Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Bonhoeffer, Rockettes, and the Gospel

Just a few days ago, I watched "Believe," a fabulous Chico-grown Christmas dance show, which got me thinking about the Rockette's "Radio City Christmas" and an article I posted several years ago. It seems like the right time (and definitely the right season) to post it again...

I’m thinking about some words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who would be 100 this year: “I should like to speak of God not on the boundaries but at the center, not in weakness but in strength.… God is beyond in the midst of life.” It comes from Letters and Papers from Prison, written in the years before his death at the hands of the Gestapo. By my reckoning, Bonhoeffer’s death in 1945 at 39 was untimely. It was also confusing: it left most of his ideas without sufficient elaboration and me, like many, pondering the insights of his realistic, kindred, searching spirit. And so I ask here, What does God “at the center” look like?

Did I see it one December in New York City when I trekked with my family to Radio City Music Hall? There we sat, enchanted by the world-famous Rockettes. There we watched the Christmas Spectacular—set that season to entertain its fifty millionth customer right at Rockefeller Center, right in Midtown Manhattan, certainly a great cultural and financial center. And there we heard the Gospel. 

The Christmas Spectacular pulls out every theatrical and technological stop. Through video, we ride with Santa on his sleigh through New York City. We watch a lovely pair of skaters suddenly appear on an ice rink that gradually rises before the astonished audience. We view the orchestra disappearing from the front of the stage only to re-emerge behind the synchronized Rockettes.

In one sense, this is simply Broadway theatrics. But I wasn’t prepared for the finale of the Christmas Spectacular, the point to which the entire show was leading. The show slows and becomes more patient at its end as it presents Jesus’ birth. Naturally, live manger animals fill the stage. They surround Jesus and a stunningly beautiful Mary, attended by a handsome Joseph. But the hype has significantly quelled when, on the enormous video screen, “One Solitary Life” scrolls down.

It begins, 
He was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant woman.
He grew up in another obscure village,
where he worked in a carpenter shop until he was thirty. 
And ends, 
All the armies that ever marched,
and all the navies that ever sailed,
and all the parliaments that ever sat,
and all the kings that ever reigned put together
have not affected the life of man
upon this earth as powerfully as this “One Solitary Life.”

This is not a Times Square evangelist in a faded and tattered tweed jacket on a wooden box, shouting “God is ready to judge the world.” No, here the Coming of God in Jesus is proclaimed through fabulous costumes, spectacular sets, and fifty dancers in perfect synchronization.

I had to pause after the show and reflect: Did this dazzling display of technology serve the Gospel? Some doubt that it’s possible since technology is a greedy servant, either demanding allegiance from its master, or more often becoming the lord itself. Along these lines, I spent a couple of days in Missoula a few years ago at the University of Montana in a consultation with the contemporary philosopher of technology—and Christian—Albert Borgmann. Borgmann expresses significant concerns about the power of technology and the “device paradigm.” Do we want dinner? Nuke some prefab, individualized portion in the microwave. Want to be entertained? Turn on the tube. Want to exercise? Jump on a Stairmaster. Technology seduces with the dazzling power of manipulating our environment. To put it at the service of the Gospel is oxymoronic at best. Borgmann offers instead habits that focus us on real life, “focal practices,” such as preparing a meal together, talking as a family over dinner, and jogging through nature.

The Bible also expresses an uneasiness about worldly power in the service of the message of Jesus. Paul clearly spoke of God’s power in weakness to the power-happy people of cosmopolitan Corinth. And what Christian can be totally serene about the joining of the Rome and Christianity by Constantine, an emperor who saw a vision of the cross over sun with the words “in this sign you will conquer”? Following a Messiah—unjustly crucified by the duly installed powers of religious and political justice—does not make an easy marriage with earthly powers of any sort. In fact, the Nazis hanged Bonhoeffer because his active resistant to their demonic political regime led him to collaborate in an assassination attempt on Hitler. Bonhoeffer would certainly hesitate to call Broadway glitz prophetic. (Sometimes it’s actually more pathetic.)

