wanted the gods to elevate her instead and show her the truth so that she could in turn teach Psyche.[21] She was bent on Psyche needing her as a ruler and teacher. Although Psyche was happy with the gods, Orual took no comfort in this. Her pride and twisted love led her to insist that she must be the only one to give Psyche happiness.[22] The Fox described this attitude as “one part love in your heart, and five parts anger, and seven parts pride.”[23]

Lewis declares that the worst sort of pride involves looking down on others “so much that you do not care what they think of you.”[24] Although Orual no doubt would have preferred for Psyche to think well of her, there is a real sense in which she exemplifies the sort of pride Lewis is describing. Orual wanted to have Psyche’s companionship and love, and she did not care if Psyche knew she was coercing her so long as it meant keeping Psyche in her life and under her control. She was willing to threaten to kill Psyche and herself to keep Psyche under her rule and did not back down when Psyche accused her of using Psyche’s love for her as a weapon.[25] Orual devoured others with her twisted love and was “a craver” even if they thought less of her for it.[26]

Another insight of Lewis concerning pride and love is that one should never be less drawn to God than one is to another human and should never love God less than another human. Lewis says that we cannot love another human too much. We can only love God too little so that our love for that human person is placed higher than our love for God.[27] Lewis also thinks it is not a sin to be proud of another human—so long as that pride is mere admiration and that admiration is less than what one has for God. It is never acceptable to “love and admire anything more than we love and admire God.”[28] Lewis portrays this concept well in The Great Divorce through the character Pam. Pam wants to see her son Michael, who is in heaven, but she needs to desire God to do so. She says she will love God if that is the only way to see her son, but she is told that one must not love God as a means to being united with what ought to be a lesser love. She is “treating God only as a means to Michael.”[29] Indeed, Lewis wrestled with this temptation himself after his wife died. As he was struggling to maintain his trust in God’s goodness, he considered that he may simply be “sidling back to God” because he knew that doing so is the only possible road to seeing his wife again. But he realized that God “can’t be used as a road.” Lewis says, “If you’re approaching Him not as the goal but as a road, not as the end but as a means, you’re not really approaching Him at all.”[30] So love for God must exceed one’s love for any human; however, throughout nearly all of TWHF, Orual’s relationship with Psyche was clearly far more important to her than Psyche’s relationship with the gods or her own relationship with the gods.[31] Orual was more drawn to Psyche than she was to the gods and desired a love relationship with Psyche that she did not desire to have with the gods. This made Psyche an idol in Orual’s life that led her astray greatly.

Finally, a crucial insight of Lewis related to pride is that one must die to oneself in order to know God and love others properly. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity, “Give up yourself, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it.” He says that if you “look for yourself,” then “you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.” We must submit to the death of our “ambitions and favourite wishes every day” if we are to be remade.[32] This dying to self is powerfully illustrated in TWHF, as Orual is told by the gods to “die before you die.”[33] Orual had to be “unmade” and die to herself and her prideful ambitions in order to become her perfected self.[34] In Mere Christianity, Lewis uses a fleet of ships to illustrate how moral growth needs to occur within a human, between humans, and in the interaction between each human and God. To function properly, each ship in the fleet must be seaworthy, each ship must not collide with or damage other ships, and all the ships must be collectively headed toward the proper destination (i.e., God).[35] In TWHF, Orual must die to herself in order to grow morally as an individual. Doing this allowed her to relate better to others and understand the root of pride that infected her relationship with and knowledge of other humans and the gods.

Conclusion

Lewis illustrates powerfully many insights from his prose in TWHF. Concerning faith, he portrays emotional doubt in the lives of Orual and Psyche and the need to use reason to trump such doubt. He reveals through Orual how moral growth requires personal effort as well as drawing upon God’s help. He also reveals much of what he learned in his own struggle with doubting God’s goodness through Orual’s process of discovery. Concerning pride, he shows through Orual’s self-discovery how pride prevents one from knowing God by blocking one from knowing oneself and one’s flaws. He also illustrates in Orual many of his insights concerning the way pride and jealousy can corrupt love into a devouring hate and how one’s love of self and others can wrongly exceed one’s love of God. Finally, Lewis shows in TWHF how dying to oneself is a true prerequisite to overcoming pride and finding one’s true self so that one can relate properly to God and others. Thus TWHF is a masterpiece in which Lewis—via the medium of retelling a myth—portrays many of his theological and moral insights

Notes

37. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 121.

38. C. S. Lewis, “God in the Dock” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), 268.

39. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 122.

40. Ibid., 123-4.

41. Ibid., 49.

42. Ibid., 124.

43. Ibid., 127.

44. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 3.

45. Ibid., 294.

46. C. S. Lewis, “Work and Prayer” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), 107.

47. C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (San Diego, CA: Harcourt, 1960), 45.

48. C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves, 46.

49. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 290-1. This is much like what Lee Strobel experienced prior to his conversion to Christianity. When his wife became a Christian, he at first resented her love for God out of his own “self-interest.” He worried that he was losing her because her belief that she now had a relationship with God was coming between them. See Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998), 16.

50. C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves, 48-50.

51. Ibid., 50.

52. Ibid., 56.

53. C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, in The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperCollins, 2002), 516.

54. Lewis, The Great Divorce, 513-6.

55. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 159.

56. Ibid., 165.

57. Ibid., 291.

58. Ibid., 292.

59. Ibid., 148.

60. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 126.

61. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 165. Orual also used her position as Queen to keep Bardia with her needlessly and selfishly and did not encourage the Fox to leave her and go home to Greece as she knew he wished to do.

62. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 305.

63. Lewis, The Four Loves, 122-3.

64. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 127.

65. Lewis, The Great Divorce, 518.

66. Lewis, A Grief Observed, 685.

67. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 72-6.

68. Ibid., 226-7.

69. Ibid., 279.

70. Ibid., 307-8.

71. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 71-2.

Insights of C. S. Lewis Concerning Faith, Doubt, Pride, Corrupted Love, And Dying to Oneself in Till We Have Faces (Part 1)

 Photo by  João Silas  on  Unsplash

Photo by João Silas on Unsplash

In Till We Have Faces (henceforth TWHF), C. S. Lewis combines his passion for pagan mythology with his knack for communicating Christian truths via story. Lewis often stresses in his various works his belief that pagan mythology, while not reflecting the complete truth about God, contains various nuggets of the ultimate truth that is found in Christianity. Christianity, he says, is the “true myth” that melds the human need for believing what is true about the world as it actually is with our need for imagination and wonder and delight.[1] It is thus not surprising that, in TWHF, Lewis powerfully illustrates a number of theological and moral positions that are prominent in many of his other writings by retelling the story of the myth of Psyche and Cupid.

This paper will examine two major themes in TWHF that are also emphasized heavily within Lewis’s prose: the theme of faith and doubt and the theme of pride and corrupted love. With regard to the first major theme of faith and doubt, we will examine three key aspects of faith that Lewis stresses throughout his writings that are beautifully illustrated in TWHF. The first aspect of faith involves holding onto what one believes with good reason to be true about God in the face of various emotionally-driven, non-evidential temptations to abandon one’s faith. The second aspect of faith involves humbly drawing upon God’s help as we strive to follow Him and be molded into a person of greater character. The third aspect of faith deals with believing that God is good in the midst of pain and suffering and incomplete information.

The paper will then examine the second major theme of pride and corrupted love. This will begin by examining how Lewis considers pride to be the antithesis of God’s mindset and how it prevents one from knowing God. This truth is at the heart of TWHF. Next, we will consider what Lewis has to say about how pride corrupts love into a sort of jealous hate that devours others and how this is exemplified in the life of Orual in TWHF. We will also see how Lewis’s warning against loving God less than we love others is illustrated in the novel. Finally, we will examine how Lewis’s repeated exhortation to engage in the biblical principle of dying to oneself in order to combat pride and relate properly to God and others is portrayed clearly in TWHF.

 

Faith and Doubt

Lewis has much to say about faith and doubt in his prose; indeed, two chapters of Mere Christianity are fully devoted to the subject. Let us consider three aspects of faith that Lewis emphasizes in his writings and exemplifies in TWHF, beginning with his recognition that faith requires us to hold onto what reason tells us is true about God and not allow our commitment to God to waver when we are tempted to doubt for various emotionally-driven reasons that are not rooted in evidence or reason. Lewis recognizes that human minds are not “completely ruled by reason.” Despite having good reason to trust one’s surgeon, for example, Lewis himself experienced emotional doubt and anxiety when he had surgery; he allowed his “emotion and imagination” to overrule his reason.[2] A Christian with reasonable faith still experiences times when “his emotions rise up and carry out a sort of blitz on his belief.” Also, in some situations there are moral reasons that it is not “convenient” to think that Christianity is true (e.g., when one is tempted to sin). Faith involves maintaining commitment to what one knows is true about Christianity despite one’s changing moods and circumstances.[3] It is a virtue to “teach your moods where they get off” and control them when they challenge one’s reason. This involves recognizing one’s moods and using reason to remind oneself that one’s faith in Christ is true by engaging in the spiritual disciplines of prayer, Bible reading, and church attendance.[4]

This sort of emotional doubt is seen in both Psyche and Orual in TWHF. Psyche rationally believes—on the basis of her longing for the gods, her recognition of their beauty, and her religious experience—that the “god of the Mountain” is the source of all beauty and has been “wooing” her to come to him.[5] Lewis considers the human longing for God and for that which is beyond this world to be a rational reason to believe in God.[6] Yet, despite having good reason to be confident in the gods, Psyche has moments when her emotions—fear in particular—rise up and cause her to doubt. A fear arises in the back of her mind that the god of the Mountain does not exist and that she will slowly die tied to a tree instead of being united with the god. The thought made her cry, but she quickly began reminding herself of the confidence that she has that the Fox’s skepticism about the gods is wrong and that her sense that the gods exist is correct.[7] As Lewis says in A Grief Observed, “You never know how much you really believe in anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you.”[8] At such times, it is easier for emotions to get the better of one’s faith, but Psyche reasoned herself away from this doubt in exactly the way Lewis says one should respond to such emotional blitzes.[9]

Orual also experiences emotionally-driven doubts. Unlike Psyche, Orual has no longing for the gods—especially after they take Psyche away. She has hate for them and admits her repulsion to believing that Psyche is living with a god husband in a palace, exclaiming in an angry outburst, “I don’t want [to believe] it!”[10] Although she clearly realizes that the evidence for Psyche’s account of her god husband is enough to believe it is true,[11] she allows her emotions to overrule her reason. Indeed, immediately after realizing that she believes it is true, emotional doubt occurs—what reason told her is true is wiped out by an emotional blitz of “blinding waves of sorrow”.[12] Because she lacks the longing for the gods that Psyche has, Orual does not invoke reason to try to talk herself out of her emotional rejection of the truth. Instead, she convinces herself that she is justified in accepting what is not true despite the fact that factual doubt (i.e., doubt rooted in a lack of evidence) was never the problem.[13] Unless one is determined to rule one’s moods by reason, Lewis says one will remain merely “a creature dithering to and fro” with one’s beliefs “dependent on the weather and the state of its digestion.”[14] That is exactly what happens with Orual. Because she is so influenced by her moods and emotions rather than grounding herself in reason, her beliefs seem to swing wildly back and forth. She goes from nearly a “full belief”[15] that the unseen palace exists to moments later “fluttering to and fro between two opinions” and finding it “unbelievable” that Psyche’s palace and god “could be anything but madness.”[16] Then, shortly thereafter, she briefly sees the palace and is so sure that Psyche is married to a god that she plans to go and ask Psyche and the god to forgive her of her doubts, but when the palace disappears she immediately tries to tell herself it may not have been a veridical experience.[17] Then, after hearing Bardia’s opinion and reflecting again on the evidence, she considers it “plain” truth that Psyche was given to the god.[18] In the end, it is made clear that Orual did know that the palace was real all along and that her emotions—especially her jealousy—were the culprits in her convincing herself that the evidence is unclear.[19] Her emotions carried out a blitz on her beliefs. Like Orual, Lewis experienced the temptation to think negatively about God out of anger rather than what he knew to be true. He calls it “hitting back” at God. But Lewis stresses that “the mood is no evidence.”[20] He illustrates this well in Orual.

