Once Upon a Wardrobe

In Once Upon a Wardrobe by Patti Callahan, Megs Devonshire is a college student at Oxford in the 1950s. Her 8-year-old brother, George, has a heart condition and is not expected to live long.

George has become enamored with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis. George wonders often if Narnia is a real place. If not, where did it come from? When he learns that the author of the book is a professor at Megs’ school, George begs her to ask Lewis about Narnia for him.

Megs demurs. First, she explains to George, Oxford is made up of different colleges, and Lewis doesn’t teach at the one she attends. Plus, Megs studies math and physics and is not much for stories. She prefers logic and black and white answers. Of course Narnia is just a figment of the author’s imagination, she insists.

But George keeps asking, and Megs loves him. So she finds a way to meet Mr. Lewis.

Lewis is very hospitable. But he doesn’t answer Megs’ question directly. Instead, he tells her a series of stories about his life over several visits.

George enjoys the stories. But Megs is frustrated that she can’t get a straight answer. And their mother wonders if George is spending too much time thinking about an imaginary world.

There are three levels, or threads, to this story. One is Megs and George and their family. One is Lewis’ biography. And another is Megs’ learning the value of stories. Having read On Stories by Lewis, I recognized a lot of his points in this novel. He’s not saying that the world doesn’t need logic and math and facts. Rather, “Reason is how we get to the truth, but imagination is how we find meaning” (p. 52).

The middle section of the book seemed a little formulaic. Megs’ point of view is written in the first person. She’d visit Lewis and come back with a story for George. As she begins to tell it, the point of view switches to George’s, but in the third person. Then, as if the scene is unfolding in George’s imagination, a section of Lewis’ story is told in the third person.

In the final third or so of the book, the action picked up and there were no more switches, so it was easier to get caught up in the story.

The scenes with C. S. and his brother, Warnie, made me feel like I was there in their room with the fireplace going, listening in. Callahan had studied Lewis’ life for her first book, Becoming Mrs. Lewis, and I am not surprised another book about him grew from all that research. The details shared showed a familiarity with Lewis’ home and school without overpowering the story.

Callahan writes in her note after the story that she wasn’t interested in “ascribing logic, facts, and theory to the world of Narnia,” as that has been done by so many others. But she wanted to explore how Narnia changes readers and how, as Lewis said, “Sometimes fairy stories may say best what needs to be said.”

I’ve read many biographies of Lewis, so most of his story was familiar to me. There were parts that surprised me, though. For instance, I knew he took some children from London into his home during the Blitz, but I had never heard anything about them until this book. It also occurred to me that, though I had read much about Lewis, I had never read his book about himself: Surprised by Joy. I’d seen that book quoted in anything else I’d read about him, so I thought I knew it. But I should read it some time.

There were a couple of places the theology was a little wonky. I wasn’t sure whether these were from the author’s beliefs or a character’s.

But overall, this was a sweet and touching story.

I listened to most of the book via audiobook, read nicely by Fiona Hardingham. But I had also gotten the Kindle version on sale and looked up many sections there.

The Four Loves

In The Four Loves by C. S. Lewis, he says that when he contemplated writing about love, he thought there were two types: Need-Love and Gift-Love. Need-love is that of a child for its parents, who meet its needs and comfort when frightened. Gift-love is that of a man who works hard for the well-being of his family. Lewis was going to propose that the latter is more like God because He gives and needs nothing. Need-love, however, seemed totally selfish and not deserving of the name “love.”

But, he reasoned, no one thinks a child is selfish for looking to its parents for comfort or an adult selfish for wanting the companionship of friends. And man’s love to God is almost totally Need-love.

It would be a bold and silly creature that came before its Creator with the boast ‘I’m no beggar. I love you disinterestedly.’ Those who come nearest to a Gift-love for God will next moment, even at the very same moment, be beating their breasts with the publican and laying their indigence before the only real Giver. And God will have it so. He addresses our Need-love: ‘Come unto me all ye that travail and are heavy-laden,’ or, in the Old Testament, ‘Open your mouth wide and I will fill it’ (pp. 3-4).

Lewis also differentiates between Need-pleasures and Appreciation-pleasures. One quote stood out to me here because I see this in online discussions all the time.

We must be careful never to adopt prematurely a moral or evaluating attitude. The human mind is generally far more eager to praise and dispraise than to describe and define. It wants to make every distinction a distinction of value; hence those fatal critics who can never point out the differing quality of two poets without putting them in an order of preference as if they were candidates for a prize (pp. 14-15).

Next he writes a chapter titled “Likings and Loves for the Sub-Human”—about love of nature, home, family, country. There’s much to contemplate here, but I’ll just share this one quote from this chapter: “All natural affections, including this, can become rivals to spiritual love: but they can also be preparatory imitations of it, training (so to speak) of the spiritual muscles which Grace may later put to a higher service” (p. 30).

Then Lewis determined that there were four loves and dedicated a chapter each to each one.

First is Affection, or storge in the Greek (“two syllables and the g is ‘hard,'” p. 41). He describes Affection as “a warm comfortableness . . . satisfaction in being together . . . the least discriminating of loves” (p. 41). Affection is “the humblest love. It gives itself no airs” (p. 43). Affection can be in combination with the other loves or not.

Next comes friendship. You’d think that would be part of Affection. But Affection can be felt for pets and even people we don’t like very much. If I understand it rightly, it’s not as deep as friendship.

This chapter contains Lewis’ famous quote, “The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, ‘What? You too? I thought I was the only one'” (p. 82).

“To the Ancients, Friendship seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves; the crown of life and the school of virtue. The modern world, in comparison, ignores it” (pp. 72-73). This book was published in 1960 and its elements were first shared in a series of radio talks. I don’t know if Lewis would say the same today. However, I am sure he would emphasize even more in our day that “It has actually become necessary in our time to rebut the theory that every firm and serious friendship is really homosexual” (p. 76).

Those who cannot conceive Friendship as a substantive love but only as a disguise or elaboration of Eros betray the fact that they have never had a Friend. The rest of us know that though we can have erotic love and friendship for the same person yet in some ways nothing is less like a Friendship than a love-affair. Lovers are always talking to one another about their love; Friends hardly ever about their Friendship. Lovers are normally face to face, absorbed in each other; Friends, side by side, absorbed in some common interest (p. 77).

Friendship is also not just between two people, though it can be. A group of friends enhances the friendship of each with the other. “In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets” (p. 77).

Friendship also has its good and bad sides. There is a certain exclusiveness to friendship–we can’t be as close to everyone as we are with our closest friends. But that can turn to snobbishness or cliqueishness. It can also form an “us against the world” attitude where we close off criticisms or efforts to point out problems or disagreements. Friendship must “invoke the divine protection if it is to remain sweet” (p. 111).

