Thursday, November 27, 2014

When Will a New “St. Clive” Arise?

I write this post as this Month of St. Clive is set to close. In other words, Clive Staples Lewis, patron saint for many an intellectual doubter, was born and died in November (116 and 51 years ago, respectively). 

At a presentation about my research and subsequent book on Lewis—and I extolled the virtues of his wise and winsome writing and was asked,
Why is Lewis still the one that people cite? When will a new Lewis arise?
The answer didn’t take long to formulate and still seems reasonably clear to me: That new St. Clive will have to have the intellectual goods, will have to care to translate his insights effectively, and will have to engage the imagination through story.
      First of all, a new Lewis will need to be brilliant—that’s the opening bid. He has to possess raw cerebral skills and cultural training. One of Lewis’s academic degrees at Oxford was Greats (or Literae Humaniores), the study of the best, the “greatest” of ancient philosophy and ancient history. As the Oxford scholar Alsadair McGrath points out, this program was the jewel in the crown of Oxford’s curriculum in the early 20th century, intended for its brightest lights to learn from the past as England sought to guide itself into the unknowns of a transitory century.
      Second, Lewis cared to communicate; he was a brilliant translator, which immediately presents a question of why. Why not simply stay in the fields of the academy instead of trying to write for a broader audience? I once asked well-known commentator on Lewis and founding member of the New York C. S. Lewis Society, Jim Como, about the reasons this brilliant academic didn’t just stay in the safe cocoon of Oxford University. He replied quite simply (and I paraphrase): “Because no one else was doing it, and Lewis saw it as his Christian duty.” Lewis stated this quite simply in his introduction to Mere Christianity:
Ever since I became a Christian I have thought that the best, perhaps the only, service I could do for my unbelieving neighbors was to explain and defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.
This question hung around in my mind, and as I reflected further on this puzzle, I discerned another reason: Lewis simply believed that Christianity was true, and he was convinced that truth was worth arguing for.
      (By the way, he pined for others in this guide of sorts. As he wrote with palapable frustration:
People praise me as a ‘translator,’ but what I want is to be the founder of a school of ‘translation.’ I am nearly forty-seven. Where are my successors? Anyone can learn to do it if they wish...I feel I’m talking rather like a tutor – forgive me. But it is just a technique and I’m desperately anxious to see it widely learned.
Without others alongside, and sensing this critical need, he took up the task of translation and became the best-known Christian apologist of the twentieth century.)
      Third, Lewis engaged the imagination. The most enduring feature of Lewis’s legacy—and indeed that of his close friend, J.R.R. Tolkien—remains beautiful, enchanting narratives. As Lewis is put it, his imagination was “baptized” by reading George MacDonald long before he confessed faith in God or specifically in Christ. He sought to do the same.
Or put another way, if Time magazine was right to call him, not too many years ago, today’s “hottest theologian,” what else does Lewis say to us today? Lewis would tell us to engage the imagination, not simply our reasoning. St. Clive was more than willing to use fiction to present the truths of Christian life. (And, let it be said, this imagination produced the legendary Chronicles of Narnia fantasy series, which has sold about 120 million copies to date.) Here’s then a central feature of his acts of imagination: if we imagine that that God exists, what would the world look like? Or as he wrote in a 1962 letter,
Suppose there were a Narnian world and it, like ours, needed redemption. What kind of incarnation and Passion might Christ be supposed to undergo there?
That's what Lewis is fiction and even just analogies he peppered throughout his writings did. If anything, this is what cognitive science tells us—we hardly ever rationally reflect without also simultaneously feeling. And culturally, this is particularly important. Consider this: What are the factors today that have influence in our country? What I see are grand stories that we read in novels and watch in movies. (Indeed superheroes will be with us forever.)

Will new St. Clives arise? They’ll have to have the intellectual goods, an acumen for translation, and a fecund imagination. And what would Lewis say today? With fourth Chronicles of Narnia in production, maybe St. Clive is still speaking. But it would be great if he were joined by other voices.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

What Would C. S. Lewis Say Today? An Essay

If I have my etymology right, an "essay" means "an attempt," "a try" at some bigger theme. So, since C. S. Lewis's birthday is coming up on November 29th, I'm trying to write an Op-Ed piece that someone might publish. Here's that "essay" in its current form. I'd love to know what you think.

C. S. Lewis died 51 years ago this month, and this leads to a question: Why do his book sell more today than when he was alive? Why has this man almost achieved sainthood in the eyes of many? Why? Because “St. Clive” had significant crises that he resolved thorough his writing—and the resolution of these crises speaks to millions of readers. As a friend—who is also a religion book editor—once quipped, “Christians love Lewis because he does the thinker for them!” Not completely true, but not entirely off-based either. Yes, this Oxford-trained intellectual became well known for his rational defense of Christian faith—so well regarded and read that his Mere Christianity is well into the hundreds of millions of copies sold. On the other hand, Lewis doesn’t ultimately give us answers—he invites our response. And so we as his readers learn to engage our questions, grasp Lewis’s resolutions and ponder our own answers.
I, perhaps foolishly, make two conclusions for Lewis would tell us. If Lewis were asked to speak today, I'm sure he’d repeat the contention that scientific materialism provides an argument for many against faith. Put simply, many atheists use science to argue that all there is the material world. Lewis replied that materialism is self-defeating, and that we need to look beyond this world, and that such a life brings incredible joy. As he intoned over the airwaves of the BBC in the early ‘40s, “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.”  This is how he leads us to resolve the crisis of atheism—that it does not satisfy. Of course, this might evoke the ire of “New Atheists,” old atheists, or those who like reading them. But it might also lead those who find that atheism, old or new, has brought them to a crisis of dissatisfaction to a new resolution.

