Friday, December 31, 2010

The Glorious Mish-Mash

I've just finished reading C. S. Lewis's The Last Battle, the final installment of The Chronicles of Narnia, and I'm thankful.

I'm thankful for the wonderful jumble of images and stories that Lewis strings together--the ones he combined in ways that offended his highly meticulous friend and co-writer, J. R. R. Tolkien. (What comes to mind first is the sudden emergence of Father Christmas in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.) Ultimately--despite all appearances to the contrary, the Chronicles ends well with The Last Battle.

I'm reminded that Lewis was a Renaissance and Medieval scholar (although he had some misgivings about the very existence of a "renaissance" in western Europe as a discrete period), a time when images, symbols, and stories ran together in a crazy potpourri.

I'm remembering that life really is a mish-mash, just like the Middle Ages reminded us. Have you ever been to New York City's Cloisters museum? It's a wonderful reconstruction of three cloisters. In those transcendent medieval quadrangles,  each column is different. Their glorious mish-mash contrasts marked from the rational, homogenizing similarity of the Enlightenment.

I'm grateful because it draws me back to the reality of life--it's never too rational or too uniform, and yet somehow it's unified by the will of our good God. It's this God that promises us victory and meaning at the last.

That's why I love the glorious mish-mash narratives of C. S. Lewis especially on this final day of 2010, which is also my birthday, when I seek to make sense of the year that's passed. Too often things appear as a variegated jumble of experiences and moments, but I trust that God holds them together the glorious mish-mash of life.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

C. S. Lewis and the Future of Forestry

Just last night, I experienced an amazing concert at Chico's El Rey Theatre by the band, Future of Forestry (for more on them, go here). Since they derive their name from an obscure poem by that great Christian muse of the twentieth century, C. S. Lewis, it sparked my creative Lewisian juices and got me off my blogging butt. (This site has remained dormant for almost a month.) So here goes....

I start with the opening lines from Lewis

How will the legend of the age of trees
Feel, when the last tree falls in England?
When the concrete spreads and the town conquers
The country’s heart....

These lines, penned in 1938, presciently peer into our day and into my mind. When I lament the fixation of children today on Wii, the teens on their smartphones, and the college students on their iPods, and me on my omnipresent and omniscient iPhone, I wonder how disconnected we all have become from nature. 

Lewis wonders if it's not only an alienation from nature but also from the certain stories. Has our mastery over nature through science and its scion, technology, not actually mastered us, by muting our essential connection with nature and thereby silencing the stories that nature inspires?

The questioning children, “What was a chestnut?
Say what it means to climb a Beanstalk,
Tell me, grandfather, what an elm is.
What was Autumn? They never taught us.”

Because, as Lewis points out, there is something almost magical--and certainly something divine--imbedded as an act of ongoing creation in the forests and in the mountains. I know this as I go walking among the hills and the trees of Chico's Bidwell Park. 

And as the band Future of Forestry celebrated last night, in a glorious, wall-of-sound Christmas paean of praise, "Joy to the World," it is during this season, this time of celebrating God's coming and dwelling with us in human flesh, that "heaven and earth shall sing." 

Just this morning, in an unrelated context, I read Psalm 50, verse 2 that describes the God who "shone forth from Zion" as "the zenith of beauty" (50:2). It is in nature where often I see God's beauty, where I find myself in a return to that unmitigated glory of original creation. 

In the just-published Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis, Michael Guite finds a linking of Lewis's poetry and contemporary "deep ecology," where, Lewis presents that, through nature, and as we are redeemed in Christ, we become connected with nature's profound, primary truths. Lewis concludes his poem by wondering if, this industrial, technological age hasn't lost connection with the rest of creation and thus with something poignant and essential. 

Of goblins stalking in silky green,
Of milk-sheen froth upon the lace of hawthorn’s
Collar, pallor in the face of birchgirl.
So shall a homeless time, though dimly
Catch from afar (for soul is watchfull)
A sight of tree-delighted Eden.
In sum: Lewis poses just the right question for us, What will be the future of forestry? 

Monday, November 15, 2010

C. S. Lewis on death and life

I, like C. S. Lewis, did not start my life with a robust sense of the afterlife. So, when I became a Christian a college--and even many years thereafter--this key question loomed (and still does at times): What do I do when I stand before my own death? And what do I really hold to when someone dies whom I truly love? Lewis grappled profoundly with that question when his wife, Helen Joy Davidman, died. (Need I add that it's a question we all will face.) You can see the poem Lewis wrote in response on his wife's tombstone.

While on a post-college celebratory vacation to France, I can remember reading Lewis’s insights about the afterlife from Reflections on the Psalms, that knocked me off my metaphorical feet. He pointed out human beings are not made for time, but instead, for eternal life. And I remember several years later in 1997--when I had to preach my first Easter sermon and sought to somehow make our hope for another, better life something real and vital for the congregation--I turned to Lewis to help me demonstrate where our recurrent human experience resonates resurrection. Here's that passage:
We are so little reconciled to time that we are even astonished at it. “How he’s grown!” we exclaim, “How time flies!” as though the universal form of our experience were again and again a novelty. It is as strange as if a fish were repeatedly surprised at the wetness of water. And that would be strange indeed; unless of course the fish were destined to become, one day, a land animal.
That passage is transcendent for me. Through it, I feel the reason and importance for the afterlife. But does it work for you? I'm curious....

