Laudable Linkage

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Here’s my latest round-up of noteworthy reads on the Web:

How to Shipwreck Your Theology. ““What is the most brilliant theology good for if it is to be shipwrecked in one’s own house?”

Maybe Women are Some of the Worst Offenders.

9 Things to Know About a Widow’s Grief.

Love Letter to a Lesbian, HT to True Woman, from a former lesbian.

“Let Me Know How I Can Help!” (This Will, Because They Won’t), HT to Linda. Practical ways to ask for or offer help in a time of need.

How Breastfeeding Changed My View of God, HT to True Woman. “God’s love for us is no Hallmark sentiment. This image is not primarily a celebration of our newborn cuteness…Rather, this verse reveals God’s hard-won, self-giving, dogged commitment to our good, a refusal to let us go—however frustrating we become, an insistence on seeing his image in us—and a painful provision for our most desperate need.”

C. S. Lewis’s Wonderful Letters to Children. I love his manner with them.

A Pathway to a Full Life.

This is cool and somewhat mesmerizing to watch: magnetism in slow motion, HT to The Story Warren:

Happy Saturday!

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Book Review: C. S. Lewis Letters to Children

CS lettersI rediscovered C. S. Lewis’ Letters to Children, edited by Lyle W. Dorsett and Marjorie Lamp Mead, on my bookshelf when I was trying to rearrange the books to make room for more. I had forgotten I even had it and had never read it, so I decided to save it for Carrie’s Chronicles of Narnia Reading Challenge this month.

The book was published after Lewis’s lifetime: my copy was published in 1985, about 20 years after Lewis’s death, but I am not sure if that is when it was first published. It’s a short book: 114 pages not counting the bibliographies at the back. The book opens with a forward by Doug Gresham, Lewis’s stepson, a brief introduction, and a short overview of Lewis’s childhood. The editors note that the letters are only representative samples: there were way too many to include all, and many of them answer the same questions.

What the editors don’t say is how they obtained the letters. He wrote most of them “in longhand with a dip-pen and ink” (p. 4), telling a correspondent in one of the letters, “You can drive a typewriter, which I could no more drive than a locomotive (I’d sooner drive the locomotive too)” (p. 77) (fascinating article on other reasons why he did not use a typewriter is here).  Did he make carbon copies, or did some of the correspondents send their letters back to his estate? We’re not told, but we are told that “Originals or photocopies of the letters in this book are housed in either the Marion E. Wade Collection, Wheaton College, Illinois, or the Bodleian Library, Oxford” (. 7).

When reading the Narnia series, I have often marveled that a man with the education and brainpower Lewis had, and with so little real-life experience with children, could communicate so effectively with them. He’s neither condescending or cloying. In “On Writing to Children,” Lewis said, “The child as reader is neither to be patronized nor idolized: we talk to him as man to man.” That same perspective is reflected in his letters.

Many of the children’s letters ask about the Narnia series: questions about specific characters, when the next book would be out, why wasn’t he going to write more than seven, etc. Some of them carried on regular correspondence with him for years (as many as twenty years in one case), sending him pictures they made or bits of their own writing, which he critiqued honestly. Most are very short and to the point. One of the longest and most touching was to the mother of a boy who had written to him because the boy was afraid he loved Aslan more than Jesus.

Sometimes he shares just a glimpse of his home life and responsibilities: when the people he was caring for had problems, when his wife was ill, when he himself was ill. On a sad note, to his goddaughter, a few months after his wife died: “I couldn’t come to the wedding, my dear. I haven’t the pluck. Any wedding, for reasons you know, would turn me inside out now” (p. 94). And a funny one: “I’ve been having a…cyst lanced on the back of my neck: the most serious result is that I can never at present get my whole head & shoulders under water in my bath. (I like getting down like a Hippo with only my nostrils out)” (p. 37).

