Know Your Theologians #2 – C.S. Lewis

And now a feature of freelance theology returns with a look at CS Lewis

Bare Facts
Born in Belfast in 1898, Lewis was educated at private school and Oxford University before lecturing at Oxford and Cambridge. He rediscovered Christianity in the 1930s after declaring himself an atheist. He wrote a number of ‘apologetic’ works in popular speech and was a popular radio broadcaster, as well as writing several novels. He married an American friend, Joy Gresham, initially as a means of enabling her and her sons to stay in the United Kingdom. Later, they lived together as man and wife and his account of her death from cancer became the cornerstone for his book A Grief Observed. C.S Lewis died on 22 November 1963, the same day that President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas.

Why is he important?
C.S. Lewis has become one of the most quoted Christian writers of the twentieth century, particularly in protestant, evangelical circles. His Chronicles of Narnia, which Lewis wrote as an allegory for the Christian story, have been perennial children’s fiction bestsellers. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the first of the Narnia books to be published, although actually the second in the series after Lewis’ prequel The Magician’s Nephew, has recently been made into a movie blockbuster by the Disney corporation. The obvious identification of Aslan the lion, who surrenders himself as a sacrifice in exchange for the traitor Edmund, with Jesus Christ has become a byword in the Christian subculture.

So, he’s a bit of an evangelical hero, then?
Yes, but that’s a bit odd really. Lewis held a number of beliefs that conflict with typical evangelical theology. In one of his novels, The Great Divorce, he implies that human beings have a second chance of getting into heaven after death. In the final Narnia book, The Last Battle, he explores the idea of ‘anonymous Christianity’ when a young Calormene is told by Aslan that: “if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for his oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and I is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash that his deed is accepted.” [The Last Battle, Fontana Lions, 1980, p.156]. The third book in his science fiction trilogy, That Hideous Strength, introduces characters such as a risen-again Merlin the wizard, and various ‘gods’ from Norse myths in a weird apocalyptic ending to the story.

In The Screwtape Letters, Lewis, a committed Anglican, explicitly has a go at non-conformist religion. Writing as the ‘senior devil’ Screwtape, he says: “the parochial organisation should always be attacked, because, being a unity of place and not of likings, it brings people of different classes and psychology together in the kind of unity the Enemy [i.e. God] desires. The congregational principles, on the other hand, makes each church into a kind of club, and finally, if all goes well, into a coterie or faction.” [The Screwtape Letters, Macmillan revised edition 1982, Letter XVI, p.73]. Even Lewis famous ‘conversion’ quote, used in the Alpha course, where he ‘sinks to his knees as the most unwilling believer in England’ (the full quote is taken from Surprised by Joy), actually relates to a belief in a general ‘God’. His attachment to Christianity came much later. The ‘Joy’ he was ‘Surprised’ by was caused by exposure to Scandinavian myths, so much so that it has been said that Lewis loved the dying-and-rising Norse God Baldur, before he loved Christ.

So why is he quoted by so many evangelicals?
His writing is lucid, easily intelligible and often witty. Lewis himself might have been a fairly unapproachable medieval historian (he never lectured in theology at either Oxford or Cambridge), but many people find his writings accessible and full of interesting ideas, expressed concisely. Also, because of the popularity of his fiction, most people have heard of ‘C.S. Lewis – who wrote the Narnia books’.

And he entered into a marriage of convenience?
He was good friends with Joy Gresham before they got married. A bachelor for most of his life, he did admit to his friends and family that he was going to marry Joy so that she could stay in the country with her two boys. They did subsequently fall in love and consummate the marriage.

What would you recommend reading?
The Screwtape Letters contains a lot of thought-provoking material and is very easy to read. His science fiction is alright. Some of his earlier theological works, e.g. The Problem of Pain or Miracles are quite philosophical and dense. If you like the Narnia books and can get your hands on Past Watchful Dragons by Walter Hooper, Lewis’ secretary, that’s quite interesting as it’s an account of Lewis’ creative processes and contains some stuff that didn’t make it into the chronicles.

What will his legacy be?
Narnia, obviously. Disney want to make more films. Fellow fantasy-author and friend J.R.R. Tolkien said that Lewis was the only one of his friends ‘who had published more books after his death than before’ (quoted by Walter Hooper in the preface to Fernseed and Elephants, Fontana 1975, p.7). And he’ll probably be quoted in Alpha talks, evangelistic literature, sermons and magazine articles ad infinitum.

Notable quote: There are too many to list. Alpha attendees will have heard the ‘conversion quote’. A popular one at the moment is the description of Aslan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe where Mr Beaver says “He’s not a tame Lion!