Now to my second assertion: if Time magazine was right to call him today’s “hottest theologian,” what else does Lewis say to us today? Lewis would tell us we have to engage the imagination, not simply our reasoning. If anything, this is what cognitive science tells us—we hardly ever rationally reflect without also simultaneously feeling. And culturally, this is particularly important. Consider this: What are the influencing factors in our country? What I see are these grand stories that we read in novels and watch in movies. (Super heroes will be with us forever.) St. Clive was more than willing to engage imagination with the truth of Christian life. I could put it this way: if we imagine that imagine that God exists, what would the world? That's what Lewis is fiction and even just analogies he peppered throughout his writings did. What would Lewis say today? With fourth Chronicles of Narnia in production, maybe St. Clive is still speaking…

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Excerpt: C. S. Lewis on Science and the Problems of the "Machine"

A slightly modified excerpt from my new book...

C. S. Lewis had criticisms of a certain scientific outlook and the inherent connection, historically, between the rise of science and the search for magic. He concluded that both arose as means to control nature and to make it what human beings want.

[W]e see at once that [Sir Francis] Bacon and the magicians have the closest possible affinity. Both seek knowledge for the sake of power (in Bacon’s words, as ‘spouse for fruit’ not a ‘courtesan for pleasure’), both move in a grandiose dream of days when Man shall have been raised to the performance of “all things possible.”[i]
Lewis believed, along with the medieval mindset, that the goal of human life is to conform to nature. When, in contrast, we seek to use science or nature to bend it to our will and to make it in our image, then we raise enormous problems and we deceive ourselves.

As a result, Lewis lamented the growth of the Machine, of the technological progress that distanced us from nature. This, in fact, represents one more sub-crisis, that of living in a technological world that has distanced us from true and good human values and thus from nature. The reader of Lewis’s fiction finds this exemplified in N.I.C.E., the National Institute for Coordinated Experiments, from That Hideous Strength (a depiction I find telling but somewhat overwrought). A better example can be found in one of his most notable poems, “The Future of Forestry,” where Lewis describes a world that has forgotten the beauty of the forest and thus of nature in its headlong pursuit of technological advances such as roadways. (I am reminded of the work of Lewis’s friend and fellow Inkling, Tolkien, who placed in the hands of Saruman, the evil wizard, the destruction of the forests for the sake of production.)

How will the legend of the age of treesFeel, when the last tree falls in England?When the concrete spreads and the town conquersThe country’s heart . . .[ii]
All these problems derive from scientific materialism, the assertion that this world is all there is and that science has demonstrated this fact. Lewis looked toward a re-enchantment of the world through myth and story to bring us to a place where we can find joy.

[i]. C. S. Lewis, Poetry and Prose in the Sixteenth Century, The Oxford History of English Literature Series (Oxford: Clarenden, 2002), 13–14.
[ii]. C. S. Lewis, Poems (New York: Mariner Books, 2002), 61.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Angle of Approach: C. S. Lewis

A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. . . . God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy

Here's how I begin my new book on C. S. Lewis and his crises...

I am writing this book for one primary purpose. This is not a biography of C. S. Lewis, a critical denunciation of his theology, nor a piece of hagiography. Instead I am addressing the question of why Lewis remains so popular, selling more books today than when he died in 1963, and why, after decades of reading his work, he still speaks to me. Here’s my answer: Lewis’s voice still resonates because his crises and their resolutions in his work reflect our own crises and guide us toward resolution.

Though not writing a biography, I will begin by telling the story of Lewis’s life through the troubles and complexities that shaped him. I will then pursue his thought through his writings—which is what he’s best known for—and the way his books, articles, and published addresses offer us access to his wisdom. I approach it this way because Lewis’s crises informed his writing, and they give it the power that still resonates today for his readers.

Friday, September 19, 2014

A Brief, Fragmentary Post (Or Maybe Riposte) From and On C. S. Lewis

Continuing in my series of blogs with excerpts from my new book on C. S. Lewis. This one is a bit of a fragment...

C. S. Lewis once remarked that the contemporary atheists of his day made him embarrassed for atheism, especially as he remembered his beloved tutor, William “Kirk” Kirkpatrick. “The anonymous donor who now sends me anti-God magazines hopes, no
WWCS? What Would Clive Say?
doubt, to hurt the Christian in me; he really hurts the ex-Atheist. I am ashamed that my old mates (which matters much more) Kirk’s old mates should have sunk to what they are now.” (Surprised by Joy, 139). 

