Friday, August 8, 2014

Book Review: C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock

Reading Lewis is like peering through a freshly washed window into the depths of his soul. A rare communicator among great thinkers and writers, Lewis is able to put deep thoughts on the lower shelf, accessible to the man who has callouses on his hands and dirt under his fingernails.

God in the Dock is a compendium of Lewis’ essays, articles, letters, and a few transcripts of his speeches compiled by editor Walter Hooper, who served briefly as Lewis’ secretary during the illness that took Lewis’ life. Hooper has organized the volume into four parts. The first part contains essays that are “clearly theological,” the second “semi-theological,” and the third “ethics,” and the fourth is comprised of Lewis’ letters answering those who disagree with some point he has made.

If Lewis is a polemicist, he has two arguments to make: his primary argument is against unbelief, and particularly unbelief possessed by those who professed to believe: the liberal clergy and theologians of the post-war Church of England. His other great issue is more subtle: it’s an argument against unclear thought and language that befuddles rather than enlightens. Lewis contends that if a man is not able to translate a passage from an English volume of systematic theology into language that his gardener would understand, he should fail his ordination exam.

Modern conservative evangelicals are conflicted about Lewis. It seems to me that there are two reasons for the uncertainty. First there is a misunderstanding about the way Lewis uses the term myth. As a professor of literature, Lewis used the term to describe the rich stories of cultures such as the Norsemen or the Greeks. Lewis contended that, though historically false, such stories conveyed subtle evidences of transcendence—in other words, evidence of God, the True Joy. But he also used the term to describe Christianity, and that’s what makes modern Bible-believers nervous. It need not.

Unlike modern liberals, when Lewis uses “myth” in connection with Christianity, he is not speaking of something false or unhistorical. Indeed, Lewis was a strong force in his day arguing for the reality of the miracles of Scripture, and against the anti-supernaturalism that wound up destroying much of Anglicanism. Lewis uses the term myth in much the same way that “metanarrative” is used in popular culture: it’s the “big picture,” the “grand narrative,” the unifying story that ties together and explains a culture. For Lewis Christian myth is the true historical story of God’s grand plan of redemption through His Son Jesus Christ. It is the story (the only story) that explains the faith of the apostles and the two thousand years of history since. Theologians use the term “redemptive history” in almost precisely the way Lewis used the word myth to describe Christianity. Myth is not the denial of historicity for Lewis, rather it is the assertion of the grandness and majesty of The Story—the true story.

The second concern about Lewis regards his tendency to Universalism, the idea that all men—even Christ rejecters—will ultimately be redeemed. Lewis argues that we in time cannot now know what eternity bodes for the lost. See for instance the last two chapters of The Great Divorce. I think Lewis himself was conflicted about it—you can observe his conflict in places where he argues strenuously for the need of conversion before one faces God. Conservative evangelicals who are disturbed by this part of Lewis need to go back and read the first four centuries of church history—even Augustine believed things we would disavow today. The same can be said of the Reformers: for instance, they did not clearly separate civil from ecclesiastical authority—it took a couple more centuries for that to finally happen. We will do ourselves no favors judging Lewis by this one matter. Hooper says of him, “Lewis struck me as the most thoroughly converted man I ever met. Christianity was never for him a separate department of life. . . ” [12, emphasis his].

God in the Dock is an edifying and challenging sampler of Lewis’ thought in many different areas of life and theology. I recommend it highly.