Final Fact: ‘C.S.’ stands for Clive Staples.

The Bible’s reliability

Two questions on a similar theme:

The first is from RM, Ireland

Is the Old Testament an account of actual people and events, which took place in reality, or a late literary construct designed to give a community a sense of self-identity?

The second (and longer question) is from TD, USA

I don’t understand why so many people base their lives, thoughts and values on every word in the Bible, when it’s origins as ‘the word of God’ appear quite dubious. How do we know that all the authors were writing the word of God? I don’t mean to be flippant but what if some of them were drinking when they received their inspiration, or were on hallucinogens, or simply over zealous and thought they were getting “divine messages” as many people since then also claim to have had?

My understanding is that the Bible was written over a period of about 1500 years, by about 40 people, few of whom personally knew Jesus. The Bible was translated in and out of several languages, large parts of it were evidently passed down verbally for centuries before being written down, and we all know how information changes rather dramatically when passed orally from person to person. Various kings and rulers took liberties with the Bible, editing it to suit their own needs and beliefs, and surprisingly, none of the Bible was written during Jesus’ actual life or directly afterward (my understanding is that the earliest parts of the New Testament were written from about 10 to 60 years after Jesus’ death).

Where does this leave us? How can we treat this book as the be-all-end-all word of God with so many people quoting it as though its words are indisputable truths, when it appears to be a patchwork quilt of unclear origin? Can you help me?

It is fairly clear that, in the case of the Old Testament as we have it today, there has been some later editing (often called redaction) of earlier writings, within the context of an ongoing process whereby unreliable writings were weeded out of the collection. This is one way of describing the process of canonisation.

The New Testament does not display much blatant evidence of redaction, although this may have occurred in the gospels as various stories were chosen for inclusion. Far more very early manuscripts exist for the New Testament than the Old Testament and so it can be quite clearly seen that there was little variation in the written tradition – once stuff was written down!

The fact that these stories may have been transmitted orally at first, or have been translated, do not necessarily mean that they are less reliable. In fact, modern historians will go to great lengths to track down survivors of historical events in order to gain first-hand oral testimony. Within the culture of the Middle East at the time, there was great emphasis on accurately telling and retelling stories. Of course, they may have ‘grown in the telling’, but that does not mean that they are completely untrue.

Then, as now, translators took great pains to translate accurately, hence the ancient tradition that earned the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament the moniker ‘The Septuagint’ – so called because allegedly seventy translators combined to produce the translation.

The Old Testament does seem to carry some marks of later redaction, particularly in the Pentateuch. The classic expression of this is the JEDP source criticism hypothesis. This seeks to unravel the various strands of the Pentateuch according to both the language used and the emphasis of the particular passage. J and E refer to strands that use different names for God, either ‘Yahweh’ (Jehovah) or ‘Elohim’. D is the hypothetical ‘Deuteronomist’, who was concerned with matters pertaining to the Law, while P represents the Priestly redactors, who wanted to explain and defend the cultic practices of ancient Israel.

Outside the Pentateuch, the various history books bear the marks of religious redaction as well. Chronicles, in particular, is written solely from a religious point of view, judging the various kings of Israel and Judah as good or bad, depending on how faithful they were to the worship of Yahweh. The Chronicler (although the author may have been more than one person) refers to the, now lost, Annals of the Kings of Israel or Judah and presumably, these were his sources.

Within the prophetic writings, as well, the historical foundation myths of the Israelite nation were often reiterated to demonstrate God’s covenant favour with his people. The fact is that the Old Testament is both a record of events and a later interpretation of those events from a religious point of view, both inside and outside the mainstream cult.

Such redaction does not necessarily diminish the authority of Scripture. Similarly the long drawn-out process of canonisation can actually be seen as enhancing the authority and reliability of the Bible. The fact that these various writings, which stretch over a long period of history, have been weighed and accepted many years later by intelligent and, sometimes, critical people implies they have a certain resonance and strength. Many other books, ‘Gnostic gospels’, creation myths, prophecies, philosophies and apocalyptic visions of the end were disregarded during this process. These rejected, non-canonical books are usually weird in the extreme.

There is, of course, the question of uncritically accepting what the Bible says as ‘The Word of god’. It is a logical fallacy to insist that all your doctrines be based on the Bible, as that dogma itself is not Biblical. It is also recommended that Biblical writings are not always read and applied at face value, without in-depth study of those writings. Many of the errors found in modern spin-off semi-Christian movements (e.g. the Mormon practice of ‘baptising for the dead’) stem from literal applications of Scripture.