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Why C. S. Lewis Speaks to Me

This is a draft (inadvertent typos and all) of the first chapter of a book I'm working on, C. S. Lewis in Crisis. I start with my story of how Lewis first helped resolve my crisis of doubt and subsequently many others. I'm interested to know what you think. GSC

A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere—“Bibles laid open, millions of surprises,” as Herbert says, “fine nets and stratagems.” God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous. 

C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy

Re-reading the journals
One of the first things I noticed when I looked through the journals from my freshman year at Berkeley was how I wrestled with doubt. I doubted my functional atheism, which was now wearing thin.
I had re-discovered these journals in my garage one morning as I began the day with a vigorous workout on the stair machine. Sweaty and winded, I looked slightly left and spied non-descript cardboard data boxes. I pulled these down from the metal shelves to discover hand-written pages of revelations, often written in cursive, contained in spiral bound, fifty-nine cent notebooks that described the crisis of doubt and of the vicissitudes of a college freshman with their florid introspection and excessive use of exclamation points. As I poured over these pages, I found the months between fall 1980 and spring 1981 in which my life had changed, when I suddenly seemed to wear unbelief uneasily. It was, as the philosophers call it, “an existential crisis.”
As I began to have a crisis about my doubting God, C.S. Lewis accompanied me and eventually led me out.
Not of course that Lewis was still alive and walking around Telegraph Avenue with me. He died a year before I was born, lived in another country, never visited the United States, and in many ways, had nothing to do with a California kid starting college in fall 1980. Moreover, it would even be self-centered to the point of narcissistic to say that Lewis had the same crises I had or that I’ve encountered since: Lewis grew up in a household of faith, namely the Church of Ireland, and after the death of his mother, when he was ten, he abandoned Christian faith and did not return for years. He grew up at the end of the Victorian era, spent time in the trenches of WWI, lived through the bomb raids of World War II in London, and spent his last two decades (more or less) in England as it rebuilt following these two world wars. He died before the “Sixties Revolution” hit its stride. In other words, he inhabited a different world from me.
And yet, I would still say that Clive Staples Lewis or “Jack” as he like to be called, helped me find God in Berkeley, California. Nursed on the casual secularism of the region now known as Silicon Valley, where, I’ve been told less than ten percent of its residents are found in a worship service on any given Sunday I grew up not needing God. Instead I found satisfaction in perfect, temperate weather, comfortable surroundings, a secure and happy family, a life rounded out with sufficient personal achievements. This is happy secularism, Californian-style, to be distinguished from an Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Samuel Beckett-cultivated atheistic existentialist, where I’d drink bitter French Roast, wearing peg leg jeans, and filling leather journals with reflections on Meaninglessness and the Abyss while atonal jazz plays in the background. I don’t remember specifically denying God’s existence exactly. God played no role in my life, and thus my term, “functional atheism.” I simply didn’t see it as relevant or useful. But when I got to Berkeley—postmodern, freewheeling Berkeley—I didn’t know what I was doing and why I was doing it. And that undid me.
In Lewis I found a kindred spirit—one for whom faith was by no means self-evident nor devoid of serious reflection, a person who struggled with Jesus as a unique revelation of God, who took religious faith seriously with all his powers of thought, and who knew the importance of wisdom. I found in his writings a fluidity of style and of mind that slowly engaged and even entranced me as a fellow lover of books and a soon-to-be undergraduate in comparative literature. And there in the University of California, I also found a fellow seeker, who spent his life in a secular, world-class university, a place where Christianity, if treated at all, was passé, a vestige of western civilization that had long ago thrown off this infantile belief.