Would this atheist turned apologist have some rejoinders for the atheism we find today? I think I know where he’d begin. 

In Lewis’s primary works (particularly from the ‘40s), I have discerned a four-part apologetic structure. First of all, in order to even begin steps toward belief, we have to see that there is more to the world than just material stuff. Lewis argues that naturalism or materialism, which is the idea that there is just brute matter, is self-defeating because rational thinking is impossible if we are pure materialists. Secondly, having established that there is more than nature, Lewis proceeded to something more personal or existential—by which I mean ideas that relate to our existence. Human beings seek something that this world cannot satisfy, which points to a God beyond this world. (Lewis established what he called the numinous and later identified with his own quest for joy.) Next, if there is something more than this world has to offer, Lewis moved toward the argument that, like the laws of nature, there exists a law or rule about right and wrong (or the law of nature). It is perceived in the conscience of all human beings and points to the God who created that law within us. Put another way, joy and beauty are tied to morality. Finally, his argument becomes specifically Christian: Jesus Christ is, not only the fulfillment of human myths, but also of our human quest for joy and moral truth. Lewis argues that Jesus must be one of three options: liar, Lord, or lunatic. Lewis concludes that the only reasonable answer is that he is Lord.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Why I Like C.S. Lewis's Writings

The new book, C. S. Lewis and the Crisis of a Christian, is about to drop into the hands of the waiting world (I obviously say that tongue in cheek), and that occasion brought to mind one of the characteristics of Lewis's writings that make his books land--that make them speak to us. Here's an excerpt from chapter 7.

C. S. Lewis always maintained a healthy and sustained understanding of life as it is lived by all human beings: marked by disappointment and depression, suffering and trials, as well as the prospect of death, which we can all see and which none of us will escape. I suspect his setting in life—his teaching at two secular universities, Oxford and Cambridge—kept him mindful of those that never walked inside Magdalen College’s chapel or read the pages of the King James Bible as a devotional practice.

Here was a man who relished a good walk, a pint of beer with his friends, and reading exceptional books. Here was a man who also described personal crises not limited to believers in Christ, like sorrow over the death of a friend in battle and disappointment over never achieving recognition as a poet. Indeed, the Bible itself recognizes the destiny of all humankind and its sorrows: “Yet man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7). For this reason, I continue to turn to Lewis because, frankly, I’m not always drawn to people that display their spirituality too boldly in their writing or who seem to think that all of life consists of praying, reading Scripture, and singing hymns. Writers who resonate with me acknowledge the mundane things of life, like filling the car with gas; having keys copied at the hardware store; and buying butter, flour, and orange juice at the grocery store. They also acknowledge the hard things in life, like watching your children grow up, realizing your time on earth is also passing, seeing parents age and die, or grasping that dreams you once held will never come to pass.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

A Few More Reflections on SinC

I spent three and half years working on Scientists in Congregations (or SinC), and after it was over, I naturally wondered if it made any difference. Was there anything that would continue? And does it matter?

Thankfully, there were several ways that SinC extended its reach beyond the grant period. 96% of our congregations confirmed that they would continue with religion and science ministries. And so it became part of the public face and outreach strategy. For example, I can’t help but recall the Facebook outreach of GC Science at Grace Chapel in Massachusetts, long-term bastion of evangelicalism combined with powerhouse scientists from nearby institutions like MIT and Harvard. Their goal? To have a larger presence than the leading atheists’ Facebook pages. In a couple of years, they expanded an outreach through Facebook into the hundreds of thousands. Specifically, GC Science today has over
535,000 “likes.” (Not to be overly obvious, but a "like" is a very powerful thing on Facebook because whenever GC Science posts, it goes to the Facebook newsfeed of over half million people.) All this adds up to technology in the service of science—somehow that seems right. 

I can’t help ending without a final thought for the ongoing importance of integrating science and faith. Sarah attended one of Bidwell Presbyterian's religion and science conference. After hearing me talk on how Genesis and evolutionary biology can work together, she rushed forward with great enthusiasm and posed a question that still rings in my ears, "Why don't I hear more of this in the pulpit?" As a twenty-something, Sarah's represents demographic in which 30% of her friends have left the church and checked the box “None” in response to the question “What religious affiliation are you?” When asked further, one of the top reasons for these “Nones” is the church’s lack of engagement with science. As a result, most (like 70%) see science clashing with belief. 

I just finished a very careful, scholarly article on “Beliefs About Religion and Science Among Emerging Young Adults in the United States,” by the eminently qualified team of Kyle Longest and Christian Smith. They offered this sobering conclusion, “The most definitive overall trend is that emerging adults tend to believe religion and science conflict, that the two are not compatible.” (For this reason, I'm now engaged in a companion grant project—Science for Emerging, Young Adults—that analyzes attitudes on faith and science among 18-30 year olds and what creates change.) If the church seeks a vibrant future, it must engage science. Indeed, for there to be a future Christian church that can connect with science, it seems to me this topic can’t wait