The third love, Eros, is what Lewis calls romantic love. I’ve always heard the Greek word eros meant sexual, physical love, but Lewis call that Venus. People can experience Eros and Venus together or just one or the other.

Sexual desire, without Eros, wants it, the thing in itself; Eros wants the Beloved. The thing is a sensory pleasure; that is, an event occurring within one’s own body. . .

Now Eros makes a man really want, not a woman, but one particular woman. In some mysterious but quite indisputable fashion the lover desires the Beloved herself, not the pleasure she can give (p. 120).

Eros, like Friendship, can have good and bad sides. Our fallen nature can corrupt any good thing.

The last of the four loves, according to Lewis, is Charity or agape in Biblical Greek. Lewis warns many times that our natural loves can act as rivals to the love of God. But he also warns that love of God does not erase or demean our naturals loves. Rather, His love infuses them to be what He created them to be.

Lewis gives an example from Augustine (which, in the providence of God, I just finished reading). Augustine had a dear friend, Nebridius, whose death plunged him into despair and desolation. “This is what comes, [Augustine] says, of giving one’s heart to anything but God” (p. 153). Therefore, he concludes we shouldn’t love other people so much. “If love is to be a blessing, not a misery, it must be for the only Beloved who will never pass away” (p. 153). Lewis responds:

Of course, this is excellent sense. . . I am a safety-first creature. Of all arguments against love none makes so strong an appeal to my nature as ‘Careful! This might lead you to suffering.’ To my nature, my temperament, yes. Not to my conscience. When I respond to that appeal I seem to myself to be a thousand miles away from Christ. If I am sure of anything I am sure that His teaching was never meant to confirm my congenital preference for safe investments and limited liabilities. I doubt whether there is anything in me that pleases Him less (p. 153-154).

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken (p. 155).

The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell. I believe that the most lawless and inordinate loves are less contrary to God’s will than a self-invited and self-protective lovelessness. It is like hiding the talent in a napkin and for much the same reason. . . Christ did not teach and suffer that we might become, even in the natural loves, more careful of our own happiness (p. 155).

We shall draw nearer to God, not by trying to avoid the sufferings inherent in all loves, but by accepting them and offering them to Him; throwing away all defensive armour. If our hearts need to be broken, and if He chooses this as the way in which they should break, so be it (pp. 155-156).

Lewis then goes on to a good discussion of what it means when God says He loved Jacob but hated Esau, or what God meant when He tells us we can’t be His disciples without hating mother, father, etc., which He tells us in other places to love. One helpful quote from this section:

To hate is to reject, to set one’s face against, to make no concession to, the Beloved when the Beloved utters, however sweetly and however pitiably, the suggestions of the Devil. A man, said Jesus, who tries to serve two masters, will ‘hate’ the one and ‘love’ the other. It is not, surely, mere feelings of aversion and liking that are here in question. He will adhere to, consent to, work for, the one and not for the other (p. 157).

But then we’re called to show this agape kind of love to others. And when we try, we quickly see it’s not in us naturally.

The invitation to turn our natural loves into Charity is never lacking. It is provided by those frictions and frustrations that meet us in all of them; unmistakable evidence that (natural) love is not going to be ‘enough’— . . . But in everyone, and of course in ourselves, there is that which requires forbearance, tolerance, forgiveness. The necessity of practising these virtues first sets us, forces us, upon the attempt to turn—more strictly, to let God turn—our love into Charity. These frets and rubs are beneficial (p. 173).

These can be raised with Him only if they have, in some degree and fashion, shared His death; if the natural element in them has submitted—year after year, or in some sudden agony—to transmutation (p. 174).

Even though this is an overly long review, I still feel I’ve only scratched the surface of the book. And even though I gleaned much from the book, I can already tell I’ll need to read it again some time.

I like to read whole chapters of this kind of fiction at a time so I can follow and hopefully retain the author’s thoughts all the way through. But with only six chapters in a 192-page book, the chapters are long. It wasn’t until the last chapter that I hit on the idea of taking it in much shorter bits and chewing on that for a while before moving on. I’ll have to try that through the whole book next time.

As always, Lewis has a way of stating and illustrating some things in a way to make them startlingly clear and convicting.

I’ll close with one last quote sharing the need for surrendering to God:

This pretence that we have anything of our own or could for one hour retain by our own strength any goodness that God may pour into us, has kept us from being happy. We have been like bathers who want to keep their feet—or one foot—or one toe—on the bottom, when to lose that foothold would be to surrender themselves to a glorious tumble in the surf. The consequences of parting with our last claim to intrinsic freedom, power, or worth, are real freedom, power, and worth, really ours just because God gives them and because we know them to be (in another sense) not ‘ours’ (pp. 167-168).

I’m counting this book for the Nonfiction Classic in the Back to the Classics Challenge.

C. S. Lewis: Christian Reflections

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.

Laudable Linkage


Here are some of the noteworthy reads discovered recently.

What Changed After C. S. Lewis Came to Christ? We think mostly of Lewis’ intellect, but other areas of his life changed as well. “Lewis was always submitting his life to Christ to be changed. He was always renewing his mind. He understood the New Testament concept of the atonement as involving dying with Christ. He continually submitted habits and attitudes to be killed . . . “

Why I Stopped Calling Parts of the Bible Boring. The theologian she quotes is not my favorite, but otherwise I like this. “Scripture is history, drama, and art. And more importantly, it is the surprisingly simple story of God redeeming his creation. But if in our simplifying or systematizing we end up relegating entire portions of Scripture to boring irrelevancy, we have lost the plot of a God who chose to reveal himself to us in the form of a breathtaking story.”

Helping Our Kids Put On the Armor of God, HT to The Story Warren “Every parent yearns for their child to stand in the face of peer pressure, evil enticements, false claims, and even amidst their own disappointments and losses. Fitting them in these six pieces of spiritual armor will help equip and enable them to stand.”

Cinderella, Strong Women, and the Courage to Be Kind, HT to The Story Warren. “Most of us are strong in ways that go unlauded, and maybe we don’t see our daily routine as strength because of it, or we think we have to be fighting for something—whatever that might look like. But we are strong women when we practice virtues like kindness, when we are patient, when we show compassion and turn away wrath.”

Biblical Submission Does Not Justify Abuse (Or Even Permit It). “Her submission is not your responsibility. Loving her like Christ loved the Church is your responsibility, and abusing her in action or word is a gross violation of the direct command that God has given you. Demanding submission as a cover for acting abusively is a loathsome sin and God notices.”

Midlife, Christ Is. “In midlife, Christ is a consolation for all the things I wish I’d done differently. He doesn’t change my past, but he can redeem it. . . . In midlife, Christ is a companion through all the worries and stresses.”

God Loves Your Perimenopausal Body. “To tell you the truth, the shock as this reality began to dawn in my life left me feeling as though my body might have heard the gospel for the first time even though my heart, mind, and soul had been committed to Jesus since I was a teen. All that time, I’d gotten the message at church that my body was a problem, not a gift.”