The uniqueness of Jesus
As I read through those journals, one of the first things that struck me—besides the unbelievable emotional swings of a late adolescent—was my struggle with the uniqueness of Jesus. In a section from January 1981 named “My Belief in Religion: What Stops Me,” I have a very sparse but poignant entry: “So many religions.” And then a bit later this: “I’m having a lot of problems believing in Jesus Christ. It’s so narrowly defined.”
I needed to know about where Jesus fit. During that decisive, life-altering winter quarter, I took Religious Studies 90A, an introduction to the basic menu of “world religions”: Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam with some animism and Chinese religion thrown in. One thing struck me: I discovered that there was a pervasive reverence for Jesus among world faiths. Buddhism describes him as an “enlightened” figure. Hinduism easily fits him into their rather expansive worship of numerous deities. Islam considers him one of the prophets. Judaism? That provided a fascinating exception: it bestowed the seeds of his teachings and yet simultaneously denied that Jesus fulfilled Jewish messianic hopes. Of course, Christianity—the largest and most globally universal faith—centers on him, even worships him.
Here, on the subject of the uniqueness of Jesus, C.S. Lewis came as a mentor, or perhaps, in Lewis’s words, a “Teacher.” (In one of his later books, The Great Divorce, Lewis’s great Teacher, the pastor and fantasy writer, George MacDonald, accompanies him in the afterlife, revealing that he has been there throughout Lewis’s earthly life. Lewis, it seems, is my George MacDonald.)
The particular connection I felt toward Lewis I read years later in his description of a famous stroll on Addison’s Way in Oxford in September 1931, at age 32, that he offered to his childhood friend, Arthur Greeves. After walking with fellow Oxford professors, J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson, he admitted that his struggle was between pagan “myths”—which, as a lover of classical literature, he cherished—and the uniqueness of the story of Jesus:
Now what Dyson and Tolkien showed was this: again, that if I met the idea sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: that if I met the idea of a god sacrificing himself to himself… I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it: again, that the idea of the dying and reviving god (Balder, Adonis, Bacchus) similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels.
 But in this early morning around Oxford, which lasted until 3am, these two fellow academics demonstrated something new, and this was a turning point for Lewis:
Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working in us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one much be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where others are men’s myths: i.e., the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call “real things.”
Notice that here Lewis was able to simultaneously sustain a deep appreciation for Pagan mythology, even describing them as a place where God is “expressing Himself” while upholding the ultimate nature of the story of Christ. Lewis’s view of the uniqueness of Christ was not that all other faiths were entirely false, but it might be called a fulfillment model—the Christian story fulfills the hopes and directions of other religions:
The question was no longer to find the one simply true religion among a thousand religions simply false. It was rather, “Where has religion reached its true maturity? Where, if anywhere, have the hints of all Paganism been fulfilled? 
This approach struck me then as reasonable and still does. I will unfold this theme more in a later chapter. For the purposes here, Lewis led me to resolve the problem of the uniqueness of Jesus in a secular and pluralistic world.
But 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” William Kirkpatrick, 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 done that before. And so, at the end of my eighteenth year toward the end of 1980, 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 that time, my best tools for interpreting these narratives were my budding skills as student of 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.
One related problem for me was that Jesus’s death, I was told, somehow substituted for the penalty for sin I needed to pay. This didn’t make a great deal of sense. It didn’t make sense to Lewis either, and he struggled with how the death of Jesus two thousand years ago could have an objective effect on our lives today. After becoming a convert and even a Christian, Lewis could not easily subscribe to the notion that Christ “substituted” himself for us. “What I couldn’t see was how the life and death of Someone Else (whoever he was) 2000 years ago could help us here and now—except in so far as his example helped us” (Letters I:976),
Though I’ve come to appreciate the substitutionary death better over the subsequent years, I still would resonate with Lewis’s conclusion that he drew a little over a decade after his conversion. In effect, theories about Christ’s atonement are not the final issue. (Historically in fact, Lewis is in good company with the Church historically. Though it has defined who Christ is—or Christology—there has been no ecumenical statement on atonement.)
We are told that Christ was killed for us, that His death has washed out our sins, and that by dying He disabled death itself. That is the formula. That is Christianity.  That is what has to be believed. Any theories we build up as to how Christ's death did all this are, in my view, quite secondary: mere plans or diagrams to be left alone if they do not help us, and, even if they do help us, not to be confused with the thing itself. All the same, some of these theories are worth looking at.
And Christ has made the world right—once I understood the uniqueness of Jesus I discovered why and how I could believe this. Lewis led me to see that the witness to Jesus in the Gospels demands that I respond. He is “either God or a bad man.” (This argument that Lewis would rework in his famous “trilemma”—Jesus is either liar, lunatic, or Lord—to which I will return in the fourth chapter.) Put simply, through the Gospels, I found that Jesus demands a response, and that his truth—ultimately though it is—does not invalidate other insights, but is “the light that enlightens everyone,” as John 1:9 puts it.

Christian faith: Serious, but not somber
Some of the roots of this crisis of doubt went back three years further.
It was sometime in 1979, as a wishy-washy junior in high school sixteen-year-old atheist-agnostic, that I picked up Mere Christianity, Lewis’s presentation and defense of Christianity (two tasks that almost always appeared together for him no matter what the subject). I had expressed a mild interest in Christianity, but felt reasonably self-assured that to believe implied that I needed to stop thinking. And it didn’t take the atheists to convince me that Christians weren’t intellectually engaged—it was the light-in-the-head church youth groups singing Jesus songs many didn’t believe accompanied by hand-signals that were totally mismatched with the message of denial, faith, and abandonment to God that I read in Jesus. (Although I had few experiences in church, I had been brought along to a church junior high youth group. I left dismayed after a few weeks.) Their flippancy in belief was all I needed to not believe myself. It wasn’t really hypocrisy; it was the frivolity that turned me away.
So when I began Mere Christianity, I was dumbfounded: Here a writer, a Christian at that, was somehow making the whole Christian faith reasonable. I mean, I had been taught that Christianity was anything but reasoned. The most reasonable author I had read to date was also a proponent of this severely unreasoned faith.
Lewis taught me that Christian faith requires and sustains serious reflection, but is not ultimately somber. The content of faith is important, serious, but never frivolous “Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.” In fact, faith and the experience of God lead to joy.
And although I didn’t know who this Lewis guy was, nor what a truly world class mind he possessed, he made sense. It was so similar to a sentiment that Lewis himself would record—and which I read many years later—about his own reading, as a young atheist, of the Catholic journalist G.K. Chesterton:
Then I read Chesterton’s Everlasting Man and for the first time saw the whole Christian outline of history set out in a form that seemed to me to make sense. Somehow I contrived not to be too badly shaken. You will remember that I already thought Chesterton the most sensible man alive “apart from his Christianity.” Now, I veritably believe, I thought—I didn’t of course say; words would have revealed the nonsense—that Christianity itself was very sensible “apart from its Christianity.”
 Even in this citation, Lewis demonstrates that, though funny (e.g., the irony of attempting to believe Christianity is sensible “apart from its Christianity”), he was never frivolous. He knew that Christianity was something worth our lives. I was not only dumbfounded, but I was hooked—hooked in subtle way. That is to say, the whole message went underground for a couple of years, made subterranean by senioritis, falling in love, and moving to college at Berkeley.
When I returned to look at the Christian gospel one more time in that freshman year with new eyes and redoubled vigor, it was Lewis’s writing—this self-described “dinosaur”—that made Christian belief come alive. To use William James’s memorable phrase, Christian faith emerged as a “live option.” What seemed relevant and distant before now became intensely personal. Lewis took Christian faith seriously, but not morosely. His Mere Christianity—with a subtext of his disenchantment with atheism and his conversion to Christianity—got under my skin with its reasoned and reasonable approach to Christian faith His friends would remind us that Lewis was a very funny man. As his former student, Alastair Fowler once remarked, “Lewis seemed always on the verge of hilarity—between a chuckle and a roar” (C.S. Lewis Remembered, 103). But he knew that humor could also lead to trivializing important topics. His humor supported his exposition, but never dominated or diminished it.
Christian faith, Lewis taught me could withstand serious intellectual engagement. In fact, as I interrogated other philosophers—the thought of French post-structuralist Michel Foucault was hot at Berkeley             in those days—they actually didn’t stand up as well. And so I was being won over. And so I began to engage it. Or better God began to engage me. “I read in a periodical the other day that the fundamental thing is how we think of God. By God Himself it is not! How God thinks of us is no only more important, but infinitely more important” (Weight of Glory). And God, I was learning, apparently thought enough of me to send Christ and to take on this smart, but largely immature, eighteen year old and take his questions seriously. I was taken so seriously that I was being shaken.