Assorted notes and quotes:

  • When one girl wanted to know Aslan’s “other name,” he didn’t tell her directly but gave her several clues.
  • When one girl questioned why the Pevensie children grow up in Narnia but are still children in our world: “I feel sure I am right to make them grow up in Narnia. Of course they will grow up in this world too. You’ll see. You see, I don’t think age matters so much as people think. Parts of me are still 12 and I think other parts were already 50 when I was 12: so I don’t feel it very odd that they grow up in Narnia while they are children in England” (p. 34).
  • He tells several that the books are not an allegory like Pilgrim’s Progress in which everything represents something. They’re a “supposing” of what it might be like if there was another world with people that needed saving and Jesus came in the form of a lion rather than a man. “Reepiceep and Nick-i-brick don’t, in that sense, represent anyone. But of course anyone who devotes his whole life to seeking Heaven will be like Reepicheep, and anyone who wants some worldly thing so badly that he is ready to use wicked means to get it will be likely to behave like Nick-i-brick” (p. 45).
  • A bit of humor: “I never saw a picture of a baby shower before. I had to put up my umbrella to look at it” (p. 47).
  • On what happened to Susan: “The books don’t tell us what happened to Susan. She is left alive in this world at the end, having by then turned into a rather silly, conceited young woman. But there is plenty of time for her to mend, and perhaps she will get to Aslan’s country in the end–in her own way. I think that whatever she had seen in Narnia she could (if she was the sort that wanted to) persuade herself, as she grew up, that it was ‘all nonsense'” (p. 67).
  • “A perfect man would never act from a sense of duty; he’d always want the right thing more than the wrong one. Duty is only a substitute for love (of God and of other people), like a crutch, which is a substitute for a leg. Most of us need the crutch at times; but of course it’s idiotic to use the crutch when our own legs (our own loves, tastes, habits etc) can do the journey on their own!” (p. 72).
  • “American university teachers have told me that most of their freshmen come from schools where the standard was far too low and therefore think themselves far better than they really are. This means that they lose heart (and their tempers too) when told, as they have to be told, their real level” (p. 84).
  • “You know, my dear, it’s only doing you harm to write vers libre. After you have been writing strict, rhyming verse for about 10 years it will be time to venture on the free sort. At present it only encourages you to write prose not so good as your ordinary prose and type it like verse. Sorry to be a pig!” (p. 87).
  • When asked which of his books he liked best: Till We Have Faces (though he felt it “attracted less attention than any book I ever wrote,” p. 107) and Perelandra (p. 95).
  • He often closed his notes by asking them to pray for him.

I loved this window into Lewis’s life and thinking.

Chronicles of Narnia Reading Challenge

 (Sharing at Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)

 

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Book Review: The Screwtape Letters

ScrewtapeThe idea for what would become The Screwtape Letters first came to C. S. Lewis in 1940, and, when they were completed, they first appeared one at a time in a weekly Anglican publication called The Guardian. The public response prompted publishers to make it into a book as soon as possible. It was first published in England in 1942 and in the USA shortly thereafter.

Lewis thought it might be both “entertaining and useful” to write a series of letters from an older devil to a younger apprentice in his work of tempting and tripping up a new “patient.” The type of approach, presenting “a negative point of view to lift up the positive,” was unusual for Lewis, but he felt it “would give a fresh, even comical perspective on the subject and might attract readers who might not normally think about such things.” Why a comical approach for such a serious subject, one that ended up being very difficult and unpleasant for Lewis to write about?” Partly to “[lure] the ordinary reader into a serious self-knowledge under pretense of being a kind of joke”* (McCusker’s preface) and because “humor involves a sense of proportion and a power of seeing yourself from the outside” (Lewis’s 1961 preface).

In his preface to the original edition, Lewis notes that “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.” In the same preface he “[advises the reader] to remember that the devil is a liar. Not everything that Screwtape says should be assumed to be true even from his own angle.” He writes in the preface to the 1961 edition that “Satan, the leader or dictator of the devils, is the opposite, not of God, but of Michael,” an archangel, and “God has no opposite.”

At first it is a little hard to get used to the reverse thinking of the letters: Screwtape refers to God as “the Enemy,” to the devil as “Our Father Below,” to his position in the “Lowerachy” of hell, etc. It takes frequent mental adjustments throughout the book, and I can see at least partly how it could seem so oppressive for Lewis to try to express what a devil’s thoughts might be.

Screwtape’s nephew, Wormwood, is his apprentice and correspondent, and Wormwood, seems to want to come at the patient with a full-fledged attack and arguments. Screwtape counsels him that argument is not the answer, because by arguing, “you awake the patient’s reason, and once it is awake, who can foresee the result?” (Letter 1). Likewise, Wormwood wants to be able to “report spectacular wickedness. But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy. It does not matter how small the sins are provided their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing…Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts” (Letter 12). Thus, distracting someone on the verge of a spiritual crisis with thoughts about lunch proves quite effective.