Awesome June Activities for Kids, HT to The Story Warren. When school is out and boredom creeps in, here are lots of great things to do.

Just in time for Father’s Day, HT to The Story Warren: a “Try not to Laugh” challenge involving dad jokes:

Happy Saturday!

Preparing for Easter with C. S. Lewis

Preparing for Easter: Fifty Devotional Reading from C. S. Lewis. is a compilation of selections from his writings.

C. S Lewis is one of the most quotable Christians to have lived, maybe second to C. H. Spurgeon. In fact, I have a book titled The Quotable Lewis. So any book of quotes by him will have value.

By the title of this book, you’d expect an arc of quotations on the subject and application of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection, leading up to Easter Day. If there was such an arc, I didn’t detect it. The book just seemed more like a random collection.

Of course, the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ touch everything in the Christian life, so, in one sense, any subject within Christendom could be related. Yet many selections in this volume didn’t seem to fit the theme. For instance, one had to do with the value of myths. Did the compiler feel that any part of the true Easter story was a myth? Or was he applying this quote to the bunnies and eggs part of Easter? I don’t know.

The book is set up to begin about six and a half weeks before Easter, with the last reading for Easter Day. The readings aren’t numbered in the book, but I numbered them in my notes. I was confused when I ended up with forty-seven. Then I remembered some day’s readings contained two short selections. So, as the title says, there are fifty readings, but not over fifty days. I started a week late, so I ended the Sunday after Easter.

Some readings are familiar quotes, such as those from the Narnia series or Mere Christianity. Others are from more obscure sources, like private letters. I’m always amazed at how literary Lewis sounds even in a letter. I wonder if he was a perfectionist who made several copies of a letter until it sounded just right? Or did such prose just flow from him? I remember reading somewhere that his books did not need much editing, so perhaps the latter is true.

Though some of the selections were easy to grasp, some suffered from the loss of their context.

I was also reminded that, though I love much of what Lewis wrote, I don’t agree with him on every little point of doctrine. I have several of those places marked, but I don’t think I’ll list them all here for the sake of time and space.

So, all told, I was more than a little disappointed in this volume. Nevertheless, as I said, there are always rich nuggets in his writing. Here are a few I found:

Our model is the Jesus, not only of Calvary, but of the workshop, the roads, the crowds, the clamorous demands and surly oppositions, the lack of all peace and privacy, the interruptions. For this, so strangely unlike anything we can attribute to the Divine life in itself, is apparently not only like, but is, the Divine life operating under human conditions (p. 7, originally from The Four Loves).

I think that many of us, when Christ has enabled us to overcome one or two sins that were an obvious nuisance, are inclined to feel (though we do not put it into words) that we are now good enough. He has done all we wanted Him to do, and we should be obliged if He would now leave us alone. As we say, ‘I never expected to be a saint, I only wanted to be a decent ordinary chap.’ And we imagine when we say this that we are being humble. But this is the fatal mistake. Of course we never wanted, and never asked, to be made into the sort of creatures He is going to make us into. But the question is not what we intended ourselves to be, but what He intended us to be when He made us. He is the inventor, we are only the machine. He is the painter, we are only the picture. How should we know what He means us to be like? (p. 14, originally from Mere Christianity).

We may be content to remain what we call ‘ordinary people’: but He is determined to carry out a quite different plan. To shrink back from that plan is not humility: it is laziness and cowardice. To submit to it is not conceit or megalomania; it is obedience (p. 15, originally from Mere Christianity).

A continual looking forward to the eternal world is not (as some modern people think) a form of escapism or wishful thinking, but one of the things a Christian is meant to do. It does not mean that we are to leave the present world as it is. If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven (p. 58, originally from Mere Christianity).

If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and to help others to do the same (pp. 60-61, (p. 58, originally from Mere Christianity).

If the new Self, the new Will, does not come at His own good pleasure to be born in us, we cannot produce Him synthetically (p. 72, originally from Present Concerns).

The world is so built that, to help us desert our own satisfactions, they desert us. War and trouble and finally old age take from us one by one all those things that the natural Self hoped for at its setting out. Begging is our only wisdom, and want in the end makes it easier for us to be beggars (p. 72, originally from Present Concerns).

God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing (p. 80, originally from Mere Christianity).

Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and 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 (p. 212, originally from Mere Christianity).

One of the most poignant passages to me was a letter from Lewis to a Warfield Firor about facing the ramifications of aging (including compulsory retirement and rheumatism) and letting those “begin . . .to loosen a few of the tentacles which the octopus-world has fastened on one” and remind that “what calls one away is better” (pp. 138-139). (A portion of the letter is here.)

Though I doubt I’ll reread this book in coming Lenten seasons, I was blessed by some of its pages. I was also encouraged to reread Mere Christianity some time and to look up The Letters of C. S. Lewis.



Book Review: Becoming Mrs. Lewis

I did not start reading anything by or about C. S. Lewis until about twenty years ago. Something I read then indicated that his marriage was just one of convenience so his American wife could stay in England. Since then I’ve read varying accounts of his relationship with his wife, Joy. Patti Callahan asserts that the woman whom Lewis mourned in A Grief Observed and who inspired Til We Have Faces had to have been more than just a dear friend. The letters between the two have been lost, but Patti researched all of the other pieces of Joy’s and Lewis’ writings she could find plus biographies of them to get to know Joy. Based on her findings, she crafted a fictional story titled Becoming Mrs. Lewis: The Improbable Love Story of Joy Davidman and C. S. Lewis.

Mrs. LewisJoy was something of a child prodigy, graduating from high school and college early and earning a master’s degree by age twenty. She was Jewish, an atheist, and, for a brief time, a Communist. She married William Gresham in 1942 and had two sons, but the marriage was troubled almost from the start. Bill was an alcoholic with some seeming mental issues after his military service. In one incident when Bill was drunk, despairing, and talking of suicide, Joy dropped to her knees and prayer to a God she did not believe in – and felt something of an encounter. It was enough to change her perspective and start her searching for answers. She had read and respected C. S. Lewis and knew he had converted to Christianity from atheism, so she wrote to him.

They corresponded for three years. In the meantime, due to health issues and a need for more answers, Joy took a trip to England, where she stayed with a friend, rested, wrote, and finally met Lewis, who asked her to call him Jack. By this time, Joy’s marriage was seriously crumbling, and she was beginning to have feelings beyond friendship for Jack. But she wanted to keep her friendship with Jack pure. She determined to try to save her marriage – until she learned that her husband and cousin were having an affair. Then she asked for a divorce.