Consider now a second aspect of faith stressed by Lewis: realizing that one falls short of the mark morally and striving to be good while at the same time recognizing that one must seek God’s help to make this improvement.[21] Lewis says that the first step to developing this aspect of faith is to try hard to be good for even “six weeks,” as nobody realizes “how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good.” Doing this convinces us that we lack the resources apart from God to live up to the demands of morality.[22] This is seen in TWHF, as Orual realizes in the end that she is “ugly in soul” and desires to change her “ugly soul into a fair one.” She realizes that she needs the gods’ help to do this, but she sets out to try to be good and take the first step. She finds that she could not be good for even a half hour and was concerned that the gods would not help her.[23] So as soon as she tries hard to be good, she realizes how much divine help is needed. Yet as the novel unfolds, she finds that the gods are helping her to grow morally. They are doing their “surgery” on her by revealing things to her about herself using events in her life (e.g., the process of writing her book) and interactions with other people (e.g., Ansit and Tarin).[24] As Lewis stresses in Mere Christianity, God helps us to grow via many means. He uses nature, books, experiences, and other people—even when we do not realize they are being used.[25]

A third aspect of faith addressed by Lewis involves believing that God is good in the midst of suffering and incomplete information. Lewis knew well the reality of this faith struggle, as he wrestled with doubting God’s goodness after his wife died. Like Orual, who never seriously doubted the existence of the gods but had serious doubts about their goodness, when Lewis lost his wife he reports struggling with thinking “dreadful things” about God. The conclusion he fears most “is not ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like.’”[26]

As Psyche was preparing to be offered to the god, she talks with Orual about how to interpret the gods’ actions in such a way that they are considered good. Psyche suggests that even if the gods seem to humans to be doing evil, we may simply not know enough to realize that the gods are actually doing what is good; in addition, she suggests that it is possible that the gods are not the cause of the evils we attribute to them. Orual, on the other hand, sees no other way to interpret the gods demanding Psyche as an offering than to declare that it is clearly evil.[27] Like Orual, when Lewis was in the early stages of his grief after his wife died he was tempted to think, “What reason have we, except our own desperate wishes, to believe that God is, by any standard we can conceive, ‘good’?”[28] Yet he quickly realized that it is “too anthropomorphic” to think of God as an evil Being; moreover, there seems to be too much good in the world. An evil Being is not likely to include “love, or laughter, or daffodils, or a frosty sunset” as traps or baits in a ploy to harm us. In response, however, to the question raised by Psyche as to whether we are able to evaluate God’s goodness, Lewis rejects the idea that anything God does must be considered good because we are too limited or fallen to pass judgment on God’s morality. He denies that “we are so depraved that our ideas of goodness count for nothing” and that the goodness of God is beyond our ability to assess. If that were true, Lewis says, we would then lack any reason to obey God or to call God “good,” for that term as it applies to God would be meaningless.[29] Lewis, however, does hold that God’s ways and His knowledge are beyond us so that we do not fully understand God’s reasons for allowing things[30]—a truth borne out in TWHF.

Orual also thinks for most of the novel that the gods are toying with us in “cat-and-mouse play” by giving us something good in our life just to take it away and make things worse.[31] In the same way, Lewis for a time wondered if God was like that when his wife died. His concern was that there is a God who is playing with us like we are “rats in a laboratory.” It seemed to Lewis that “time after time, when [God] seemed most gracious He was really preparing the next torture.”[32] Yet Lewis came to realize that this thought was an emotional “yell rather than a thought” rooted in reason and evidence.[33] Orual, too, comes to see that the gods have not been mistreating her; rather they have been preparing her for moral surgery.[34]

It is also interesting that, when his wife dies, Lewis wonders on what basis he had begun having doubts about God’s goodness. He knew about evil and the fact that spouses die before his own wife died, and it never bothered him before; however, it began to bother him and challenge his confidence in God’s goodness once the suffering happened to him personally.[35] In the same way, Orual says she “never really began to hate” the gods and hold the strong feeling that they are cruel until they affected her personally by taking Psyche away.[36] It is only when suffering impacts our lives personally that this aspect of faith in God’s goodness tends to be doubted.

(Part 2 coming next week)

Notes:

1. C. S. Lewis, “Myth Became Fact,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), 58-60.

2. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity: A Revised and Amplified Edition, with a New Introduction, of the Three Books Broadcast Talks, Christian Behaviour, and Beyond Personality (New York: HarperCollins, 2000), 139.

3. Ibid., 140.

4. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 141.

5. C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold (San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace, 1956), 74-6.

6. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 135-7.

7. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 70-1.

8. C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, in The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperCollins, 2002), 665.

9. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 140-1. See also Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 108-9. Psyche’s doubts began to return as she was left at the tree. She felt that her old longings were gone and she could no longer believe in the god and the palace. Yet in her doubt she prayed to the gods. Emotional doubt returned when faced with stress and the possibility that her faith is misplaced, but she turned to the spiritual disciplines in the midst of it.

10. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 124.

11. Ibid., 120, 123-4.

12. Ibid., 121.

13. Ibid., 290-1.

14. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 141.

15. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 120.

16. Ibid., 126.

17. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 133. See also C. S. Lewis, “Is Theism Important?,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), 191. Related to the brief vision of the palace, Lewis says that religious experience often “comes and goes: especially goes.” Faith involves retaining “what is irresistible and obvious during the moments of special grace. By faith we believe always what we hope hereafter to see always and perfectly and have already seen imperfectly and by flashes.”

18. Ibid., 137.

19. Ibid., 290-1.

20. Lewis, A Grief Observed, 673.

21. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 141-9.

22. Ibid., 141-2.

23. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 281-2.

24. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 253-67.

25. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 190.

26. Lewis, A Grief Observed, 658.

27. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 71-2.

28. Lewis, A Grief Observed, 668.

29. Lewis, A Grief Observed, 669.

30. C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, in The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperCollins, 2002), 568.

31. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 249.

32. Lewis, A Grief Observed, 668-9.

33. Ibid., 669.

34. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 253-67.

35. Lewis, A Grief Observed, 671-2.

36. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 290.

 

 

Top 10 Posts for 2017

 Photo by  Jez Timms  on  Unsplash

Photo by Jez Timms on Unsplash

Thank you for supporting Moral Apologetics in 2017! We have had an exciting year and it has been a privilege to host some exciting content in 2017. As a way of looking back, we wanted to share with you the list of the most read posts for the year.

1. "On Psychopathy and Moral Apologetics"  By David Baggett

2.  "Seven Reasons Why Moral Apologetics Points to Christianity"  By David Baggett

3.  "God’s Goodness and Difficult Old Testament Passages"  By Michael Austin

4.  "The Most Reluctant Convert: C. S. Lewis Onstage"  By David Baggett

5.  "The Failure of Naturalism as a Foundation for Human Rights" By Angus J. L. Menuge

6.  Good God Panel Discussion with Baggett, Walls, Copan, and Craig

7.  "What to Make of a Diminished Thing: Poeticizing the Fall"   By Corey Latta

8. "Advent and Christmas Poetry: Awe – John Donne’s 'Holy Sonnet 15'" By Holly Ordway

9.  "Hosea and Polyamory: The Sufficiency of Scripture" By Joshua Herring

10. "Living Life All the Way Up”: Hemingway’s Moral Apologetic from Absence" By Corey Latta

 

Image: "Happy New Year" by A. Verde. CC Licence. 

Incarnation: The Intersection of Two Universes

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A Twilight Musing

The word “incarnation” gets a lot of use this time of year, and like most frequently-used terms, its full meaning tends to get lost in its commonness. Literally, it means “being manifest in bodily form,” and it can refer to any disembodied entity assuming physical shape. However, when Christians say “The Incarnation,” they are of course talking about the Son of God being born and living out an earthly life as a human being. That bare fact would be astounding even if God had taken human form in the perfect world of the Garden of Eden; but His being incarnated in a world corrupted by sin betokens a cosmic intersection between changeless Divinity and the ever-changing sin-diseased heavens and earth. When the apostle John wrote the prologue to his Gospel account (John 1:1-18), he called the part of God that took human form “the Word,” which “was God” and was “with God” (v. 1) before He “became flesh and lived among us” (v. 14). Deathless Eternity was enveloped by mortal flesh, locking them in a battle from which either Eternal Life or endless Death would emerge victorious. Praise be to God, we know the outcome of that battle won by the Savior Jesus, whose incarnated flesh suffered death, but was raised in glory, the firstfruits of the victory over Death.

Both of the poems below reflect the process of the Word being encased in flesh, but then also emerging from flesh to become the Eternal Word again, having triumphed over Sin and Death. In the first poem, I have assumed a symbolic correspondence between the “swaddling clothes” in which Mary wrapped Jesus at His birth and the customary shroud in which His crucified body was buried. Although there was great rejoicing at Jesus’ birth because of the promises associated with His Advent, the lowly circumstances surrounding that birth indicated that His earthly existence would not fulfill the conventional expectations of powerful king and conquering hero. Just as His birth hid the death embedded in it, so His death was the womb of the Life embedded within it.

The second poem traces the same cycle of progress from the absolute and timeless Presence of God, to the extension of His Essence into the original creation of Earth, and finally to that Essence taking on human form, but without the corruption of sin. Through that Birth, Earth will be delivered from its corruption once again to embody the Essence of God’s original purpose for it, thereby empowering it to be the dwelling place for God’s eternal Presence.

"And the Word Became Flesh"

(John 1:1)

When Word invested in flesh,

No matter the shrouds that swathed it;

The donning of sin's poor corpse

(Indignity enough)

Was rightly wrapped in robes of death.

Yet breath of God

Broke through the shroud,

Dispersed the cloud

That darkened every birth before.

Those swaddling bands bespoke

A glory in the grave,

When flesh emerged as Word.

Take up this flesh, O Lord:

Re-form it with Your breath,

That, clothed in wordless death,

It may be Your Word restored.

1985

Immanuel

In God's Presence

Is the essence

Of perfect earth;

In one birth

Knows all earth

The essence

Of God's Presence.

Elton D. Higgs

Nov. 12, 1977

May the wonder of the Word becoming flesh be made real to each of those who rest in its redeeming power; and may each of those inhabited by the Spirit of Christ know with assurance that “this flesh . . . clothed in wordless death” is being transmuted to the “Word restored.”

 

Image:"Gerard van Honthorst - Adoration of the Shepherds (1622)" by Gerard van Honthorst - Google Art Project. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gerard_van_Honthorst_-_Adoration_of_the_Shepherds_(1622).jpg#/media/File:Gerard_van_Honthorst_-_Adoration_of_the_Shepherds_(1622).jpg

Comment

Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Podcast: Emily Heady on the Christian Worldview, Ethics, and A Christmas Carol

Podcast with Emily Heady In this special Christmas edition of the podcast, we sit down with Dr. Emily Heady to discuss Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Dr. Heady holds a Ph.D. in English Literature with a concentration in Victorian Studies. She also has a special interest in the work of Charles Dickens and has published articles and books exploring his novels. In this episode, Dr. Heady explains how A Christmas Carol relates to ethics and the Christian worldview.

 

 

Photo:  "A Christmas Carol, New York Public Library" By G. Ziegler. CC Licence.

Music:  “O Come O Come Emmanuel” by IKOS David Clifton with the choirs of Peterborough Cathedral. CC License. 

Comment

Emily Heady

Emily Walker Heady is Dean of the College of General Studies and Professor of English at Liberty University.  She holds a PhD in Victorian literature from Indiana University and has published on Victorian literature and culture, especially Dickens and the realist novel.  Her book, Victorian Conversion Narratives and Reading Communities, was released in 2013 (Ashgate).  She serves as a worship pianist at Lynchburg First Church of the Nazarene and, along with her husband Chene, is raising two children, Beatrice and Avery.

Jack Reacher, Superheroes, and Jesus Christ

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Jack Reacher is a former military policeman. With neither permanent address nor credit card this formidable 6’5” martial arts tactician drifts in anonymity. Wherever he goes he finds helpless victims caught in powerful webs of evil. Against insurmountable odds Reacher comes to their aid.

Author of the super popular Jack Reacher novel series, Lee Child, discussed with writer Steven King at Harvard University the derivation of his character ‘Jack Reacher’. ‘Jack Reacher’, he said, is his iteration of the ageless longing for the superhero.

This Advent season we Christians reflect on the coming into the world of the promised Prince-King-Savior, Jesus Christ. Is he, like Jack Reacher, just another construct of wishful human thinking? So skeptical critics since the nineteenth century have argued. They discount Jesus Christ as just another myth in the long line of human longing for the super hero – the deified Man. Such critics have taken their cue from the philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach who said God—substitute Jesus Christ—is a human invention. He is the deified essence of Man. Jesus Christ is humankind’s highest ideals, hopes, and imaginations fictionally personified. Namely, Jesus, just like Jack Reacher, is a projection of the human imagination.

Feuerbach’s and the skeptical critics’ contention is as unsuitable as it is an inadequate explanation of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ was enough unlike the profile of a hoped-for messiah-savior that not only his own Jewish people but the world did not recognize him. Let me point out why Feuerbach’s claim is off base and show the disparity between the human, idealized super-hero and Jesus Christ.

The imagined deified heroes embody what we are not but wish we were. They fill up our cosmic inadequacies. Fantasize with me about an archetypical super-human. What is your god or goddess’s profile? The idealized deified idol is endowed with super-human strength. Muscular, attractive, with enhanced intelligence, he or she is a champion who knows what to do in all circumstances. Endowed with an indomitable spirit, the conqueror is virile, generous, and has a streak – just a streak – of good. With death-defying acts, the divine hero surmounts improbable odds to triumph over every impossible predicament to save helpless persons. In the superhero, evil meets its match. They right wrongs, fight for justice, and defend the public from the catastrophic machinations of tyrannical, psychopathic villains. You know their names: Hercules, James Bond, X-Man, Batman, Wonder Woman, et cetera. We cannot forget Superman! In 1935, two New York City taxi-cab-drivers imagined a superman who could defeat crime and fight for truth and justice. He is faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. “Is it a bird? – Is it a plane? – No, it’s SUPERMAN!” Possessing X-ray vision, he has extraordinary, muscular strength, good looks, and, yes, he is honest and humble.

He was a model for this American male. I had my Superman suit with the big ‘S’ on my chest. I waited for that suit to arrive for two months. Mom said it was only two weeks. I went “flying around” – I mean, running around – our backyard. I could not bend steel, or outrun the dog, but I was hopeful.

Superman is made to be seen! His stupendous saving acts are performed before the eyes of the watching world. Who can miss a man flying down Wall Street in royal blue tights, a giant red ‘S’ centered on his chest, and a red cape flapping behind him? Humankind dreams of heroes who flex their muscles, and make the spectacle of their superiority resoundingly clear. At the end of the day, no one is left in doubt who wields the greatest strength, the superior intelligence, and the supreme prowess.

