Pizza! Pizza! Lewis at Little Caesars

Small Talk — 2013 National Conference

The Romantic Rationalist: God, Life, and Imagination in the Work of C.S. Lewis

This is a story of discovery and CS Lewis was my guide. It all happened because of one late afternoon in the spring of Minnesota when I heard these words:

Now, this is a story all about how My life got flipped-turned upside down And I’d like to take a minute Just sit right there I’ll tell you how I became the prince of a town called Bel-Air

Theology, Pizza, and the Fresh Prince

Now the story actually starts in the morning of this same spring day when I packed up my books and drove to the Dunn Brothers Coffee Shop here in downtown Minneapolis off of Third Avenue. I went there to study and indeed that’s what I did. I spent several hours there of hard thinking and reflection and prayer on The End for Which God Created the World, along with musings about God’s aseity and the relationship between his incomprehensibility and his analogical revelation. I was in the Himalayas of truth.

I had a glorious time of almost uninhibited insight, if I can remember this day correctly. But the problem is that I can’t. That day of study has become legendary to my brain. It’s become one of those days that now, every time afterwards when I sit down to read, something in my head reminds me of this day the same way that a washed up minor league pitcher talks about the no-hitter he threw in high school. Somewhere deep in my person, it was decided that this one event of study will be called the glory days of my scholastic experience. I really just cannot let this day go. It was that wonderful of a day, which is why it is so strange that on the late afternoon of this same spring day I found myself standing in line at a Little Caesars Pizza place about to order a five-dollar Hot-N-Ready.

Now, for those of you who are unfamiliar, a Little Caesars five-dollar Hot-N-Ready is a large pizza, either cheese or pepperoni, that is prepared in advance for you with this heat-maintained, big incubator until it’s then sold to you as food for only five dollars. Now, this is all true. This product really exists. And on this day, this late afternoon, I was at Little Caesars to purchase this pizza as dinner for my entire family for only five dollars. Now, there’s some more important information to include here. This particular Little Caesars is located in the inner city next to a liquor store.

So get this, I’m in inner-city Minneapolis waiting in line to order a five-dollar pizza inside of a Little Caesars next to a liquor store. As I’m standing in line, as you can imagine, I was surrounded by cultural elites and in the background, blasting from the TV, were these words:

Now, this is a story all about how My life got flipped-turned upside down And I’d like to take a minute Just sit right there I’ll tell you how I became the prince of a town called Bel-Air

And of course I thought, “What else can make this whole experience more meaningful than an early nineties rerun of the fresh Prince of Bel-Air?” Except this time, unlike usual, I didn’t sing along with the only rap song I’ve memorized. I stood there, I looked around, and I hated the fact that I was there compared to the reality I had just tasted an hour before. I felt like a contradiction. The atmospheric pressures of my self-understanding were colliding.

There was this euphoric experience of insight, and then there was the fact that my whole family eats Little Caesars Pizza. I could not reconcile the legitimate existence of these realities. There was a crisis here. I had these thoughts about God at the coffee shop, and then there’s the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and the fact that I memorized the theme song. Which of these were true, which of these experiences were real?

The Complexity and Simplicity of Prayer

That’s where CS Lewis helps in chapter 15 of his Letters to Malcolm. Throughout the correspondence with Malcolm, Betty, who is Malcolm’s wife and has been the silent third in their dialogue, apparently accused Lewis of over-complicating prayer. And so he responds to this charge by first explaining why prayer is not as simple for him, as perhaps it should be. And then he explains his process of getting back to simplicity.

Now for Lewis, the issue is all about reality. The initial roadblock to simple praying, he confesses, is “how unreliable he considers his default understanding of God and himself.” He calls them both “phantasmal and vague.” And in order to overcome that, Lewis puts himself and everything else into context. He gets down to the brass tacks of reality: Where am I? What am I? And his answer to this is that there exists a deeper reality beyond his everyday consciousness. There is more to who he is. So much more, in fact, that Lewis calls his everyday experience a facade, or a mere surface, or a stage. And the key for Lewis, or what he begins to show us, is that there are basically two types of reality. There is first our default, everyday experience, our everyday reality, what he calls “the stage”. And then there is this deeper reality, the one beyond our present experience. That’s what Lewis calls “our offstage life”.

The key for him is that we be aware of this deeper reality while we walk through our everyday existence. And this awareness that we should have cannot be bound to space and time, as if the stage of the coffee shop were more real or better than the stage of Little Caesars. Lewis’s thought here completely critiques my crisis. See, I was pitting one location against another when the real problem was my awareness. I had allowed my awareness of deeper reality to completely leave me when I stepped into the Little Caesars, and therefore, like a simpleton, I concluded that it was Little Caesars’s fault. It felt lesser to me. I wanted to be somewhere else, although all I needed was to wake up. Lewis writes:

The attempt is not to escape from space and time and from my creaturely situation as a subject facing objects. It is more modest to reawaken the awareness of that situation. If that can be done, there is no need to go anywhere else.

Awareness of Our Offstage Life

Here’s the crucial implication here. If we understand that there is a deeper reality than our present experience, and that this deeper reality is accessed by our awareness, then it means that there is no experience here that is too mundane for us, or too average, or too low. It is true, as Lewis says:

This world and this self are very far from being rock-bottom realities. It is just a stage. There’s something more real. I have an offstage life.

Blaise Pascal pondered this same subject. He figured that we sleep almost half of our lives, and he wondered if the other half of our lives — when we assume that we’re awake, like right now — could actually be another form of sleep that one day we’re going to wake up from. Could you imagine looking at your life right now, as awake as you feel right now, and one day thinking about your life now the same way you think about your sleep?

See, there is something deeper out there. There is a deeper me and there is a deeper you than what we experience right now. And Jesus is the one who modeled this perfectly. He also said about his disciples:

They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world (John 17:16).

The Apostle Paul agrees when he tells us that we have been raised with Christ seated with him in the heavenly places (Ephesians 2:6, Colossians 3:1–3). Right now, this very minute, I am spiritually and truly seated with Christ. I’m here, yes. I’m here on the stage that we call this real world. But I am also there. And when I am aware of this, Lewis writes, “The situation itself is at every moment a possible theophany. Here is the holy ground. The bush is burning now, if only I am aware” — if only I am aware, whether in the Himalayas of focused study or standing in line at Little Caesars.