When Wormwood’s patient becomes a Christian, Screwtape threatens “the usual penalties” but admits there is still plenty they can do, such as to “work hard, then, on the disappointment or anticlimax” that occurs a few weeks after his conversion, for “If once they get through this initial dryness successfully, they become much less dependent on emotion and therefore much harder to tempt.” Wormwood can also point out the flaws in the patient’s church and fellow churchmen, “[keeping] out of his mind the question ‘If I, being what I am, can consider that I am in some sense a Christian, why should the vices of those people in the next pew prove that their religion is mere hypocrisy and convention?'” (Letter 2).  He offers a few more suggestions, among them:

Whenever they are attending to the Enemy Himself we are defeated, but there are ways of preventing them from doing so. The simplest is to turn their gaze away from Him toward themselves. Keep them watching their own minds and trying to produce feelings there by the action of their own wills. (Letter 4).

[The Enemy] wants men to be concerned with what they do; our business is to keep them thinking about what will happen to them (Letter 5).

Provided that meetings, pamphlets, policies, movements, causes, and crusades, matter more to him than prayers and sacraments and charity, he is ours–and the more “religious” (on those terms) the more securely ours. I could show you a pretty cageful down here (Letter 7).

Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s ground. I know we have won many a soul through pleasure. All the same, it is His invention, not ours. He made the pleasures: all our research so far has not enabled us to produce one. All we can do is to encourage the human to take the pleasure which our Enemy has produced, at times, or in ways, or in degrees, which He has forbidden. Hence we always try to work away from the natural condition of any pleasure to that in which it is least natural, least redolent of its Maker, and least pleasurable. An ever increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure is the formula (Letter 9).

A moderated religion is as good for us as no religion at all–and more amusing (Letter 9).

But flippancy is the best of all. In the first place it is very economical…If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour plating against the Enemy that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter. It is a thousand miles away from joy; it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practise it (Letter 11).

Your patient has become humble; have you drawn his attention to the fact? (Letter 14).

Tortured fear and stupid confidence are both desirable states of mind (Letter 15).

The search for a “suitable” church makes the man a critic where the Enemy wants him to be a pupil (Letter 16).

Now you will have noticed that nothing throws him into a passion so easily as to find a tract of time which he reckoned on having at his own disposal unexpectedly taken from him…They anger him because he regards his time as his own and feels that it is being stolen. You must therefore zealously guard in his mind the curious assumption ‘My time is my own.’ (Letter 21) (Ouch! This one hit particularly home for me.)

That’s probably more than enough, but there is so much more. When the patient does begin to feel as if he has done something wrong, Screwtape advises trying to help him avoid “the explicit repentance of a definite, fully recognized, sin,” but rather to encourage a “vague, though uneasy feeling that he hasn’t been doing very well” (Letter 12). If the patient gets to the place of proclaiming “No more lavish promises of perpetual virtue…not even the expectation of an endowment of ‘grace’ for life, but only a hope for the daily and hourly pittance to meet the daily and hourly temptation! This is very bad” Letter 14).

The particular edition I read also included “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” originally an article in the Saturday Evening Post in 1959. It’s written as Screwtape giving an after-dinner speech in hell at the annual dinner for new graduates of the Tempter’s Training College for Young Devils. Though it contains some general advice from Screwtape, a great deal of it involves politics and education and “devilish” tends on those fronts.

Lewis said in his preface to the 1961 edition that “Some have paid me an undeserved compliment by supposing that my Letters were the ripe fruit of many years’ study in moral and ascetic theology. They forgot that there is an equally reliable, though less creditable, way of learning how temptation works. ‘My heart’—I need no other’s—’showeth me the wickedness of the ungodly.’ ” Thus this isn’t an exhaustive study of every way we can be tempted. I was a little surprised at a few obvious things he didn’t cover (like trying to keep people away from Bible reading). Maybe he felt those were obvious enough that they didn’t need to be dealt with. He doesn’t really discuss spiritual warfare, either, or show how a “patient” can resist temptation except in a few passing observations. His main purpose was to show how Satan can so easily get us off course, sometimes by the merest step away from the way God intended things.