Contrast the hero tradition with the coming Ruler, Messiah-King, Jesus Christ. Does Jesus match their profile? He is born in an animal shelter to a craftsman family in an obscure country. The prophet Isaiah says of him, “He had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.” He did not possess the unusually attractive Grecian star-quality looks of Hercules. We’re told nothing of his looks, or the color of his skin, in fact, but plenty about his character. Moreover, contrary to Superman, his great works were performed not in the great cities like Rome or Athens but in the rural, country villages of Galilee … the Big Islands and Tight Squeezes of this world. His miracles were always awesome, but often not sensational. He was not Hercules holding up the world or Batman swooping down from a skyscraper in Gotham City’s searchlight. Though there were exceptions, He worked in understated and invisible ways to leave room for doubt … and faith. Though the results were overwhelming, one saw very little flash. When religious or secular leaders asked him for the spectacular sign of a ‘superman’, he refused to give it.

The Gospel writers make clear in Jesus’ own as well as the Gospel writers’ minds his culminating glory was the scornful cross! What human fantasy would ever conceive it? What hoped-for human imagination would envision the ideal hero-god’s climaxing achievement a humiliating public execution by his enemies on a cross? Shall the ideal superhero die like a dog an excruciating and humiliating death stretched out naked publicly in front of his enemies?

Jesus Christ is distinctly different from human fictions. Contra Feuerbach and the skeptical critics, human authors could not imagine him. His profile is not a construct of wishful, human thinking. He is not the fantasized superhero. Jesus Christ is beyond human fantasies. He is from elsewhere. ‘Of the Father’s love begotten, Ere the worlds began to be, He is Alpha and Omega, He the source, the ending, He.’

And yet none like Him so deeply satisfies our yearning for a Savior, for in allowing Himself to be broken, He offered the world its only chance to be healed.

 

Comment

Tom Thomas

Tom was most recently pastor of the Bellevue Charge in Forest, Virginia until retiring in July.  Studying John Wesley’s theology, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Bristol, Bristol, England. While a student, he and his wife Pam lived in John Wesley’s Chapel “The New Room”, Bristol, England, the first established Methodist preaching house.  Tom was a faculty member of Asbury Theological Seminary from 1998-2003. He has contributed articles to Methodist History and the Wesleyan Theological Journal. He and his wife Pam have two children, Karissa, who is an Associate Attorney at McCandlish Holton Morris in Richmond, and, John, who is a junior communications major/business minor at Regent University.  Tom enjoys being outdoors in his parkland woods and sitting by a cheery fire with a good book on a cool evening.

Jerry before Seinfeld: Delightfully Distinct

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For nearly thirty years, Jerry Seinfeld has been a fixture of the American cultural landscape. His signature sitcom, the so-called “show about nothing,” dominated television during the 1990s, and the comedian himself became a household name. Close to twenty years after its finale, Seinfeld remains in syndication, and its namesake has a net worth of $860 million. Seinfeld still commands sell-out crowds on his comedy tours and has recently inked a deal with Netflix to distribute new standup specials and host new episodes of his low-key Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.

Bottom line: Jerry Seinfeld is just about as big as it gets in today’s America. And yet, ironically enough, he has achieved this iconic status by dealing in minutia. The quintessential observational comic, Seinfeld draws the attention of his audience to the often-overlooked mundane realities that comprise our lives—breakfast cereal, wallpaper, construction tools, laundry, childhood toys, shopping, furniture. And through his comic vision, Seinfeld culls insights on our shared hopes and dreams, our fears and failings, our charms and virtues, our pride and pretensions—insights as brilliant as they seem, after the fact, obvious.

A recent documentary on Joan Didion said that her writing revealed a recurring and remarkable knack for showing the centrality of the peripheral and the universality of the particular. Much the same can be said of Seinfeld’s penchant for accentuating the extraordinary of the ordinary. Both artists remind us all of the magic of the everyday and the beauty of the quotidian. Despite this similarity, they manifest this shared trait in remarkably distinct ways. No one would confuse Jerry with Joan. And in these very differences is revealed the allure of diversity’s charm.

Seinfeld’s delightful pairing of the big and the small, the distinctive and the seemingly insignificant is at the heart of Jerry before Seinfeld, the special that kicks off his deal with Netflix, released this September. In this combination documentary/standup routine, the comedian returns, literally and figuratively, to his professional roots. Seinfeld once again takes the stage at the Comic Strip, the New York comedy club that gave him his start. Interspersing bits from his show with an assortment of memories tracing his career back to its beginnings, Jerry before Seinfeld offers a needful cultural corrective—emphasizing that the comedian’s value lies not in his celebrity status but in his unique calling and craft.

It turns out that the Jerry who became Seinfeld was remarkably unremarkable. He grew up in the suburbs of New York, second child of a middle-class Jewish family, with an upbringing marked by no major traumas or spectacular good fortunes. He was simply an ordinary kid. But that ordinary kid had an extraordinary bent toward humor. He couldn’t get enough—poring over MAD magazines, collecting every comedy album he could get his hands on, and stopping everything if a comedian came on TV.

Great performers like Jean Shepherd, George Carlin, and Abbot and Costello transported him from his “boring, regular life” to a realm of wonder and creativity. What captured his imagination, he says, is that these comics held nothing sacred; they just didn’t respect anything. It blew his mind to think that he didn’t have to simply accept what was handed to him.

Such a lesson might be poison to some kids; to Seinfeld it was liberation. It freed him to discover his unique angle on the world, to believe that his perspective mattered, too. It also enabled him, at twenty-one, to walk away from a full-time construction gig and throw himself completely into comedy, earning nothing but free meals and t-shirts and dealing with hecklers and gigs that bombed. Even still he testifies, “None of this bothered me. I was in comedy, and it just felt like heaven.”

Thus inspired, it took real work to cultivate his act, develop material, and find his voice. One of the great services Seinfeld has offered us is the inside scoop of what it takes to become a premier comedian, to achieve excellence in one’s field. Though a prodigious talent, he was willing to put in the time and effort to maximize his innate skills.[1]

What’s true for Seinfeld is true for us all: each of us has a unique voice to share, something we’re a genius at doing, which we can do unlike anyone and everyone else. As Christians we most often say that human value resides most significantly in the fact that we were, all of us, made in God’s image, His imago dei. What we all share in this respect is something unspeakably remarkable indeed.

But John Hare points out that there’s another vital ingredient to our value as human persons: our distinctiveness. It’s not just what we share in common that matters; our differences, too, are a crucial part of who we are and of why we’re valuable. No two of us is exactly alike; each of us is designed to reflect a different aspect of our Creator. A prodigious talent and distinctive voice like Seinfeld’s is a reminder that each of us is unique, that each of us has a contribution to make that’s a reflection of how God made us and what He intended us to do.

Hare writes as follows:

. . . [T]here is a call by God to each one of us, a call to love God in a particular and unique way. Revelation 2:17, in the instructions to the church in Pergamos, refers to a name about which God says, “and [I] will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no one knows except the one that receives it.” If we think of this name, like “Peter” meaning “rock” (the name Jesus gives to Simon), as giving us the nature into which we are being called, and if we think of this nature, as Scotus does, as a way of loving God, then we can think of the value of each of us as residing in us, in our particular relation to God.[2]

A theistic and Christian picture of the human condition provides a compelling account of human dignity, of incommensurable worth, and of ordained work, not just for humanity as a whole but for each and every individual. This is an account strong enough to sustain our deepest intuitions about the inestimable value of every human person—a profound truth hinted at even in a guy whose concerns canvass nothing. The story of Seinfeld shows that there’s something sacred after all.

 

 

Notes: 

[1] Horace make this same point regarding the poet in his classic Ars Poetica:It has been made a question, whether good poetry be derived from nature or from art. For my part, I can neither conceive what study can do without a rich [natural] vein, nor what rude genius can avail of itself: so much does the one require the assistance of the other, and so amicably do they conspire [to produce the same effect].”

[2] “What we have here is an intrinsic good in a slightly odd sense; not that we have value, each of us, all by ourselves . . . since we have our value in relation. But the value is not reducible to the valuing by someone outside us, on this account, but resides in what each of us can uniquely be in relation to God.” Hare, God’s Command, p. 29.

 

image: By Tracie Hall from Orange County, us (DSC_0235) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Comment

Marybeth Baggett

Marybeth Davis Baggett lives in Lynchburg, Virginia, and teaches English at Liberty University. Having earned her Ph.D. in English from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Marybeth’s professional interests include literary theory, contemporary American literature, science fiction, and dystopian literature. She also writes and edits for Christ and Pop Culture. Her most recent publication was a chapter called “What Means Utopia to Us? Reconsidering More’s Message,” in Hope and the Longing for Utopia: Futures and Illusions in Theology and the Arts.

Mailbag: Doubts about the Privation Theory of Evil

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Berat Writes: Hello,

Is there a post on the "ontological foundation of evil"? It seems to me that theistic metaethical theories have a strange implication like this: If God exists, he is the substantial ontological foundation of goodness. However, evil can't have a substantial ethical foundation like goodness since God doesn't have anything substantially evil in his nature. Therefore, evil is somehow derivative, it supervenes on God's attitudes and/or commands. It seems to be that something like privation theory of evil has to be true for a theistic metaethical theory to be able to completely explain the realm of moral values.

I'm highly skeptical of privation theories. So, my question is this: Can theism provide a substantial ontological foundation for evil as well? Like something analogous to Goodness=God's Essential Moral Nature.

Reply by Jonathan Pruitt

Hi Berat,

Thanks for this great question. Before attempting an answer, I think it will help to say what makes this such an important issue. If we think of God as identical to the good, as Baggett, Walls, Adams, and many other Christian thinkers propose, then we think that goodness has an essence and that it exists in a substantive way. God is the Good, that is, the ontological grounding for how we can meaningfully talk about goodness in daily life. In other words, we think that our moral judgments about moral goodness are meaningful only because there is some substantive, stable good which grounds them. Something is morally good when it bears a resemblance to God, who is the Good.

If then we ask, “What does it mean to say something is evil?” one obvious suggestion would be that there is some substantive evil which functions the same way that God as the good functions. When we say something is evil, we would mean it bears some resemblance to this object or person. This, however, would be a kind of dualism, according to which there are two fundamental and opposing forces in the world. Goodness would be grounded by reference to one and evil by reference to the other.  This is contradictory to theism and, therefore, not a live option for theists.

A second option would be that evil does exist, but that it was made by God or it is sustained by him. We might think that evil is some abstract object in the mind of God which does the kind of work that the Platonic forms do.[1] God would be the ground of evil in the same way he is the ground of the number 7 or the color red. However, it seems problematic to think of evil as ontologically grounded in God in this way. If God is wholly and perfectly good, we might expect that this entails that he could not be the ground of evil. This, then, is not option for the theist either.

The skeptic might pose one more possibility: if we can meaningfully speak of evil without it having the analogous ontological grounding of goodness, then why think goodness either needs or has God as its foundation? We seem to use the term “evil” with just as much confidence as we use the term “goodness,” but theists insist one needs ontological grounding and the other does not. Either both need grounds or neither does. Either way, the notion that God is identical to the good turns out to be false. Thus, the theist is faced with this “trilemma of evil”: Either (1) dualism is true, (2) God is not wholly good, or (3) God is not necessary for morality.[2]

It seems that the best way to overcome these objections and sustain our commitment to the idea that God is the good is to show how it is that evil is a meaningful concept, yet has its meaning in some way disanalogous from goodness. This is why a privation theory of evil might appear at least initially appealing. It is the threat of dualism that likely motivated Augustine, the former Manichean dualist, to think of evil as a privation of the good. He says, “All things that are corrupted suffer privation of some good.”[3] By this, Augustine meant that evil is not some entity which can have substance. Rather, evil is just some lack of goodness. Selfishness, for example, might be identical to a lack of love. The advantage of a theory like this is that it avoids a metaphysically substantive evil while also offering an explanation of the essence of evil. When we say something is evil, we are really saying that it lacks goodness.

However, it is not clear that mere privation can successfully ground our concept of evil. Adams suggests that God is the essential nature of the good similarly to the way that H20 is the essential nature of water. If water is essentially H20, then this would explain all the features that water has. Water is wet and quenches thirst exactly because it is H20 and our concept of water as having these features is best explained by its essential nature.[4] If evil is a unified concept like goodness, it ought to have an essence that makes sense of our usage of the term, assuming we have some understanding of evil. But it seems there is some difficulty with the idea that evil is merely privation. An example from Tolkien might help us see why this is the case.

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, which contains the deep mythology behind The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, he explains that God or Eru creates the world through music. Eru intends that his creatures sing a song that corresponds to the main theme that Eru has begun in creation. When all his creatures play together harmoniously, goodness and beauty fill the world. However, some of Eru’s creatures refused to play in harmony with Eru’s theme and this is the origin of evil in Tolkien’s mythology. If we thought of evil as merely privation, then we might expect Tolkien to explain that some creatures simply refused to play the part he was given by Eru and were silent. But instead Tolkien imagines that evil begins when Melkor interwove “matters of his own imagining that were not in accord with the theme of [Eru]; for he sought therein to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself.”[5]

Tolkien’s mythology helps us see that evil can be understood in at least two different ways. Certainly, we can imagine some creature who simply fails to play anything at all and this would a kind of evil. But it also seems that, when some creature opposes Eru’s theme, this is a different kind of evil altogether. We might be able to say that Melkor’s song is a privation in the sense that it lacks the order intended by Eru, but it also seems that is only one narrow feature of his act and that opposition to the good would be a better and fuller description. Opposition is something active and not merely negative, like privation. As Adams says, “No doubt privation of goodness often does constitute badness, but that is not an apt explanation of the nature of all badness.”[6]

It also seems that in our everyday usage of the term evil, we often mean more than merely privation of the good. If we say that Hitler was evil, it would be surprising to find out that all we really are saying is that Hitler lacked goodness. “He lacked goodness” might equally as well describe a couch potato as it does Hitler. It may be that our moral judgment of Hitler as evil would be better explained if it turned out that evil was essentially opposition to good, perhaps opposition so strong that it amounts to hatred of the good. This concept of “opposition,” I think, makes more sense of how we often see evil portrayed in mythology and culture.

