2013 National Conference
The Romantic Rationalist: God, Life, and Imagination in the Work of C.S. Lewis
This message appears as a chapter in The Romantic Rationalist: God, Life, and Imagination in the Work of C.S. Lewis.
The following is a lightly edited transcript of the panel discussion. David Mathis’s questions are in italics.
Let’s begin with some of our disagreements and places of tempered enthusiasm with C.S. Lewis. Phil and Randy already have noted his doctrines of Scripture and hell. Doug talked about some seeming inconsistencies in his soteriology. Any other theological concerns with Lewis worth noting here?
Douglas Wilson: Lewis was an Anglican who had no problem with the system of bishops and that sort of thing. So as Baptists and Presbyterians I think that we would say, all rightly, that we are not enthusiastic about bishops. But Lewis in another place acknowledges that Puritans were not the dour types. He says, “Bishops, not beer, were their chief aversion.” But he didn’t have a problem with that. So we don’t belong to the Church of England like he did, and he was a faithful churchman in that communion. I think that it’s a Christian communion, but I think that this issue would be a notable difference (more so back then than it is now), but that doesn’t go to the heart of anything significant.
So given the disagreements mentioned here and throughout the conference, why love Lewis? Why commend Lewis? Why speak at a conference on Lewis? What is it about Lewis that you would want to commend others to read?
John Piper: The way I had thought of the question is, “Why, John Piper, do you not only read him and like him and benefit from him but also have a conference on him? You wouldn’t do that with certain living people who believed what he believed.” That’s a true statement. So either I’m inconsistent or there’s something else going on. And it’s the other things that are going on that we were talking about. I’ll just mention one, and then these guys can be thinking about what the others are.
Lewis, unlike so many of the people whom I stumble over today, epistemologically was a realist, an objectivist. He loved objective truth. He believed in reason. He loved propositional truth. He was lucid. There was no spin in Lewis. There was no fuzz and no froth and no obfuscation. So that is a piece. I can go a long way with a person who may disagree with me on certain points if we’re both totally into what the Bible says is true and who believes that you can know it. And you are not trying to massage or conceal or soften the truth. So that’s one reason I’m just drawn to him and find so much help in him.
Philip Ryken: I think it’s a good reminder for even the theologians that we feel most affinity to. There are always some places of warning or imbalance. No one apart from our Lord himself is a perfect theologian. So I think reading C.S. Lewis reminds us of that. I would also say there are a lot of personal reasons for appreciating C.S. Lewis, and I can’t probably say with Doug that what I’ve learned from Lewis outweighs what I’ve learned from everybody else, but I will say no one has had a bigger impact on my Christian experience than C.S. Lewis. A lot of it was formative from childhood — what you learn about courage and what it means to live a life of faithfulness, even from the Narnian Chronicles. So, when you have an author who has that large of a life-shaping influence, you recognize the value and benefit of that writer.
Also just to say briefly that I think one thing that distinguishes Lewis from some of the people you may have in mind — living authors that you wouldn’t commend in a conference setting like this — is that Lewis is very clear that he wants to be in submission to the authority of Scripture. There are some people in the church today who you sometimes get the sense are standing a little bit in authority over Scripture and who have their own opinions. They sometimes think they know a little better than the Bible. You don’t get that sense from C.S. Lewis. He wants to be orthodox and in submission to God’s authority.
Randy Alcorn: I think, too, a lot of Christian leaders today are drifting, and they’ve grown up holding to truths that they are now departing from. Their trajectory is away from the gospel. Lewis came from atheism, moving to theism, then agnosticism, and then he came to a life-changing faith in Christ. He was growing in his life as he came from a world where he didn’t have the doctrinal reference points. And even though it’s not an excuse, his trajectory was always, in my opinion, toward the gospel — if not always, it was usually toward the gospel from the outside. Also, consider the fact that he did not profess to be a professional theologian. He just made that clear.
Now, of course, when you’re a person of influence you would wish that you would do more study in these different areas. But to me it’s so different because here’s a living, vibrant faith of someone who came from the outside. And for me as a young believer I soaked it up because I remember when I didn’t know God — like it was just three months ago. I didn’t know God, and he didn’t know God, and he came to know God, and he’s really smart. I can follow his line of reasoning. And my faith makes sense, and I can defend that faith. So to me, C.S. Lewis was a godsend, and his doctrinal weaknesses are real, but they’re not debilitating. And we should read him selectively as we should read everyone else selectively. Be like the Bereans, who were more noble than the Thessalonicans and searched the Scriptures daily to see whether these things are true (Acts 17:11).