It is the testimony of the historical and catholic Christian tradition that the Bible preserves the only reliable account of God’s involvement in the world that culminated in the Incarnation. In the light of that tradition, the fact that the books of the Bible each had to earn their place in the canon of Scripture and prove their worth within the context of a living faith, adds authority to the Bible. It does not, however, mean that Christians should read the Bible uncritically and apply it ignorantly.

Thanks for your questions RM and TD.

Conflicting accounts of the Easter story

Question from PW, United Kingdom

Can the Easter accounts in the gospels ever truly be reconciled to each other?

The many differences between the respective Easter accounts, particularly regarding the resurrection, in the four gospels, and to a lesser extent, the writings of Paul, cast considerable doubt on the historical veracity of the gospels. The gospel writers appear to contradict each other and, given the widespread critical assumption that Matthew and Luke relied on the earlier gospel of Mark, these differences are hard to explain. Added to that, the enigmatic fourth gospel, and Paul’s occasional references to historical events (which may be earlier than any of the gospels), both seem to add further contradictions.

However, John Wenham, in his book Easter Enigma [2nd Edition, Paternoster Press, 1992 or 1996], does attempt to reconcile the differing traditions to each other. Noting that the contradictions in the resurrection accounts actually undermine the source critical assumptions made by many New Testament scholars, Wenham argues that the three Synoptic gospels are independent versions which each enshrine facets of the earliest teaching in the Jerusalem-based church.

Wenham outlines his argument thus: “It is by no means easy to see how these things can be fitted together while remaining strictly faithful to what the writers say…[but] It now seems to me that these resurrection stories exhibit in a remarkable way the well-known characteristics of accurate and independent reporting, for superficially they show great disharmony, but on close examination the details gradually fall into place.” [Op cit p.11]

Recent New testament study has seen a departure from the old source critical positions, which saw the Synoptic writers as highly dependent on each other. Whether Wenham’s hypothesis of ‘independent reporting’ is true is, naturally, a matter for debate, but it does ring true. Even today, reports of a major news story would appear differently in a tabloid, or a broadsheet newspaper, or, to use a contemporary analogy, on CNBC or Al-jazeera.

An aspect of this independent reporting is that the confusion between the writers over who did what and when, can be reconciled. An example Wenham cites is the women listed as standing at the foot of the cross. Matthew and Mark mention three women, while John mentions Mary, the mother of Jesus alongside three other women. All these women appear to have different names in the three accounts, but Wenham suggests, quite sensibly, that it is possible for a woman to be referred to by three names. He posits that Matthews “the mother of the sons of Zebedee” could be the same person as Mark’s “Salome” and John’s “Jesus’ mothers’ sister” (i.e. his aunt). This does raise the intriguing question of whether Jesus was the cousin of James and John, the sons of Zebedee. [See Wenham, op cit pp34-36]

One criticism that could be made of Wenham is that he does not engage with the gospel accounts at anything other then face value. But the question he has set out to prove is that the four accounts can be reconciled. Whether they are reliable and can be believed is, of course, a matter of personal faith on the part of the reader.

Thanks for asking your question, PW.

2 year anniversary

It’s two years since freelance theology was launched. Along the way, questions have been asked by people from across the world, from Australia to Zimbabwe, Brazil to Singapore. Sometime within the next few months, I’m hoping to launch a new-look freelance theology, with more interactive options. In the meantime, there’s a backlog of questions to work through. If I haven’t answered yours yet, then please continue to be patient!

Occasionally, I’ve posted some of the positive comments sent to me by readers. I’d like to thank everyone who has written me a question and those who’ve just written! As it’s a special anniversary, I’ve included some of the comments below. Remember, if you have anything you want to ask, or say about freelance theology, then you can email me any time.

With best wishes

Jon the freelance theologian

Dear Jon, I came across you in Third Way (November 2005), looked up your site, and was really impressed by your answers. I have no idea how you manage to get through the amount and breadth of stuff on your site. Thanks.

THANKS for your wonderful blog… I’ve spent the last hours reading and reading… great stuff. Thanks for your contribution to the rest of us 🙂

I really enjoy reading your site; however, I must admit that although I was raised a Christian (Lutheran, Missouri Synod specifically) I am now basically agnostic. I have an idea for your site – a feature called, “Answer the Agnostic”. I think it would stimulate some lively debate, and I think your site has the intellectual rigor to make this interesting.
[Jon replies: It’s a possibility. Do any other readers have suggestions?]

Hi Jon. Glad for the information you gave. I passed my exams and will keep in touch soon as I am going to hopefully advance.