Evil characters have a visceral, active quality about them that cannot be explained in terms of mere privation. Darth Vader is not merely the negation of the good or “light side” of the Force. He opposes it; he rivals it. Perhaps the greatest archetype of all evil characters is the biblical Satan, whose name literally means “the adversary.” Barth argues that the demons, of whom Satan is chief, “are not divine but non-divine and anti-divine. . . . They can only hate God and His creation. They can only exist in the attempt to rage against God and to spoil His creation.”[7] Here again we see the intuitive move to think of evil as opposition to the good. If privation were the essence of evil, then the archetype of evil might be better named “Nothingness” rather than “Adversary.”  But what we see in our best representations of evil is that their primary, salient feature seems to be opposition rather than privation. We would more naturally describe Melkor, Vader, Hitler, and Satan as hating the good rather than merely lacking it; a recalcitrant fact for the privation theory.[8]

Even if this opposition theory of evil is correct, we have not yet said how this synthesizes with theism or solves the trilemma I put in the mouth of the skeptic. Here is how an answer might go. First, this theory easily harmonizes with the idea that God is the good without entailing or implying dualism because evil understood as opposition clearly requires that evil supervene on the good. After all, evil is not merely opposition, but opposition in a definite direction. Martin Luther King Jr. actively opposed racism and inequality and we call him good precisely for that reason. Thus, if we have a definite concept of evil, it will likely be best explained by relation to some stable, ultimate good to which it is opposed.

Second, evil may depend on God in the same way that the notion of privation depends on existence or being, but this does not seem to pose a challenge to God’s goodness. We can think of the origin of evil as following from the reality of genuine freedom. God makes creatures with a will to choose between real alternatives, even to choose opposition to himself. God creates the possibility for opposition, but there is not a morally meaningful sense in which God is the ground of evil. If this is so, then we as theists have a way of thinking about evil that does not commit us to dualism, preserves God’s status as the best explanation of the good, and does justice to our best intuitions about the concept of evil.

[1] I have in mind the sort of metaphysics Plantinga describes in “How to be an Anti-Realist,” though Plantinga does not suggest that evil is one of the objects in the mind of God. See Alvin Plantinga, “How to Be an Anti-Realist,” Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 56, no. 1 (1982): 47–70.

[2] Of course, there is more to say about each of these possibilities, but my aim here is just to show some initial problems that this puzzle about evil might create.

[3] Saint Augustine, The Confessions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 124.

[4] Robert Merrihew Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods: A Framework for Ethics (Oxford University Press, 1999), 15.

[5] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), 18.

[6] Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods, 103.

[7] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics The Doctrine of Creation, Volume 3, Part 3: The Creator and His Creature (Bloomsbury Academic, 2004), 523.

[8] However, this view would not entail that privation is not evil at least in some cases. It would only mean that evil cannot essentially be privation.

Detective Morse and Post-Modern Relativism

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In the mid 1960’s, Detective Constable Morse ponders the death of a young bricklayer Barry Fink at Mapplewick Hall estate north of Oxford, England.  Detective Constable Morse is the central character in Masterpiece Theater’s ‘Endeavour’ series based on ground-breaking crime writer Colin Dexter’s novels.  Detective Morse is an Oxford University dropout.  When his love affair failed so did his academic performance.  He then joined the army and after his discharge the police force.

The years have not tarnished the scholarly mind which entered Oxford with a scholarship.  Viewed in the police force as a bit of a fish out of water, he relishes poetry, classical music, and a pint of ale.  Fellow officers begrudgingly admit he has a brilliant nose for making abstruse connections in erudite Oxford crimes. While studying bricklayer Barry Fink’s suspicious death at Mapplewick Hall, Morse is also assigned to guard a controversial activist Mrs. Joy Pettybon.  Mrs. Pettybon is an outspoken conservative crusader against smutty language on TV.  She is bringing her national campaign ‘National Clean Up TV’ to Oxford.

Her ‘Clean Up TV’ crusade targets a nationally popular rock group ‘Wildwood’ (think Pink Floyd) who locates, of all places, at Mapplewick Hall estate. Mrs. Pettybon is to dialogue with ‘Wildwood’ on the weekly current affairs TV show Almanac.  As Detective Morse accompanies Mrs. Pettybon to her TV appearance, he wonders about the connection of Mapplewick Hall to the dead bricklayer and ‘Wildwood’.

The faceoff between Mrs. Pettybon and ‘Wildwood’ is broadcast.  Caricatured as an old fashioned ‘party pooper’, Mrs. Pettybon accuses ‘Wildwood’ of ramming down the throats of people in their homes sexually explicit and drug referent lyrics.  Viewers should not be subjected to ‘dirty’ lyrics in their home.   Rock group leader, Nick Wilding, is amused.  He smugly asks her, ‘What is dirty?’  This is the edgy, post-modern, 'gotcha' question relished by the ‘Endeavour’ writers. ‘Dirty’ is dirty’ she responds.  Nick retorts, ‘What’s dirty to you might be quite acceptable to someone else…quite normal in fact’.  Snigger, snigger.

Here the show ‘Endeavour’ revealed its post-modern penchant for pressing the philosophy of moral relativism.  Moral relativism holds actions are moral only for those who think them so.  They are not moral for everyone, let alone objectively or absolutely true.  Others may hold different behaviors are moral.  One cannot expect what one believes to be moral or true for anybody else who does not believe it.[i]

We watched ‘Endeavour’ to enjoy a good crime mystery; however, ‘Endeavour’ was interested in peddling moral relativism.  I was provoked with its ‘air’ of self-assurance that the argument is unassailable.  I wondered if they knew ethicists consider it a difficult ethical position to maintain.  It has been readily observed relativism’s own assertion is its logical contradiction.  If it is believed there is no moral claim true for everybody, then one is making a moral claim one applies to everybody!  The very claim ‘No moral claim is true for everybody’ denies the possibility of this absolutist statement.

Though Plato’s refutation of Protagoras’s promulgation of relativism is slick and not irrefutable, it exposes relativism’s vulnerability:

Most people believe that Protagoras’s doctrine is false.

Protagoras, on the other hand, believes his doctrine to be true.

By his own doctrine, Protagoras must believe that his opponents’ view is true.

Therefore, Protagoras must believe that his own doctrine is false (see Theaetetus: 171a) c).[ii]

That is, if Protagoras and relativists are true to their relativistic belief, they must accept their opponent’s rejection of their view.  They have to allow their opponents who say they are wrong are right!  Oddly, in making the case for relativism one argues for its own refutation!

Back to ‘Endeavour’ and Detective Morse.  If ‘Endeavour’ premises crime is not good, then the consequences ‘Endeavour’ portrays of a relativistic philosophy are telling arguments against moral relativism.  Just as the claim of relativism boomerangs back upon itself, so do its consequences.  Detective Morse finds out the bricklayer Barry Fink died at Mapplewick Hall while in bed with ‘Wildwood’ rock band lead singer Nick (who was found comatose from an overdose) and Pippa, a girl groupie – a bisexual threesome.  A fourth person, Emma, was stalking the bedroom that night and found no place in bed next to Nick.  She was jealous of Barry Fink for stealing Nick’s affections from her.  So, she strangled him.  Her intense jealousy led her to murder.  ‘Polyamory’ creates jealousy between ‘lovers’ which in turn incites murder which leads to criminal charges. One overdosed, one dead, and one charged with murder!  A pretty good night for moral relativism!  Unintentionally, ‘Endeavour’s’ moral of the story is, the moral consequences of a relativistic philosophy are its own telling argument against it!

 

 

 

[i] Trigg, Roger, Philosophy Matters: An Introduction to Philosophy(Madlen, Mass:  Blackwell Publishers Inc., 2002), pp. 59-60

[ii] Swoyer, Chris, “Relativism”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2015/entries/relativism/

Image: "The World's Greatest Dective." by Kit. CC license. 

Comment

Tom Thomas

Tom was most recently pastor of the Bellevue Charge in Forest, Virginia until retiring in July.  Studying John Wesley’s theology, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Bristol, Bristol, England. While a student, he and his wife Pam lived in John Wesley’s Chapel “The New Room”, Bristol, England, the first established Methodist preaching house.  Tom was a faculty member of Asbury Theological Seminary from 1998-2003. He has contributed articles to Methodist History and the Wesleyan Theological Journal. He and his wife Pam have two children, Karissa, who is an Associate Attorney at McCandlish Holton Morris in Richmond, and, John, who is a junior communications major/business minor at Regent University.  Tom enjoys being outdoors in his parkland woods and sitting by a cheery fire with a good book on a cool evening.

New Edition of C. S. Lewis as Philosopher: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty

From the Preface to the 2017 Edition of C. S. Lewis as Philosopher: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty It has been nearly ten years now since the first edition of C. S. Lewis as Philosopher: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. That decade has seen only growing interest in the philosophical aspects of Lewis’s work. What at the time seemed to us to be a rather novel approach to Lewis has become much more common, unsurprising because by both training and temperament Lewis often exhibited the earmarks of a first-rate philosophical mind. It was likely his amazing and eclectic range of interests and talents that concealed his philosophical acumen.

Some books have taken the project further than we were able, like Adam Barkman’s excellent and wide-ranging Philosophy as a Way of Life, a trend that we think is excellent. Stewart Goetz has recently argued in his A Philosophical Walking Tour with C. S. Lewis that Lewis was first and foremost a philosopher, and he is currently writing another book in which he will explain in depth Lewis’s philosophical views.

Our original collection was the result of several philosophically themed essays read at Oxbridge 2005—including keynote addresses by the likes of Peter Kreeft and Jean Bethke-Elshtain—but almost inevitably this genealogy meant that there would be gaps in our treatment. Because we didn’t make comprehensiveness our goal, however, we didn’t let this dissuade us. The collection that resulted was, in the estimation of many, a needed contribution to the literature irrespective of its limitations. InterVarsity Academic made possible the book coming to the light of day, and it enjoyed a solid run for a decade. It has been adduced by several researchers in the literature, and some of its chapters, like David Horner’s on the Trilemma or Bethke-Elshtain’s on The Abolition of Man, have been cited prominently quite a number of times. We are deeply grateful to Liberty University Press for catching the vision of and making possible a new edition.

We do not claim that this new expanded edition fills in all the various gaps in our treatment of Lewis as philosopher. It remains only one contribution toward this ambitious living research agenda. However, we have intentionally added five major new chapters that, each in its own way, contribute to a fuller picture of Lewis the philosopher. Our goal remains not to cover all the traditional areas of philosophy, but to show more intentionally some of the rich insights of Lewis’s writing that reveal aspects of philosophy and the human condition that, too often in contemporary times, go unaddressed, or at least under-addressed.

For example, Bruce Reichenbach has written an epistemology essay that reveals the way Lewis recognized some aspects of knowledge that often go overlooked. Among such features of knowledge are the ways in which it is perspectival, value-laden, and personal, but without any of these aspects of knowing detracting from objective truth or the propriety of deeply held convictions. Lewis could adroitly integrate subtle aspects of postmodernity with those of premodernity, like perhaps no other, holding in synergistic balance insights often mistakenly conceived as contradictory or in irremediable tension.

Another example is Will Honeycutt’s chapter that discusses Lewis’s penetrating engagement with various pagan myths. Rather than gravitating toward a simple “disassociationist” model in which there is only or primarily a disconnect or dissonance between Christianity and the pagan myth stories, Honeycutt reveals the way Lewis had the mind of both a philosopher and a poet, a logician and a classicist. The resonances and points of connection between the pagan myths and the “true myth” of Christianity are just as if not more evidentially important to Lewis than the differences and disanalogies.

One of Lewis’s most important and repeated apologetic arguments went unaddressed in the first edition, and we came to see that it deserved a serious and sustained treatment, namely, the argument from desire. To this end, we commissioned Sloan Lee to write an essay on it, and in his characteristic and charming zeal he ended up writing two terrific chapters. Not only does he meticulously spell out what the argument says and what motivates it; he brilliantly and carefully subjects to withering critical scrutiny no less than five significant objections to the argument.

Stew Goetz wrote the fifth new chapter, in which he discusses the hedonistic elements of Lewis’s work. He rightly points out a recurring theme in Lewis: that God’s intention is that we experience joy and pleasure. To the contrary of this lending itself to a crass sort of hedonism, however, Lewis’s understanding of our high calling in Christ elevates the kinds of pleasure that should satisfy. Rather than settling for base pleasures or ones that don’t fit our deepest nature or ultimate end, we need to undergo a transformation of character, indeed a death to self, that enables us to develop a taste for the higher and better pleasures for which we were designed.