Kevin Vanhoozer: I agree that the substance of Lewis is soundly orthodox, which is why I trust him. But I want to mention two other factors that appeal to me in particular. First, the quality of his writing. He has set the bar over which I keep stumbling. The work of the theologian and the preacher is, to a large extent, a ministry of the word. It’s word-craft. And Lewis was a master of the craft.
The second item I can think of is that he was a student of the classics. So he was less prone to be influenced by the prevailing winds of cultural fashion. He read old books. And he could see trends come and go, and some trends do come and go in different cultural guises. I think one thing that particularly impressed me was how he might have had his finger up and sensed the winds of postmodernity before it actually arrived. I’m thinking of an essay. It isn’t often discussed, but I really like it. It’s the one called “Bulverism.” I don’t think anybody’s used that term yet. But that essay tells a story.
Randy Alcorn: I was going to use that tonight, but I’m just going to leave it out.
Philip Ryken: Can you describe “Bulverism” for us?
Kevin Vanhoozer: It’s the name of a person in his little article. He imagines a boy. It was Eugene or Edward, something with an E, I think. And his last name is Bulver. And the little boy is listening to his parents argue, and at one point his mother says to his father, “Oh, you say that because you’re a man.” And for Bulver, a little light goes off, and he realizes, “I don’t have to answer the objection. I just have to point out where the person is coming from. Don’t deal with the arguments. Just identify their location.”
That is exactly what I see many postmoderns doing. They simply say reason is situated. It comes from here. You say that because you’re a conservative or because you’re a theist or because you’re a fill-in-the-blank. And then you don’t have to deal with the argument. You simply locate where it comes from. And Lewis actually had a name for it — Bulverism. Of course it doesn’t work if I meet a postmodernist. I can’t say, “You’re a Bulverist,” because no one knows what that is. But that impresses me about Lewis.
Douglas Wilson: If I could say what I appreciated — this will be a combination of what John and Kevin said. If we laid out all the areas where we agree and disagree with Lewis on an atemporal grid, we could add up the percentages and say that we agree this much or whatever. But if you look at the twentieth century and ask what the central error was, what’s the central heresy of our time? I think that relativism, subjectivism, me-ism is the central error of our time. And Lewis didn’t give an inch when it came to that sort of thing. He was virtually the only one standing in the gap, fighting that particular battle. And I’ll take it. I love that man because he’s contra mundum. He’s against the world. At a particular time when all of the world is going one way, he’s not going there. The places where I think I disagree with him, I’m reassured because — going back to the doctrine of Scripture — he doesn’t say something like, “There are mistakes in Scripture because there are miracles, and, of course, miracles don’t happen.” His reasoning is completely in another direction — I think wrong, but he’s not being blown by the spirit of the age. He called himself “an old Western man,” a dinosaur. And that’s what we needed at that point in time.
So personally in what ways has Lewis shaped you in who you are now? Particular insights? Concepts? Particular places where he says things? How have you been shaped by him?
John Piper: Chronological snobbery came along as a reality he alerted me to in my twenties, which said that something is not truer because it’s newer but that the old may be more beautiful and more true. So don’t ever equate new with better. That puts you out of step with your century very quickly. Which is a wonderful place to be. There’s a freedom in being a dinosaur in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. That was a huge one for me. Love old things. Assess things by virtue of absolute and eternal standards, not by how trendy and cool they are.
The second one for me was what Alan Jacobs calls an “omnivorous attentiveness.” That means Lewis saw things. And I think that’s part of what you’re getting at, Kevin. Lewis has such great eyes. He saw things. And Clyde Kilby, who embodied him for me, saw the world in a similar way. He saw trees, and he saw toads. He refers to toads a lot. And he taught me that nothing interesting can be said about toads. The only thing that can be said is that this toad has bulging eyes and bumps on his back and bumps a funny way when he jumps.
In other words, he helped me escape from the dangers of abstraction and move toward concreteness. And when I’ve taught preaching with some of the guys that are out there, I’m just pleading continually toward concreteness, which is almost the same as what we’ve been saying about likening or metaphor, but it’s not the same. To move from a tree to an oak and from an oak to the white oak and from the white oak to the one in the front yard and from the one in the front yard to the one where you carved your initials when you were engaged to your wife — it moves down to a kind of reality that’s engaging and palpable and moving to people. And so those two things are what I learned from Lewis — chronological snobbery and being omnivorously attentive to concreteness.
