WORD FROM THE PASTOR: What I Learned from C.S. Lewis
The blockbuster film The Chronicles of Narnia has reawakened interest in the great 20th century British writer C. S. Lewis. I hope the Narnia film will lead many people to explore, not just Lewis’ fiction, but also his writings on Christian faith, such as Mere Christianity or The Problem of Pain.
For, in my view, Lewis was Christianity’s greatest spokesperson in the 20th century. He had a way of expressing traditional teachings in ways that were faithful, captivating and clear. In the classic phrase from the 1960s, he “eschewed obfuscation”–i.e., he avoided the thick incomprehensibility that so often afflicts writing about theology. Lewis could tackle the deepest subjects and explore them with crystal clarity.
No writer outside the Bible and Martin Luther has left a deeper mark upon my own vision of the Christian faith. This month, I simply wanted to share with you some of the key insights I’ve received in 20 years or so of reading C.S. Lewis:
Why we can never regard Jesus as simply “a good man”: One often hears people say, “I don’t believe Jesus is God, but I do think he was a good and holy man.” However, Lewis says, if we read what the Bible says about Jesus, the idea that He was just “a good man” is not an option. Jesus acts and talks like someone who regards Himself as God. He calls upon people to commit themselves to Him; He presumes to forgive people’s sins; He offers, on his own authority, teachings about the most important things in life. If He is not God, then He is not a good man, either–He is an arrogant, power-mad man, or a poor, deluded soul. “Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse,” Lewis wrote. If we see goodness in Jesus, Lewis says, and then we must also see God in Him. If Christ is not God, then He’s not good. There’s no other choice.
No “ordinary people”. Lewis wrote about what an awesome thing each human being is. “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal...It is immortals, whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit...Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.” This is a powerful idea–and it is, of course, derived from the Scriptural teaching that all people are made in the image of God, made for personal fellowship with God, made to live with God forever. Lewis once said that it would be worth trading away all the great books ever written, all the great art ever painted or sculpted, all the great music ever composed...for the salvation of one, single human being. Coming from a man who deeply loved literature, art and music, that’s a powerful statement. That’s how precious each person is.
If we truly internalize this concept, it will revolutionize our attitude toward others. The guy honking his horn in traffic, the lady ahead of us in line, the family with the barking dog down the street–however annoying these folks might be, there is still something sacred and wonderful about them. God made them and gave them an everlasting destiny!
Hell. Hell is the Christian doctrine with which I am least comfortable–and I think many Christians would agree with that. How can a good God condemn people to suffer forever? It’s always been a temptation for Christian thinkers to discard the idea of hell. Lewis, however, shows that hell makes perfect sense. Hell is something people choose for themselves. After all, what is hell? Hell is being apart from God–Hell is being separated from God. So if someone, by rejecting God’s offer of salvation, declares, “I don’t want to be with God!”–God respects that decision. God gives the person what he or she wants–separation from Him. Lewis memorably says, “In hell, the locks are all on the inside.” God has not locked the people in hell in–they have locked God out. According to Lewis, then, hell exists not because God has no respect for humans, but rather because He has high respect for humans. He respects their choices and grants them the consequence of those choices.
The Gospel is everywhere. As any reader of the Narnia books can tell, Lewis had a high regard for fairy tales, myths, legends, and children’s stories. (Indeed, one of the first times he was swept away by what he later came to call “Joy” was when he read Beatrix Potter’s “The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin”!) And Lewis felt one could find a reflection of the Gospel in many of these tales. “I think that all things, in their way, reflect heavenly truth, the imagination not least.”
Lewis has sensitized me to look for the Gospel message everywhere. Whenever I read a story or watch a film, one question in my mind is: “Can I find Jesus here?” A few weeks ago, I preached a sermon on King Kong–in which I compared Kong’s leaving his mountain lair in quest of Fay Wray to Christ’s coming down from heaven to save us. (The difference being that Fay Wray was beautiful–our sinful souls aren’t!) Such a sermon would not have been possible without the attitude I picked up from C. S. Lewis: “All things, in their way, reflect heavenly truth...”
We long for heaven. Lewis points out that much of human life involves unfulfilled longing. We achieve something, but it still doesn’t satisfy us. We take a vacation, but it doesn’t live up to our expectations. Career, family, hobbies–we love these things, but they don’t bring us the kind of ultimate satisfaction we long for.
For Lewis, this continual yearning is a proof that there is a heaven–and it is in heaven that our desires will be truly satisfied. Ultimately we are yearning for everlasting bliss, yearning to look upon the face of God. This life is never totally satisfying–but at its end comes the fulfillment of all our yearnings!
Those are just a few of the tidbits of wisdom I’ve picked up from Lewis. I would encourage you to explore him yourself. Narnia is a magical place, but Lewis’ non-fiction books lead one into a realm even deeper than magic–the realm of God who came to save us in Christ.
God loves you and so do I!