In the last episode, in episode 82, we talked about your early impressions of C. S. Lewis beginning for you when you read Mere Christianity in 1964. In light of the upcoming national conference here in the Twin Cities, what have been Lewis’s most enduring marks on you and your ministry?
Well, any time I am asked the question of influence I always have to plead I could be wrong. Because I think we are influenced in ways and by people we wouldn’t even understand completely. So here is my best effort to describe some of the marks that are still on me that come from C. S. Lewis.
Number one, Lewis exposed my adolescent chronological snobbery. He is known for that. Chronological snobbery says things are better because they are new, and they are worse because they are old. Lewis comes along and says nothing is better for being new and nothing is worse for being old. It is like saying an idea you had on Thursday is better than the idea you had on Tuesday. I think that is the way Chesterton put it. Centuries don’t make truth go away.
“Lewis blew away my immature, silly objections that what is old is bad.”
After curing me of this pride, he said the old has very special value because when you read an old book it doesn’t have the same blind spots and prejudices that your new books do. Therefore it has the unique potential of freeing you from things in your culture and in your life that you don’t even know you are captivated by. I think this is why I love the Puritans and why I love Edwards. This is why, when I go out to pasture as a hungry sheep on Monday after pouring myself out for my flock, I almost always go back a few centuries because there is something about the air those older, Bible-saturated saints breath that contemporary writers by and large don’t have.
Lewis blew away my immature, silly objections that what is old is bad and exposed the superficiality of always trying to be current. I mean isn’t it amazing that so many of us hear read so and so all the time. I kind of feel, oh, shoot, I haven’t read that yet. I don’t want to give the impression that I am unread. And isn’t that awful? I mean, that is just vanity through and through to have feelings like that. And he has been so helpful.
Number two, he saw the sheer amazing wonder that things exist. Not that Jimmy Durante had a huge, knobbly humped nose and Richard Nixon had a ski slope nose, but that everyone you meet on the street has a nose.
“Lewis saw the sheer amazing wonder that things exist.”
He just looked at the world and said, “Isn’t that amazing? Look. They have noses. And the holes in the noses are out the bottom and not the top so the rain won’t go in. And they are not on the front like a pig so the wind won’t blow on them and make funny sounds like a whistle.”
He saw frogs, bees, whales, stars, planets, clouds, roses, azaleas, peaches, pecans, red, blue, yellow, the feel of sandpaper, glass, the smell of bacon, and new mown grass. Every time I walk over to church around about April I hear the first robin sing. I think I hear the first robin sing because of C. S. Lewis, because a lot of people don’t ever hear the first robin sing. He saw and then he said what he saw in the most amazingly concrete ways. He simply looked at the two great books of God — the Bible and the world — and he taught me the sheer wonder of the this-ness (that is what quiddity means the this-ness of things).
Logic and Romance
Number three is the coming together of logic and romance — precise thinking and powerful feeling. I fell in love with reasoning in a 10th grade geometry class. The next year, in the 11th grade, I fell in love with literature, reading, and poetry. Two years later I met C. S. Lewis, and he put those two together as I never thought they could be.
“Lewis impacted not only the way I see the past or I think about logic and feeling, but the way I communicate.”
Lewis was somebody who was as razor sharp in his thinking and reasoning as anybody I ever heard and somebody who was explosively vividly and powerfully imaginative. Those two things have marked my ministry probably as much as much as anything — the juxtaposition of logic and imagination or romance or feeling or poetry. Lewis is the one who wakened that sense that they are together. They are not separate.
One more thing, Lewis taught me the power of concreteness and the weakness of abstraction in the way we communicate. In my preaching over the years, I have tried to follow this. For example, don’t say it is like a tree. Say, rather, it is like an oak tree. No, say, rather, it is like the oak tree on the green hill in front of the house where I grew up. No, don’t say that. Say it is like the oak tree on the green hill in front of the house where I grew up that had a perpendicular branch about 18 inches thick so strong a wooden swing hung from it for two people to swing on a warm summer evening just beside the trunk where Noel and I carved our initials in the summer of 1968. Say that.
Do you see the difference? Abstractions are boring summaries and generalities. So much of what we think and do today teaches students to think in generalities, to think in abstractions. And Lewis said, “You will be a powerless communicator if you don’t get specific, particular, touchable, seeable, and smellable.”
So the impact of Lewis is not just on the way I see the past or the way I think about logic and feeling, but the way I think about communication has been huge to this day.