Friday, August 03, 2012

C. S. Lewis on Being Formed by Scripture

[Here's one more installment from C. S. Lewis in Crisis.]

Maybe CSL is writing about writing
            “There is nothing in literature,” C. S. Lewis wrote in his first famous academic study, The Allegory of Love, “which does not, in some degree, percolate into life.”[1] If that is accurate for literature as a whole, how much more for Holy Scripture. When we read Scripture, we become what God wants for us. I return again to Lewis’s quote on Scripture from Reflections on the Psalms: The Bible
carries the Word of God; and we (under grace, with attention to tradition and to interpreters wiser than ourselves, and with the use of such intelligence and learning as we may have) receive that word from it not by using it as an encyclopedia or encyclical but by steeping ourselves in its tone and temper and so learning its overall message.[2]
           “Steeping ourselves in its tone and temper”—we are required to read so that we truly grasp the full character of the Bible. We enter its “strange new world” to quote Karl Barth. This is not a mathematical table that we can memorize; it is a living document with a vibrant history. 
            And yet, C. S. Lewis is not willing to equate the exact words of the Bible with God’s very speech. As he writes in Reflections on the Psalms, it "carries the Word of God." Instead, “by steeping ourselves in the tone and temper” we make ourselves able to grasp the meaning of Scripture and “so learning its overall message.” Lewis here defends and promotes the reading of literature for what it says, not for some theory about it. (This emphasis parallels his longer treatment of reading books generally in An Experiment in Criticism.)
            Another angle on Lewis’s concerns about Scripture is that he wanted his readers to find “mere Christianity,” not finding himself convinced by the various attempts at the “historical Jesus” that emerged each.
            Lewis writes this: We must be careful of creating a new Jesus every year. This comment corresponds to his other arguments about reading any book. As he puts into the mouth of a demonic tempter, Screwtape[3]

In the last generation we promoted the construction of such a ‘historical Jesus’ on liberal and humanitarian lines; we are now putting forward a new ‘historical Jesus" on Marxian, catastrophic, and revolutionary lines.’ The advantages of these constructions, which we intend to change every thirty years or so, are manifold. In the first place they all tend to direct men's devotion to something which does not exist, for each "historical Jesus" is unhistorical.

The problem here is that we, as readers of the Bible, would learn to read about other people’s views of Jesus, not Jesus’s own words. So Screwtape continues, “The documents say what they say and cannot be added to; each new "historical Jesus" therefore has to be got out of them by suppression at one point and exaggeration at another, and by that sort of guessing (brilliant is the adjective we teach humans to apply to it)….”
            The aim is—and here we arrive at Lewis’s concern with our formation around Scripture “by these constructions, to destroy the devotional life. For the real presence of the Enemy, otherwise experienced by men in prayer and sacrament, we substitute a merely probable, remote, shadowy, and uncouth figure, one who spoke a strange language and died a long time ago. Such an object cannot in fact be worshipped.”
            Instead, Lewis encouraged us to focus on what actually took place in Christ, and to find that focus through the key documents, the New Testament. It is only when we are formed by the Bible, when we are steeped in Jesus’s teaching that our hearts with no “less fine mesh than love” that we “will hold the sacred Fish."

What do you think about all this?

[1] The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Literature, 130.
[2] Reflections on the Psalms, 112.
[3] These citations are in Screwtape Letters, letter 24.

1 comment:

Meredith said...

Great post. I have found that even through reading CS Lewis himself, I must be careful with how much second-hand scripture I get.
Thank you for the insightful post, very much looking forward to your book.