Hi Jon,
Very impressed with your reply on Zionism.
The most recent posting – Jesus destroying the power of sin and death – another interesting subject and reply.

Tower builders v astronauts

Question from VP, USA

In Genesis chapter 11, verse 6, the Lord says that nothing the people propose to do will be impossible. They were building a tower to reach the heavens. I find it strange that he prevented them from building a tower because it would reach the heavens, yet today we fly in space. Did God move? What is your opinion of this?

One important aspect of the book of Genesis, which echoes most ancient stories, is that there is a nostalgic sense of a ‘golden age’ that has been lost. The story about the Tower of Babel in Genesis chapter 11, indicates two things about early humanity’s ‘golden age’. Firstly, that human beings were powerful enough to ‘worry God’, and secondly that originally humans all spoke the same language. These are common motifs in ancestral myths that hark back to a better time.

The specific problem with the Tower of Babel was not so much that it would reach into the heavens, but by reaching into the heavens, human beings were seeking to set themselves up on a par with God. This is an etymological myth, which seeks to explain a number of things – notably why people are scattered across the world, particularly if they all descend from common ancestors found earlier in Genesis, and why people in different places speak different languages, again hard to reconcile with the idea of a common ancestor.

There is undoubtedly a possibility that the original author of Genesis could have borrowed from Babylonian myth here. The ‘plain of Shinar’ (verse 2) is in Mesopotamia. Babel and Babylon are perhaps interchangeable. As the author tried to fit these myths, drawn from a number of traditions, together into a coherent story, the Tower of Babel naturally provides a reason for both the spread of humanity and the many languages. If it’s not enough that humanity has lost its special Eden-relationship with God, now besides mortality, the day-to-day power of human beings is also reduced and the human race is divided into many scattered peoples and a ‘confusion’ of languages.

In conclusion, it was not the height of the Tower of Babel that was a problem; it was the purpose. Contemporary space exploration has not generally been conducted in the same sense of trying to establish humans as gods. Although it is interesting that space exploration has deepened the convictions of those who have travelled beyond the atmosphere. Many astronauts, looking towards Earth have attested to a sense that such a fragile and beautiful thing must be the work of God. One cosmonaut, however, famously remarked that, as he looked out to the stars, he could not see God anywhere.

Thanks for your question, VP.

The age of the earth

Question from AC, Brazil

As a believer I have some difficulty understanding how people say the earth is about 10,000 years old but we see evidence that it’s millions of years old. When did God create the earth and everything that is here, including mankind? Was it millions of years ago or it was just some thousand years ago? And, what to say about Latin American natives? Who were they descended from?

The origins of Earth and humanity provide fertile ground for questions here on freelance theology and this kind of question has been answered before. A good starting point is to realize that the Biblical account of creation found in Genesis is not to be read as a scientific document. However, the existence of scientific evidence that appears to contradict the basic story of Genesis, results in three main ways in which Christians respond.

The first is to firmly separate the arenas of science and faith. Put simply, this is a denial of the validity of human observation and experience if it contradicts truths that are taken ‘on faith’. Because the Biblical record must be true, the scientific evidence to the contrary is ignored. Very few Christians would actively advocate such a view, but it does still linger on in dogmatic circles, whether Roman Catholic, or protestant fundamentalist.

The second option is to try and interpret Genesis as a scientific document and fit the ‘scientific evidence’ to the Genesis account. ‘Creation science’, as it’s often termed, argues for the rapid laying down of rocks during the great flood of Noah’s time, which also provides a handy ‘extinction event’ as seen in the fossil record and possibly explains the anomaly of carbon-14 dating. As for the native Latin Americans, the reference in Genesis chapter 10, verse 25 to the earth being “divided” during Peleg’s lifetime (after the flood) is interpreted to mean the separation of the continents. This means that, like everybody else, the Latin Americans are descended from Noah.

Notwithstanding recent legal attempts to have creationism taught as a legitimate scientific alternative in North American schools, it should be noted that this interpretation of the scientific evidence is hotly disputed and dismissed by many scientists. While wanting to present ‘scientific’ proof for creation, creation scientists do of course operate in an unscientific manner, wanting to fit the evidence to the theory, not the other way around. In many ways, this is very similar to the first option, where something is believed by ‘faith’ and then the believer seeks to prove its truthfulness.