Joy returned home as soon as she was able and returned to England with her boys. She and Lewis visited often. She and the boys even stayed with Lewis and his brother, Warnie, for several weeks. They read and edited each other’s writing, walked, ate, drank. Joy fell hard for Jack, but he treasured the philea (brotherly, friendly) type of love they had. He felt he was too old to start thinking about romance, and, besides, in the eyes of his Anglican church, she was still married. When Joy had to face leaving the country due to bureaucratic regulations, Jack offered a civil marriage and bought her a house. When Joy was diagnosed with cancer, Jack realized his true feelings for her and married her in earnest.

Joy was an intelligent, complicated woman. She reminds me very much of the woman at the well in John 4, “looking for love in all the wrong places,” as the saying goes. Early in her life, she was made to feel that she could never “measure up.” Her father punished her for besmirching her A report card with a B. Her mother compared her unfavorably to her prettier, more graceful cousin. She sought for acceptance and assurance of her worth in a string of sexual encounters. She came to learn that sex in itself does not equal love.

Joy is also a reminder that true Christians don’t always fit in a nice, neat box. Really, we have to look no further than our Bibles to know that. Almost every major figure in the Old Testament had serious family and/or personal issues, and the NT epistles dealt with issues in churches that we scratch our heads over these days. Yet even in the messiness of her life both before and after salvation, and the up and down pattern of her growth, there’s a steady trajectory of growing in grace and knowledge.

I must know when it is enough. And I must trust God — again and again I was learning and relearning to trust the truth who had entered my sons’ nursery. The rusty and decrepit habit of trusting in only myself, only abiding in my own ability to make things happen, died hard and slow (Chapter 40).

Much of what I’d done — mistakes, poems, manipulations, success and books and sex — had been done merely to get love. To get it. To answer my question: do you love me? . . . From that moment on, the love affair I would develop would be with my soul. [God] was already part of me; that much was clear. And now this would be where I would go for love — to the God in me. No more begging or pursuing or needing. Possibly it was only a myth, Jack’s myth [Til We Have Faces], that could have obliterated the false belief that I must pursue love in the outside world — in success, in acclaim, in performance, in a man.

The Truth: I was beloved of God.

Finally I could stop trying to force someone or something else to fill that role (Chapter 44).

Jack: I’ve spent all my life in an attempt to find Truth and moral good and then to live it. I can’t discard my moral habits for feelings, which are just that — feelings (Chapter 42).

I enjoyed getting to know Joy and seeing Jack as a normal person in everyday mode. And I loved the truths quoted above that Patti incorporated into the story.

However, even given Joy’s penchant for looking for love through sex at first, there seems to me to be more of a sensual aspect of the story than needed to convey Joy’s misdirection. Even a hill is unnecessarily described as appearing “like the breast of a woman in recline.” Another friend mentioned the preponderance of alcohol in the story. Even allowing that different Christians have different convictions about whether and how much a Christian can consume, alcohol seems the major drink of choice for any occasion here. It’s mentioned even when we really have no need to know what the characters are drinking. I’m left wondering why. I don’t know how much of these things are the author’s choices and how much of it is integral to Joy’s story. Because of these issues, this book won’t appeal to everyone. While I don’t endorse everything in the book,  I think if one can set aside some of the objectionable elements, Joy’s growth as a person, as a Christian, and her impact in Jack’s life and work can be seen and appreciated. The choice whether to read it or not must be left to individuals.

Linda is currently hosting a four-week book club to discuss this book. Week one’s discussion is here: week two is here. Week three is here., just posted today, with one more session coming next week. So it’s not too late to join in if the discussion if you’d like.

Linda also pointed us to a couple of nice videos. In this one, the author shares her thoughts and shows photos of Jack and Joy and videos of Jack’s house, the Kilns.

This one shows aspects of Oxford, integral to both Jack and Joy:

An interview with the author is here (HT to Linda).

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved)

Laudable Linkage


Here’s my latest round-up of noteworthy reads on the Web:

How to Shipwreck Your Theology. ““What is the most brilliant theology good for if it is to be shipwrecked in one’s own house?”

Maybe Women are Some of the Worst Offenders.

9 Things to Know About a Widow’s Grief.

Love Letter to a Lesbian, HT to True Woman, from a former lesbian.

“Let Me Know How I Can Help!” (This Will, Because They Won’t), HT to Linda. Practical ways to ask for or offer help in a time of need.

How Breastfeeding Changed My View of God, HT to True Woman. “God’s love for us is no Hallmark sentiment. This image is not primarily a celebration of our newborn cuteness…Rather, this verse reveals God’s hard-won, self-giving, dogged commitment to our good, a refusal to let us go—however frustrating we become, an insistence on seeing his image in us—and a painful provision for our most desperate need.”

C. S. Lewis’s Wonderful Letters to Children. I love his manner with them.

A Pathway to a Full Life.

This is cool and somewhat mesmerizing to watch: magnetism in slow motion, HT to The Story Warren:

Happy Saturday!

Book Review: C. S. Lewis Letters to Children

CS lettersI rediscovered C. S. Lewis’ Letters to Children, edited by Lyle W. Dorsett and Marjorie Lamp Mead, on my bookshelf when I was trying to rearrange the books to make room for more. I had forgotten I even had it and had never read it, so I decided to save it for Carrie’s Chronicles of Narnia Reading Challenge this month.

The book was published after Lewis’s lifetime: my copy was published in 1985, about 20 years after Lewis’s death, but I am not sure if that is when it was first published. It’s a short book: 114 pages not counting the bibliographies at the back. The book opens with a forward by Doug Gresham, Lewis’s stepson, a brief introduction, and a short overview of Lewis’s childhood. The editors note that the letters are only representative samples: there were way too many to include all, and many of them answer the same questions.

What the editors don’t say is how they obtained the letters. He wrote most of them “in longhand with a dip-pen and ink” (p. 4), telling a correspondent in one of the letters, “You can drive a typewriter, which I could no more drive than a locomotive (I’d sooner drive the locomotive too)” (p. 77) (fascinating article on other reasons why he did not use a typewriter is here).  Did he make carbon copies, or did some of the correspondents send their letters back to his estate? We’re not told, but we are told that “Originals or photocopies of the letters in this book are housed in either the Marion E. Wade Collection, Wheaton College, Illinois, or the Bodleian Library, Oxford” (. 7).

When reading the Narnia series, I have often marveled that a man with the education and brainpower Lewis had, and with so little real-life experience with children, could communicate so effectively with them. He’s neither condescending or cloying. In “On Writing to Children,” Lewis said, “The child as reader is neither to be patronized nor idolized: we talk to him as man to man.” That same perspective is reflected in his letters.

Many of the children’s letters ask about the Narnia series: questions about specific characters, when the next book would be out, why wasn’t he going to write more than seven, etc. Some of them carried on regular correspondence with him for years (as many as twenty years in one case), sending him pictures they made or bits of their own writing, which he critiqued honestly. Most are very short and to the point. One of the longest and most touching was to the mother of a boy who had written to him because the boy was afraid he loved Aslan more than Jesus.