In sum, this book has about 35,000 entirely new words of analysis and commentary on Lewis that, combined with all of the original essays in the collection, will hopefully result in a book that will feature prominently in the library of every Lewis aficionado. Once more the labor that made this edition possible was a labor of love, done in the earnest hope and prayer that the result will be a blessing to many.

Image: "Lamp Post of Narnia?" by K. Franklin. CC License. 

Till We Have Faces, Self-Knowledge, and Learning to Die

By David & Marybeth Baggett 

One important way that C. S. Lewis went about irrigating deserts and planting gardens was to be honest that the tide had turned against many of his most cherished convictions, and since he was convinced that the new direction was mistaken, he would often point backwards. To the charge that this was retrograde, he famously said, “We all want progress, but if you're on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.”

After accepting his new post at Cambridge, Lewis—on his 56th birthday—gave his inaugural address in 1954 called De Descriptione Temporum, a description of the times, in which he aimed to identify the central turning point in western civilization. “[S]omewhere between us and the Waverley Novels, somewhere between us and Persuasion, the chasm runs.” To make the case for his proposal, Lewis adduced germane examples from the realms of politics, the arts, religion, and technology. With respect to religion, what Lewis primarily had in mind was the un-christening of culture. Exceptions abound, but the “presumption has changed,” adding

It is hard to have patience with those Jeremiahs, in Press or pulpit, who warn us that we are ‘relapsing into Paganism’. It might be rather fun if we were. It would be pleasant to see some future Prime Minister trying to kill a large and lively milk-white bull in Westminster Hall. But we shan’t. What lurks behind such idle prophecies, if they are anything but careless language, is the false idea that the historical process allows mere reversal; that Europe can come out of Christianity ‘by the same back door as in she went’ and find herself back where she was. It is not what happens. A post-Christian man is not a Pagan; you might as well think that a married woman recovers her virginity by divorce. The post-Christian is cut off from the Christian past and therefore doubly from the Pagan past.

In 1935 Cambridge philosopher William Sorley expressed misgivings about this demotion of morality that’s bound to result in an artificially truncated worldview in which moral ideas are paid short shrift. “If we take experience as a whole,” Sorley wrote, “and do not arbitrarily restrict ourselves to that portion of it with which the physical and natural sciences have to do, then our interpretation of it must have ethical data at its basis and ethical laws in its structure.” Perhaps it’s not surprising that Sorley is a luminary in the field of moral apologetics, as the later Cambridge professor Lewis would be as well. For at the heart of moral arguments is the abiding conviction that morality can provide a vital window of insight into reality. Hermann Lotze, a 19th century German philosopher, in fact once wrote that “the true beginning of metaphysics lies in ethics,” a sentiment with which both Sorley and Lewis resonated.

Recall Lewis’s words from Mere Christianity to this effect:

These, then, are the two points I wanted to make. First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it. These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in.

This paper is about perhaps the greatest example he provided of this: his novel Till We Have Faces (subsequently TWHF), which harmoniously weaves together and integrates numerous of Lewis’s philosophical, theological, and ethical emphases. It contains, in fictional form, what Lewis thought about the import of myth and beauty, of joy and desire, of reason and imagination. This essay will cover an aspect of the novel that arguably resides at the thematic heart of the story and at the intersection of ethics and epistemology.

Lewis’s story refashions the myth of Cupid and Psyche. It is set in Glome, a barbarian kingdom on the edge of the Hellenistic world, and is told by the main character, Orual, the eldest daughter of Rom, King of Glome, step-sister of Psyche, and sister of Redival. The main story is about Orual’s indictment of the gods for failing to make their ways plain. Ostensibly the worry is wholly epistemic. The indictment comes in the form of an account of the major portion of her life, presented with the request that the reader judge her case against the gods. Her intended audience is “wise Greeks,” who, because of their philosophical education, will readily see in the events she reports puzzling epistemological problems and, therefore, will more likely see the truth of her charge.

The events in question pertain to Orual’s central passion: her love of Psyche. The two people who give her happiness are Fox, a Greek slave her father secured as tutor for his daughters, and Psyche, who is not only uncommonly beautiful but virtuous as well. After Psyche’s mother dies at childbirth, it is Orual who brings Psyche up as her own child. What generates conflict with the gods is the demand, presented by the Priest of Ungit—Glome’s version of the fertility goddess—that Psyche be sacrificed on the Grey Mountain to her son, the Shadowbrute, supposed god of the Mountain. The sacrifice is to remove a curse that has befallen the kingdom.

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After the sacrifice, Orual makes a trek to bury Psyche’s remains but discovers Psyche alive and well, radiant in fact, claiming to be living with her husband/god in a beautiful palace. Orual, though, is unable to see the palace, so she is left to figure out the truth. Skeptical the gods are good, she devises a plan to liberate Psyche, but it goes horribly wrong, sending Psyche into exile. Orual returns home to reign as Queen of Glome and tries to forget her past.

As for aspects of the novel that pertain to the question of epistemology, particularly religious epistemology, first one should note that the era and context of the story is distinctly premodern. The default position is decidedly not atheism, agnosticism, or skepticism, but one of robust religious conviction and theological interpretation of the events in question. Following Robert Holyer, we can immediately identify two major epistemological issues: whether the gods are just inventions of the priest and pandering to popular superstition, or rather that the gods are real. The Fox is of the former opinion, but Orual and Psyche of the latter. The second major epistemological question is this: If the request for Psyche’s sacrifice is genuinely Divine, how is it to be understood? Is it a malevolent request born of jealousy and intended to bring suffering not only to Psyche but also those who love her, particularly Orual? Or is there some paradoxical way in which the deed might result in Psyche’s well-being and therefore be consistent with the affirmation that the gods are good? Orual inclines to the former, always casting the holy places as dark places; Psyche, to the latter.

So a central problem of the novel is to read the signs of the Divine correctly and to find in them reasonable assurance sufficient to live faithfully in the face of the irresolvable mystery and ambiguity featured heavily in the book. Evidence is not undeniable or incorrigible, and questions remain unanswered. A related concern of the book involves Lewis’s most important innovation: Orual’s inability to see the palace of the gods. In Lewis’s key adaptation, Psyche saw it and claimed to live in it, but Orual couldn’t see it at all, except once and only briefly.

Among the various signs and signals of divine reality and goodness, perhaps the most important is the experience of the Holy. Rudolf Otto, author of The Idea of the Holy, claimed that experiences of the Holy are one of the basic sources of religious belief throughout the centuries. He distinguished and described several constituent elements of the experience of the Holy, two of which are these (both found in TWHF): (1) tremendum, a kind of dread or fear unlike our other fears—as Orual rightly describes it, a fear “quite different from the fear of my father,” and (2) fascinans, a consuming attraction or rapturous longing. Psyche is poignantly aware of both, Orual mainly only of the former. Fascinans, or “Joy,” to use another Lewisian term, is associated with the objects of the imagination, with beauty, with poetry, and above all with the Mountain—all common motifs in Lewis’s fiction.

A second sign is empirical evidence, which is ambiguous. A third sign is finding Psyche alive and well days after her sacrifice, which raises the question of how reliable her testimony is. The story Psyche recounts is remarkable, but Orual has to admit that Psyche had always been trustworthy. The final and most difficult piece of evidence is experience of divine realities—like Orual’s glimpse of the palace and Psyche’s more continuous experience of the gods.

The epistemological task in the novel is to determine the nature of ultimate reality—whether it is jealous and cruel, or mysterious and marvelous. Reason plays an important role—drawing conclusions from premises taken from a broad array of experience, but much of the reasoning that Lewis thought is called for is implicit and intuitive, requiring an equal mixture of philosophy and vision, a reconciliation of reason and imagination. Orual has to choose between rival explanations in the face of real ambiguity and mystery, a measure of hiddenness that perhaps ensures that her inquiry reveals her real motivations more than just her cognitive prowess.

Lewis suggests looking within, as part of an epistemic quest predicated on the traditional idea that at the foundation of all knowledge is self-knowledge. Thales thought the hardest thing to do is “to know thyself,” employing a phrase that invokes the specter of what would be on the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Plato would write that the essence of knowledge is self-knowledge. Centuries before Plato, the Hindu Upanishads confirmed, “Enquiry into the truth of the Self is knowledge.”

In the Apology, Socrates, at the precipice of his own death, asked, “Are you not ashamed to spend so much trouble upon trouble heaping up riches and honor and reputation, while you care nothing for wisdom and truth and the perfection of your soul?” Socrates did not claim to have attained to great wisdom, but the most important knowledge of all, he thought, is self-knowledge. Other speculative matters of alleged knowledge aren’t likely to conduce to greater perfection of the soul than authentic knowledge of the self. And perfection of soul far exceeds in importance anything else, which is why this ancient approach to epistemology, focused on self-knowledge with the goal of moral maturation, resides at the intersection of epistemology and ethics.

TWHF assumes that who we are shapes what we see, but rather than culminating in a radical subjectivism, for Lewis it leads to something like a virtue epistemology, according to which there’s a reality to be seen. Admittedly it’s seen through a glass darkly, but how much of it we can genuinely grasp remains a function of who we are. Understanding who and what we are, then, is foundational to knowledge. For Lewis, poetry—and art more generally—though vitally important, was penultimate, hardly anything like a compensation for lost faith.

In Part II of TWHF, Orual augments her original book—her original complaint against the gods—by writing that “I know so much more than I did about the woman who wrote it.” Interestingly, she says that what began the change was “the very writing itself.” The writing itself—the art—enables the growth in self-knowledge, but this is only the beginning: to prepare her for “the gods’ surgery.” “They used my own pen to probe my wound.” Lewis didn’t think that the epistemic quest was over once we looked within, practiced art, or saw the world under some fresh aspect, but that by growing in self-knowledge we can begin to see the world more accurately, we can apprehend more of reality, and the world will begin to look quite different from how it did before.

Orual had written her complaint against the gods. Ostensibly her complaint is epistemic, but when she adds to the book later, she admits things aren’t as they seem. How does her writing probe her wound and reveal to her the truth about herself? Primarily by a close and brutally honest examination of her various relationships—and the past she has tried so hard to veil. For example, she has had no pity in her heart for her sister Redival, but, after writing her original complaint, she encounters a former servant of her father’s named Tarin, who says, of Redival, “She was lonely.” This catches Orual by surprise, the “first snowflake of the winter I was entering.” She comes to admit as a certainty that she had not thought at all how it had been for Redival when she, Orual, first turned to Fox, then to Psyche, because “it had been somehow settled in my mind from the very beginning that I was the pitiable and ill-used one. She had her gold curls, hadn’t she?”

Next comes insight concerning her treatment of Bardia, her servant whom she loves. He is married, though, and always out of reach. After she finishes her book, she hears he is sick, and within a few days, he dies. She goes to visit Ansit, his widow, but Ansit is bitter toward the Queen, accusing her of working Bardia to death. “After weeks and months at the wars—you and he night and day together, sharing the councils, the dangers, the victories, the soldiers’ bread, the very jokes. . . .” And “I do not believe, I know, that your queenship drank up his blood year by year and ate out his life.”

The Queen replies with incredulity that Ansit should have spoken up, but Ansit says she never would have deprived her husband of his work and “all his glory and his great deeds.” Should she make a child and dotard of him? “I was his wife, not his doxy. He was my husband, not my house-dog. He was to live the life he thought best and fittest for a great man—not that which would most pleasure me.”

Ansit is suggesting that her love for Bardia means she had to give up some of her own desires, not make it all about herself, which begins to prick the Queen’s conscience because this very pattern has always been her own modus operandi. This raises a most important thematic element in the book: a recurring question of what real love means and looks like. Lewis was of the view that we can convince ourselves that our motivation is one of the purest love, when it might be far from it. The point here is that, sometimes when we think we are at our moral best, we may well be at our worst.[su_pullquote align="right"]Lewis, like Kant, saw such moral darkness as powerfully suggestive that it’s altogether rational to believe there are resources beyond our own to close this moral gap. [/su_pullquote]Orual long thought of the gods as indulgent and selfish, and is now accused by Ansit of being “gorged with other men’s lives, women’s too: Bardia’s, mine, the Fox’s, your sister’s—both your sisters.” Now, Orual writes, “the divine Surgeons had me tied down and were at work.” At first she is angry, but then Orual admits to herself that it is all terribly true, more than Ansit could even know. And she confesses her horrific treatment of Bardia, finally concluding, “Did I hate him, then? Indeed, I believe so. A love like that can grow to be nine-tenths hatred and still call itself love.” She adds, “I had been dragged up and out into such heights and precipices of truth, that I came into an air where [her love for Bardia] could not live. It stank; a gnawing greed for one to whom I could give nothing, of whom I craved all.”

Next, she has to reexamine her relationship with Batta, who had been a servant Orual had executed. Now she remembers that Batta had her loving moments. Yes, she was a busybody and tattletale and rumormonger, but now she recalls Batta’s warmth and humanity. Orual is inexorably forced to face the truth of who she was and is and of what she’d done—none of which she wanted to hear, all of which she needed to hear.

Having long thought of the gods as ugly in character, Orual now sees this as projection; now she comes to think that she herself is like Ungit: ugly in soul. In despair, she plans to kill herself before she’s stopped by the voice of a god: “You cannot escape Ungit by going to the deadlands, for she is there also. Die before you die. There is no chance after.” Earlier Lewis availed himself of the Socratic dictum “Know Thyself,” and now Lewis makes reference to the Socratic notion that true wisdom is the skill and practice of death. Reflecting on Socrates, the Queen writes, “I supposed he meant the death of our passions and desires and vain opinions.”