Randy Alcorn: For me as a brand-new Christian — a teenager reading Lewis — the main lesson I learned was probably the love of God and the fear of God coming together in one person, Aslan, Lewis’s portrayal of Jesus Christ, where you see Mr. Beaver respond to one of the children’s questions, “Is the lion safe?” Mr. Beaver answers, “Safe? No, he’s not safe, but he’s good.” And then we love how Mr. Beaver states that Aslan is not a tame lion. We love the appropriate fear the children felt when they heard his roar. There was this response to his might and then the tenderness and the love and the great romp, and the children — Lucy in particular — grabbing onto his mane. I could see loving this God — and his love for me — and yet simultaneously I saw my need to never interpret his goodness as meaning he was tame, as if I could get him to do what I wanted him to do. It was really all about him and not about me, and yet he truly did love me. That was just formative to a huge degree for me.
Douglas Wilson: My folks read the Narnia stories to me. It started when I was five, and the books were still coming out, I think, in 1958. It was just all new and fresh. And I remember, for example, in Prince Caspian when Trumpkin doesn’t believe in Aslan, but he’s fighting on the good guys’ side. And he doesn’t believe in the horn, but they’re just debating whether to blow the horn, and so they finally decide to do it. And then Dr. Cornelius says, “Well, we’ll have to send two messengers out to different places where the help might come.” And Trumpkin says, “I knew it. The first result of this tomfoolery is we’re going to lose two fighters and not get help.” Then someone does some backchat, and then Trumpkin volunteers to be one of the people to go. And someone says, “But, Trumpkin, I thought you didn’t believe in the horn.” And he says, “No more I do, your majesty. But I know the difference between giving advice and taking orders. You’ve had my advice. Now’s the time for orders.” Exactly! I’ve given you my input. And I learned authority from that.
So Lewis was a man under authority. It goes back to what I said earlier about him rejecting the subjectivist goo. He was a man under authority. But then it’s not blind authority. It’s not, “Wind me up and point me in the right direction,” because Trumpkin goes on a mission he doesn’t believe in just because he knows the difference between giving advice and taking orders. Someone suggests, “Well, why don’t we bring in some ogres and hags and everybody?” And someone says, “Well, if we did that we wouldn’t have Aslan on our side.” And Trumpkin says, “What matters more is that you wouldn’t have me on your side. All right? You bring in the ogres and hags, I’m gone.” But if there’s a policy disagreement in the boardroom, we take the vote and then I am all in. I’m going to take orders and I’m all in. I’m going to pursue that.
That’s the way story shapes someone’s whole outlook. Trumpkin comes up in my thoughts in long board meetings when it doesn’t look like the vote’s going to go the right way. Ugh. Okay. Be a Trumpkin.
Philip Ryken: That’s exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about. I remember a time when a group of people thought they were acting in the interest of our group, but it would involve a lack of integrity that I was not willing to go along with. Even as they started to make the argument to me, I was able to say, “You know who I am. You know that there’s nothing you can say that will convince me otherwise.” I think that kind of character for me came from going through the wardrobe with Lucy and from being on the decks of the Dawn Treader with Reepicheep. It just shapes your life and character, and that’s one of the reasons why it’s so great to read the Narnia Chronicles to children. It shapes their lives.
Kevin Vanhoozer: I can think of four ways Lewis has influenced me as a reader.
Randy Alcorn: Is the first one Bulverism? No?
Kevin Vanhoozer: The first one was a humbling experience where he says you really aren’t a reader if you only read a book once and leave it at that. And that was an “aha” moment for me. Second, he encouraged me to read an old book or maybe more than one old book for every new book I read. Third, he said you have to get the genre of a text right. You have to know what kind of a text you’re reading. This is true of everything. Are you dealing with a corkscrew, he asks, or a cathedral? The question of genre, right identification of the kind of thing we’re reading, comes first. I’ve made mistakes in genre. When I first read Jane Austen, I thought it was a serious story. I didn’t catch the social satire in Pride and Prejudice. That’s awful. It’s a good thing I read that book twice.
But the most important way in which Lewis has influenced me — and again this is a book we haven’t yet talked about — is his An Experiment in Criticism. He distinguishes using a book from interpreting or receiving it. We use books when we subject them to our will. We have the will to power as interpreters, and we make them say and do what we will. Receiving a text is quite different. One has to be spiritually humble. One has to be open to the proposal being made. It reminded me that reading itself can be an exercise in sanctification. Am I going to open myself up in all humility and receive the Word rather than twist it for my own purposes?
On that note, are there any obscure pieces Lewis wrote, like essays or his various letters, that you’d want to mention here? Is there perhaps something you have found to be gold in Lewis but don’t hear commended often and would like to share?
