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),
[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.

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