Tuesday, August 20, 2013

C. S. Lewis and the Crisis of the Bible

I have been suspected of being what is called a Fundamentalist.
Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms
[This is the current form of my chapter on the Bible from my upcoming book on C. S. Lewis through Crisis. I'm posting it in raw form in case someone follows an earlier comment of mine to a CT online article on why Mere Christianity remains a surprising success. Let me know what you think. And don't worry too much about typos, missing words, and the like.] 

I could begin this chapter with a disclaimer: C. S. Lewis is not an American evangelical. For one thing, he wasn’t from the United States, although the bulk of his readership is American. (When I visited Oxford in doing research on this book, I was surprised to note how much attention Tolkien, and particularly his The Lord of the Rings received, while praise for Lewis was more muted. I suspect the latter’s vocal Christian faith is the culprit. All this to say that his reception in England is not as enthusiastic as in the States.) More importantly, Lewis was an Anglican, and as he describes it, “not especially ‘high,’ nor especially ‘low,’ nor especially anything else.”[1] Thus not an evangelical. But more materially, many evangelical gatekeepers become nervous especially about his understanding of Scripture. For that reason, I believe this chapter will surprise many readers of Lewis who only know about Lewis, but who have not read his work directly. A fairly cursory jaunt through the Internet unveils several self-described evangelical commentators, disappointed by Lewis’s view on Scripture, who are quite happy to jettison Lewis from their theological camp, even to the point of denying his place in heaven.[2]
      This is another type of crisis for Lewis—namely his reception has been overwhelmingly evangelical (though many love his Narnia books outside evangelicalism). Perhaps this fact arose from many of his literary works going to Wheaton College, an evangelical bastion, which produced after all, Billy Graham. What I have discovered in returning to Lewis—as someone who has been nurtured both by mainline and evangelical Protestant theology and who cares most passionately about “mere Christianity”—is that he offers surprises to party-line evangelicals particularly in his views of Scripture and other religions. And one could reverse this: Some back away from C. S. Lewis because he’s associate with evangelicalism. That fact represents a crisis because he has something to say to the universal Church. As I discussed this book over the past few years, I have met many who did not want to read Lewis because of his alleged “fundamentalist” views.
      But conservative evangelicals did not represent Lewis’s primary crisis with the Bible. The crisis that Lewis was trying to overcome is not per se the “Fundamentalists’” side—that the Bible is inerrant. He’s argues more often against the liberal angle that it’s “all myth anyway.” And “myth” in this case means “fiction,” as I’ve outlined in the previous chapter. It is important to remember that Lewis’s great resolution of the crisis of the nature of Jesus was that “myth became fact.” In other words, he did not resist the importance of myth—that was already active. The question that presented a crisis to Lewis is this: How can Jesus Christ stand out against other myths?
      When Lewis originally read the Bible in his adult life, as he first began to take on Christian faith, he struggled with its meaning. Just after his conversion to Christianity, he wrote to his longtime friend, Arthur Greeves, “I have just finished The Epistle to the Romans, the first Pauline epistle I have ever seriously thought about. It contains many difficult and some horrible things….”[3] This tussle with the Holy Book continued. Even late in life, and although he read the Bible daily, when he reflected on Scripture in his late ‘50s, he continued to wonder about Paul, “I cannot be the only reader who has wondered why God, having given him so many gifts, withheld from him (what would to us seem so necessary for the first Christian theologian) that of lucidity and orderly exposition.”[4] So Lewis encountered with Scripture reveals a crisis for him: How does this book, with its flaws and problems, still carry God’s word to us.
      So Lewis could not believe in the authority of the Bible because of its impeccable style. Instead Lewis realized that believing in this Book above all the other books he loved required an outside source of authority. First of all, he believed in the truth of Scripture because of the witness of the church: This quote from his first sustained nonfiction apologetic, The Problem of Pain, discloses both Lewis’s willingness not to have a perfect, inerrant Bible, his love of myth, and his respect for the tradition of the church. Here he is discussing the Genesis 3 story of the fall of humankind:

I have the deepest respect even for Pagan myths, still more for myths in Holy Scripture…. I assume the Holy Spirit would not have allowed the latter to grow up in the Church and win the assent of great doctors unless it also was true and useful as far as it went.[5]

Secondly, Lewis’s approach to the crisis of the Bible is in fact closely tied to his resolution of the crisis of Jesus. As Jesus is the unique Lord, his character gives clarity to the character of the Scriptures as God’s Word. For that reason we gain the most clarity in understanding the Bible by keeping in mind Lewis’s view on Jesus. Myth was critical for understanding Christ; it is critical for grasping Lewis’s views on the Bible.
      Once again, Lewis’s judgments aided mine. When I first came to read Lewis on the Bible in my early years as a college student, I was in fact reading the Bible quite voraciously myself, trying to determine what it meant. At the same time, I was studying comparative literature at Berkeley and had become accustomed to reading literature as literature. So the nature of story, or narrative, loomed large for me. His resolution of crisis in a striking way met mine. I found his resolution largely satisfying and still do. And what did I discover? Lewis maintained his conviction that the New Testament is not flawless, but contains historical truth. More precisely, the Bible’s myths become increasingly historical until In fact, its truth derives from Jesus Christ.
      In this chapter, I will focus on three major themes: C. S. Lewis believed that human flaws shone through the pages of the Bible, that it was nonetheless “holy” and “inspired,”[6] and most importantly, that Christian lives are formed by reading the Bible.

The Bible has human qualities
What exactly was Lewis’s understanding of Scripture? Here the reader realizes that Lewis was not a systematic theologian. There is no elaborated doctrine of Holy Scripture in his corpus. In fact, as we’ll see, his views on Scripture are living and literary, and thus a doctrinal approach is what we should not expect. Instead, we find that Lewis is free to offer occasional comments as they relate to other topics he is addressing. Nonetheless, in Reflections on the Psalms, in a chapter simply entitled “Scripture,” Lewis ever comes closets to a systematic statement on the Bible. He lays out how the Bible is, in some way, the Word of God.
      “We are not fundamentalists,”[7] Lewis asserts forthrightly. Or as he responded to Janet Wise who regarded herself as being “an intelligent Fundamentalist,” with these words: “My own position is not Fundamentalist, if Fundamentalism means accepting as a point of faith at the outset the proposition ‘Every statement in the Bible is completely true in the literal historical sense.’ That wd. [would] break down at once on the parables.”[8] By this statement, Lewis means that he does not believe in the necessity of inerrancy for the Bible to be true. In fact, Scripture can have marked inconsistencies. In the chapter on “Scripture,” Lewis clearly outlines the human frailties inherent in the Bible:

The human qualities of the raw materials show through. Naivety, error, contradiction, even (as in the cursing Psalms) wickedness are not removed. The total result is not “the Word of God” in the sense that every passage, in itself, gives impeccable science or history.