Douglas Wilson: Two things, one more obscure than the other. He did an essay or a little booklet called The Literary Impact of the Authorized Version. He’s just discussing the impact of the King James Version of the Bible. It’s obscure, delightful. It’s just very good. Less obscure but one I would commend is A Preface to Paradise Lost, which is not one of the top sellers, but there is some gold in that one.
Kevin Vanhoozer: As a theologian I have to mention, because you mention his Preface to Paradise Lost, his preface to Athanasius’s treatise On the Incarnation. This was Lewis’s introduction to a most important theologian, someone who was instrumental in carving out the doctrine of the Trinity in the fourth century, but he was particularly commenting on why it’s important to get into the meat and potatoes of the doctrine of the incarnation and to let Athanasius do it.
There’s another one in an essay called “Transposition” where you ask something obscure. I’m not sure I have a good grasp of what he is talking about, but it has to do with how lower things can be taken up into a higher medium and somehow become themselves, yet they remain themselves and yet they’re transfigured in some way. Owen Barfi thought that “Transposition” might be the closest thing Lewis had to a theory of the imaginations. I’m still mulling that over.
Philip Ryken: I would just really appeal to people. Even if you’ve read ten things by C.S. Lewis, there are probably at least ten more that would be an absolute delight for you. It’s worth taking a little effort to find what some of those pieces are. I mean it’s all great stuff. It really is — all of it. There are probably a few people at the conference who have read everything by Lewis. I certainly haven’t read everything by Lewis. Even being here for these days has inspired me to go back and pull some things off the shelf and track down some things that I should read.
Randy Alcorn: One thing that comes to mind for me is Letters to an American Lady, which is not often quoted from, but the discipline of writing has been mentioned. This was something that was a huge burden for Lewis, and it was a service that he believed God had called him to do. And it required great sacrifice on his part. One time he wrote to this American lady, “Could you please not write to me on the holidays? I receive many more letters around Easter and Christmas, and it takes away some of the joy of the holidays.” So you get that feel for it. Then he goes right on to answer in detail her letter.
I remember one in particular that was only five months before Lewis died where the American lady, whose name in real life was Mary, was writing and talking about her fear of death and that maybe she was dying. And then he writes back to her: “Your sins are confessed. Has this world been so kind to you that you really feel you must stay?” Then he says, “Entrust yourself to God.” Relax. Give yourself over to him. Then he says, “And this might not really be the time for your death.” And then he says, “But make it a good rehearsal. Prepare for the day when it really will be your time.” Then he signs off with something like, “Your fellow traveler who is also tired and ready to leave this world, Jack.”
There are many other valuable little nuggets in his letters, certainly his letters to children. I do not respond personally to every letter from an adult, but I’ve made a policy that I will always respond to children. Lewis has been a huge example for me in that area, although he did much more of it and was much more sacrificial, because of the influence on a single person. I praise God for all those letters he wrote that we can benefit from now. So if you have not read his letters, please, please do. They’re very rich.
Philip Ryken: Now I know how to get Randy to respond to my correspondence. I’ll just put, “I’m an eight-year-old college president.” You mention the letters, and it called to mind another obscure book of C.S. Lewis’s, The Latin Letters of C.S. Lewis, a correspondence in Latin to a Roman Catholic priest in Italy, I believe. It’s in that book, I think, that he talks about his practice of praying for the lost. Lewis is writing to somebody who’s kind of discouraged, not really seeing God at work in the world (in his opinion). And he agrees with that. So he says something along the lines of, “Sometimes you wonder what God is really doing. But I have a list in my journal of people I pray for who do not know Christ, and I have a list of people for whom I give thanks because they have come to Christ. The transference of people from one list to another is encouraging as I see God answering prayer over time.” I wonder if people know about that aspect of Lewis’s prayer life. Those are the kinds of gems you can find in some of these other writings.
John Piper: I want to address people who may not be book readers — they don’t read books because they’re too long and they just don’t have the time. I think Lewis has dozens and dozens of two- to ten- page essays, and they’re all worth reading. You can find them in God in the Dock and Christian Reflections. I’ve got an eight-hundred-page book that’s not in print anymore, if you could find it, called Essay Collection and Other Short Pieces. Just some night sit on a chair, take a half hour to read a short piece, and it will be gold for you, almost any of them.
Randy Alcorn: One of those pieces, “Life on Other Planets,” is very interesting reading. I mean, it’s something that appeals. The breadth of what he wrote these short essays on is amazing.
John Piper: Yeah. There’s even one called “Bicycles.”
Let’s talk about joviality. Doug, I think many of us are excited for the jovial Calvinistic vision at the end of your chapter. Describe the forms that jovial Calvinism takes in this world of pain and suffering.