Although I’ve emphasized the rationality in Lewis’s work, that certainly wasn’t the only element that sustained me. In fact, as I’ve learned from him over the past thirty years, and as I’ve seen him work in the lives of my congregations, his imagination (a topic for a later chapter) and wisdom have played major roles. Even in 1980-81, the wisdom of C.S. Lewis stood out. And being an eighteen year old, I needed a little wisdom. (I’m thankful now that today, this age is deemed “emerging young adulthood.”)
Reading through the journal pages from my late teens, I tried to construct my worldview of agnosticism or functional atheism. Although any important metaphysical commitment lurked casually in the back of my mind, I now realize the presence of this casual non-belief held the seeds of a problem. Atheism is effectively one large No: “No, God does not exist. Or at least if God exists, it’s impossible to prove or irrelevant to modern, intelligent adults. Therefore, No, the universe lacks purpose or meaning.” Or as the best-selling author, Richard Dawkins phrases it, the universe is “nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” Thus my atheism could not solve one of its own dilemmas, namely the problem of meaning: If there is at the bottom, no God and no purpose, where can I find beauty and meaning? And why do we care? Why did I so deeply value love—not just romantic love, but true caring for another person?
As a first year student in this overwhelming university and pluralistic city, I was confused and undone by my newfound collegiate freedom. No parent or teacher could provide me with certainties, and quite frankly, the old ones didn’t work so well. The voice of self-sufficiency and selfish, personal fulfillment rang hollow. I found myself regularly strolling through Berkeley’s famous Sproul Plaza—where Mario Savio jumped on a police car, initiating the Free Speech Movement in 1964—and on every side I was surrounded by the free and cacophonous voices of various student group tables on every side. It was a veritable circus. All offered directions: the Spartacus Youth Party, gay and lesbian empowerment, animal rights, medical cannabis use, Green Party sign-up, Berkeley Free (medical) clinic, and the like. They all seemed at the same volume.
And so I searched for meaning, which to me is tied to wisdom, or to be biblical, skillful living—doing what’s right, what makes sense, and what works. Where was a wise voice to guide me that could speak more clearly than the others?
This must be the reason that the chapter that had early knocked me down was this chapter from Lewis, a vice I would never have concerned myself with as a fairly proud junior in high school—excelling in school and my advanced placement classes, doing well as a varsity tennis player. The following words rung in my ears like Jesus’s words—angular to what my culture was feeding me (“You can have your dreams; you create your destiny”) and for that reason, curiously true.

I now come to that part of Christian morals where they differ most sharply from all other morals. There is one vice of which no man in the world is free; which every one in the world loathes when he sees it in someone else; and of which hardly any people, except Christians, ever imagine that they are guilty themselves. I have heard people admit that they are bad-tempered, or that they cannot keep their heads about girls or drink, or even that they are cowards. I do not think I have ever heard anyone who was not a Christian accuse himself of this vice. And at the same time I have very seldom met anyone, who was not a Christian, who showed the slightest mercy to it in others. There is no fault which makes a man more unpopular, and no fault which we are more unconscious of in ourselves. And the more we have it ourselves, the more we dislike it in others.
The vice I am talking of is Pride or Self-Conceit: and the virtue opposite to it, in Christian morals, is called Humility.
 And so, in the second quarter of my first year, almost three years after reading this for the first time, I decided I was proud, that I had to replace the idolatry of me and that Jesus was indeed the Son of God. I confessed faith in him. Lewis called himself “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England” (Surprised by Joy, 228-9). I was more surprised and fearful. I knew that my fraternity brothers would ridicule me and my university professors’ post-Christian erudition would subtly mock my gangly, adolescent belief. I sought to kill my self-destructive pride by submitting to God. This also opened me to that critically important virtue of humility, which opened me to learning at a formative time (because I didn’t know it all) and to healthy relationships (I didn’t have to compete with others).
In sum, Lewis, as my mentor, led me to see that Christ’s uniqueness demands a response, but does not invalidate other truths; that Christian faith withstands and supports serious reasoning, but is never solemn or dour; and that Christianity leads to wisdom and much needed skill for a late adolescent and for a culture that’s still not fully emerged into adulthood. And this leads me to the reason for writing this book: I believe he can do this and much more for this generation.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

C. S. Lewis, James Loder, and Transforming Moments

One of my favorite--and most enduring (and endearing)--seminary professors at Princeton was James Loder, whose teaching and writing left an indelible impression on how I teach and how I understand the narrative of our lives, particularly those key events he called "transforming moments." The latter concept is collected in the book of the same name and later in my particular favorite, an insightful and provocative study of science and religion, The Knight's Move. 