      “It carries the Word of God.” This sentence implies that the Bible is not itself identical with the word: “It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true word of God. The Bible, read in the right spirit and with the guidance of good teachers, will bring us to him.”[9] To follow Lewis, we must not make the Bible the Fourth member of the Trinity.
      “It carries the Word of God.” That phrase exemplifies Lewis’s view of Scripture—in some level of tension with carrying God’s Word—there is the negative side of humanness: “naivety, error, contradiction, even… wickedness.” These are words to make the conservative evangelical—and especially Fundamentalist—cringe or even response with venom (as I in fact read in my forays into the Internet) when they read Lewis’s understanding of Scripture. Lewis is willing to concede that the Bible is not flawless.
      In fact, Barth is closer to a mainline, sometimes called “neo-orthodox” perspective. Despite the fact that Lewis had some tart words about the theologian Karl Barth—once writing to his brother that Oxford students were “reading a dreadful man Karl Barth,”[10] but seems never to have read directly Barth. “Barth I have never read, or not that I remember.”[11] And yet Lewis should have because many of his insights mirror Barth’s approach. The authority of the Bible as a witness that “carries the Word of God” ultimately derives from Jesus Christ as the one Word of God.[12] The flaws in the Scripture do not invalidate that it is also a way that God speaks in self-revelation.
      If this presents a problem for some readers of Scripture, it didn’t for Lewis. Why? He loved myth. How extreme was that love? He learned Icelandic so he could join J. R. R. Tolkien’s “Kolbiter’s” club to study the “north” myths. Both he and Tolkien had a high regard for myth. But how did this lover of myth define it? So often, we hear “myth” set against what is historical, or even more what is true. First of all, Lewis would have agreed that myth often relates what is not historical, except, crucially, when “myth became fact” in Jesus.            
      So understanding Lewis’s definition of myth is critical. Myths are not “made up” or untrue. Myth is “at its best, a real unfocused gleam of divine truth falling on human imagination.”[13] Secondly, myth, like parable, is therefore true in giving us truth through narrative or story. Myth, I would rephrase as a “meaningful story,” and as a generation schooled on the stories in film, this should not be hard to grasp. And as Lewis wrote, “What flows into you from the myth is not truth but reality (truth is always about something, but reality is about which truth is)….” [14]
      So myth, for Lewis, communicates God’s reality. The Bible’s message can be conveyed through non-historical stories. Lewis appears to have been reluctant to make this statement too publicly; indeed in one of his clearest earlier expression, a 4 May 1953 to Corbin Carnell, he writes, “I am myself a little uneasy about the question you raise” about the Bible’s historicity. But he continues by writing that Jonah does not need to be read as history, in the same way the accounts of David’s court or the New Testament accounts do, because Jonah “has to me the air of being a moral romance.”[15] Finally, in a 7 May 1959 letter to Clyde Kilby, Lewis ruled out “the view that inspiration is the single thing in the sense that, if present at all, it is always present in the same mode and the same degree,” by noting such features as the discrepancies in the genealogies of Matthew 1 and Luke 3 or the death accounts of Judas in Matthew 27 and Acts 1, the unhistoricity of the parables and probably Jonah and Job, among other things.[16]
      So the Bible can be mythical—and thus fictional—and be true in a sense that pure proposition or historical recounting could never be. But Lewis would not conclude that all portions of the Bible are unhistorical and therefore mythical.

