Reading C. S. Lewis’ nonfiction is always a stretch for the brain muscles. Even Elisabeth Elliot, a deep thinker herself, said that she could follow his line of reasoning but couldn’t always reproduce or explain it.
Lewis’ writings for the general population, like Mere Christianity, are accessible–I would not want to scare anyone away from them.
However, I checked out Lewis’ Christian Reflections several month ago–and laid them aside several times. I was about to give up on them completely when I decided to try once more, praying for understanding and discernment. And then I was able to follow the gist of what he was saying.
This book is a collection of Lewis’ essays on various topics pertaining to Christianity or from a Christian point of view. They were assembled and published by Walter Hooper, Lewis’ longtime secretary, after Lewis’ death. In Hooper’s preface, he shares which of the essays had been previously published or never before published. Many were written for Lewis’ peers, which explains the elevated level of philosophic thought (and the plethora of unfamiliar Latin phrases. I wished I had read this in my Kindle app, where at a touch I could get the translations).
There are fourteen essays in all, touching on topics like Christianity and Literature, Christianity and Culture, ethics, church music, and the psalms. Others delve into things like subjectivism and historicism and de futilitate. I’ll try to give a sentence or two about each:
“Christianity and Literature.” These first two were the ones I was most looking forward to, but they were also the most difficult. I can’t really sum them up in a short sentence or two. I think I need to come back and read them again some time in the future to get more out of them. This blogger has created a helpful outline of the essay.
“Christianity and Culture.”
“Religion: Reality or Substitute?” This essay discusses faith vs. reason and whether religion is a substitute for reality.
“On Ethics.” Lewis discusses whether “the world must return to Christian ethics in order to preserve civilization, or even in order to save the human species from destruction” p. 44).
“De Futilitate.” Lewis debunks the idea that we can’t really know anything so therefore everything is futile. Doesn’t that sound depressing?
“The Poison of Subjectivism.” This sounds a lot like the postmodernism of our era: maybe the seeds of it began here. “There are modern scientists, I am told, who have dropped the words truth and reality out of their vocabulary and who hold that the end of their work is not to know what is there but simply to get practical results” (p. 72). Indignation against another person’s or country’s morality . . .
is perfectly groundless if we ourselves regard morality as a subjective sentiment to be altered at will. Unless there is some objective standard of good, over-arching Germans, Japanese and ourselves alike whether any of us obey it or no, then of course the Germans are as competent to create their ideology as we are to create ours. If ‘good’ and ‘better’ are terms deriving their sole meaning from the ideology of each people, then of course ideologies themselves cannot be better or worse than one another. Unless the measuring rod is independent of the things measured, we can do no measuring (p. 73).
“The Funeral of a Great Myth” takes a look at evolution not in the scientific sense but in the sense of society. Lewis says the thought of humanity continually getting better has been around longer than Darwin but at no point has been witnessed or proven true. Rather, just the opposite seems to be the case. Nor does the complex arise from the simple, but the complex often offers the seed of the simple.
“On Church Music.” In Lewis’ day, church music “glorifies God by being excellent in its own kind; almost as the birds and flowers and the heavens themselves glorify Him. In the composition and highly-trained execution of sacred music we offer our natural gifts at their highest to God, as we do also in ecclesiastical architecture, in vestments, in glass and gold and silver, in well-kept parish accounts, or the careful organization of a Social” (p. 95). “But in most discussions about Church Music the alternative to learned music is popular music” (p. 95) which he says can be shouted and “bellowed” as well as sung. Either one can be done to the glory of God—or simply because it’s what people like. Each one could be done with pride and condescension. Or, the musician “of trained and delicate taste” can “humbly and charitably sacrifice his own . . . desires and give people the humbler and coarser fare than he would wish” (p. 96), and the the less musically learned could “humbly and patiently, and above all silently, listen to music which he . . . cannot fully appreciate, in the belief that it somehow glorifies God (p. 96). To both, “Church Music will have been a means of grace; not the music they have liked, but the music they have disliked. They have both offered, sacrificed, their taste in the fullest sense” (p. 97) for love of others, the glory of God, and the good of the church.