So here's the deal: Loder spoke about “transformational knowledge," in which we move through a five-stage process: 
  1. Incoherence or Conflict (we have a problem we can't quite figure out)
  2. Search for Resolution (we're looking for an answer)
  3. Constructive act of imagination (suddenly an answer emerges unexpectedly)
  4. Release of energy (we're pysched that we've solved the problem)
  5. Verification (we interpret or verify our insight, particularly integrating with past and projecting its implications into the future). (You can find this elaborated a bit more in The Knight’s Move, pages 230-2.)
If you need these five stages exemplified, think of Archimedes, who had to find the gold content of a king's crown without melting it down and who didn't know what to do. In the midst of pondering this conundrum, he took a bath, discovered the physics of the displacement of water and its implications for the gold content of the crown, and ran out into the street naked shouting "Eureka" (which means "I have found it!) Or for a slightly less scandalous example, think of Einstein, who puzzled over this question, "If I'm in an elevator that's moving at a constant speed and has no windows or doors, I won't know if I'm moving or not." And thus arrives the theory of general relativity.

This is powerful because it makes sense of those key moments in my life that transformed me, and--since I'm studying C. S. Lewis for an upcoming class and potentially a book--gives me an insight into those same transforming moments in Lewis's life. 

Here's a critical moment: November 1908, the nine year-old Lewis experienced the first major crisis of his life. His beloved mother, Florence or “Flora” was diagnosed with cancer. Her condition worsened precipitously. This moment both traumatized and transformed him.
With my mother's death all settled happiness, all that was tranquil and reliable, disappeared from my life. There was to be much fun, many pleasures, many stabs of joy; but no more of the old security. It was sea and islands now; the great continent had sunk like Atlantis. 
Though the young Lewis (or “Jack” as he liked to be called) was conventionally religious and a member of a Church of Ireland family, this trauma would lead him gradually to atheism. As he described it, this path to unbelief began with prayer. He prayed for a very specific reason (as he later wrote), “When her case was pronounced hopeless I remembered what I had been taught; that prayers offered in faith would be granted.” Despite these prayers, on August 23, his mother died. “The thing hadn’t worked, but I was used to things not working….” God, especially the Magician God was irrelevant to the crisis of suffering. His life was gradually transformed from this moment into increasing atheism, and with it, attendant despair.

Later--through his own conversion first to Theism in 1929 and then to Christian faith in 1931--this crisis would be reinterpreted, and a deeper, more profound transformation would occur. Lewis's resolution of this crisis found its way into a beautiful paragraph from his 1939 book, The Problem of Pain. I find this passage so overwhelming it's sometimes hard for me to keep reading. I find myself putting the book down and reflecting on the stunning mixture of wisdom, poignant emotion, and piercing insight that Lewis evokes.
The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world; but joy, pleasure, and merriment, He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with our friends, a bathe or a football match, have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasure inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.
This has been a long post. So I'll leave it there. As they say in Latin, res ipsa loquitur, "the thing speaks for itself." (At least for me... I hope it does for you too.)

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Francis Collins, C. S. Lewis, and the Resolution of Crisis

As I noted in my last post, C. S. Lewis's writings reflect his own crises. For that reason they have spoken to me. But since then, I've paused and wondered: Have CSL's insights helped others?

Here's one significant example I've found: Lewis’s writings resolved the spiritual and intellectual crisis for the famous geneticist and head of the NIH, Francis Collins, perhaps the most prominent scientist in the United States. Collins, in his important bestselling work, The Language of God, that seeks to reconcile Christian faith with contemporary evolutionary genetics, recounts his experience of reading Lewis as a seeker in medical school. Asked by a patient, whose faith supported her doing terrible heart pain, “What about you? What do you believe?” He could only mutter, “Well, I don’t think I believe in anything.” He realized that he had never looked at the evidence for or against God and found this a “thoroughly terrifying experience." Upon request, a Methodist pastor handed him a key apologetics text by Lewis.
The book was Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. In the next few days, as I turned its pages, struggling to absorb the breadth and depth of the intellectual arguments laid down by this legendary Oxford scholar, I realized that all of my constructs against the plausibility of faith were those of a schoolboy. Clearly I would need to start with a clean slate to consider this most important of all human questions. Lewis seemed to know all of my objections, sometimes even before I had quite formulated them. He invariably addressed them within a page or two.
Collins represents exactly the kind of person Lewis so often becomes associated with—honestly looking for God in moments of deep intellectual and spiritual crisis. Lewis did speak, and continues to communicate powerfully, to these seekers. He can do the same today. 

At least, that's how I see it. Do you think that's true? Have Lewis's writings given you new insights right when you needed them, at points of personal crisis?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

C.S. Lewis and Crisis

C.S. Lewis writing something cool

Somehow this paragraph from C.S. Lewis, with its winsome style and penetrating insight, summarizes the power of his work. This twentieth-century Christian mentor and Oxford intellectual (1898-1963)—who lived through the two World Wars, the intervening worldwide Great Depression, and later the death of his wife to cancer—describes beautifully how he resolved the crises that beset human life in general and his life in particular, where he found incredible points of “joy, pleasure, and merriment” in the midst of pain, and why the ultimate resolution lies ahead of this life.
The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world; but joy, pleasure, and merriment, He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with our friends, a bathe or a football match, have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasure inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.