Sometimes he shares just a glimpse of his home life and responsibilities: when the people he was caring for had problems, when his wife was ill, when he himself was ill. On a sad note, to his goddaughter, a few months after his wife died: “I couldn’t come to the wedding, my dear. I haven’t the pluck. Any wedding, for reasons you know, would turn me inside out now” (p. 94). And a funny one: “I’ve been having a…cyst lanced on the back of my neck: the most serious result is that I can never at present get my whole head & shoulders under water in my bath. (I like getting down like a Hippo with only my nostrils out)” (p. 37).

Assorted notes and quotes:

  • When one girl wanted to know Aslan’s “other name,” he didn’t tell her directly but gave her several clues.
  • When one girl questioned why the Pevensie children grow up in Narnia but are still children in our world: “I feel sure I am right to make them grow up in Narnia. Of course they will grow up in this world too. You’ll see. You see, I don’t think age matters so much as people think. Parts of me are still 12 and I think other parts were already 50 when I was 12: so I don’t feel it very odd that they grow up in Narnia while they are children in England” (p. 34).
  • He tells several that the books are not an allegory like Pilgrim’s Progress in which everything represents something. They’re a “supposing” of what it might be like if there was another world with people that needed saving and Jesus came in the form of a lion rather than a man. “Reepiceep and Nick-i-brick don’t, in that sense, represent anyone. But of course anyone who devotes his whole life to seeking Heaven will be like Reepicheep, and anyone who wants some worldly thing so badly that he is ready to use wicked means to get it will be likely to behave like Nick-i-brick” (p. 45).
  • A bit of humor: “I never saw a picture of a baby shower before. I had to put up my umbrella to look at it” (p. 47).
  • On what happened to Susan: “The books don’t tell us what happened to Susan. She is left alive in this world at the end, having by then turned into a rather silly, conceited young woman. But there is plenty of time for her to mend, and perhaps she will get to Aslan’s country in the end–in her own way. I think that whatever she had seen in Narnia she could (if she was the sort that wanted to) persuade herself, as she grew up, that it was ‘all nonsense'” (p. 67).
  • “A perfect man would never act from a sense of duty; he’d always want the right thing more than the wrong one. Duty is only a substitute for love (of God and of other people), like a crutch, which is a substitute for a leg. Most of us need the crutch at times; but of course it’s idiotic to use the crutch when our own legs (our own loves, tastes, habits etc) can do the journey on their own!” (p. 72).
  • “American university teachers have told me that most of their freshmen come from schools where the standard was far too low and therefore think themselves far better than they really are. This means that they lose heart (and their tempers too) when told, as they have to be told, their real level” (p. 84).
  • “You know, my dear, it’s only doing you harm to write vers libre. After you have been writing strict, rhyming verse for about 10 years it will be time to venture on the free sort. At present it only encourages you to write prose not so good as your ordinary prose and type it like verse. Sorry to be a pig!” (p. 87).
  • When asked which of his books he liked best: Till We Have Faces (though he felt it “attracted less attention than any book I ever wrote,” p. 107) and Perelandra (p. 95).
  • He often closed his notes by asking them to pray for him.

I loved this window into Lewis’s life and thinking.

Chronicles of Narnia Reading Challenge

 (Sharing at Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)



Book Review: The Screwtape Letters

ScrewtapeThe idea for what would become The Screwtape Letters first came to C. S. Lewis in 1940, and, when they were completed, they first appeared one at a time in a weekly Anglican publication called The Guardian. The public response prompted publishers to make it into a book as soon as possible. It was first published in England in 1942 and in the USA shortly thereafter.

Lewis thought it might be both “entertaining and useful” to write a series of letters from an older devil to a younger apprentice in his work of tempting and tripping up a new “patient.” The type of approach, presenting “a negative point of view to lift up the positive,” was unusual for Lewis, but he felt it “would give a fresh, even comical perspective on the subject and might attract readers who might not normally think about such things.” Why a comical approach for such a serious subject, one that ended up being very difficult and unpleasant for Lewis to write about?” Partly to “[lure] the ordinary reader into a serious self-knowledge under pretense of being a kind of joke”* (McCusker’s preface) and because “humor involves a sense of proportion and a power of seeing yourself from the outside” (Lewis’s 1961 preface).

In his preface to the original edition, Lewis notes that “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.” In the same preface he “[advises the reader] to remember that the devil is a liar. Not everything that Screwtape says should be assumed to be true even from his own angle.” He writes in the preface to the 1961 edition that “Satan, the leader or dictator of the devils, is the opposite, not of God, but of Michael,” an archangel, and “God has no opposite.”

At first it is a little hard to get used to the reverse thinking of the letters: Screwtape refers to God as “the Enemy,” to the devil as “Our Father Below,” to his position in the “Lowerachy” of hell, etc. It takes frequent mental adjustments throughout the book, and I can see at least partly how it could seem so oppressive for Lewis to try to express what a devil’s thoughts might be.

Screwtape’s nephew, Wormwood, is his apprentice and correspondent, and Wormwood, seems to want to come at the patient with a full-fledged attack and arguments. Screwtape counsels him that argument is not the answer, because by arguing, “you awake the patient’s reason, and once it is awake, who can foresee the result?” (Letter 1). Likewise, Wormwood wants to be able to “report spectacular wickedness. But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy. It does not matter how small the sins are provided their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing…Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts” (Letter 12). Thus, distracting someone on the verge of a spiritual crisis with thoughts about lunch proves quite effective.

When Wormwood’s patient becomes a Christian, Screwtape threatens “the usual penalties” but admits there is still plenty they can do, such as to “work hard, then, on the disappointment or anticlimax” that occurs a few weeks after his conversion, for “If once they get through this initial dryness successfully, they become much less dependent on emotion and therefore much harder to tempt.” Wormwood can also point out the flaws in the patient’s church and fellow churchmen, “[keeping] out of his mind the question ‘If I, being what I am, can consider that I am in some sense a Christian, why should the vices of those people in the next pew prove that their religion is mere hypocrisy and convention?'” (Letter 2).  He offers a few more suggestions, among them:

Whenever they are attending to the Enemy Himself we are defeated, but there are ways of preventing them from doing so. The simplest is to turn their gaze away from Him toward themselves. Keep them watching their own minds and trying to produce feelings there by the action of their own wills. (Letter 4).

[The Enemy] wants men to be concerned with what they do; our business is to keep them thinking about what will happen to them (Letter 5).

Provided that meetings, pamphlets, policies, movements, causes, and crusades, matter more to him than prayers and sacraments and charity, he is ours–and the more “religious” (on those terms) the more securely ours. I could show you a pretty cageful down here (Letter 7).

Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s ground. I know we have won many a soul through pleasure. All the same, it is His invention, not ours. He made the pleasures: all our research so far has not enabled us to produce one. All we can do is to encourage the human to take the pleasure which our Enemy has produced, at times, or in ways, or in degrees, which He has forbidden. Hence we always try to work away from the natural condition of any pleasure to that in which it is least natural, least redolent of its Maker, and least pleasurable. An ever increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure is the formula (Letter 9).