I won’t give away what ultimately happens to the patient or Wormwood, but I did enjoy this peek into the devices of the devil. As I said when I introduced this book for Carrie‘s Reading to Know Classics Book Club for this month, II Corinthians 2:11 was a motivating factor in reading this book: “Lest Satan should get an advantage of us: for we are not ignorant of his devices.”

There were a few little places where I didn’t agree with Lewis, most notably a mention of Limbo in Screwtape’s toast, a place for “creatures suitable neither for Heaven nor for Hell.” McCusker quotes a letter from Lewis in which he describes it as a place for the “virtuous unbeliever,” where it’s pleasant except for a “faint melancholy because you’ll all know that you missed the bus.” I don’t know where he got such an idea (it’s noted he explored it further in The Pilgrim’s Regress, which I have not read), but it is not a Biblical concept. McCusker also has a note from a chapter in Letters to Malcolm on a sentence where Screwtape mentions a “final cleansing” before death for humans that Lewis also believed in Purgatory, not as a Catholic doctrine so much as just a need for a final cleansing from whatever sin we were stained with when we get to heaven. I thought that was odd as well. When we repent and believe on Christ, all our sins, past, present, and future, are forgiven, and we’re seen through the righteousness of Christ, not our own. But otherwise, I thought he showed amazing insight and a great deal of cleverness in writing about such concepts in such a way.

The particular version I read was the e-book The Screwtape Letters: Annotated Edition by C. S. Lewis with preface and annotations by Paul McCusker. I found it on a great sale a few months before reading it. His preface and annotations were very helpful: the annotations included definitions of obscure words and explanations of some unfamiliar references as well as cross-references to some of Lewis’s other writings that expand on concepts mentioned here. Sometimes I wrestled with whether to chase down the references or just read the story, but most times it was rewarding to get that additional insight. I was grateful McCusker included both the preface to the original version and the 1961 version here as well.

Carrie will have a wrap-up post for discussion of this book tomorrow. If you’ve read it with her book club, you can link up your post there. I am looking forward to seeing what others thought of this book. It was my first time to read it, but I can tell it’s going to be one I come back to often.

By the way, Carrie shared in her review a clip of a play made from this book. I agree with her that it works better as a book than a play!
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*It is difficult to put page numbers for quotes from an e-book, because they might vary on different devices or with different size fonts, so I just put what section or letter the reference is from.

Reading to Know - Book Club

(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

Book Review: The Problem of Pain

Problem of PainIn The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis sets out truths and speculations about why a wise, loving, kind, and omnipotent God would allow so much evil, suffering and pain in the world. It’s a question that troubles believers and unbelievers alike and one which was a major hindrance to Lewis’s own conversion.

Chapter 1, “Introductory,” traces three threads through human philosophy and development that lead to religion: an awe or dread of unseen beings, which Lewis calls the Numinous; a sense of some kind of morality; and the connection between the Numinous and morality. The Numinous is either “a mere twist in the human mind…or else it is a direct experience of the really supernatural, to which the name Revelation might properly be given” (p. 10). In Christianity there is one more thread: the historical event of the death and resurrection of Christ. Either Christ was “a raving lunatic of an unusually abominable type, or else He was, and is, precisely what He said. There is no middle way” (p. 13).

To ask whether the universe as we see it looks more like the work of a wise and good Creator or the work of chance, indifference, or malevolence, is to omit from the outset all the relevant factors in the religious problem. Christianity is not the conclusion of a philosophical debate on the origins of the universe: it is a catastrophic historical event following on the long spiritual preparation of humanity which I have described. It is not a system into which we have to fit the awkward fact of pain: it is itself one of the awkward facts which have to be fitted into any system we make. In a sense, it creates, rather than solves, the problem of pain, for pain would be no problem unless, side by side with our daily experience of this painful world, we had received what we think a good assurance that ultimate reality is righteous and loving (p. 14).

Mankind tends to think that “If God were good, He would wish to make His creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty He would be able to do what He wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore God lacks either goodness, or power, or both” (p. 16). Lewis spends the next couple of chapters talking about God’s omnipotence and goodness. Some pain is inherent in nature: fire warms when used rightly but burns when one gets too close to it. Some pain arises when individual beings assert their own wills which then clash with each other. God in His omnipotence could have made it impossible for people to sin against each other, but He made man with a free will and the ability to choose his actions.