Douglas Wilson: I guess the first thing I would say is that you have to be careful that the joviality is not sort of a Dr. Pangloss, like out of Candide, where someone who’s going through a terrible world of suffering is not clued in to what’s happening. That’s not joviality. That’s not someone who is responding appropriately. He needs to be dialed in. True joviality, I think, has to be understood as an act of defiance. The world is a mess. It is fallen. It’s filled with wickedness. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe the White Witch comes across the feast in the woods and asks, “Why all this gluttony? Why all this self-indulgence?” Lewis captures that wonderfully.
Judas is the one who wants to know why the ointment was not sold and given to the poor. Judas is the one who is being the skinflint. Judas was the one pinching the pennies — and there was a reason for that, as John tells us. The White Witch captures that wonderfully. If you’re celebrating at some Sabbath dinner, or you’re celebrating because you’ve never heard of any of the conflict, then you just are not clued in. But if you are at Rivendell, The Last Homely House — if you’re feasting — then it’s an act of defiance. It’s a declaration of war. It’s the recognition that this is how we fight. We are the cheerful warriors, the happy warriors, the cavalier. We should fight like a cavalier. We should fight like Dartanian and not like a thug. Right? We need to fight. We must fight, but the person who fights like a cavalier is an attractive leader. He’s going to attract more people to his side. He’s going to be more effective.
Think about a pro-life activist who says, “But they’re killing babies, and it’s terrible. And the whole world’s falling apart. The whole world’s going to hell.” So they write their letter to the editor with a fisted crayon — what I like to call the spittle-flecked letter. That is, they can’t say, “But abortion’s so important, I’ve got to do it this way.” I would say no. Abortion is so important that you must not do it that way. You’re not venting; you’re fighting. And if you fight, you want to fight effectively. You want to use your head. You want to keep your cool. And part of this is, I think, essentially joviality.
Joe Rigney’s talk yesterday was wonderful, and he pinpointed King Lune as the quintessential jolly man. He’s king of Archenland. But he’s the quintessential jovial character. He’s not a pacifist. He’s first in and last out. He is the fighting king, but he’s the kind of fighting king that I would want to follow. There are people who are so hard-bitten — they’re so disillusioned — that they’re not going to motivate anybody to do anything. So that’s in a nutshell what I would say.
Philip Ryken: Joviality is not the only mood of the Christian life, but somebody that does not have a godly, sanctified joviality perhaps has a one-dimensional or not as fully human expression of the Christian life. The New Testament seems to present both fasting and feasting as normative for the Christian experience — both lamentation and celebration. Most of us find it hard to get the balance or proportion right, but those are both strongly held values in the Gospels. And C.S. Lewis is one of the best exemplars we can think of as the jovial Christian.
Douglas Wilson: Yeah. The apostle Paul says in Corinthians, “We are sorrowful yet always rejoicing.” So you can go through afflictions. There’s tears and bruises and hard times, and that’s what I think a biblical joviality means. Death is swallowed up by victory at the end, and we must never forget that.
John Piper: It seems to me that there are two ways to talk about how the groaning and grieving and weeping fit together with the rejoicing. One is to say they’re always simultaneous. That’s 2 Corinthians 6:10. “Sorrowful yet always rejoicing.” In other words, they’re coextensive. It’s not sequential, like you’re happy on Sunday and then sad on Monday because you just saw somebody who’s starving on Monday and didn’t think about him on Sunday. That’s not what that verse means. However, in the next chapter Paul says, “I’m thankful that I grieved you but not because it was an end in itself but because you were grieved unto repenting, which leads to life and no regret” [see 2 Corinthians 7:8–11]. Now there is something sequential about that.
Or consider James 4:8–9, “Weep and wail, you sinners. Cleanse your hearts, you double-minded.” He means get it done. Finish it, and then have a party. So there’s two ways that are tough. They’re both tough. One is simultaneous happiness all the time in tears, and the other is getting the sequence and proportionality of the rhythm of feasting and fasting, weeping and rejoicing rightly. I find personally both of those very difficult. I almost never am satisfied that I got it right. There’s so many hurting people, and there’s so many reasons to be happy that it’s hard to nail that proportion for my family, for myself, for my church, and for my friends. So I’m just welcoming you to get in step with the Holy Spirit. We know that he can be grieved and that he is the Spirit whose second fruit is joy.
Douglas Wilson: If you have a true community of believers, if you are plugged into a church and are a vibrant member of that church and you take the words of the Scripture seriously, “Weep with those who weep; rejoice with those who rejoice,” then you find yourself having to do a lot of those things in quick succession. You’ve got the funeral on Wednesday and the wedding on Friday or the funeral on Wednesday and the wedding rehearsal Thursday evening and then the wedding on Friday. And you’ve got to go from one to the other.