“Historicism.” ““What I mean by a Historicist is a man who asks me to accept his account of the inner meaning of history on the grounds of his learning and genius” (p. 101). He doesn’t have a problem with those who find “causal connections between historical events” (p. 100), a work belongs to historians. “The mark of the Historicist, on the other hand, is that he tries to get from historical premises conclusions which are more than historical; conclusions metaphysical or theological or (to coin a word) atheo-logical” (pp. 100-101).
“The Psalms.” I’ve always appreciated the psalms for their humanness, their depth of emotion. So I was a little surprised Lewis called them “shockingly alien,” until he described his religious experience of “Anglican choirs, well laundered surplices, soapy boys’ faces, hassocks, and organ, prayer books” (p. 114). He has an interesting discussion on the call for justice in the psalms, “not something that the conscience-stricken believer fears but something the downtrodden believer hopes for” (p. 123), “the continual hope of the Hebrews for ‘judgement’, the hope that some day, somehow, wrongs will be righted” (p. 124). I would disagree with his view of imprecatory psalms, but I admit I don’t always know how to interpret them.
“The Language of Religion.” Lewis begins by discussing different kinds of language: ordinary (his example: “It was very cold.”), scientific (“There were 13 degrees of frost.”), and poetic, with several lines from Keats. He discusses how each type conveys some level of accuracy and elicits some degree of emotion, yet each has its failings. Then he applies this to apologetics, which he compares to trying to convey a certain shade of color to a blind man who has never seen color.
“Petitionary Prayer: A Problem Without an Answer.” Lewis struggles here with the difference between biblical promises that we receive whatever we ask for in faith vs. Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane that the cup be removed, yet “not my will but Yours be done.” He doesn’t have a problem with a loving providence saying no. But he seems to have a problem with so many promises of answers to prayers of faith for what one asks, even of mountains being moved (acknowledging the metaphorical aspect), that it would seem that Jesus did not pray with that kind of faith. But I think Jesus did pray with that kind of faith–faith that the Father’s will would ultimately be done. To me, the mystery is that Jesus prayed that the cup would be removed when that cup was the very reason He came, as He said earlier. I’ve only been able to conclude that this shows the human side of our Lord. And it shows that deep dread of a coming crisis in the will of God is not necessarily sin. Jesus had planed and prepared for this before creation–it was His own will (I lay down my life, no on can take it from me) as well as the Father’s. Yet His human side shrank from it. That gives me great comfort.
“Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism.” This essay was not only fairly easy to follow, it was delightful. Lewis takes on the problem of modern theologians who “ask me to believe they can read between the lines of the old texts; the evidence is their obvious inability to read (in any sense worth discussing) the lines themselves” (p. 157). These Biblical critics “seem to me to lack literary judgement, to be imperceptive about the very quality of the texts they are reading” (p. 154). “I have been reading poems, romances, vision-literature, legends, myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know that not one of them is like this [the Biblical text]” (p. 155).
Lewis speaks not as a theologian, but as a “sheep telling shepherds what only a sheep can tell them” (p. 152). He claims some authority on the basis of how people have wrongly evaluated his writings and that of his friends, assuming things about the background and meaning which weren’t true. A longer quote:
A theology which denies the historicity of nearly everything in the Gospels to which Christian life and affections and thought have been fastened for nearly two millennia—which either denies the miraculous altogether or, more strangely, after swallowing the camel of the Resurrection strains at such gnats as the feeding of the multitudes–if offered to the uneducated man can produce only one or other of two effects (p. 153).
Those effects, Lewis goes on to say, would be to look elsewhere for spiritual truth or to become an atheist.
“The Seeing Eye.” Lewis here refers to the Russian astronauts who said they had not found God in space. He replies, ‘It is not in the least disquieting that no astronauts have discovered a god of that sort. The really disquieting thing would be if they had” (p. 167).
Space-travel really has nothing to do with the matter. To some, God is discoverable everywhere; to others, nowhere. Those who do not find Him on earth are unlikely to find Him in space. (Hang it all, we’re in space already; every year we go a huge circular tour in space.) (p. 171).
He then discusses various scenarios of what kinds of other creatures we might find on other worlds and how we’d likely respond to them. He explored this to a degree in his science fiction series.
In the end, I was glad I persevered. I did enjoy and benefit from several of the essays, though it would take multiple readings to really grasp everything Lewis was saying in some of them. But it’s good to give one’s brain a workout.
I’m counting this book for the essay category for the Nonfiction Reading Challenge.