Monday, July 13, 2015

A Review of "C. S. Lewis and the Crisis of a Christian" (by Michael Fitzpatrick)

Greg Cootsona’s C. S. Lewis and the Crisis of a Christian is a rich and rewarding journey through C. S. Lewis’ most influential ideas. Cootsona frames each of Lewis’ theological and philosophical contributions with the personal challenges from Lewis’ life, as well as struggles that Cootsona or people close to him have faced. This book is ideal for those who find themselves struggling with doubt, especially the personal kind -- doubt resulting from pain, loss, or confusion. Cootsona takes these struggles seriously, but also tries to present resolutions, concepts that can aid us in our struggles to find the way out of a crisis and back into the grace of God. 

The book is organized into three main themes: philosophical arguments for the existence of God, theological arguments for basic Christian tenets (the exclusivity of Christ and the role of the Bible), and personal arguments for resolving basic struggles of feeling, suffering and death in universal human experience. In my judgment the book gets better the further it goes. I’m not sure why this is, but Cootsona seems to find his voice the deeper he pushes into Lewis’ oeuvre.

There are some aspects to grumble with. Despite Cootsona’s opening protestation that the book is not hagiography, the reader starts to wonder after awhile just how often we need to be reminded that C. S. Lewis is brilliant. In a few places clarity gets lost, as for example when Cootsona makes one of Lewis’ arguments into an explicit structure on p. 40. He provides us four premises about "naturalism" before drawing a conclusion about "materialism." Although he does tell us eleven pages earlier that he will use these terms interchangeably, this is still an unnecessary switch in terms, and it makes the logic of the argument more obscure. A third stylistic problem that arises is Cootsona’s occasional use of specialized jargon despite the book’s aim at a general audience. The fourth chapter of the book has as its title "the crisis of anomie." Despite being a graduate student in philosophy, I had never even heard of the term ‘anomie,’ and even after looking it up its connection to the chapter topic wasn’t always apparent. What’s most remarkable about this lexical choice is that at no point in the chapter does Cootsona define the term. For readers looking to Cootsona to understand the more difficult parts of Lewis, I don’t think this is going to help.

Still, the overall aim of the book, which is to connect all of Lewis’ disparate writings on particular topics in a clear way, succeeds admirably. The book is a rich discussion of Lewis’ core ideas, and Cootsona tries to show them their practical application. If I were to pick one chapter as a stand-out, the sixth chapter on C. S. Lewis’ approach to reading the Bible is worth the price of the book by itself. Cootsona masterfully draws together C. S. Lewis’ notoriously unsystematic writings on the Bible into a coherent whole consisting of four core theses: (i) the Bible is authoritative for Christian living because of its role in the church and because it bears witness to the Word, Jesus Christ; (ii) the Bible has flaws but it nonetheless is the bearer of the Word of God; (iii) the Bible includes myth, fable, parable, and poetry, but none of these genres are necessarily fiction; (iv) and lastly, the Bible influences us by forming us, not by learning a theory about it. While I have long thought Lewis’ approach to scripture is the most sensible, Cootsona brought out a lot of subtleties in Lewis’ thought that I had not noticed.

As I said, this book is best for those looking for thoughtful reflection in response to the universal experiences of all people, and Christians in particular. Cootsona is pastoral throughout, attempting to always leave the reader with life lessons that are applicable as well as encouraging. Highly recommended overall! 

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