A third alternative is to accept that Genesis is a ‘myth’, in the technical sense of the word. ‘Myth’ does not mean ‘fairy tale’; a myth is an attempt to explain the existence of something or a set of circumstances in non-scientific terms. The reason behind the myth becomes the important thing, not the actual mechanics of the narrative. In this case, it is clear that the Genesis author wants to relate God’s involvement with the world from the beginning, God’s involvement with human beings, and the rejection of God by those self-same humans. It is perfectly reasonable to accept these mythologised truths, regardless of the scientific evidence.

Thanks for your question, AC – the first one on freelance theology from Brazil!

God’s regrets

Question from BC, Singapore

Did God regret the selection of Israelites as His people, because all the books of prophets seem to be against the Israelites?

While the prophetic books are often very critical of the way the Israelite people ‘forsook’ Yahweh and worshipped, for example, Baal and other Canaanite gods, it should be noted that the prophets generally sought to call Israel back to worshipping Yahweh, even while predicting terrible judgement.

In one sense the Old Testament contains the prophetic books that came true. In the stories surrounding Jeremiah there are several ‘prophets’ who ‘prophesy’ positive outcomes, in contrast to Jeremiah’s warnings of doom. It was Jeremiah’s predictions that happened and so, with the vantage point of history, the later compilers assumed he was a genuine prophet and his oracles were preserved, unlike the sayings of his contemporaries.

This is quite a cynical view of Biblical formation, but it must be borne in mind. Many of the prophets operated outside the rigid religious caste system. They usually did not belong to the priesthood and were often very critical of the organised religious activities. The fact that they were proved right in the end has played a very big part in their subsequent acceptance as ‘speaking from God’.

Within Christianity, the heritage of these prophets has been a sense that the Church has replaced Israel as God’s chosen people. Certainly there have been prominent theologians and writers who have virtually said that the Church has taken on this role because the Israelites ‘blew their chance’. The concept of ‘developing revelation’, where God reveals his will through the covenant with Abraham, the Law given to Moses, the Temple religion of the nation of Israel and finally the Incarnation, often explains the disobedience and disloyalty of the Israelites as a part of God’s plan. By showing that human beings could not succeed in living according to God’s directions, whether through the Law or the ‘witness of the prophets’, the necessity for God’s personal involvement in the world through the Incarnation was made clear.

Thanks for your question BC.

Lonely Adam

Question from DW, USA
In regards to Genesis chapter 2, verse 18 “And the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone…”
I have two problems with this passage, and feel I have reconciled them, but I would like your opinion. Please explain:
1. The fact that man “supposedly” was alone
2. The fact that there existed something that was “Not good”
I’ve read many commentaries and a lot of them skip over and never answer these questions.

There is much debate about how literally true Genesis is, but presuming that the author of Genesis wanted to present a seamless account of the creation of the world, these two things do cause a problem. In fact, it would seem that the creation story is a conflation of two accounts, one that describes the world being created in seven days, and the other the specific creation of named human beings.

If two different stories were merged into one it would explain why God “sees” everything as “good” in Genesis chapter 1, verse 31, but then later on there can be an aspect of this ‘completely good’ creation, which is ‘not good’. There is an abrupt shift in emphasis in Genesis chapter 2, verse 4, which is introduced as being “the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created.” In this second version of creation the characters of Adam and Eve, the archetypes of humanity, are introduced.

These creation accounts seek to explain not only the origins of humanity, but why humanity takes the form it does. In non-scientific terms, it is impressive that the conundrum of why a creature should exist in two distinct genders should be addressed at all. In Genesis chapter 2, the ‘weaker’ gender is introduced as a ‘helper’ to the ‘stronger’. There is possibly a strong element of later religious thought influencing this account. Most primitive religions of the Middle East revolved around fertility practices and reverence of the female gender as a life-bearer. As Israelite religion sought to establish worship of Yahweh as different from the Baal and Asherah worship, it would be a natural tendency to promote this creation account where the female is subordinate to the male, created merely to ‘help’. In this sense, the idea that ‘man’ was ‘alone’ before ‘woman’ was created implies an equality of intellectual status between women and men. There are no other animals like men, except women, and the author is presumably trying to explain why that should be so and why two genders would exist at all, but without affirming the feminine gender as greater than the male.

There is a school of thought that takes both the first chapters of Genesis entirely at face value and within this literal interpretation two conflicting arguments arise. One regards the current status of women as permanently subservient to men as a result of this secondary creation (thus echoing the apostle Paul’s use of this passage in 1 Corinthians chapter 11, verses 3-10). Others see this as a tremendous affirmation of women, translating ‘helper’ as ‘partner’, and claiming that this special creation account affirms the status of women as equal to men. It is, however, relatively unlikely that this statement of equality was the purpose of the author when these accounts were melded together.

Thanks for your question DW.