We’re not called to schizophrenic scatteredness. We are called to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice. The thing I must have to orient me in all of this is the recognition at all times that this is a comedy, not a tragedy. This ends well. It is comedy not in the sense of a sitcom, but comedy in the sense of The Divine Comedy, where it ends well. So it begins with a garden. The Bible begins with a garden and ends with a garden city. It ends with the bride coming down the aisle. That’s how it ends. That’s the story I’m in. So if I’m preaching the funeral of someone whose death just shocked the whole congregation, do I know where I am? Do I know what kind of book I’m in? This goes back to your point of knowing the genre. Do I know the genre of the history of the world? It’s a comedy.
Randy Alcorn: Many of you have had this experience. Certainly when I’ve been doing memorial services, the therapy of laughter occurs as certain stories are told about the loved one who’s departed and is now with the Lord, and you’ll have tears just streaming down your face and then laughter — and it’s not a superficial laughter. It’s a laughter that is an overcoming laughter. It’s a laughter that says we know a God of joy, a God who is eternally happy, and we’ll be happy for all eternity, and we’ll be with him and enjoying that happiness, and our loved one has gone on to be with him. That doesn’t minimize our tears, but it does give a tone to the memorial service that’s remarkable. There are times when laughter is louder at memorial services than in a normal context, and when it’s done for those reasons it’s Christ-centered laughter. I think it’s very healthy.
Let’s come back to likening. All five of you guys are writers who use likening in your writing — some more, some less. How intentional is the use of likening? And how much of it have you picked up through reading Lewis and others? How do you think through that as a writer?
John Piper: I don’t think it matters whether you must work at it or whether it oozes, provided it doesn’t sound like you work at it. A lot of bad writing is likening that’s awkward and mechanical and wooden and doesn’t work. The best remedy for that is to read a lot of good writers, and Lewis is hard to improve upon. The reason I moved from saying that I didn’t want you to think of Lewis as a likener, in that he wrote novels but also ruthlessly logical essays with saturations of likening, is so that you would all apply that to yourselves. I hope that in conversations you’ll be more given to likening, to putting into words in a little conversation you have over supper tonight that what you experienced earlier today was like this. That will be interesting, and it will be illuminating.
So my answer to the question, “How do you think about it?” is: Yes, think about it, and think about it long enough so that you take all the steps necessary so that you don’t need to be artificial or wooden or mechanical about it but so it just kind of flows.
Douglas Wilson: Lewis says something, I think it’s in a short essay about liturgy— one of you can correct me — but he’s talking about learning the steps of liturgy. He compares it to learning how to dance. When you’re first learning how to dance, you’re not dancing with your beloved; you’re counting. You know, one-two-three, one-two- three, one-two-three.
Philip Ryken: Or one-two-three-oops.
Douglas Wilson: Yeah, one-two-three-oops.
Philip Ryken: One-two-three-sorry.
Douglas Wilson: One-two-sorry. One-sorry.
John Piper: I’ve never had that experience.
Douglas Wilson: Lewis says that when you’re first doing it, you’re thinking about one thing, but you’re deliberately doing it so that you may get it into your muscle memory, and then you can think about it. When you learn how to dance, you can think about the one you’re dancing with and not have to worry about the math. He says liturgy is the same way. He says that he didn’t much mind what liturgy the Church of England picked as long as they would pick one and keep it that way so that he could learn it and then think about God as he did the steps. Well, I would say it’s the same sort of thing with metaphor and learning to write. If you’re wanting to be a writer, you should be very intentional to ransack books and read dictionaries.
You should also be very intentional to write things down. But you should focus on that so that after the early stages it just becomes routine, and things just come to you unbidden. John Bunyan says a wonderful thing at the beginning of Pilgrim’s Progress, I think in the poem. He said, “And as I pulled, it came,” talking about inspiration. As I pulled, it came. You prime the pump and get to a certain point where it just starts happening. You’ve learned how to do it. So I invest at the front end what I would say.
Kevin Vanhoozer: I’ve written a whole book on likening — seeing the Christian life as a drama. I began to pull at that, and it just kept coming and coming. And it didn’t feel artificial. It felt organic, and I felt challenged, and I was caught up in my metaphor. There’s a certain sense that we will know a good metaphor by its fruit, a good likening by its fruit, not just how many pages can you write, but what kind of impact on your life it is having. Is it drawing you into the gospel farther up and farther in?