Philosophy, properly understood, trains us how to die, and not just physically. That part of us that most needs to die is our vainglory, our self-aggrandizement, our pride, our inordinate passions. She then reasons, “[I]f I practiced true philosophy, as Socrates meant it, I should change my ugly soul into a fair one. And this, the gods helping me, I would do. I would set about it at once.” The Queen resolves to be “just and calm and wise in all my thoughts and acts; but before they had finished dressing me I would find that I was back (and know not how long I had been back) in some old rage, resentment, gnawing fantasy, or sullen bitterness. I could not hold out half an hour.” She writes, “I could mend my soul no more than my face. Unless the gods helped. And why did the gods not help?”

In her angst and emotional tumult the Queen comforts herself with her complaint against the gods, and with obstinate tenacity holds on to one last consolation. Namely, at least she had cared for Psyche, taught her, and tried to save her, even wounded herself for her. And then comes a vision. In the vision she has a chance to read her indictment against the gods. The book/indictment/complaint has, however, now become much shorter. She is reluctant to read it, but she does, and in fact, without realizing it, reads it over and over again. We can identify three closely related salient highlights.

First, on the evidential score, she admits that she had been shown a real god and the house of a real god and should have believed; the real issue isn’t that. She admits she could have endured belief in the gods if they were like Ungit and the Shadowbrute. In truth she resents their meddling, their wooing of Psyche, their failure to follow through and devour Psyche as promised. “I’d have wept for her and buried what was left and built her a tomb. . . . But to steal her love from me!” The beauty of the gods—the fascinans she’d heretofore resisted and rejected—didn’t make things better, but worse. For it enables the gods to lure and entice, leaving Orual nothing. Second, she’d have rather Psyche remain hers and dead than the gods’ and made immortal. She has prided herself for her profound love of Psyche, but now the truth is revealed: it isn’t Psyche’s well-being she wanted to secure, but her own comfort. Psyche was hers.

Third, Orual insists that had she been the one to whom the gods had made themselves known, she would have been able to convince Psyche of their reality and goodness. Instead it was Psyche made privy, and Orual resented it. “But to hear a chit of a girl who had (or ought to have had) no thought in her head that I’d not put there, setting up for a seer and a prophetess and next thing to a goddess . . . how could anyone endure it?” Orual only wanted Psyche to be happy on terms she dictated. “What should I care for some horrible, new happiness which I hadn’t given her and which separated her from me? Do you think I wanted her to be happy, that way? It would have been better if I’d seen the Brute tear her in pieces before my eyes,” and “Did you ever remember whose the girl was? She was mine. Mine. Do you not know what the word means? Mine!” The sober truth about who Orual is has now been revealed, its dregs poured out. The complaint is the answer. She now has knowledge of herself, and what it reveals is a horrible malady, a problem in need of a solution.

Lightly men talk of saying what they mean. When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?

The death of most importance in TWHF is not Orual’s physical death in the final chapter, but rather the death to which she’s called after coming into a deep knowledge of herself and her moral malady. When Orual faces who she is, her initial response is one of despair, and rightly so when she sees the distance between where she morally is and where she thought she was, when she sees that at her best she is actually at her worst, when she sees that what she thinks is her love is actually mainly hate. Lewis, like Kant, saw such moral darkness as powerfully suggestive that it’s altogether rational to believe there are resources beyond our own to close this moral gap.

The solution called for in TWHF, however, is radical. What’s needed is nothing less than death—not physical death, though. What philosophy, rightly understood, can teach us is how to die—to experience the death of our moral malady, our self-righteousness, our pride, our predatory natures, our possessiveness, our self-consumption. What such moral desperation reveals is the need for radical transformation—far beyond what we can do on the strength of our own meager moral resources alone. And if we “die before we die,” before it’s too late, as Orual is told to do, then perhaps the sting of death can be removed, its inevitability not entail fatalism, and its aftermath be full of hope. For the longest time Orual had hardened her heart and resisted intimations of something more, whereas for Psyche such a longing constituted the “inconsolable secret” of her heart. Psyche’s longing for the Mountain and the imaginary gold-and-amber castle of her youth, rather than a groundless hope or vacuous wishful thought, was the “sweetest thing” in her whole life.

Sophocles and the Doctrine of Sin: A Reflection on Teaching Greek Tragedy

Bénigne_Gagneraux_The_Blind_Oedipus_Commending_his_Children_to_the_Gods.jpg

This past year I taught 9th grade Ancient Literature for the second time. My first year teaching this curriculum I spent too much time in Homer, and did not make it to tragedy; this year, my goal was to pace the course correctly and work through the most significant plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Along the journey, I discovered an unexpected blessing of teaching Greek tragedy: no other literature I have taught highlights quite so well the reality, the unavoidability, and the consequences of sin. I spent seven weeks with sixty 9th graders discussing questions of justice, inherited guilt, atonement, reconciliation, and grief. As a Christian educator in a secular school, I feel a burden to urge my students to consider topics I believe will prepare them for the gospel, and teaching Sophocles led to just such a discovery.

In setting the context for Oedipus Rex, I explained the play’s basic assumption that the plague in the city of Thebes resulted from a violation of the universe's moral law; the action of the play then, is a mystery solving the crime and rooting out the perpetrator. When the story unfolded and Oedipus’ guilt became increasingly plausible, I learned one of my students was a fervent relativist. He asserted adamantly that every person has a value system and that no one value system is preferable to another. People are good or bad based on how well they achieve their chosen values. This student left me scratching my head; how could I steer him towards truth without coming right out and telling him he is wrong? How do I guide him dialogically to discover that his thinking is insufficient? Fortunately, Sophocles himself resolved my dilemma.

That night, the students read a section of Oedipus Rex which made the incestuous relationship between Oedipus and Iocaste unmistakable; my student came in the next afternoon with a new declaration: “Mr. Herring, that’s wrong!” “Whether it fits his value system or not?” I responded. “Yes - that, that right there, is wrong.” Leave it to the Greeks—their licentiousness notwithstanding—to enshrine moral rock bottom in their literature. The battle for truth is in no way won; I suspect this student and I will go back and forth on the nature of truth for the next three years. But his declaration of “wrongness” struck me: Sophocles reached for a universal category in his drama, and in so doing he communicates down through the ages to our own “secular age.”

There is a sense in which it is harder to teach virtue than it used to be; teachers of years past could frame their moral instruction capitalizing on a common biblical literacy. Today, the idea of “loving your neighbor” because “God first loved you” simply does not compute without lengthy preparation. If we have lost the common cultural framework of biblical literacy, however, we are not left to our own devices to begin re-establishing the categories of sin and guilt. These are universal human experiences, and they underpin the best literature.

Sophocles can teach us moral fundamentals; sleeping with your mother and producing children offends the universe, human sensibility, and civic law. In Antigone, Sophocles has the title character appeal to the “unwritten laws of God” to justify her actions. In this line lies the glory of human literature as a moral teacher. On the other hand, therein also lies its insufficiency. Poets can discern sin, just as Paul calls the law the teacher of sin. Incest, pride, atheism, child murder: the tragedians illustrate the wrongness of these things. And yet, they can point to nothing more certain than the “unwritten laws of God” to prove the wrongness of these actions. These tragedies pull on a common human awareness of wrong actions, but fail to answer the desire for something clear, certain, and definitive.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the divine wrote down the rules? And then clarified them for us? This of course is exactly what we have in the Bible. We have the clarity of the Ten Commandments and the extensive development of practical outworkings all grounded in the nature of a loving God who created all things and knows our best interests. Suddenly, we have a sense of why hubris is dangerous: because God made us humans for a certain place, and the man of pride reaches for more than God intended. In the overreach lies the dangerous fall. Incest, too, offends the created order, wherein God intended human beings to form new covenant communities to diversify across the earth so that new facets of his image are revealed across creation. Scripture also shows us an alternative for guilt. We run not away from the angry Greek gods of Sophocles but to the loving God who through bloodshed atones for our wrongdoing. The Bible looks to the same universal problems and longings Greek tragedy addresses, but with hope.

After seven weeks in the wonderful poetry of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripedes, I reached three conclusions. First, tragedy operates in a pre-evangelistic manner. The stories are simple, but so well-crafted that the reader becomes imminently mindful that he may have committed some great evil unawares just like Oedipus. Second, tragedy highlights a missing certainty in 21st century post-postmodernity. Reading Oedipus Rex worked to “blow the roof off” of my student’s assumptions that morality is completely relative, beginning a further conversation about the existence of moral truth. Third, tragedy is like a cancer diagnosis without chemotherapy; it provides no hope. Without the gospel, without the real word from a real God, we are left with Oedipus in despair over what our understanding reveals. Unless God is real and the Bible is true, we stand with Nietzsche gazing into the abyss of existence with no authentic response but despair.

Pascal famously wrote of a “God-shaped void” in every human heart; Greek tragedy can illuminate this void, but does nothing to fill it. In seeking some sort of atonement, Oedipus blinds himself, Iocaste commits suicide, and (in a later play) Antigone ends the evil of her existence by hanging herself. Tragedy looks at the human experience, sees the reality of sin, and concludes that nothing but despair remains. Where the tragedians despair, the gospel proclaims hope. Christ himself enters our tragedy and in the greatest eucatastrophe in human history reverses the tragic into the salvific.

 

Image: Bénigne Gagneraux, The Blind Oedipus Commending his Children to the Gods, Public Domain

The Most Reluctant Convert: C. S. Lewis Onstage, Part III

 Image credit: Jeremy Daniel

Image credit: Jeremy Daniel

We had been told to wait in the lobby of the second floor for Max McLean to arrive, which he did about fifteen minutes later. After one performance and before another, with a Q&A sandwiched in between, I marveled in advance at his generosity of time. We didn’t want to waste his energies, so we dove right in after quick introductions. He’d freshly turned 64 a week before, as it happens, which happened to be the age Lewis was when he died, but McLean exudes vitality and shows every appearance of being able to keep going like this for quite a while.

To prepare to interview him, we’d read all the interviews he’d done we could get our hands on, and in so doing we discovered that, from a young age, he’d suffered from a fear of public speaking, a severe form of social anxiety, sociophobia. As a certified introvert I wanted to ask about this because, seeing him on the stage performing, nobody would ever imagine this. He had actually turned to theatre originally in college to overcome his fears; we wanted to know if the fears were gone or if he’d simply learned to manage them.

“I think that if I’m not prepared the anxiety will come back. The fear makes you really prepare. I find that there’s an enormous fear of failure. I don’t think I’ve gotten over that.” Asked whether he considered himself an introvert or extrovert, he said he is definitely an introvert, getting his energy from reading and his quiet time. “Absolutely,” he added for emphasis.

After college McLean studied acting in London, always having been impressed by British actors and their use of language. Interesting to note, too, are the various English thinkers and writers who have left an impression on McLean—from Shakespeare to Shaw, Eliot to Chesterton, Spurgeon to Lewis. He will be returning to England this summer for Oxbridge, a triennial Lewis conference held at Oxford and Cambridge Universities, and doing some of this performance there.

Prior to McLean’s conversion to Christian faith, he admitted that he’d tried to read the Bible but it made no connection; he couldn’t find a way of getting into it. “It was just a flat book. It could have been an engineering book, but it wasn’t a book that captured my imagination. Once Jesus became alive to me, I read the Bible differently. I read John’s Gospel; I thought Jesus was going to come out of the pages. He was a story, a human being that was a hero and an overwhelming one. So my emotions were engaged.”

So why are theatre and story so powerfully effective at capturing the imagination of people, and why is that important? McLean replied, “Well, that’s the critical thing, because the imagination serves up the raw material of what we think about. Romans 1 tells us we all have the knowledge of God. There’s that thing about how we all have eternity in our hearts. And these things are intact—like I mentioned in the Q&A that people want to talk about these things but they don’t know how to talk about them—so I think that the theatre captures people’s imagination and stirs the imagination—which then asks, could this be true? And then a person is more willing to invest intellectual capital. You know, you’re not going to invest intellectual capital unless your imagination is engaged, unless you want to know more. So I think theatre is an extraordinary tool for that.”

In pursuing this goal, by what intentional steps does the FPA strive to engage a diverse audience? “People make their own choices about their entertainment options. So essentially we don’t do it in a church. We do it in a theater. We advertise in the New York Times, we advertise in the subway. We advertise at NPR. I think the main thing is this: our best audience is somebody . . . who’s able to use relational capital to say, ‘Okay, come with me to see this play, because you’re not going to be embarrassed. It’s going to be a safe space, and you’re going to enjoy it.’ And if they don’t want to engage, no harm done. You know, you go out to dinner, and when they have questions, that’s great, and when they don’t have questions, that’s great too.”

McLean thinks the theatre can do great good, but only if it’s done well. We’d been struck by the plethora of rave reviews his work had consistently garnered, by reviewers both sacred and secular. Accolades and awards are commonplace—from the DC Metro Arts to the Washington Post, the Chicago Critic and Splash, the Indianapolis Monthly to World Magazine to Stagebuddy and The Weekly Standard. Adjectives among reviewers describing his work abound like “fascinating,” “smart,” “brilliant,” “masterful,” “winsome,” “delightful,” “captivating,” “satisfying,” and “moving.” We asked him to talk about the importance of striving for excellence in his work.