Still—and I say it guardedly—I glimpsed something in the Rockettes as they brought God’s coming in Christ to the center. I was reminded that God is the Lord not only in weakness, but also in strength. And since God gave us the mandate to exercise dominion in Genesis 1, we have a clear call to change our environment for the good, and thus a call to use technology. In fact, I have found it tough for many to imagine God in strength at the Center—to bring God into the moments of the heights, the moments when joy overwhelms our attentiveness to the Spirit, when bodily pleasures of food, or music, or sex overwhelm and mute our prayers, when we develop some new technological wonder and we hear Satan’s alluring words to “become like God.” In these moments, Bonhoeffer—and the Rockettes—lead us to the simple truth: God is there, in strength, in technological discovery, at the center.

Clearly the Christmas Spectacular is not the whole story, and no one should portray it that way. If there’s anything clear about Jesus’ message, it comes first to the lowly and the marginal, not those who can afford $75 tickets. At the same time, it would be criminal for Christians—with theatrical tools at their disposal—not to use them at the service of the Gospel. (I, for one, think that Christmas cartoons are richer and truer to the message because Charles Schulz insisted that Linus read Luke 2 in A Charley Brown Christmas.) Sure, there are inevitable distortions that this project can bring to the Gospel, to bringing God to the centers of power. And yet, there are inevitable distortions to leaving God only at the margins—in second-rate theatre, for example—because God fills every part of creation.

Bonhoeffer, Rockettes, and the Gospel—perfect together? Perhaps not. But at least compatible. They’re even connected by the God who came, yes, in the weakness of a baby, but who is not too proud to be displayed in the dazzling power of theatrical technology.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Writing on Jesus

I'm embarking on the next book--a study of Jesus in light of the life of Christian community and in the context of a scientific-technological age. For that reason, I've been reading a number of volumes on Jesus. Two that could hardly be more different are the second volume of Wolfhart Pannenberg's Systematic Theology and Jay Parini, Jesus--the Human Face of God. The latter is winsome and engaging, setting the scene in Palestine for Jesus's ministry, where we hear the sounds of goat's bells and smell the dust and the grit of Galilee. Pannenberg's hefty volume reveals the extreme erudition of a brilliant German systematic theologian. Replete with footnotes and complex philosophical distinctions, it's brilliant in its own way (though abysmal in its English translation). Both--and many more like them--truly help as I sort out the complexities and wonder of studying Jesus of Nazareth. They all bring me to ponder what of use I'll contribute to "Jesus studies" and what angle of approach I want (or are able) to take. More in future posts I'm sure...

Friday, November 15, 2013

A Paean to St. Clive on the 50th Anniversary of His Death

22 November 1963 will be the 50th anniversary of the death of Clive Staples Lewis, aka (to me) "St. Clive." I believe some of what follows has already appeared on this blog, but I wanted to offer the following as my eulogy to St. Clive in light of his ongoing legacy. Here goes...