Philip Ryken: We had a great example of that from Kevin today in his talk “Discipleship as Waking Up.” I thought it was great when you came to the end of the transfiguration, and there were even details in the biblical text that were really coming to the fore because of this metaphoric world of waking up that you were presenting to us. We had a great example today of how effective it can be in communicating the gospel.
Kevin, you’ve written a lot on postmodernity. A couple of questions could be, “Has Lewis already said what he would say to postmodernity?” And, “If he came along seventy-five years later, what might he say today to our context?”
Kevin Vanhoozer: Well, we’ve already mentioned the negative critique. That’s too Bulveristic. I want to say that again: Bulveristic. What would he see that’s encouraging? He might see imagination. But as we’ve heard from John, it has been unhooked — unhooked from the horse that should be pulling it, which is a particular epistemology. In my paper I was trying to use the words discipline and disciple quite a bit. The imagination must not be undisciplined, and it must not be hooked to some other horse. You know, we’ve got to make sure that we’re following the authoritative imagining that we have in Scripture.
There’s a book out there called Metaphorical Theology, and the author says, “I’m just doing what the Bible is doing. The Bible uses metaphors. I’m using metaphors.” But in this case — it’s a woman — she uses this idea of metaphorical theology to invent her own metaphors, so she is not disciplined by biblical images. Instead of seeing God as Father and Lord, she suggests that we see God as mother and comrade. Well, those images carry a host of associations, and some of them may be less helpful than others. But the point is that she doesn’t recognize the authority of the biblical imagination. So I’m not sure that Lewis would be all that encouraged to see more people imagining if the imagination is not being disciplined with the authority of Scripture.
John Piper: So, practically, how do these folks do that phrase, “biblically disciplined imagination”? What’s that? What do those first two words means for their daily life?
Kevin Vanhoozer: It means we need to exchange the metaphors of the stories we live by. We need to get rid of the worldly metaphors and stories we live by — stories about what it is to be a success, for example — and we need to try to learn what success looks like in biblical terms. Success in biblical terms isn’t necessarily a matter of how many people recognized you or how much money you made. Success is about our faithful witness to Jesus. This might be a matter of becoming poor for his sake — of giving up everything. That doesn’t look like wisdom when you have certain metaphors and stories that the world tells us. So we have to deprogram ourselves.
John Piper: And the means of doing that, I would presume, is marinating your brain in the Bible.
Kevin Vanhoozer: If you steep yourself in Scripture, first of all, a lot of the false masks will come off. I think there’s a moment of deprogramming. Just as Genesis 1 tells the true story of the creation, it also reveals other stories as myths to some extent. There’s a certain demythologizing that goes on in Genesis. But if we accept the biblical story as the true story, it will challenge other stories we’ve been living by. Marination is a good idea.
Douglas Wilson: One thing I would add is that we must be steeped in Scripture. Charles Spurgeon once said of John Bunyan that if you pricked him anywhere, his blood would run bibline. He would bleed Bible verses. But we can’t just bleed Bible verses or bleed doctrines. We have to bleed narratival structures. We have to bleed the exile in return, death, and resurrection. We have to bleed the structure or the story arc. That’s part of what we have to be steeped in. There’s a great chapter in a great book by Chesterton. The book is Orthodoxy, and the chapter is “The Ethics of Elfland.” There, he shows how fairy stories are all biblically structured narratives. So I’ll just make up one on the spot.
Once upon a time, there was a little boy named Tommy, and he lived in a green castle on the edge of the sea. And his fairy godmother came to him one day and said, “Under no circumstances are you to go into the north tower.”
Now, you all know what’s going to happen. Tommy’s going to go into the north tower. Something really bad is going to happen as a consequence. And there’s going to be an opportunity for redemption, and everything’s going to be put right somehow at the cost of a great sacrifice on someone’s part. How do we know that? We’ll that’s the garden of Eden. That’s the history of the world. The history of Tommy is Everyman. Tommy is Adam. And we should recognize that kind of structure instantly. Fairy stories do that. Folk stories do that. In our modern world we try to mess with the structure, and we’re impudent and disobedient and running away from the Bible.
Randy Alcorn: One of the things about story that comes to my mind, as it sort of connects to what we’ve been talking about, is the modern emphasis. I think Lewis would say there’s good in this. People are talking about story and how our lives are stories and how we are to live out our story the way it was intended to be lived. But there’s a huge downside to that. I see many believers now kind of celebrating my story — the story of my life. It’s like we’re becoming the stars of our teeny, little stories. It’s my story. It’s about me, and there’s a whole bunch of them. Instead, we should see God’s expansive story in which I am to be a role player in a small part in his great story, which is so much better than being the star of some pitiful, miserable little story that’s all about me. I think that’s one of the things that Lewis would see through right away with some of the discussion about telling our stories. Fine. Let’s tell our stories. Let’s talk about what God has done in our lives and how he may intend for me to live out my little place in his big story.