You may attribute miracles to Him, but not nonsense. This is no limit to His power. If you choose to say ‘God can give a creature free will and at the same time withhold free will from it’, you have not succeeded in saying anything about God: meaningless combinations of words do not suddenly acquire meaning simply because we prefix to them the two other words ‘God can’. It remains true that all things are possible with God: the intrinsic impossibilities are not things but nonentities. It is no more possible for God than for the weakest of His creatures to carry out both of two mutually exclusive alternatives; not because His power meets an obstacle, but because nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk it about God (p. 18).

But “if the universe must, from the outset, admit the possibility of suffering, then” wouldn’t “absolute goodness…have left the universe uncreated”? Lewis “warn[s] the reader that I shall not attempt to prove that to create was better than not to create: I am aware of no human scales in which such a portentous question can be weighed” (p. 27). But he goes on to offer some thoughts about “how, perceiving a suffering world, and being assured, on quite different grounds, that God is good, we are to conceive that goodness and that suffering without contradiction” (p. 27).

What we mean by goodness is not always what true goodness actually is:

By the goodness of God we mean nowadays almost exclusively His lovingness; and in this we may be right. And by Love, in this context, most of us mean kindness – the desire to see others than the self happy; not happy in this way or in that, but just happy. What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, ‘What does it matter so long as they are contented?’ We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven – a senile benevolence who, as they say, ‘liked to see young people enjoying themselves’, and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all’. Not many people, I admit, would formulate a theology in precisely those terms: but a conception not very different lurks at the back of many minds. I do not claim to be an exception: I should very much like to live in a universe which was governed on such lines. But since it is abundantly clear that I don’t, and since I have reason to believe, nevertheless, that God is Love, I conclude that my conception of love needs correction (pp. 31-32).

Even humans don’t want friends and loved ones to continue in a course that makes them happy but is hurtful or destructive to themselves and others, so we can understand that Divine love, so much above ours, will need to correct, halt, or discipline individuals and attempt to bring them to repentance, which will involve some degree of pain.

“We are, not metaphorically but in very truth, a Divine work of art, something that God is making, and therefore something with which He will not be satisfied until it has a certain character.” As an artist erases and reworks a drawing until it becomes as perfect as possible, “One can imagine a sentient picture, after being rubbed and scraped and recommenced for the tenth time, wishing that it were only a thumbnail sketch whose making was over in a minute. In the same way, it is natural for us to wish that God had designed for us a less glorious and less arduous destiny; but then we are wishing not for more love but for less” (pp. 34-35).

Similarly, when a man has a dog, “man interferes with the dog and makes it more lovable than it was in mere nature. In it’s state of nature it has a smell, and habit’s, which frustrate man’s love: he washes it, house-trains it, teaches it not to steal, and is so enabled to love it completely. To the puppy the whole proceeding would seem, if it were a theologian, to cast grave doubts on the ‘goodness’ of man: but the full-grown and full-trained dog, larger, healthier, and longer-lived than the wild dog, and admitted, as it were by Grace, to a whole world of affections, loyalties, interests, and comforts entirely beyond it’s animal destiny, would have no such doubts” (p. 36). Man cares for animals he loves: he “does not house-train the earwig or give baths to centipedes. We may wish, indeed, that we were of so little account to God that He left us alone to follow our natural impulses – that He would give over trying to train us into something so unlike our natural selves: but once again, we are asking not for more love, but for less” (p. 36).

The parent-child analogy is a closer one to spiritual truth than man and art or man and dog, but no loving father says, “I love my son but don’t care how great a blackguard he is provided he has a good time” (p. 37).

When we want to be something other than the thing God wants us to be, we must be wanting what, in fact, will not make us happy. Those Divine demands which sound to our natural ears most like those of a despot and least like those of a lover, in fact marshal us where we should want to go if we knew what we wanted. He demands our worship, our obedience, our prostration. Do we suppose that they can do Him any good, or fear, like the chorus in Milton, that human irreverence can bring about ‘His glory’s diminution’? A man can no more diminish God’s glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word ‘darkness’ on the walls of his cell. But God wills our good, and our good is to love Him (with that responsive love proper to creatures) and to love Him we must know Him: and if we know Him, we shall in fact fall on our faces (p. 46).