A moderated religion is as good for us as no religion at all–and more amusing (Letter 9).

But flippancy is the best of all. In the first place it is very economical…If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour plating against the Enemy that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter. It is a thousand miles away from joy; it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practise it (Letter 11).

Your patient has become humble; have you drawn his attention to the fact? (Letter 14).

Tortured fear and stupid confidence are both desirable states of mind (Letter 15).

The search for a “suitable” church makes the man a critic where the Enemy wants him to be a pupil (Letter 16).

Now you will have noticed that nothing throws him into a passion so easily as to find a tract of time which he reckoned on having at his own disposal unexpectedly taken from him…They anger him because he regards his time as his own and feels that it is being stolen. You must therefore zealously guard in his mind the curious assumption ‘My time is my own.’ (Letter 21) (Ouch! This one hit particularly home for me.)

That’s probably more than enough, but there is so much more. When the patient does begin to feel as if he has done something wrong, Screwtape advises trying to help him avoid “the explicit repentance of a definite, fully recognized, sin,” but rather to encourage a “vague, though uneasy feeling that he hasn’t been doing very well” (Letter 12). If the patient gets to the place of proclaiming “No more lavish promises of perpetual virtue…not even the expectation of an endowment of ‘grace’ for life, but only a hope for the daily and hourly pittance to meet the daily and hourly temptation! This is very bad” Letter 14).

The particular edition I read also included “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” originally an article in the Saturday Evening Post in 1959. It’s written as Screwtape giving an after-dinner speech in hell at the annual dinner for new graduates of the Tempter’s Training College for Young Devils. Though it contains some general advice from Screwtape, a great deal of it involves politics and education and “devilish” tends on those fronts.

Lewis said in his preface to the 1961 edition that “Some have paid me an undeserved compliment by supposing that my Letters were the ripe fruit of many years’ study in moral and ascetic theology. They forgot that there is an equally reliable, though less creditable, way of learning how temptation works. ‘My heart’—I need no other’s—’showeth me the wickedness of the ungodly.’ ” Thus this isn’t an exhaustive study of every way we can be tempted. I was a little surprised at a few obvious things he didn’t cover (like trying to keep people away from Bible reading). Maybe he felt those were obvious enough that they didn’t need to be dealt with. He doesn’t really discuss spiritual warfare, either, or show how a “patient” can resist temptation except in a few passing observations. His main purpose was to show how Satan can so easily get us off course, sometimes by the merest step away from the way God intended things.

I won’t give away what ultimately happens to the patient or Wormwood, but I did enjoy this peek into the devices of the devil. As I said when I introduced this book for Carrie‘s Reading to Know Classics Book Club for this month, II Corinthians 2:11 was a motivating factor in reading this book: “Lest Satan should get an advantage of us: for we are not ignorant of his devices.”

There were a few little places where I didn’t agree with Lewis, most notably a mention of Limbo in Screwtape’s toast, a place for “creatures suitable neither for Heaven nor for Hell.” McCusker quotes a letter from Lewis in which he describes it as a place for the “virtuous unbeliever,” where it’s pleasant except for a “faint melancholy because you’ll all know that you missed the bus.” I don’t know where he got such an idea (it’s noted he explored it further in The Pilgrim’s Regress, which I have not read), but it is not a Biblical concept. McCusker also has a note from a chapter in Letters to Malcolm on a sentence where Screwtape mentions a “final cleansing” before death for humans that Lewis also believed in Purgatory, not as a Catholic doctrine so much as just a need for a final cleansing from whatever sin we were stained with when we get to heaven. I thought that was odd as well. When we repent and believe on Christ, all our sins, past, present, and future, are forgiven, and we’re seen through the righteousness of Christ, not our own. But otherwise, I thought he showed amazing insight and a great deal of cleverness in writing about such concepts in such a way.

The particular version I read was the e-book The Screwtape Letters: Annotated Edition by C. S. Lewis with preface and annotations by Paul McCusker. I found it on a great sale a few months before reading it. His preface and annotations were very helpful: the annotations included definitions of obscure words and explanations of some unfamiliar references as well as cross-references to some of Lewis’s other writings that expand on concepts mentioned here. Sometimes I wrestled with whether to chase down the references or just read the story, but most times it was rewarding to get that additional insight. I was grateful McCusker included both the preface to the original version and the 1961 version here as well.

Carrie will have a wrap-up post for discussion of this book tomorrow. If you’ve read it with her book club, you can link up your post there. I am looking forward to seeing what others thought of this book. It was my first time to read it, but I can tell it’s going to be one I come back to often.

By the way, Carrie shared in her review a clip of a play made from this book. I agree with her that it works better as a book than a play!
*It is difficult to put page numbers for quotes from an e-book, because they might vary on different devices or with different size fonts, so I just put what section or letter the reference is from.

Reading to Know - Book Club

(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

Book Review: The Problem of Pain

Problem of PainIn The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis sets out truths and speculations about why a wise, loving, kind, and omnipotent God would allow so much evil, suffering and pain in the world. It’s a question that troubles believers and unbelievers alike and one which was a major hindrance to Lewis’s own conversion.

Chapter 1, “Introductory,” traces three threads through human philosophy and development that lead to religion: an awe or dread of unseen beings, which Lewis calls the Numinous; a sense of some kind of morality; and the connection between the Numinous and morality. The Numinous is either “a mere twist in the human mind…or else it is a direct experience of the really supernatural, to which the name Revelation might properly be given” (p. 10). In Christianity there is one more thread: the historical event of the death and resurrection of Christ. Either Christ was “a raving lunatic of an unusually abominable type, or else He was, and is, precisely what He said. There is no middle way” (p. 13).

To ask whether the universe as we see it looks more like the work of a wise and good Creator or the work of chance, indifference, or malevolence, is to omit from the outset all the relevant factors in the religious problem. Christianity is not the conclusion of a philosophical debate on the origins of the universe: it is a catastrophic historical event following on the long spiritual preparation of humanity which I have described. It is not a system into which we have to fit the awkward fact of pain: it is itself one of the awkward facts which have to be fitted into any system we make. In a sense, it creates, rather than solves, the problem of pain, for pain would be no problem unless, side by side with our daily experience of this painful world, we had received what we think a good assurance that ultimate reality is righteous and loving (p. 14).

Mankind tends to think that “If God were good, He would wish to make His creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty He would be able to do what He wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore God lacks either goodness, or power, or both” (p. 16). Lewis spends the next couple of chapters talking about God’s omnipotence and goodness. Some pain is inherent in nature: fire warms when used rightly but burns when one gets too close to it. Some pain arises when individual beings assert their own wills which then clash with each other. God in His omnipotence could have made it impossible for people to sin against each other, but He made man with a free will and the ability to choose his actions.

