Monday, July 09, 2012

C. S. Lewis: How the Bible and the Incarnation are "Vulgar"

I'm working on a chapter for an upcoming book, C. S. Lewis in Crisis. ("Upcoming," by the way, means something like two years from now.) The chapter analyzes Lewis's approach to Scripture. As I researched the topic this weekend at the beautiful library of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, overlooking the foggy San Francisco Bay, I discovered a gem. 

In C. S. Lewis's preface to J. B. Phillips’s translation of the New Testament, he defends the propriety of updating the language of the Scripture beyond the 1611 “authorized” version of the King James. He calls the language of the Bible “vulgar, prosaic, and unliterary.” That in itself grabs my attention. But even more worthy of note is how he draws an inference of the biblical language and the Incarnation of Christ:
The New Testament in the original Greek is not a work of literary art: it is not written in a solemn, ecclesiastical language, it is written in the sort of Greek which was spoken over the Eastern Mediterranean after Greek had become an international language and therefore lost its real beauty and subtlety. In it we see Greek used by people who have no real feeling for Greek words because Greek words are not the words they spoke when they were children. It is a sort of “basic” Greek; a language without roots in the soil, a utilitarian, commercial and administrative language. Does this shock us? It ought not to, except as the Incarnation itself ought to shock us. The same divine humility which decreed that God should become a baby as a peasant-woman’s breast, and later an arrested field-preacher in the hands of the Roman police, decreed also that He should be preached in a vulgar, prosaic and unliterary language [emphasis added]. If you can stomach the one, you can stomach the other. The Incarnation is in that sense an irreverent doctrine: Christianity, in that sense, an incurably irreverent religion. When we expect that it should come before the World in all the beauty that we now feel in the Authorised Version we are as wide of the mark as the Jews were in expecting that the Messiah would come as a great earthly King. The real sanctity, the real beauty and sublimity of the New Testament (as of Christ’s life) are of a different sort: miles deeper or further in.[1]
Lewis believes that God does not keep some “reverence” in coming to earth as a human being; similarly the Bible’s form is common and vulgar ("vulgar" in this sense meaning the common language of the peasant, not the exalted language of the trained scholar). 

God indeed is a shocking and irreverent God.

[1] J. B. Phillips, Letters to Young Churches: A Translation of the New Testament Epistles, with an introduction by C. S. Lewis (New York: MacMillan, 1953), vii-viii.

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