Lewis then goes on to explain why mankind needs such alteration in the first place. He asserts this is necessary because in his time there was not so much a sense of sin as people would have had in the times when the Bible was written, against which the gospel appeared as very good news indeed. He gives various reasons for that to show that “Christianity now has to preach the diagnosis – in itself very bad news – before it can win a hearing for the cure” (p. 48) and then goes on to show how pervasive and deceptive sin is in our hearts.

It’s when he discusses how man became sinful in the first place in his chapter on the fall of man that I have my first serious problems. He regards the first few books of the Bible (at least, maybe more of it) as mythic. He believes in the evolutionary view of man’s development and as such believes that the “first man” could not have sinned as Adam did because he would not have had the intelligence, self-awareness, or conscience to, since he was what we commonly think of as a prehistoric cave man. At some point in man’s continued evolution, mankind as whole sinned against God by somehow preferring its own way rather than His, of somehow rejecting His reign, and thus the rest of human race was born in sin. He rejects the idea that we are responsible or accountable for or being punished for Adam’s sin. He has problems coming to terms with the statement that “as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22). Now, I don’t believe that believing in evolution disqualifies a man from salvation or heaven, but I think taking a great deal of the Bible as mythic is not only wrong, but creates new problems. It makes more sense to me that since Adam sinned and was corrupted, every ancestor of his was also corrupted, and thus we are all born sinners, than to try to imagine that the sin of a group of people somehow plunged the entire human race ever after into sin. I think it is quite dangerous to take plain statements of Scripture as mythic and symbolic. I have X marks (which I sometimes put next to statements I disagree with in a book) and question marks all through this chapter and can’t take the time or space here to delineate them all. I do understand that Lewis was speaking from the intellectual viewpoint of his day. He’s not afraid to contradict prevailing viewpoints with Scriptural truth where he see it clearly, but I assume he must not have heard a convincing argument in regard to creation and a literal interpretation of Genesis. He comes out at the right place in the end: “that man, as a species, spoiled himself, and that good, to us in our present state, must therefore mean primarily a remedial or corrective good” (p. 85), but the way he gets there is convoluted.

The next two chapters on human pain are the best, in my opinion. Lewis proposes that about four-fifths of the pain in the world arises from our own sinfulness, our bent as people created with choice and free will to use that will to sin against others.

“We are not merely imperfect creatures who must be improved: we are, as Newman said, rebels who must lay down our arms” (p. 88).

But there are other kinds of pain that do not come directly from other people’s sins against us.

The first answer, then, to the question why our cure should be painful, is that to render back the will which we have so long claimed for our own, is in itself, wherever and however it is done, a grievous pain… to surrender a self-will inflamed and swollen with years of usurpation is a kind of death (p. 89).

Hence the necessity to die daily: however often we think we have broken the rebellious self we shall still find it alive. That this process cannot be without pain is sufficiently witnessed by the very history of the word ‘Mortification’ (p. 89).

The human spirit will not even begin to try to surrender self-will as long as all seems to be well with it (p. 90).

If the first and lowest operation of pain shatters the illusion that all is well, the second shatters the illusion that what we have, whether good or bad in itself, is our own and enough for us. Everyone has noticed how hard it is to turn our thoughts to God when everything is going well with us. We ‘have all we want’ is a terrible saying when ‘all’ does not include God. We find God an interruption. As St Augustine says somewhere, ‘God wants to give us something, but cannot, because our hands are full – there’s nowhere for Him to put it.’ Or as a friend of mine said, ‘We regard God as an airman regards his parachute; it’s there for emergencies but he hopes he’ll never have to use it.’ Now God, who has made us, knows what we are and that our happiness lies in Him. Yet we will not seek it in Him as long as He leaves us any other resort where it can even plausibly be looked for. While what we call ‘our own life’ remains agreeable we will not surrender it to Him. What then can God do in our interests but make ‘our own life’ less agreeable to us, and take away the plausible source of false happiness? It is just here, where God’s providence seems at first to be most cruel, that the Divine humility, the stooping down of the Highest, most deserves praise (p. 94).