You may attribute miracles to Him, but not nonsense. This is no limit to His power. If you choose to say ‘God can give a creature free will and at the same time withhold free will from it’, you have not succeeded in saying anything about God: meaningless combinations of words do not suddenly acquire meaning simply because we prefix to them the two other words ‘God can’. It remains true that all things are possible with God: the intrinsic impossibilities are not things but nonentities. It is no more possible for God than for the weakest of His creatures to carry out both of two mutually exclusive alternatives; not because His power meets an obstacle, but because nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk it about God (p. 18).

But “if the universe must, from the outset, admit the possibility of suffering, then” wouldn’t “absolute goodness…have left the universe uncreated”? Lewis “warn[s] the reader that I shall not attempt to prove that to create was better than not to create: I am aware of no human scales in which such a portentous question can be weighed” (p. 27). But he goes on to offer some thoughts about “how, perceiving a suffering world, and being assured, on quite different grounds, that God is good, we are to conceive that goodness and that suffering without contradiction” (p. 27).

What we mean by goodness is not always what true goodness actually is:

By the goodness of God we mean nowadays almost exclusively His lovingness; and in this we may be right. And by Love, in this context, most of us mean kindness – the desire to see others than the self happy; not happy in this way or in that, but just happy. What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, ‘What does it matter so long as they are contented?’ We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven – a senile benevolence who, as they say, ‘liked to see young people enjoying themselves’, and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all’. Not many people, I admit, would formulate a theology in precisely those terms: but a conception not very different lurks at the back of many minds. I do not claim to be an exception: I should very much like to live in a universe which was governed on such lines. But since it is abundantly clear that I don’t, and since I have reason to believe, nevertheless, that God is Love, I conclude that my conception of love needs correction (pp. 31-32).

Even humans don’t want friends and loved ones to continue in a course that makes them happy but is hurtful or destructive to themselves and others, so we can understand that Divine love, so much above ours, will need to correct, halt, or discipline individuals and attempt to bring them to repentance, which will involve some degree of pain.

“We are, not metaphorically but in very truth, a Divine work of art, something that God is making, and therefore something with which He will not be satisfied until it has a certain character.” As an artist erases and reworks a drawing until it becomes as perfect as possible, “One can imagine a sentient picture, after being rubbed and scraped and recommenced for the tenth time, wishing that it were only a thumbnail sketch whose making was over in a minute. In the same way, it is natural for us to wish that God had designed for us a less glorious and less arduous destiny; but then we are wishing not for more love but for less” (pp. 34-35).

Similarly, when a man has a dog, “man interferes with the dog and makes it more lovable than it was in mere nature. In it’s state of nature it has a smell, and habit’s, which frustrate man’s love: he washes it, house-trains it, teaches it not to steal, and is so enabled to love it completely. To the puppy the whole proceeding would seem, if it were a theologian, to cast grave doubts on the ‘goodness’ of man: but the full-grown and full-trained dog, larger, healthier, and longer-lived than the wild dog, and admitted, as it were by Grace, to a whole world of affections, loyalties, interests, and comforts entirely beyond it’s animal destiny, would have no such doubts” (p. 36). Man cares for animals he loves: he “does not house-train the earwig or give baths to centipedes. We may wish, indeed, that we were of so little account to God that He left us alone to follow our natural impulses – that He would give over trying to train us into something so unlike our natural selves: but once again, we are asking not for more love, but for less” (p. 36).

The parent-child analogy is a closer one to spiritual truth than man and art or man and dog, but no loving father says, “I love my son but don’t care how great a blackguard he is provided he has a good time” (p. 37).

When we want to be something other than the thing God wants us to be, we must be wanting what, in fact, will not make us happy. Those Divine demands which sound to our natural ears most like those of a despot and least like those of a lover, in fact marshal us where we should want to go if we knew what we wanted. He demands our worship, our obedience, our prostration. Do we suppose that they can do Him any good, or fear, like the chorus in Milton, that human irreverence can bring about ‘His glory’s diminution’? A man can no more diminish God’s glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word ‘darkness’ on the walls of his cell. But God wills our good, and our good is to love Him (with that responsive love proper to creatures) and to love Him we must know Him: and if we know Him, we shall in fact fall on our faces (p. 46).

Lewis then goes on to explain why mankind needs such alteration in the first place. He asserts this is necessary because in his time there was not so much a sense of sin as people would have had in the times when the Bible was written, against which the gospel appeared as very good news indeed. He gives various reasons for that to show that “Christianity now has to preach the diagnosis – in itself very bad news – before it can win a hearing for the cure” (p. 48) and then goes on to show how pervasive and deceptive sin is in our hearts.

It’s when he discusses how man became sinful in the first place in his chapter on the fall of man that I have my first serious problems. He regards the first few books of the Bible (at least, maybe more of it) as mythic. He believes in the evolutionary view of man’s development and as such believes that the “first man” could not have sinned as Adam did because he would not have had the intelligence, self-awareness, or conscience to, since he was what we commonly think of as a prehistoric cave man. At some point in man’s continued evolution, mankind as whole sinned against God by somehow preferring its own way rather than His, of somehow rejecting His reign, and thus the rest of human race was born in sin. He rejects the idea that we are responsible or accountable for or being punished for Adam’s sin. He has problems coming to terms with the statement that “as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22). Now, I don’t believe that believing in evolution disqualifies a man from salvation or heaven, but I think taking a great deal of the Bible as mythic is not only wrong, but creates new problems. It makes more sense to me that since Adam sinned and was corrupted, every ancestor of his was also corrupted, and thus we are all born sinners, than to try to imagine that the sin of a group of people somehow plunged the entire human race ever after into sin. I think it is quite dangerous to take plain statements of Scripture as mythic and symbolic. I have X marks (which I sometimes put next to statements I disagree with in a book) and question marks all through this chapter and can’t take the time or space here to delineate them all. I do understand that Lewis was speaking from the intellectual viewpoint of his day. He’s not afraid to contradict prevailing viewpoints with Scriptural truth where he see it clearly, but I assume he must not have heard a convincing argument in regard to creation and a literal interpretation of Genesis. He comes out at the right place in the end: “that man, as a species, spoiled himself, and that good, to us in our present state, must therefore mean primarily a remedial or corrective good” (p. 85), but the way he gets there is convoluted.

The next two chapters on human pain are the best, in my opinion. Lewis proposes that about four-fifths of the pain in the world arises from our own sinfulness, our bent as people created with choice and free will to use that will to sin against others.

“We are not merely imperfect creatures who must be improved: we are, as Newman said, rebels who must lay down our arms” (p. 88).

But there are other kinds of pain that do not come directly from other people’s sins against us.