“Doing it in New York . . . New York is kind of hyper in that way. To do theatre in New York is such a challenge, and if you make it known that it comes from a Christian worldview the bar just gets really much, much higher. And then to consider doing it in such a way as to engage a diverse audience in this highly polarized world that we’re in right now, it’s almost impossible. So you depend on these kind of things: the writing, the acting, the stagecraft . . . you don’t want it to be turned off at that level or you won’t get a fair hearing. And a fair hearing might be ‘I’ve heard it, I listened to it, I think it’s rubbish, but it was really well executed.’ As opposed to what mostly happens: the execution is terrible, and nobody even bothers . . . or the message is so trite that it’s just immediately dismissed. So what we do, in order to accomplish our mission, we spend a lot of time thinking about what material has the best possibility to reach a diverse audience, then we have to execute it to the highest levels that our budgets will allow. Which means that we hire all our designers. They’re professionals. Just like you go to the best doctor, the best dentist, we hire the best sound designer, the best set designer . . . because you don’t want it to be dismissed at the execution level. You want the message to be heard, and you don’t want anybody to say, ‘Oh, I’m not going to listen to the message because the messenger just doesn’t care.’”

We thought it particularly interesting that one of the most recurring descriptions we’d read of his work was “funny,” and especially all the references to self-deprecating humor. Why, we asked, does this seem to function so well as an ice breaker and bridge builder with his audience?

“Well, humor is a reaction. It doesn’t lie. I mean, there are things you can do to create it, depending on your sense of humor. So much of modern comedic humor is based out of anger, and putting somebody down. Lewis’s humor is based on wit, and surprise, and also his own making fun of himself. He didn’t take himself that seriously. He did, but he tried to act like he didn’t. So I think that humor does tear down barriers, that if you can get to it, that if you’re good enough to find the humor, theatre is built on it. . . . I do think it’s a very high priority. Chesterton thought humor was the bloom of his argument.”

Having seen McLean at work, I must say: if anybody can demonstrate that life is a comedy and not a tragedy, McLean’s channeling Lewis can. Still, he admits to mixed results among certain atheist reviewers. Plenty of “generous atheists” have accorded his work accolades because they enjoy a good time. Still, particularly among those who seem to think they have a stake in the game, there’s resistance. “A real true blue atheist is one for whom the possibility of the supernatural world breaking into the material world is just considered impossible. So any other possibility is more probable than the supernatural. That’s really hard core.”

When up against that level of settled conviction that theism isn’t so much as possibly true, perhaps McLean’s work is exactly what’s needed to chip away at the wall. Rather than just more discursive argument that only heightens defense, something that’s engaging, entertaining, and aesthetically pleasing might be what’s needed to break down the barriers. McLean agrees, adding: “People have these moments of joy, moments where the supernatural breaks in. Because there are two spheres. There’s the sphere of love, which isn’t just biochemistry.”

Using performance art to wake people up, stir curiosity, and generate conversation is what McLean and the FPA are all about. This summer this show will hit the road; readers are encouraged to find out if it’s showing near you; and if so, sell all you have and see it! It’s a world-class production, and it’s eminently worth it, irrespective of your worldview. And this fall in New York a new production will begin, again based on Lewis: “Shadowlands.” I think this may necessitate another death-defying trip to the City.

McLean has written, “I’m keenly aware that, despite the best of intentions, as soon as the word ‘Christian’ appears within an artistic context, red flags go up. That, obviously, creates a challenge.” He continues:

During our first season of four plays in New York City, several reviewers expressed misgivings. Realizing that the work was from a Christian perspective, one critic wrote “my heart sank.” Another made the understatement that “presenting what is unequivocally come-to-Jesus fare to a general audience is no easy thing.”

In both cases, it was the play itself that turned them around. The first declared, “I expected a preachy bore, not the deliciously witty, theatrical treat that still resonates and amuses the day after.” He went on, “I expect that, like the first, [the next production] will be entertaining, very well staged, canny, and imbued with serious Christian thought and an earnest invitation to introspection.”

The second reviewer began by clarifying his background: “I’m Jewish by birth, liberal by conviction, and an atheist by observation and introspection.” He went on to say “how much I admire the approach of Fellowship for Performing Arts. . . . They do their work through a careful combination of good story-telling—craft comes first—and avoiding overt preachiness, allowing any message implicit in the material to take care of itself.”

Such feedback is reassuring. Art hints at the deeper structures of reality. FPA desires to create theatre that contributes to a better understanding of it. To do that requires honest, clear-eyed storytelling that entertains and engages its audiences. If a work doesn’t do that, regardless of intent, it really doesn’t matter what else it does.

It’s inspiring to see a faithful worker in this field, laboring in the hardest of venues, speaking truth and spreading light. He and the FPA deserve our admiration, support, and prayers. He’s someone who knows, like Orson Welles knew, the power of story and the importance of the imagination to wake people up, evaluate their assumptions, and generate conversations worth having. For McLean, though, the message to look up is not one of fear, but of soaring hope.

In that connection, one might wonder what C. S. Lewis was doing in jolly England when Welles did his radio performance. I don’t know. But I do know that, just hours before, Mars came up in some of his correspondence. Evelyn Underhill, famous for her works on mysticism and a convert to Anglicanism in 1921, had written a letter to Lewis that arrived on October 26th of 1938. He replied to her on October 29th, the day before Welles’ American broadcast. Here is what Underhill had written to Lewis:

May I thank you for the very great pleasure which your remarkable book Out of the Silent Planet has given me? It is so seldom that one comes across a writer of sufficient imaginative power to give one a new slant on reality: & this is just what you seem to me to have achieved. And what is more, you have not done it in a solemn & oppressive way but with a delightful combination of beauty, humour & deep seriousness. I enjoyed every bit of it, in spite of starting with a decided prejudice against “voyages to Mars.” I wish you had felt able to report the conversation in which Ransom explained the Christian mysteries to the eldil, but I suppose that would be too much to ask. We should be content with the fact that you have turned “empty space” into heaven!

In chapter 5 of Out of the Silent Planet, Ransom is in the spaceship on the way to Mars: “He had read of ‘Space’: at the back of his thinking for years had lurked the dismal fancy of the black, cold vacuity, the utter deadness, which was supposed to separate the worlds . . . now . . . the very name ‘Space’ seemed a blasphemous libel for the empyrean ocean of radiance in which they swam . . . it was the womb of worlds, whose blazing and innumerable offspring looked down nightly even from the earth with so many eyes—and here, with how many more! No: Space was the wrong name. Older thinkers had been wiser when they named it simply the heavens.”

Lewis’s reply to Underhill, written on October 29th, after expressing his alarm and delight at hearing from such a notable writer as she, went like this: “I am glad you mentioned the substitution of heaven for space as that is my favourite idea in the book. Unhappily I have since learned that it is also the idea which most betrays my scientific ignorance: I have since learned that the rays in interplanetary space, so far from being beneficial, would be mortal to us. However, that, no doubt, is true of Heaven in other senses as well!”

True to form for a guy who recognized that a convert must gravely count the cost.

The Most Reluctant Convert: C. S. Lewis Onstage, Part II

 Image credit: Jeremy Daniel

Image credit: Jeremy Daniel

Like others who have been privileged to see what next transpired, I was thrilled and transported. It was as if C. S. Lewis himself walked onto the stage. The makeup was exquisite, and the resemblance to Lewis uncanny. Even the voice was near perfect—I remember having listened to one of the few extant recordings of Lewis a year ago. McLean intentionally didn’t aim at enunciating quite so thick an accent as Lewis actually had, explaining why after the play in a Q&A session. For an American audience, in particular, this was a smart decision to avoid it becoming a distraction. McLean’s classical training in voice paid its dividends.

Most people are likely familiar with what happens when watching an inferior performance, show, or movie; it’s hard not to hold it at arm’s length because there’s something mildly insulting and off-putting about the shoddy craftsmanship. In patent contrast, we also know what it’s like when we watch a particularly excellent performance: we’re drawn in, we lose ourselves in the story, we become thoroughly engaged. This was my experience as I sat and watched FPA’s production. A virtuoso performance, it was by turns instructive and convicting, insightful and hilarious, poignant and memorable.

The crisp monologues by the pipe-wielding Lewis recounted the tale of his conversion, chronicling how, step by methodical step, he traversed a path from skepticism to belief. Included in the account were the seminal figures of his life: his father, his brother, his teacher the “Great Knock,” and literary influences from Yeats to Chesterton to George MacDonald, whose Phantastes “baptized” Lewis’s imagination prior to his conversion.

Lewis’s aversion to Christianity was hard for him to square with the fact that so many of his favorite writers, whose writing tasted most real, were Christians. His hard-thinking friend Owen Barfield’s conversion to Christianity upset Lewis, yet Lewis found Barfield’s logic unassailable. Too many aspects of life, to be taken seriously—from consciousness to morality to reason itself—require rock bottom reality to be intelligent. Coghill helped Lewis see the virtues as relevant to understanding reality; Tolkien enabled him to see that Christianity is the True Myth; and gradually Lewis became open to the Absolute, then to Spirit, then to God, then to the Incarnation, each incremental step ineluctably inching toward greater and greater concreteness. Acutely mindful that it took God’s initiative to draw him, Lewis finally relented to the Hound of Heaven, admitting defeat, allowing himself to be vanquished by love, and not the least bit happy about it.

In contrast with any theology of “cheap grace,” or an accommodating Christianity that readily capitulates to swirling cultural whims, blithely smearing the name “Christian” on views conditioned by secularity rather than scripture, Lewis seemed intuitively to grasp from the start that real Christianity would be costly, that its implications were radical, that its demands were all-encompassing. Little wonder he counted the cost, and, after finally relenting—first to theism, then to Christianity—he was, by his own admission, the most reluctant and dejected convert in all of England. Far more quickly than most, he was able to apprehend the paradox of Christianity: to find life we must lose it, to live we must die, and that ultimately we can’t hold anything back.[su_pullquote align="right"]Lewis seemed intuitively to grasp from the start that real Christianity would be costly, that its implications were radical, that its demands were all-encompassing.[/su_pullquote]

The play was simply spectacular, and we loved it. Most of the audience stayed for the Q&A, and about ten or fifteen minutes after the play was done, McLean re-emerged, this time as himself rather than Lewis. It was a remarkable metamorphosis! Donning salmon slacks and a coal shirt, his hour as Lewis was clearly over, and now it was time to hear from the actor and writer himself. He joked about his pants, exuded confidence, showed relaxed body language, sat in the chair, and patiently fielded questions from the audience. His answers were perspicacious and trenchant, revealing him to be well read and often quite eloquent and erudite.

Asked about obstacles doing a play like this in New York, he said that theatre is a great venue to have these sorts of conversations. He’s convinced that people want to have such dialogues, but are often unsure how to do it. He spoke of his admiration for Lewis, despite admitting that some of Lewis’s writings were an acquired taste, demanding effort to apprehend them well. He had largely relied on Lewis’s own words for this play, but had to work hard to thin out some of Lewis’s diction and elaborate explications to make the ideas more widely accessible and understandable.

The result, to my thinking, was a veritable “greatest hits” woven together masterfully. I had enjoyed the play immensely, and the Q&A only enhanced my appreciation for McLean, and in a few moments Marybeth and I would get the chance to speak with him personally.

The Most Reluctant Convert: C. S. Lewis Onstage, Part I

It was Halloween Eve, Mischief Night as it’s often dubbed, the penultimate day of October in 1938. At a time when the radio was the main source of news and entertainment, the big draw that evening was the legendary Edgar Bergen and his ventriloquist dummy Charlie McCarthy. Popular lore says that a musical interlude in Bergen’s performance led many radio listeners to surf the channels and tune in to what would subsequently be called the most famous radio broadcast of all time.

Perched high in the Columbia Broadcasting Building on Madison Avenue, a precocious 23-year-old impresario Orson Welles was orchestrating a coup of the airwaves. Already reputed as Broadway’s most brilliant rising star, Welles made this particular Sunday anything but restful, directing the terrified eyes of his rapt listeners to quite the ominous October sky. It was a scant nine years before, almost to the day, that Black Tuesday had initiated the Great Depression, whose painful ripple effects were still felt. With Hitler’s foreboding rise to power and Europe so susceptible to his domination and imminent encroachment, the future was uncertain; people were already on edge and accustomed to hearing bad news.

 Image credit: Jeremy Daniel

Image credit: Jeremy Daniel

That night, by the time they started listening to this storied adaptation of H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds (1898), much of the audience had missed the opening introduction identifying it as a dramatization. Welles’ magisterial depiction of an alien invasion in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey induced panic in lots of quarters, accounts varying as to its extent. The show was strategically punctuated by realistic breaking “news bulletins”; by a sudden impromptu and pregnant, protracted and deafening silence initiated by Welles himself; and by another voice actor emulating the rhythm and cadence of Herbert Morrison’s immortal heart-rending eyewitness radio report of the Hindenburg’s fiery destruction just a year before.

For a few hours, the show simply terrified a nation already fraught with fear. Amidst subsequent media outrage and furious calls for greater FCC regulation, Welles feigned shock and dismay over the tumult his broadcast had produced. In truth the whole scenario would catapult him into the stratosphere of international fame, issuing him his ticket to Hollywood.

On the one hand, the remarkable episode furnishes a cautionary tale against the power of propaganda; on the other, more positively, it’s a reminder of the remarkable ability of drama and story to capture and mesmerize the imagination and move the will. The broadcast was a production of the Mercury Theatre, founded by Welles and John Houseman (later of Paper Chase fame as Professor Charles Kingsfield), located on West 41st Street in New York City, a mere half mile from where my wife and I recently watched a different drama unfold—one more tethered to actual history.