In written the book I've just finished on the crises of C. S. Lewis, I’ve found myself poring over others’ words about Lewis, several of his biographies and remembrances by friends, and especially every work of Lewis that I could get my hands on (including some unpublished pieces). All the time I’ve pondered the depth of this man and particularly the reason his words still resonate to the crises of millions and have not stopped speaking fresh insights to me. Lewis remains for me a constant source of interest and even mystery. I found that I want to truly grasp, to definitively summarize, what he expressed. I want to know more why I continue to be stunned by his insights, and where I disagree.
      There are three reasons for this: First of all, Lewis was the voice that woke me up to the possibility of God, of that Something More beyond this world. The amazing thing is that there are other voices that have led me to Christian faith, but it is Lewis’s that keeps leading me back, “deeper and further in” (to use a phrase from The Last Battle). So I suppose that, in some way, I’m repaying a debt I feel I owe to him. Secondly, I sense that I become a better person when I read Lewis, this beer-drinking, pipe-smoking, and certainly imperfect human being—not a classic saint, by any means. Perhaps that’s why he speaks to me, and, unless I’m mistaken, we are improved in the process. And somehow making me, and his readers generally, better people remains central to the moral formation that’s characteristic of Lewis’s writings. And yet in his words, there’s something numinous, a voice that calls me deeper. And still does. Maybe it’s what he read in George MacDonald, when he tasted something “holy” in his words.[1]
      Finally, it strikes me that Lewis is a great translator of Christian faith. And that inspires me. The earliest Christian writers—following Jesus himself—took great pains to be comprehensible, using street language and story. In their determination to speak clearly, they never left the scandalous demands of Jesus’ message. Too many theologians speak in impenetrable language, hardly caring whether any public can understand them. Lewis changed that by stepping aside from the precise, though often distancing language of the academic. Instead he spoke in plain English. Lewis’ legacy is that he believed the strange hardness of Gospel remains its greatest strength and he dared to use language as clear as crystal and his creative imagination. Both still make good sense. That is why he still speaks to millions, and even just a few years ago, Time could still name him today’s “hottest theologian.”
      Even as I type these lines, artists are preparing the memorial on the fiftieth anniversary of his death in the famed Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey, an honor he will share with the likes of William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, T. S. Eliot, John Milton, William Wordsworth, among many others. I realize that many millions of others have found inspiration in his voice, and as I’ve written, resolution to their crises. For that reason, it is natural that Lewis has become a Christian cult figure. This represents another sort of “immortality.” And yet, as I read the man himself, I think he would found deplorable the development of “St. Clive” (which I jokingly call him) or the Writer of the Fifth Gospel (another quip by some admiring, though not idolizing, friends). Yes, he has been an important voice for me, and I suppose I’m writing this book trying to figure out St. Clive once and for all. I have never enjoyed writing a book so much. Now I'm a little sad that I have arrived at the end. To be honest, I don’t feel that I’ve totally grasped him, and yet I also sense that he’s entirely worth the continual effort. His good friend, J.R. R. Tolkien once commented about Lewis, “You’ll never get to the bottom of him.”[2] Maybe the best method is to simply accept that advice and enjoy the journey.

[1] Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich), 1955.
[2] George Sayer, Jack: A Life of C. S. Lewis (Crossway, 1994), xx.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Introducing C. S. Lewis

(On the plane last night I touched up the first few paragraphs of my new book on C. S. Lewis. The manuscript's about to be sent off to the editor. So let me know what you think.) 
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
In an introduction that I can still remember reading for the first time (because it so well captures his voice), C. S. Lewis tells us that his Reflections on the Psalms is “not a work of scholarship. I am no Hebraist, no higher critic, no ancient historian, no archaeologist.”[1] Lewis was always clear—and here wanted clearly to delineate his work from other commentaries on the Psalter.
      Similarly, I want to be clear: I am not writing a biography of Lewis. Instead of answering who he was, I will take up a version of the question of why Lewis is still so popular, selling more books today than when he died in 1963. Here’s my answer: Lewis’s voice still resonates because his crises and their resolution in his writings meet our crises and help us to resolve them. In short form: Lewis’s crises meet our crises. I begin then by telling the story of Lewis’s life through the troubles and complexities that shaped him. I will then pursue his thoughts through his writings—which is what he’s best known for—and the way his books, articles, and published addresses offer us access to his wisdom. I do this because Lewis’s crises formed his writing and give it the power that resonates for his readers.
            Crises are, as Webster’s puts it, “an unstable or crucial time or state of affairs whose outcome will make a difference for better or worse.”[2] Either positive or negative, they always carry with them momentous change. I will describe C. S Lewis’ life’s storyline around six main crises, each that define a decade (more or less) of his sixty-five years. Using the language of film and television, these crises become “plot points,” which represent significant events within a plot where the action digs in and pivots toward another direction. These are points around which the plot revolves. They can be an event, an item, or the discovery of a character or motive. In this case, the “plot” at hand is the life of Clive Staples Lewis. His plot points are the times in which the story of his life altered dramatically, where he confronted crises and sought to resolve them

[1] Reflections on the Psalms (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1958), 1.
[2] Webster’s Dictionary New Collegiate Dictionary (Springfield, Mass, 1977).