The Holy Scripture as “inspired” still carries the Word of God
The context for Lewis’s essay, “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism”[17] explains a great deal. Lewis was goaded by a comment from the neo-orthodox theologian Alec Vidler that the miracle of turning water into wine was actually a parable. He, after a dinner and some sherry with the Principal of Westcott House, Cambridge, Kenneth Carey, commented that “it was quite incredible that we should have to wait 2000 years to be told by a theologian called Vidler what the Church has always regarded as a miracle was, in fact, a parable!”[18] In that light the Dr. Carey invited Lewis to present his ideas, which he subsequently did.
      Put simply, this essay exemplifies two key concerns: The Bible is historical when it presents itself as such, and a related concept, miracles do not invalidate the Bible’s claim to factual history. We cannot rule out miracles in advance. This little essay (and lecture) offers a clear insight into what Lewis held fast to—that miracles cannot be excluded from the Gospels a priori and that in Jesus “myth became fact.” Or put another way, the Gospels present real history.
      Important here is the Lewis is taking on a major tenet of twentieth-century biblical criticism. The legendary and erudite scholar Rudolf Bultmann’s call to “demythologize” the New Testament has certainly faded in the past fifty years or so, but in the middle of the twentieth century, it was arguably the concern of New Testament scholarship. Not only that, but Lewis is on sure academic footing with Bultmann; with Lewis’s extensive training in “Greats” and “Mods”—and subsequent teaching in the fields of classics, let alone his constant reading of these texts—it’s not an exaggeration to say that Lewis had more experience with actually reading myths than this leading advocate of “demythologizing.” So when he says, first of all, “what’s wrong with myth?” (I paraphrase), it strikes at the core question. Many readers of the Bible today would shrug their shoulders and reply, “Nothing’s wrong with myth.” More recently, biblical criticism has emphasized “narrative theology” and thus the story of the Bible, which is another way of addressing mythic elements.
      Finally, to say that the Bible’s mythological elements do not make it therefore fiction, Lewis takes his considerable reading of fiction to the topic. And here he outshines Bultmann, who like many biblical critics, read the Bible in a fairly wooden way I know because I came to learning biblical criticism after completing a degree in comparative literature. Few of my professors—excellent as they were in many ways with Greek exegesis, an analysis of inter-textual questions, and the history surrounding the New Testament—really grasped Lewis’s essential point as they sliced the Gospel records with what is “history” and what is “tradition”: the New Testament is not artful enough to be fiction. I had already discovered this. When I started readying the Bible, I didn’t really know much about Jesus. (And here Lewis had a distinct advantage over me: he actually had read the Gospels—having been given a tutoring in his teens under the “Great Knock”, he even read them in their original Greek. I had hardly even glanced at them in English.) Growing up largely outside of the church, I had never really read the New Testament records before. And so, at the end of my eighteenth, I began to read the Gospels in earnest. My growing interest in Christianity had brought me to various conversations with Christians, all of whom directed me to the Bible. And there was this simple fact: So many religions talked about Jesus, so why not read the primary texts about his life? It was much later, during my graduate studies, that I would discover these are also the earliest and most definitive texts about Jesus of Nazareth.
      At the time of my first reading of the Gospels, my best tools for interpreting these narratives were my budding skills as student of comparative literature: I realized that Jesus, this central figure of the Gospels, wasn’t some fictional protagonist. For one thing, his depiction honestly wasn’t really literary. Mark, for example, writes his Gospel in very rough language. The Gospels included details that didn’t necessarily carry the story along, but had the hard authenticity of history—the man who runs away naked in Mark’s Gospel when confronted by the soldiers, or the one hundred and fifty-three fish that the disciples catch at the end of the Gospel of John. On the other hand, Jesus’s personality and actions never appeared to me as modeled by my expectations; instead they kept “pushing back” against my preconceptions. He wasn’t just some nice waspy, Sunday school kid. Jesus even talked about things that I didn’t like—serving others, shunning status, dying to self—that weren’t calculated to appeal to my baser desires, especially those that could be “monetized.” As a college student spoon-fed on the marketing culture of the U.S., where there was always some product to meet my needs, I should have been repulsed. Instead, I was allured. Jesus was no salesman. His utterances displayed the unrelenting character of truth.
      All this brings me to say that Lewis’s literary approach to Scripture and his appreciation of myth spoke to my crisis in the Bible.

We learn how to read the Bible by being formed by it
“There is nothing in literature,” Lewis wrote in his first famous academic study, The Allegory of Love, “which does not, in some degree, percolate into life.”[19] 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.[20]
“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 Barth again.[21] This is not a mathematical table that we can memorize; it is a living document with a vibrant history. 
      Lewis is not willing to equate the exact words of the Bible with God’s very speech. 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 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[22]

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 therefore we understand the Bible best by looking at the Incarnation. In his 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 comments on the koine, or “common” Greek of the New Testament: “It is a sort of ‘basic’ Greek; a language without roots in the soil, a utilitarian, commercial and administrative language.” [23] 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 [italics 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.[24]

Lewis believes that we might maintain the wrong kind of “reverence” in God’s coming to earth as a human being; similarly the Bible’s form is common and vulgar—in this sense meaning the common language of the peasant, not the exalted language of the trained scholar. God is a shocking God indeed.