God, who made these deserving people, may really be right when He thinks that their modest prosperity and the happiness of their children are not enough to make them blessed: that all this must fall from them in the end, and that if they have not learned to know Him they will be wretched. And therefore He troubles them, warning them in advance of an insufficiency that one day they will have to discover. The life to themselves and their families stands between them and the recognition of their need; He makes that life less sweet to them. I call this a Divine humility because it is a poor thing to strike our colours to God when the ship is going down under us; a poor thing to come to Him as a last resort, to offer up ‘our own’ when it is no longer worth keeping. If God were proud He would hardly have us on such terms: but He is not proud, He stoops to conquer, He will have us even though we have shown that we prefer everything else to Him, and come to Him because there is ‘nothing better’ now to be had. The same humility is shown by all those Divine appeals to our fears which trouble high-minded readers of Scripture. It is hardly complimentary to God that we should choose Him as an alternative to Hell: yet even this He accepts. The creature’s illusion of self-sufficiency must, for the creature’s sake, be shattered; and by trouble or fear of trouble on earth, by crude fear of the eternal flames, God shatters it ‘unmindful of His glory’s diminution’ (pp 95-96).

Sometimes pain also serves as a reminder that this world is not all there is and isn’t meant to satisfy: when something painful happens – illness, bad news, etc. – “At first I am overwhelmed, and all my little happinesses look like broken toys. Then, slowly and reluctantly, bit by bit, I try to bring myself into the frame of mind that I should be in at all times. I remind myself that all these toys were never intended to possess my heart, that my true good is in another world and my only real treasure is Christ” (pp. 106-107). “Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home” (p. 116).

And though he doesn’t mention Romans 5:3-5 (“And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; And patience, experience; and experience, hope: And hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us”), he does discuss the principle that suffering develops these things in us.

Lewis said near the beginning that he was writing merely to explain the problem of pain, not to necessarily tell how to deal with it. Yet he does say, “If pain sometimes shatters the creature’s false self-sufficiency, yet in supreme ‘Trial’ or ‘Sacrifice’ it teaches him the self-sufficiency which really ought to be his – the ‘strength, which, if Heaven gave it, may be called his own’: for then, in the absence of all merely natural motives and supports, he acts in that strength, and that alone, which God confers upon him through his subjected will. Human will becomes truly creative and truly our own when it is wholly God’s, and this is one of the many senses in which he that loses his soul shall find it.”

He discusses the moral objection to hell in another chapter and makes several good points. I’ll just share this one:

In the long run the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell, is itself a question: ‘What are you asking God to do?’ To wipe out their past sins and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But He has done so, on Calvary. To forgive them? They will not be forgiven. To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what He does (p. 130).

Lewis has a chapter on animal pain, which he confesses is primarily speculation since the Bible says nothing about what animals feel and they can’t tell us. But here is another place where his evolutionary thought comes in and contradicts clear Biblical truth. He says earlier generations felt that suffering of animals and all creation came about as a result of Adam’s fall. We get that from a few places, among them that Genesis 3:17-19, where God said told Adam: “cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” So apparently before this time there were no thorns and thistles and it wasn’t hard work to get something to eat. Then in the millennial kingdom, when Christ rules the earth, it is prophesied in Isaiah 11 that in that time:

The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.

And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice’ den.

They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.

So we assume from this that the harmful behaviors which shall no longer be were a part of the original fall and not part of animal’s original creation, since they are set right here. But Lewis says this “is now impossible, for we have good reason to believe that animals existed long before man. Carnivorousness, with all that it entails, is older than humanity (p. 137). I have an X by that statement as well as a few others in this chapter.

Even more alarming to me is his thought that “it might be argued that when He emptied Himself of His glory He also humbled Himself to share, as man, the current superstitions of His time. And I certainly think that Christ, in the flesh, was not omniscient – if only because a human brain could not, presumably, be the vehicle of omniscient consciousness, and to say that Our Lord’s thinking was not really conditioned by the size and shape of His brain might be to deny the real incarnation and become a Docetist. Thus, if Our Lord had committed Himself to any scientific or historical statement which we knew to be untrue, this would not disturb my faith in His deity” (p. 137). It would disturb mine, and I don’t believe for a moment that Christ believed “superstitions of His time”! There were multiple incidences of His displaying omniscience even while in human form. I just discussed this recently in a chapter from J. I. Packer’s book Knowing God in this post.

Lewis closes with a short chapter on pain which is mostly speculative but does include the theme present in The Last Battle in the Narnia series, that it’s the place we’ve been longing for our whole lives.