Thursday, September 12, 2013

C. S. Lewis and the Crisis of the Bible

This is the current form of the chapter from the book I'm finishing. I think that Lewis, as a world-class literary scholar, provides a fresh way to approach Scripture.  As I continue to research and write, I gradually discovered that Lewis is neither entirely conservative or liberal. He provides a way that the Bible can stand on its own. So I began to wonder if he might offer some way to interpret the Bible in a world saturated in science and technology. Let me know what you think.

I have been suspected of being what is called a Fundamentalist.
Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms

I begin this chapter with a disclaimer: Clive Staples Lewis was not an American evangelical. For one thing, he wasn’t from the United States, but Ireland, even if the bulk of his readership is American. (And this fact deserves a parenthesis: When I visited Oxford in doing research for this book, I was surprised to note how much attention J. R. R. 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 remains the culprit. All this to say that his reception in England is not as enthusiastic as in the States.) More importantly, Lewis was, as he describes it, “not especially ‘high,’ nor especially ‘low,’ nor especially anything else…” as a member of the Church of England.[1] Thus, at least in a nominal sense, he was no an evangelical.
      And yet his reception in the U. S. has been most conspicuously evangelical (even if many outside evangelicalism love The Chronicle of Narnia in book and movie form). Perhaps this fact arose from many of his literary works going to the evangelical bastion Wheaton College, which produced after all, Billy Graham, Philip Yancey, and Carl Henry. It’s also Lewis’s commitment to theological realism (that God really does exist) and his general orthodoxy that heartens evangelicals. Still, 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 we can run this issue in reverse: Some back away from Lewis because he’s associated with evangelicalism, and this leads to a different type of crisis for Lewis from what I’ve emphasized so far: Lewis has something to say about the universal Church. He wanted to speak not from a faction of the church, but about “mere Christianity.” Nonetheless—and because of Lewis’s evangelical reception—as I’ve 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. So, in this chapter and the next, I’m working to undo this misconception, and I believe this chapter will surprise many readers of Lewis who only know about Lewis, but who have not read his work directly.
      Conservative evangelicalism did not represent Lewis’s own crisis with the Bible. Despite the accusation above that Lewis is a Fundamentalist, he wasn’t overwrought about whether Satan commanded David to take a census of Israel (as in 1 Chronicles 21:1) or God did (as in 2 Samuel 24:1). Nor did he particularly seem to care if one angel was at Jesus’s tomb (Matthew) or a young man (Mark). Lewis doesn’t really fit evangelicalism, and it’s worth noting that some evangelical gatekeepers become nervous especially about his understanding of Scripture. A fairly cursory jaunt through the Internet unveils several self-described evangelical commentators, disappointed by Lewis’s view on Scripture. They demand a commitment to the Bible’s inerrancy and its literal interpretation, and so they are quite happy to jettison Lewis from their theological camp, even to the point of denying his place in heaven.[2]
      Clearly, it is not Fundamentalists that would accuse him of being one of theirs. (The very notion of such a slur is that it comes from those who think it’s not at all a badge of honor.) The quip comes from those who find it silly that he believed the Bible at all. It’s a quip that points out the crisis that Lewis was trying to overcome—not from the literalists and inerrantists, but the liberal angle that it’s “all myth anyway.” And “myth” in this case means “fiction,” as I’ve outlined in the previous chapter. So, to grasp Lewis and Scripture, it’s critically 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? Similarly here: How can the Bible
      Simply reading the Bible didn’t resolve Lewis’s problems. 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] Let’s not miss: Not simply “difficult,” but “horrible.” 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?
      For one thing, Lewis could not believe in the authority of the Bible because of its unimpeachable style. Instead Lewis realized that believing in this Book above all the other books that 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]