      Does Lewis help us at all today?
      First of all, I have always appreciated when C. S. Lewis, a truly world-class literary critic commented on the Holy Book. Although he didn’t mean it in this way, if one-tenth of contemporary biblical scholars possessed his literary sensitivity, we would have truly worthy biblical scholarship. Secondly, we have to take him seriously when he confessed that he was not a biblical scholar. He wasn’t. We have to do more than simply look at textual criticism, as he asserts in “Modern Criticism.”[25]  I do believe, we needed a clearer statement on why believe the Bible—How do we know what comments are true or false? If some reveal “wickedness,” then which ones reveal “holiness,” and why?
      I close with his final point—that we must be formed by Holy Scripture (his best point, in my opinion). According to The C. S. Lewis Bible, Lewis read the Bible every day. He sought God in the pages of Scripture.[26] For that reason, I think Lewis would be most disturbed by any obscuring the key message of the Bible, Jesus Christ, the Lord, with any theories about it. He desired that we are formed by reading Scripture, not by reading about, or talking about it. Lewis would argue that more than a theory about Scripture, the key is practicing it. Or better, 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.”[27] The very fact that he wrote an entire book as a series of “reflections” on the psalms demonstrate how we are to read the Bible. To those of us who hold to “Scripture alone” as the way to find God and to form our lives (what the Reformation called sola scriptura), Lewis’s words are good indeed.
      I now turn to the goodness of Lewis’s words for those who would not have turned open the pages of Scripture, and look at the ways he addressed the crises common to all human beings. Naturally, these categories of crises specific to Christians and those to all humankind are not air-tight. When Lewis looks at any topic, he does so from his convictions. Nevertheless, there is no one on this planet that has not experience the crises of feeling, of suffering, and of death.

[1] Mere Christianity (MacMillan, 1960), 6.
[2] The latter comment comes from John W. Robbins, “Did C. S. Lewis Go to Heaven?” The Trinity Review 226 (November, December 2033), http://www.trinityfoundation.org/PDF/205a-DidCS.LewisGotoHeaven.pdf.
[3] 1 October 1931, Letters II
[4] Reflections on the Psalms, 113.
[5] The Problem of Pain, 70-1.
[6] Reflections on the Psalms, 109.
[7] “Fern Seed and Elephants,” 163.
[8] 5 October 1955 letter to Wise; Letters III, 652. See also n. 284.
[9] Letter to Mrs. Johnson, 8 November 1952, Letters II.
[10] 18 February 1940, Letters II: 351. He also writes to Warnie on 28 April 1040 about an article in The Guardian about Barth, “Dr Karl Barth and the War, A Letter to a French Pastor,” Letters II: 404. Again, this is something about Barth, not by him.
[11] 13 October 1958 letter to Corbin Scott Carnell, Letters III, 980.
[12] Especially his paragraph 19 on “The Word of God for the Church,” Church Dogmatics II.1.
[13] Letter to Mrs. Johnson, 14 May 1955, CL III, 608.
[14] “Myth Became Fact,” God in the Dock, 66.
[15] 13 October 1958 letter to Corbin Scott Carnell, Letters III, 980.
[16] 7 May 1959 letter to Kilby, Letters III, 1046.
[17] Christian Reflections, edited by Walker Hooper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967).
[18] Christian Reflections, 152, n.2.
[19] The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Literature (Oxford: Oxford University, 1936), 130.
[20] Reflections on the Psalms, 112.
[21] “The Strange New World of the Bible,” in The Word of God and the Word of Man, trans. Douglas Horton (Gloucester: Peter Smith, 1978), 28-50.
[22] These citations are in Screwtape Letters, letter 24.
[23] 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.
[24] 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.
[25] “Modern Criticism,” 163.
[26] Jerry Root, “Introduction” in The C. S. Lewis Bible, xviii.
[27] Reflections on the Psalms, 119.

1 comment:

Lothar Lorraine said...

As I've pointed out elsewhere, the main problem with Biblical inerrancy isn't archeology or the supernatural, but attributing to God a behavior worthy of the worst human criminal.

Lewis was by no means an Evangelical in that respect.

I'm still struggling making sense of divine inspiration since I see no difference between books within and outside the Canon.

Kind regards from Germany.

Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son