What do you think? Does this insight from C.S. Lewis help you understand better why there's both happiness and pain in life? Why there's hope for something better beyond this life?

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Things I Wish I'd Heard in College

I thought I'd post the key points from my sermon last Sundy to our college outreach worship service, the 545. They're points of wisdom (which biblically means "skillful living") that I wish I knew when I started at Cal. I've put a verse in after each one, which is really just an indicator to check out the broader passage.

Things I Wish I’d Heard in College

1.     Don’t go with the crowd, but do what you need to do and truly enjoy.
“Folly sits at the door of her house
… calling out to those who pass by” (Proverbs 9:14-15).
"Do not fret because of evil men
       or be envious of those who do wrong;
for like the grass they will soon wither,

       like green plants they will soon die away" (Psalm 37:4).

2.     Make decisions you want to live out for 20 years.
“Like a tree planted by streams of water… whatever they do prospers” (Psalm 1:3)
"The truly righteous man attains life,

       but he who pursues evil goes to his death." (Proverbs 11:19)

3.     Take time for friendships.
“A man who has friends must himself be friendly” (Proverbs 18:24)

4.     Learning is really cool—don’t take it for granted.
“We take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5).
"Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind" (Matthew 22:37).

5.     Work on who you want to be, then on what you want to do
“By the grace of God, I am what I am…” (1 Corinthians 15:10).
Find who You are in Christ

What do you think? Anything you'd add?

Friday, August 20, 2010

Leadership Jesus-Style

At a moment when his followers were haggling over which would be the greatest in the kingdom, Jesus took the opportunities to remind them of how understood power and leadership:
You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10:42-45)
For many readers this is fairly familiar stuff.  At least that's true for me, but  it should strike as extremely offensive to my cultural heritage because--for all their differences-- Jesus is saying straight out that competition is the enemy of good leadership in the mode of Jesus is competition. And because both cultures love power and being first, being a leader like Jesus is as tough for 21st century Americans as it is for his 1st century Jewish followers.

I'm not saying it's not out there, but I am looking to lead like this and to see models of what leadership looks like, Jesus-style. Any places you see it?

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A Return to C.S. Lewis

As I begin the first day of life post-sabbatical, I’ve naturally returned to work at Bidwell Pres. I’m also working on a concept for a new book, which represents something of a happy repayment on a thirty-year old debt.
It was sometime in 1979, as a wishy-washy junior in high school sixteen-year-old atheist-agnostic, that a friend handed me C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. I was dumbfounded: Here a writer, a Christian at that, was somehow making the whole Christian faith reasonable. I mean, I had been taught that Christianity was anything but reasoned. And it didn’t take the atheists to convince me that Christians weren’t intellectually engaged—it was the light-in-the-head church youth groups singing Jesus songs, which many of didn’t believe, accompanied by hand-signals that were totally mismatched with the message of denial, faith, and abandonment to God that I heard from Jesus. The flippant belief was all I needed to not believe myself. It wasn’t really hypocrisy; it was the frivolity that turned me away.
I didn’t know who this Lewis guy was, but he made sense. It was so similar to a sentiment that Lewis himself would record—and which I read many years later—about his own reading, as a young atheist, of the Catholic author G.K. Chesterton:
Then I read Chesterton’s Everlasting Man and for the first time saw the whole Christian outline of history set out in a form that seemed to me to make sense. Somehow I contrived not to be too badly shaken. You will remember that I already thought Chesterton the most sensible man alive “apart from his Christianity.” Now, I veritably believe, I thought—I didn’t of course say; words would have revealed the nonsense—that Christianity itself was very sensible “apart from its Christianity.”
Lewis, though funny, was never frivolous. He knew that Christianity was something worth our lives. And so—if plans proceed—I’ll be writing to invite others to the rich feast of Lewis’s writings where insights pierce the heart, where imagination takes us soaring, and where we might even touch God. The journey to get out those reflections sounds, not frivolous, but (excepting some of the times of hard work) entirely joyful.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Time for a Change, Time for View

I type this from one my favorite places in the world--not mountain biking the Flume Trail above Lake Tahoe's north shore where this picture was taken yesterday, although that was amazing--but not too far away, at the Tahoe house where our family's stayed at for the past 25 summer vacations (and have loved being here every time).

It's time to change the blog a bit--I'm doing some alterations on the look and content, changing color and adding some new links, that sort of thing. My hope is that it will be more interesting and engaging. Other changes, I suspect, will emerge over time. But more importantly, I'm widening the swatch of topics for reflection, to include the sciences and the arts as components of my reflections on culture. I've spent a number of years studying these fields, and I want to bring them into this blog more intentionally. (We'll see how this plays out...)

All this makes sense (at least to me) as my sabbatical enters its final month, and as I seek to listen to new ways that God is directing me. I'm riding down some new trails, hoping to gain some new vistas. If Madeleine L'Engle was right--"we have points of view, but God has view." I hope I'll even get a bit of the latter. Time for view!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Saying Yes, Flow, and the Question of Selfishness

I'm beginning work on a new book tentatively titled, Ten Beautiful Yeses: Further Toward What's Best in Life, Work and Love. Let's begin our search for the yeses in life, with what we really care about. In that light, I believe we can let our fears diminish in light of the scale of what we’re discovering and the joy and beauty we will experience.