The church, as the deposit of ongoing testimony, affirms the Bible’s truth and validity.
      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, especially early in my years as a Christian. When I first came to read Lewis on the Bible in college, I was consuming the Bible quite voraciously, 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. Although I differ in some respects now, I found it largely satisfying and still do. And what did I discover? Lewis maintained his conviction that the New Testament is not flawless, but contains both myth and historical truth. More precisely, the Bible’s myths become increasingly historical as they move toward the Incarnation. And finally, the truth of the Bible derives from the one Word of God, Jesus Christ.
      In this chapter, I will focus on three major themes: first of all, C. S. Lewis believed that human flaws shone through the pages of the Bible and yet it “carries” the Word of God; secondly, that its mythical character does not imply that it the Bible is fictional; and most importantly, that Christian lives are formed by reading the Bible.

The Bible has flaws, but “carries” the Word of God
What exactly was Lewis’s understanding of Scripture? Here the reader clearly 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 his 1958 Reflections on the Psalms, in a chapter simply entitled “Scripture,” Lewis comes closest to a systematic statement on the Bible. He lays out how the Bible, in some way, “carries” the Word of God. In a letter written close to this time, 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.”[6]

By this statement, Lewis means that he does not believe in the necessity of inerrancy and historical facticity in all its parts (more on that below) for the Bible to be true. In the chapter on “Scripture,” Lewis clearly outlines Scripture’s human frailties.

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; 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.[7]

      “It carries the Word of God,” and this 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.”[8] We learn the truth of Scripture by focusing on Christ, the Word. To follow Lewis, we must not make the Bible the Fourth member of the Trinity.
      “It carries the Word of God.” This phrase also 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 Christians—and especially Fundamentalists—cringe or even respond with venom when they read Lewis’s understanding of Scripture. Lewis is willing to concede that the Bible is not flawless. In fact, Lewis is closer to a mainline, sometimes called “neo-orthodox” perspective. 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.[9] 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? Exhibit A: In his first years at Oxford, he learned the Icelandic language so he could join J. R. R. Tolkien’s “Kolbiter’s” club to study the myths of “northerness.” 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.  
      Understanding Lewis’s definition of myth is critical because Lewis view of Scripture as myth resolved most of his difficulties with the Bible. Myths are not “made up” or untrue. Myth is “at its best, a real unfocused gleam of divine truth falling on human imagination.”[10] 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 for us to grasp. 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)….” [11]
      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.”[12] 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.[13]
      So there are places where the Bible can be mythical—and thus fictional—and 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 mythical and therefore unhistorical.

Myth does not mean it is always fictional
The context for Lewis’s essay, “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism”[14] explains a great deal because it demonstrates that even though Lewis appreciated myth in the Bible, he did not mean therefore that is unhistorical. Lewis was goaded by a comment from the 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!”[15] In that light, 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 learned 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.
      At the time of my first reading of the Gospels—seeking to conclude whether the portrayal of Jesus was historically reliable and thus whether he was truly worthy of our devotion—my best tools for interpreting these narratives were my budding skills as student of comparative literature. I soon 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. I realize today—after some years in seminary—that each writer of the Gospels and Epistles has a particular angle on Jesus, and I’m more sensitive to this variety. Nonetheless, a person comes through 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 ability to sort out history from fiction, yet his appreciation of myth (or story) spoke to my crisis in the Bible. It provided me a way to be formed by Scripture.

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.”[16] 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 that we must use the Bible “by steeping ourselves in its tone and temper and so learning its overall message”[17]—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.[18] This is not a mathematical table that we can memorize; it is a living document with a vibrant history. Accordingly, 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.
      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 every year. (A trend that has accelerated since his time.) 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[19]

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.[20]

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 remain what they are, so each new historical Jesus has to suppress some points and emphasize others—“(brilliant is the adjective we teach humans to apply to it)….” We then arrive at Lewis’s primary concern: Screwtape’s aim is

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.[21]

      Now if Lewis believed that Satan’s plan was to remove our ability to devote ourselves to Christ by creating new Jesuses, he instead encouraged us to focus on what actually took place in Christ. 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: “The New Testament in the original Greek is not a work of literary art: it is not written in a solemn, ecclesiastical language….” It employs “a sort of ‘basic’ Greek; a language without roots in the soil, a utilitarian, commercial and administrative language.”[22] Lewis’s clarity in grasping the character of the language of the New Testament grabs my attention. (And yes, I can affirm, that as a New Testament professor once commented about the Greek of the Second Gospel: “Mark writes like a fourth grader.”) But even more worthy of note is how he draws an inference of the biblical language and the Incarnation of Christ:

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. 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.[23]

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, who enters into real life. The roughness of the Bible is a clue to recognizing this irreverent God.