H. G. Wells wrote War of the Worlds in 1898, forty years before the Mercury Theatre’s radio adaptation. The year of Wells’ book in England also marked the birth of C. S. Lewis in Belfast, Ireland, and it just so happens that the play that we recently saw was a one-man show about the great Oxford don’s reluctant conversion to Christian faith.

Inexplicably navigating the frenetic, frantic Manhattan traffic by sheer force of will and a deft defiance of physics, our taxi driver dropped us off at the Acorn Theatre on West 42nd Street. Until then we’d assumed the Amtrak train hurling along in northern Virginia at breakneck speed might be the most terrifying part of our journey, feeling suspiciously like the Knight Bus in Harry Potter’s London. The Acorn Theatre is part of “Theatre Row,” headquartered in the heart of NYC’s Theater District.

Surviving that harrowing freak show of vehicular congestion made receptive our hearts to the transcendent and miraculous, and indeed a magical afternoon at the theatre was about to ensue. It was less than an hour to the matinee show time. We were excited to relish the performance we’d heard so much about already, and just as enthused at the prospect, afterwards, of meeting its star, Max McLean, who co-directed the show with Ken Denison. His publicist had neatly arranged our post-show interview.

After procuring our tickets, we made it to the third floor theatre, its set smartly arranged as a cozy book-lined office replete with desk, virtual pictures on the back wall, and a requisite cushy chair—just the sort of environment for the bookish Lewis to make an appearance. The ostensible location is Lewis’s study at Magdalen College, Oxford, 1950. While we admired the décor and became acclimated to the surroundings—feeling more than a little giddy as quite the sophisticated NYC theatre-goers—I perused the play’s brochure.

The performance, it was explained, is a production of the Fellowship for Performing Arts (FPA), which was founded by McLean in 1992, and which aims to create theatre from a Christian worldview that engages a diverse audience. It has developed and presented award-winning plays such as The Screwtape Letters, which I saw in North Carolina some years ago, never imagining at the time I’d later get to meet McLean personally, aka Screwtape. Other productions—staged in theatres and performing arts centers in New York, London, and across America—have included The Great Divorce, Mark’s Gospel, Martin Luther on Trial, and of course this one: C. S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert. The outfit has also produced critically acclaimed audiobook narrations of classic Christian works, predicated on the power of not just reading scripture, but hearing it.

I read with particular interest the brochure’s “Note about the Play,” which helpfully explains the subtitle. In 1950, Lewis received a letter from a young American writer expressing his struggle to believe Christianity because he thought it “too good to be true.” Lewis responded, “My own position at the threshold of Christianity was exactly the opposite of yours. You wish it were true; I strongly hoped it was not. . . . Do you think people like Stalin, Hitler, Haldane, Stapledon (a corking good writer, by the way) would be pleased on waking up one morning to find that they were not their own masters . . . that there was nothing even in the deepest recesses of their thoughts about which they could say to Him, ‘Keep out! Private. This is my business’? Do you? Rats! . . . Their first reaction would be (as mine was) rage and terror.”

The Note goes on to say that this was Lewis’s mindset before he “gave in,” as he put it. Lewis had embraced ideologies like materialism, atheism, naturalism, determinism, and reductionism—views that hold in common the conviction that all of life, every action, emotion, or perception, is susceptible to deflation. Each can be reduced to pre-existing physical causes all the way back to the Big Bang. There is no need to appeal to a supernatural source. God is not required to explain or define origin, meaning, ethics, or destiny. “For many years, Lewis was a defender of this view. And given his rhetorical gifts and love of debate one could see him fit into the ‘New Atheist’ camp with the likes of the late Christopher Hitchens or Sam Harris.”

This play, it was explained, would explore Lewis’s dramatic conversion from this position to Christianity. McLean, the author of the Note, adds that he thinks Lewis’s vibrancy and resonance as a Christian apologist is rooted in this experience. The primary sources for the play, the Note continues, would be Lewis’s autobiography, Surprised by Joy, as well as his Collected Letters, a three-volume veritable treasure trove of insights and rich historical nuggets. McLean wrote the script by carefully cobbling together Lewis’s disparate words into a seamless tapestry and compelling narrative with a readily discernible and inherently fascinating trajectory. In addition to the primary sources, McLean also relied on several of Lewis’s books and essay collections, including The Problem of Pain, The Weight of Glory, Mere Christianity, God in the Dock, Present Concerns, and Christian Reflections. And he acknowledges his debts to various biographies and critical insights by Douglas Gresham (Lewis’s stepson), Walter Hooper (editor of Lewis’s literary estate), Devin Brown (from Asbury University), Tim Keller (whose church McLean attends in NYC, a church that has several pastors with specific ministries for the artists in the congregation), Alan Jacobs (Wheaton), Jerry Root (who’s written a book on Lewis and the problem of evil), Andrew Lazo, George Sayer, David Downing, Oxford’s Alister McGrath, Armand Nicholi (author of a book comparing and contrasting Lewis and Freud), Sheldon Vanauken, Kenneth Tynan, and A. N. Wilson, among others.

Finally, I read that the play takes place prior to the publication of Lewis’s first Narnia story and well before he met his wife, Joy Davidman—which introduces the tantalizing possibility of a sequel. My appetite thus whetted, I was primed to see the show.

Bishop S. I. Newman at the Gate of St. Peter

Guest article by Dr. Livingston Greystoke

Bishop S. I. Newman stood at the Gate of Heaven.  There Saint Peter met him.  We are privy to their conversation which I report just as it occurred.

St. Peter: Who are you?

Bishop Newman: Who are you? Where am I?

St. Peter: I am Peter, the Lord’s apostle.  You are at the very entrance of heaven. I can tell, Mr. Newman, you are surprised to see me.  Did you think that what we now see extending out through that Gate to eternity was a myth?  You did teach, quite consciously, the Lord Jesus was a mental projection of the needs and hopes of us disciples.  Certainly, you did not expect to meet Him – or me - here, did you?  I assure you, Mr. Newman, we are quite real.

Bishop Newman: You can understand why I made such an assumption.  Our most brilliant scholars in the most esteemed academies using the most contemporary historical analysis convinced me.   I was just using my God-given reason to consider the texts.  God would not want me to commit ‘intellectual suicide’ in reflecting on what people wrote about him – or her – or it- whoever.

St. Peter: Reason is one thing, prejudice another.  And, isn’t reason exercised together with faith?  After all, ‘without faith it is impossible to please God’.  Let me ask you.  Why should you be admitted through these gates?

Bishop Newman: Since you asked, all modesty aside,  I rose to the top of the clergy ranks; colleague among colleagues; leader of leaders; most devout of the devout, esteemed by clergy and lay; viewed to have an unusual set of leadership skills; an apt expounder of relativizing the Scriptures for our day; and passionate for the issues which oppress.  What might have been my most important attribute, I was recognized as having the gift of being able to make myself acceptable to all.  I strove to fulfill Jesus’ greatest passion - unity in the Church!  This was no easy task.  Glory be to God what God inspired in me!

St. Peter: Were you not like brother Paul?  He regarded ‘everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord?’  He determined to ‘never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ’.  Didn’t you hold back from preaching the cross? You thought it foolishness so you didn’t preach it! Though it is foolishness to the pagans brother Paul preached it anyway! You should have known the cross is the power of God to those being saved.  You thought talk of the cross as a necessary, objective substitutionary sacrifice for sin a crass antiquarian throwback to medieval days. 

Bishop Newman: But I was so moved when I administered the Eucharist and passed the cup, saying, ‘The blood of Christ given for you. Amen’.  It was a numinous experience.

St. PeterBut you lived as an enemy of the cross.  You promulgated the rejection of the authority of God’s Word by urging persons to indulge their lusts and make their god the belly. You, of all people, the ecclesial leader of God’s people, have led the weak into licentious ways.  You have encouraged extra-marital sex by advocating the right to homosexual practice.  You ought to know unrepentant ‘fornicators’ will not be at home here!  You promised freedom but gave slavery!

Bishop Newman:  I was extremely passionate on behalf of those upon whom the shadow of the cross falls.  I stood with the oppressed and the ‘have-nots’ against ‘the haves’.  I challenged systems of discrimination and injustice.  I politicked for the care of creation and climate justice.  I struggled against the criminalization of abortion.  I supported the absolute right of a woman to choose to abort a fetus at any stage in her womb.  I fought hard against the erection of structures of homophobia and heterosexism.  I have protested against discrimination based on gender identity – transvestites should be welcomed in every pulpit! Prejudice against any chosen, loving sexual practice must not be indulged.

St. Peter:   Bishop S. I. Newman, your compassion for the humble, the lowly, the poor in body and spirit is admirable. Nonetheless, for you, what is bitter is sweet; what is dark is light; what is false is true. You have the form of religion but not the power.  You know the politic but not the Person.  You are a teacher of the law without understanding either what you say or the things about which you assert.  You have come to the wrong Gate.  Your own words speak against you.  You will neither fit nor be happy here. Adieu.

********************

The Case for Christ: Movie Review

While God certainly draws people to Himself via apologetic arguments and evidences, He certainly has many more resources in His arsenal than that. This truth is illustrated beautifully in the recently released movie The Case for Christ. The movie is set in Chicago in 1980 and tells the story of the conversion to Christianity of the well-known Christian author Lee Strobel (played by Mike Vogel) and his wife Leslie (played by Erika Christensen). Neither Lee nor Leslie were Christians when they married. Lee was having much success in his career as a legal editor for the Chicago Tribune, and both he and his wife were quite happy in their lives as unbelievers. But when God used a chain of events—that did not involve apologetic arguments and evidences—to stir Leslie to the conviction that Christianity is true, Lee was forced to come face to face with the truth claims of Christianity for the first time and reexamine his atheism.

The movie captures in a powerful way the intense spiritual struggle that is often involved in coming to Christ, and it wonderfully depicts how the Holy Spirit works in a multitude of ways to break down the barriers of sin in unbelieving hearts to prepare people to accept the gospel. While Leslie encountered God in a more emotional way through events and Christian friends that God providentially placed into her life, Lee’s conversion illustrates how God can use a combination of arguments, evidences, and personal experiences to soften the heart of even a highly skeptical atheist. Leslie’s conversion and newfound passionate love for God sent Lee on a personal mission to use all of his investigative skills as a reporter to gather the evidence needed to convince his wife that she was caught up in what he considered to be a “cult” that is not rooted in facts. But this journey did not unfold as Lee planned. Lee interviewed experts in such fields as theology, philosophy, psychology, and medicine; however, what he discovered did not allow him to rest easy in the confident unbelief that he had always maintained.

The movie is gripping and entertaining from start to finish. Unlike many Christian movies that leave the viewer cringing, the story is put together well and features quality acting. The film does not force apologetics into the story; rather, solid apologetic evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is sprinkled into the story in a natural way as Lee travels down his road to faith in Christ. While the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is crucial to Lee’s conversion, the Holy Spirit brings him to faith via a multi-pronged plan that includes events that Lee experienced at work and within his family. There are a number of emotional scenes in which the personal spiritual battle that Lee is facing is palpable and moving, and the movie does well to illustrate how coming to faith is not merely a matter of coldly weighing out the evidence. Moreover, the turmoil that Leslie faces as Lee remains committed to his unbelief will resonate with many who have come to faith in Christ but feel the stress of not being able to convince loved ones to do the same. Indeed, the loving and patient way that she responds to this turmoil and balances her love for Christ and her love for Lee is one of the most instructive aspects of the film.

Ultimately, this film has much to offer for both believers in Christ and unbelievers. For believers, it reveals what a powerful tool apologetic evidence can be and how the Spirit makes use of it to impact certain unbelievers and draw them to the truth. It also reveals the importance of Christians loving unbelievers unconditionally and being a living testimony to them. In this way, it reminds those Christians who tend to think of evangelism as a matter of purely logic chopping and apologetic evidence that unbelief is never merely about evidence—it involves the heart and moral and emotional dimensions as well. At the same time, it reminds those who think of evangelism as a matter of simply “loving people to Jesus” without answering their hard evidential questions that this approach is inadequate for some unbelievers; some people need to have their intellectual questions answered before they will come to Christ. The film highlights how God is sovereign and is constantly working in providential ways to help unbelievers realize the truth of the gospel, and people can legitimately come to faith through evidential and non-evidential means. For unbelievers who see the film, it will introduce to them highlights of some of the best historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus and will expose them to the names of leading scholars in Christian apologetics—people like William Lane Craig and Gary Habermas. The movie also is sympathetic and fair to the unbelievers who are portrayed in it and does not demonize them—a criticism that can rightly be made of the 2014 Christian film God’s Not Dead, for example. Unbelieving viewers should also be able to appreciate the movie as a well-told and well-acted tale of two people who faced wrenching turmoil in their lives and in their marriage. From a plot standpoint, the movie holds its own and is engaging even apart from the fact that the story centers around religious aspects, though an unbeliever may not find it to be as much of a feel-good story as a believer would. While the love story between Lee and Leslie can be appreciated by any viewer, hopefully the love that God has for humanity shines through to the unbeliever as well through this film. In the final analysis, this reviewer highly recommends the film.

 

 

 

Simon of Cyrene Takes the Cross (Luke 23:26)  

 

But I was only looking on!

No lover of this miserable Nazarine,

Who pushed his truth too far

And tempted power to kill.

The cross he bears

Is self-inflicted shame and pain.

I have no part in this

Except conscripted brawn!

 

--Heavier than it looks;

A burden more than wood.

Amazing

That he bore the thing this far,

And carries still

A weight He cannot share.

 

                                                  --Elton D. Higgs

                                                  (Apr. 8, 2012)