To be sure, the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has on odd name—I once heard someone comment (though I can’t verify this) that he prefers “Mike” and that his last name sounds something like “Chick-sent-me-high.” All of this intrigues me… which in a way is what he’s after—that is, what is truly intriguing in life. In Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikszentmihalyi presented a key idea for grasping how we find our passion. In the state of the mind he named “flow,” we experience deep enjoyment, challenge matched by our skills, creativity, and sense that time is moving in a different, and fuller way. How can “flow”—or “optimal experience” be described? He writes that “‘Flow’ is the way people describe their state of mind when consciousness is harmoniously ordered, and they want to pursue whatever they are doing for its own sake”(6). One key example for Dr. C is the work of a surgeon, who works within certain limits (defined by keeping the patient alive), for a specific goal (the improved health of the patient), with a task that's entirely demanding and rewarding. Although paradigmatic, flow doesn't just happen for surgeons. It's actually a reasonably universal experience. But how did he find this out? He developed a new form of research, the Experience Sampling Method, in which hundreds of subjects wore pagers that beeped at odd intervals throughout their days. When paged, the participants had to quickly fill out a brief survey that noted what activity they were engaged in and a series of questions of whether they were more or less in the “flow.” Were they in “optimal experience”? 

Csikszentmihalyi’s research indicates some surprising results: for example, human beings more often experience flow when they are working than when they are at leisure (158-159). Although television requires mental processing, very little else mentally, like memory, is engaged. “Not surprisingly, people report some of the lowest levels of concentration, use of skills, clarity of thought, and feelings of potency when watching television” (30). Ultimately, he asserts, optimal experience makes life worth living. When we’re in the flow, we want to do nothing else. And we don’t really care about much else. “An activity that produces such experiences is so gratifying that people are willing to do it for its own sake, with little concern for what they will get out of it, even when it is difficult, or dangerous” (71).
Doesn’t this “finding your passion,” and looking for "flow" seem just a little too selfish and therefore illegitimate as a way of directing our lives? Not necessarily. I have learned from a distinction the Christian writer and literary scholar, C.S. Lewis, who delineated an important distinction: between being selfish and self-centered. Finding what we are called to do is, in a certain sense, selfish—we love doing it and therefore we find great joy—but entirely not self-centered—when we do what we love, we forget ourselves as we delight in the activity itself. Lewis writes
One of the happiest men and most pleasant companions I have ever known was intensely selfish. On the other hand I have known people capable of real sacrifice whose lives were nevertheless a misery to themselves and to others, because self-concern and self-pity filled all their thoughts. Either condition will destroy the soul in the end. But till the end, give me the man who takes the best of everything (even at my expense) and then talks of other things, rather than the man who serves me and talks of himself, and whose very kindness are a continual reproach, a continual demand for pity, gratitude and admiration. (Surprised by Joy, 143-44)
So, in a way, I’m asking us to be more directed toward what we like because there we have the power to become self-forgetful and even other-directed. Here I’m proposing a form of enlightened selfishness. The point is not, as we often fear, that when we like to do something it will make us less moral, but what we truly love to do helps us to turn our eyes off ourselves and toward others, which is the beginning of right actions. Don’t stay selfish—that, as C.S. Lewis points out, can also “destroy the soul,” but learn to follow what you truly enjoy and follow it toward something outside of us. And that leads to mission….

So tell me, what do you think of all this?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Growing Up in America

Two things came together for me today.

First of all, I came across an article in the New York Times that described how the road to adulthood has gotten longer and that our country is extending adolescent later in life, go here. The article presented several factors such as a poor job market, more expensive college tuition, and the fact that we are delaying both marriage and having children. Still the reality is this: our culture  today is not asking our children to grow up--to leave adolescence--until their 30s.

Second thing: I finished a really fine novel, "Lovely Bones" (Alice Seebold) that begins by describing the life of a family and a town from the perspective of a fourteen year old who's just been murdered. A pretty arresting start. And the scenes of family life--and this family's grief--are poignant. It's no surprise the American Booksellers Association award it "Book of the Year" when it was published.

But here's the thing: Seebold could describe the joys of adolescent life and especially teenage and twenty-something love, dreams, and sexuality. The lives of the adults, however, pretty much bottom out. Marriages fell apart (adultery, workaholism). Dreams were deferred and forgotten because of the relentless onslaught of the demands in adulthood. The book expressed little sustainable positive vision for what it means to go past this adolescence.

I'm not blaming Seebold. I don't know her work well enough--all I've read is "Lovely Bones"--and she might says she's just describing the U.S. But if that's the response, therein also lies the problem: our culture prides itself on excitement, adventure, self-expression, and staying young. Pretty much the description of adolescence. American doesn't want to grow up.

But where's the point where we say no to newness and self-orientation? When do we say yes to sticking things out and learning that, once the buzz of the "first time" wears off, that's when life really gets good? I treasure the moment when I first road my bike without training wheels, but I'm glad my skill level and mastery has improved over the intervening years. There's no way I could bike the trails I do today with the skills I had when I was six.

Those two things lead to a third: Being a kid, a teen, and an adolescent was great. But growing up has a lot to offer. And being an adult is sure a lot better than staying a child forever.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Prayer the Jesus Way

I've been looking at the passage for this week's sermon (Luke 11). It's on prayer, it's by Jesus, and it starts in a reasonably unassuming way...

"He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’ He said to them, ‘When you pray, say:

Then I came across this note in People’s NT Commentary, "The believer comes to God in prayer without flattery, bribery, or manipulation but already has God’s ear, just as a child has the attention of a good parent."

That stopped me, and I had to ask: Would that change the way we pray?

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Good Samaritan and e.e. cummings

This week, at Bidwell Presbyterian, we're learning about how to follow Jesus through the parable of the Good Samaritan.  Here's the stunning take on Jesus's words by the underrated 20th century poet, e.e. cummings.