I have always appreciated when C. S. Lewis, a truly world-class literary scholar, commented on the Holy Book. If one-tenth of contemporary biblical scholars possessed his literary sensitivity, we would have raised the standard level of 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.”[24] We must, for example, employ redaction and source criticism. In addition, the nature of his occasional remarks on the Bible leave us wanting more, something comprehensive and systematic. We need 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? He may not have needed to respond to every question about the Holy Book, but we cannot remain content with Lewis alone as our guide.
      Does Lewis help us today, especially in light of science? Many impugn the Bible’s truth because it doesn’t match with the advance of scientific knowledge. It seems outdated and surpassed. In response, it’s crucial to recall that Lewis never believed that science—nor particularly what he called the “Scientific Outlook” that I outlined in chapter two—should be the final arbiter or truth. So he forcefully and consistently argued against science and its norms standing above other forms of knowledge and authorities, such as the ongoing testimony of the church in the case of the Bible. This means that his understanding of Scripture leads to a model of independence in its relationship with science. This approach may at times help Christians avoid pseudo-problems with the Bible when it does not provide, in his words, “impeccable science.”[25] For example, Lewis writes, Genesis 1-2 probably “derived from earlier Semitic stories which were Pagan and mythical,”[26] and under the guidance of the Father of lights, it became a vehicle for the profound and true story of creation. All this implies no need to justify the truth of these texts against modern science of Big Bang cosmology or evolution. It may, however, also leave some wanting more connection with the obvious power and insights of science.
      The final truth of Scripture, however, lies elsewhere. Lewis believed 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.[27] As a professor, he taught literature so that his students would know more about the books they read, not about theories about the books they read; similarly he would be most disturbed by any theories that obscure the key message of the Bible, Jesus Christ. He desired that we are formed by reading Scripture, not by reading about, or talking about it. For Lewis, more than a theory about Scripture, the key is practicing its truths. 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.”[28] To those of us who hold to “Scripture alone” (as I do) as the way to find God and to form our lives (what the Reformation called sola scriptura), Lewis’s words are good indeed.

Note: Some of these footnotes are incomplete, but I promise they won't be when this all gets to publication.
[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] 5 October 1955 letter to Wise; Letters III, 652. See also n. 284.
[7] Reflections on the Psalms, 111-12.
[8] Letter to Mrs. Johnson, 8 November 1952, Letters II: 246.
[9] Especially his paragraph 19 on “The Word of God for the Church,” Church Dogmatics II.1.
[10] Letter to Mrs. Johnson, 14 May 1955, CL III, 608.
[11] “Myth Became Fact,” God in the Dock, 66.
[12] 13 October 1958 letter to Corbin Scott Carnell, Letters III, 980.
[13] 7 May 1959 letter to Kilby, Letters III, 1046.
[14] Christian Reflections, edited by Walker Hooper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967).
[15] Christian Reflections, 152, n.2.
[16] The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Literature (Oxford: Oxford University, 1936), 130.
[17] Reflections on the Psalms, 112.
[18] “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.
[19] These citations are in Screwtape Letters, letter 24.
[20] Screwtape Letters, 125.
[21] Screwtape Letters, 125.
[22] 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.
[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] “Modern Criticism,” 163.
[25] Reflections on the Psalms, 112.
[26] Reflections on the Psalms, 110.
[27] Jerry Root, “Introduction” in The C. S. Lewis Bible, xviii.
[28] Reflections on the Psalms, 119.