The first answer, then, to the question why our cure should be painful, is that to render back the will which we have so long claimed for our own, is in itself, wherever and however it is done, a grievous pain… to surrender a self-will inflamed and swollen with years of usurpation is a kind of death (p. 89).

Hence the necessity to die daily: however often we think we have broken the rebellious self we shall still find it alive. That this process cannot be without pain is sufficiently witnessed by the very history of the word ‘Mortification’ (p. 89).

The human spirit will not even begin to try to surrender self-will as long as all seems to be well with it (p. 90).

If the first and lowest operation of pain shatters the illusion that all is well, the second shatters the illusion that what we have, whether good or bad in itself, is our own and enough for us. Everyone has noticed how hard it is to turn our thoughts to God when everything is going well with us. We ‘have all we want’ is a terrible saying when ‘all’ does not include God. We find God an interruption. As St Augustine says somewhere, ‘God wants to give us something, but cannot, because our hands are full – there’s nowhere for Him to put it.’ Or as a friend of mine said, ‘We regard God as an airman regards his parachute; it’s there for emergencies but he hopes he’ll never have to use it.’ Now God, who has made us, knows what we are and that our happiness lies in Him. Yet we will not seek it in Him as long as He leaves us any other resort where it can even plausibly be looked for. While what we call ‘our own life’ remains agreeable we will not surrender it to Him. What then can God do in our interests but make ‘our own life’ less agreeable to us, and take away the plausible source of false happiness? It is just here, where God’s providence seems at first to be most cruel, that the Divine humility, the stooping down of the Highest, most deserves praise (p. 94).

God, who made these deserving people, may really be right when He thinks that their modest prosperity and the happiness of their children are not enough to make them blessed: that all this must fall from them in the end, and that if they have not learned to know Him they will be wretched. And therefore He troubles them, warning them in advance of an insufficiency that one day they will have to discover. The life to themselves and their families stands between them and the recognition of their need; He makes that life less sweet to them. I call this a Divine humility because it is a poor thing to strike our colours to God when the ship is going down under us; a poor thing to come to Him as a last resort, to offer up ‘our own’ when it is no longer worth keeping. If God were proud He would hardly have us on such terms: but He is not proud, He stoops to conquer, He will have us even though we have shown that we prefer everything else to Him, and come to Him because there is ‘nothing better’ now to be had. The same humility is shown by all those Divine appeals to our fears which trouble high-minded readers of Scripture. It is hardly complimentary to God that we should choose Him as an alternative to Hell: yet even this He accepts. The creature’s illusion of self-sufficiency must, for the creature’s sake, be shattered; and by trouble or fear of trouble on earth, by crude fear of the eternal flames, God shatters it ‘unmindful of His glory’s diminution’ (pp 95-96).

Sometimes pain also serves as a reminder that this world is not all there is and isn’t meant to satisfy: when something painful happens – illness, bad news, etc. – “At first I am overwhelmed, and all my little happinesses look like broken toys. Then, slowly and reluctantly, bit by bit, I try to bring myself into the frame of mind that I should be in at all times. I remind myself that all these toys were never intended to possess my heart, that my true good is in another world and my only real treasure is Christ” (pp. 106-107). “Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home” (p. 116).

And though he doesn’t mention Romans 5:3-5 (“And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; And patience, experience; and experience, hope: And hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us”), he does discuss the principle that suffering develops these things in us.

Lewis said near the beginning that he was writing merely to explain the problem of pain, not to necessarily tell how to deal with it. Yet he does say, “If pain sometimes shatters the creature’s false self-sufficiency, yet in supreme ‘Trial’ or ‘Sacrifice’ it teaches him the self-sufficiency which really ought to be his – the ‘strength, which, if Heaven gave it, may be called his own’: for then, in the absence of all merely natural motives and supports, he acts in that strength, and that alone, which God confers upon him through his subjected will. Human will becomes truly creative and truly our own when it is wholly God’s, and this is one of the many senses in which he that loses his soul shall find it.”

He discusses the moral objection to hell in another chapter and makes several good points. I’ll just share this one:

In the long run the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell, is itself a question: ‘What are you asking God to do?’ To wipe out their past sins and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But He has done so, on Calvary. To forgive them? They will not be forgiven. To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what He does (p. 130).

Lewis has a chapter on animal pain, which he confesses is primarily speculation since the Bible says nothing about what animals feel and they can’t tell us. But here is another place where his evolutionary thought comes in and contradicts clear Biblical truth. He says earlier generations felt that suffering of animals and all creation came about as a result of Adam’s fall. We get that from a few places, among them that Genesis 3:17-19, where God said told Adam: “cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” So apparently before this time there were no thorns and thistles and it wasn’t hard work to get something to eat. Then in the millennial kingdom, when Christ rules the earth, it is prophesied in Isaiah 11 that in that time:

The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.

And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice’ den.

They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.

So we assume from this that the harmful behaviors which shall no longer be were a part of the original fall and not part of animal’s original creation, since they are set right here. But Lewis says this “is now impossible, for we have good reason to believe that animals existed long before man. Carnivorousness, with all that it entails, is older than humanity (p. 137). I have an X by that statement as well as a few others in this chapter.

Even more alarming to me is his thought that “it might be argued that when He emptied Himself of His glory He also humbled Himself to share, as man, the current superstitions of His time. And I certainly think that Christ, in the flesh, was not omniscient – if only because a human brain could not, presumably, be the vehicle of omniscient consciousness, and to say that Our Lord’s thinking was not really conditioned by the size and shape of His brain might be to deny the real incarnation and become a Docetist. Thus, if Our Lord had committed Himself to any scientific or historical statement which we knew to be untrue, this would not disturb my faith in His deity” (p. 137). It would disturb mine, and I don’t believe for a moment that Christ believed “superstitions of His time”! There were multiple incidences of His displaying omniscience even while in human form. I just discussed this recently in a chapter from J. I. Packer’s book Knowing God in this post.

Lewis closes with a short chapter on pain which is mostly speculative but does include the theme present in The Last Battle in the Narnia series, that it’s the place we’ve been longing for our whole lives.

If you’ve read this far, you deserve a pat on the back. I am sorry this is so long, but when I write about a book, I want to convey not only a glimpse of what it is about to those reading, but I want to record the salient points as well as my own thoughts and impressions to remind myself of in the future.

I was a bit frustrated that Lewis didn’t go into more of the Biblical reasons for suffering, but then I reminded myself that it wasn’t his purpose to write such a treatise: he was merely wanting to address the problem of pain from a philosophical viewpoint couched mostly in Scripture. I remember reading somewhere which I can’t trace now that someone who read this book then approached Lewis about making the talks which eventually became Mere Christianity.

There are a lot of really good nuggets in this book. But there are enough questionable things that this would not be my first choice to recommend to someone on this topic. That would be When God Weeps by Joni Eareckson Tada and Steve Estes. But I would still recommend this with caution about some of the problem areas.

(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)