I'll let the poem speak for itself:

a man who had fallen among thieves
lay by the roadside on his back
dressed in fifteenthrate ideas
wearing a round jeer for a hat
fate per a somewhat more than less
emancipated evening
had in return for consciousness
endowed him with a changeless grin
whereon a dozen staunch and Meal
citizens did graze at pause
then fired by hypercivic zeal
sought newer pastures or because
swaddled with a frozen brook
of pinkest vomit out of eyes
which noticed nobody he looked
as if he did not care to rise
one hand did nothing on the vest
its wideflung friend clenched weakly dirt
while the mute trouserfly confessed
a button solemnly inert.
Brushing from whom the stiffened puke
i put him all into my arms
and staggered banged with terror through
a million billion trillion stars

Friday, March 19, 2010

Female Disciples and the Good Soil

How much new could be said about the Parable of the Sower (Luke 8:4-15)? Jesus calls us to be good soil--not rocky or thorny soil--because that's the place where the seed of his word grows and flourishes. 

"Not much new," I thought to myself as I pondered a blog entry. And then I re-read Luke 8, and pondered the section that precedes the parable, where women follow Jesus, and are thus by definition (though not the Twelve) his disciples. Check this out:
Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod's household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.
Women following a rabbi? In the first century that was radical.  Second, women bankrolling Jesus's itinerate ministry? Even radicaller. More radical of all? That these women are models for what it means to be good soil. 

Let's see if we can hear the parable's conclusion one more time:

Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown. "When he said this, he called out, "Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear."

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Jesus, Capernaum, and the Outsider

Three months ago, I had the opportunity to visit Capernaum on the north shore of the sea of Galilee. In fact, here's a picture of my friends, Wally and Jerry, as they walk out the remains of this ancient Jewish city, having taken its guidelines with extreme seriousness. 

This memory of Capernaum provides context for a story from Jesus's life in the Gospel of Luke (chapter 7, 1-3):
After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave.
To ruin the drama of this encounter, I'll note that Jesus does in fact heal the slave. In the process, Jesus demonstrates that he's more than fine about moving beyond the confines of the Jewish people to do his work of healing. (This is a theme the Gospel of Luke loves.) But before that healing, another thing happens that's contained in these verses: somehow this Roman military officer--outside of the Jewish faith--heard about Jesus, which I suppose occurred through local people sharing stories about Jesus's messages and his healing. And that fact leads me to another question: How does this happen today?

My response is entirely too straightforward--people hear about Jesus through the witness of his followers. Sometimes it's through relating their faith. Sometimes it's through acts of kindness. If knowing Jesus is good, it's got to be shared. And I suppose the bottom line, as it follows the story here, is the goodness and beauty of Jesus isn't the sole property of the Christian community. Like a good infection, it just keeps moving beyond the boundaries we set up.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010


I want to simply set down, one after the other, a piece of Gospels (namely Luke 6:46-49) and a related comment from The People’s NT Commentary.

First from Jesus in the Gospel of Luke:
Why do you call me, 'Lord, Lord,' and do not do what I say? I will show you what he is like who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice. He is like a man building a house, who dug down deep and laid the foundation on rock. When a flood came, the torrent struck that house but could not shake it, because it was well built. But the one who hears my words and does not put them into practice is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. The moment the torrent struck that house, it collapsed and its destruction was complete.
Then from Eugene Boring and Fred Craddock:
Our culture encourages us to be concerned about an impressive superstructure; Jesus encourages us to think about the foundation.
Any thoughts on foundations and how this looks for our culture, or maybe more particularly, for you?

Friday, February 05, 2010

"I Desire Mercy, Not Sacrifice"

Jesus was a prophet. Therefore Jesus stood in the prophetic tradition--the great tradition of Hebrew Bible that emphasizes justice and mercy, especially for the oppressed. This means that if there was a decision to be made between our spiritual practices and mercy, he would always choose mercy. 

And that's clearly the case when Jesus cites Hosea 6:6, "I desire mercy, not sacrifice" as he calls a tax-collector, Matthew, to be his disciple, thereby scandalizing some of the most prominent religious leaders and biblical teachers of his day, the Pharisees. (See Matthew 9:9-13.)

Now lest we think the Pharisees were bad guys, remember that they were a reform movement in 1st century Judaism that desired to do the right things--to study the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) and to live a life pleasing to God through rigorous observance of God's commands like eating kosher and practicing the Sabbath. It seems, however, they desired sacrifice--the sacrifice of right religious practice--more than mercy.

You see ,Jesus believed that caring for the hurting was more important, and when there was a conflict mercy must win over doing the right spiritual practices:
6On another Sabbath he went into the synagogue and was teaching, and a man was there whose right hand was shriveled. 7The Pharisees and the teachers of the law were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal on the Sabbath. 8But Jesus knew what they were thinking and said to the man with the shriveled hand, "Get up and stand in front of everyone." So he got up and stood there. Then Jesus said to them, "I ask you, which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?" 10He looked around at them all, and then said to the man, "Stretch out your hand." He did so, and his hand was completely restored. 11But they were furious and began to discuss with one another what they might do to Jesus. (Gospel of Luke, chapter 6)
But Christians today would never be accused on that, right? We'd never rush to our Bible studies, church services, or committee meetings, and pass by someone in need, a neighbor who needs a listening ear, a fellow student who needs a hand, or a needy person in our path?  Would we?

Maybe we need to remember again that there are times when we need to remember Jesus's emphasis: "I desire mercy, not sacrifice."