Douglas Wilson: One of the ways you can tell if people are doing the “me story” thing is if they are constantly plugged into their iPhone with ear buds so they can have a soundtrack. They’re walking down the street with the soundtrack going, glancing at semi-mirrors of the storefront windows and watching themselves in their movie.
John Piper: What if they’re listening to Doug Wilson?
Douglas Wilson: Then they’re seriously screwed up.
A final question. Maybe for those here who haven’t yet spent much time with Lewis or for a younger generation, loving Lewis wouldn’t just be an evangelical Boomer phenomenon, but Millennials would love him too. If you’re going to boil it down and say one thing to a younger generation, to those who don’t know Lewis yet, why? Why spend time with him? Why be influenced and shaped by Lewis?
Randy Alcorn: Well, Lewis said that George MacDonald baptized his imagination. God used C.S. Lewis to baptize my imagination in a way that George MacDonald never could. And I think with Lewis, some of the people whom he so admired and drew from, I read them and I think, “This is fine.” But Lewis is the one whom God has used in the lives of so many people. You think of the number of people just in terms of quantity. Chuck Colson, who is with the Lord now, for many years would talk about how God used Mere Christianity in his life.
If you poll a large number of people and ask, “What books have had a huge impact on your life?” Mere Christianity is going to come up toward the top on almost every one of those lists. And then you’ll get Narnia, and sometimes you’ll get more obscure things of Lewis. His space trilogy had a tremendous impact on me. I would say just by sheer numbers of people who have gone before you, your chances of being highly influenced for the good through C.S. Lewis are very high.
Douglas Wilson: Lewis said somewhere about Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene that to read Spenser is an exercise in mental health. I would say the same thing about reading Lewis. He is a bracing dose of sanity in a world gone mad. I think we need that kind of engaged touchstone. I think he’s just wonderful. And if I might, I’d like to say — if you’ve never read Lewis — I would just encourage you to start simple with something like The Screwtape Letters. It’s very accessible and just straight in. I’d like to mention that my favorite Lewis book is probably That Hideous Strength. I think it’s one of the great novels of the twentieth century, and it’s just glorious.
Philip Ryken: Maybe taking my cue from the talk last night — romantic, rationalist, likener, evangelist — and seeing it a slightly different way, Lewis shows us a person whose heart and head were both completely captive to Jesus Christ, combined in one person who could see from what was in this world the things that were pointing us to another world in ways that led him to want to share so that people would understand the gospel. I think there are a lot of people who would love to be a whole person — heart and head — for Jesus Christ, taking what’s in the world and seeing what’s missing in the world, pointing people to another world. C.S. Lewis can help you do that as well as anybody I know.
John Piper: If the misgiving of a millennial is that he appeals to baby boomers, the answer is, he was already totally out of date in the 1930s. Therefore he’s no more out of date today than he was then. Since he was out of date in the 1930s, he is perpetually relevant. You don’t need any more cool, hip, relevant people. You need somebody with roots who is so bright intellectually and so creative imaginatively that he communicates to your deepest needs.
I would just piggyback on your piggybacking on me and say you are all romantics, and you’re all rationalists. You are made in the image of a God who is joyful, and you’re made in the image of a God who is rational. And Lewis will, by being so healthy in both of those, awaken the best in you. Whether you’re twenty-five or sixty-five, we want that. It feels wonderful to have our romantic and rational sides made whole — made healthy by having somebody talk to us out of the context of such remarkable mental health.
Douglas Wilson: Speaking of relevance, Lewis once said, “Whatever’s not eternal is eternally out of date.”
Would you close us in prayer, John?
John Piper: Let’s pray. Father, we’ve said it already and we’ll say it again, that we are gathered here to see you and the path of discipleship with Jesus, crucified and risen, through the lens of your servant C.S. Lewis. So increase the clarity of that lens for us now. And may the entirety of our time together awaken affections that may have died or may have never existed, and sharpen thinking that may have grown dull so that we come alive to what you’ve made us to be and can be better representatives of you in our creative language and our articulate doctrine. I commend these brothers and sisters to you now, in Jesus’s name. Amen.
More Messages from Desiring God 2013 National Conference
In Bright Shadow: C.S. Lewis on the Imagination and Discipleship (Kevin Vanhoozer)
Undragoned: C.S. Lewis on the Gift of Salvation (Douglas Wilson)