If you’ve read this far, you deserve a pat on the back. I am sorry this is so long, but when I write about a book, I want to convey not only a glimpse of what it is about to those reading, but I want to record the salient points as well as my own thoughts and impressions to remind myself of in the future.

I was a bit frustrated that Lewis didn’t go into more of the Biblical reasons for suffering, but then I reminded myself that it wasn’t his purpose to write such a treatise: he was merely wanting to address the problem of pain from a philosophical viewpoint couched mostly in Scripture. I remember reading somewhere which I can’t trace now that someone who read this book then approached Lewis about making the talks which eventually became Mere Christianity.

There are a lot of really good nuggets in this book. But there are enough questionable things that this would not be my first choice to recommend to someone on this topic. That would be When God Weeps by Joni Eareckson Tada and Steve Estes. But I would still recommend this with caution about some of the problem areas.

(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

Join Us in Reading The Screwtape Letters in September

I have been honored that Carrie has asked me to choose a book for her Reading to Know Classics Book Club for the past few years. Normally I choose a book I know, love, have reread multiple times, and am eager to share with others.

screwtape-lettersThis year, however, I chose a book I have never read before: The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis. It is a series of letters that a senior demon writes to a junior demon-in-training in how to win a man to their side. I enjoy reading Lewis, but I have avoided this book. Years ago when I first became a Christian, there was an emphasis on spiritual warfare that was honestly a little wonky in places. I read some of that kind of thing at the time, but later on avoided it except for when I would come across it in my Bible reading or hear it preached in church. I was always a little afraid of the devil. I knew he was greater and stronger than I was. I also knew that Jesus in me was greater than him, but I’d still rather keep my distance. I had this subconscious naive notion that if I left the devil alone, I wouldn’t attract his attention and he wouldn’t bother me as much. Some friends and I discussed once that our flesh gave us so much trouble that the devil didn’t really have to do too much with us. Both are mistaken and unbiblical views. On the opposite extreme, I have also known people who give the devil too much credit and see him behind every problem or issue. It’s good to be balanced and Biblically-based in this area.

After reading some other Lewis books last year, I looked up some excerpts from this book online and felt that it was finally time to read it. The verse that keeps coming to mind is II Corinthians 2:11: “Lest Satan should get an advantage of us: for we are not ignorant of his devices.” It doesn’t pay to be ignorant of his ways. From what I have seen so far, Lewis handles this whole topic with irony and humor in some places but with convicting accuracy. I am looking forward to finally delving into this one because it is a classic I have neglected, because it is Lewis, and because I think it will be spiritually helpful.

Part of the enjoyment of a reading club, online or in person, is discussing the book with others who are also reading it. Carrie has a post here where you can let her know if you’ll be joining in, and at the end of the month she’ll have another post where we can share our thoughts or the links to our blog posts about the book. I think it is highly likely your library will have a copy, or you can find it in almost any form online (paperback, e-book, audiobook). Project Gutenberg Canada has a free online version here. I happened upon a good sale on the annotated e-book version last year – I’ll have to see if the extra notes are helpful or distracting. Whatever way you’d most enjoy reading it, I hope you’ll join us!

Reading to Know - Book Club

Book Review: The Weight of Glory

Weight of GloryThe Weight of Glory and Other Addresses by C. S. Lewis is a collection of his essays. Some were sermons, some were addressed to specific groups, a couple were published in other venues. Five of them were published together in a book during his lifetime and a few more were added in a 1980 revision. There is a lengthy introduction by Walter Hooper, in which he gives some of the background of the essays, where, when, and to whom they were given, as well as his connection to Lewis.

I probably have a higher percentage of pages tabbed in this book than any other. I’ll list the essays with a few words about each:

“The Weight of Glory” discusses out desire for heaven and what “glory” actually means. That seems like such a paltry summation, but thoughts from this essay stayed with me for days. An excellent outline of the chapter is here. In talking about whether the promise of heaven is a “bribe” and whether longing for it is right, Lewis remarks:

“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased” (p. 26).

He speaks of the almost ineffable quality of longing we have for something we haven’t quite experienced yet:

“In speaking of this desire for our own far off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. …The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited” (pp. 30-31).

About the things we do not understand:

“If our religion is something objective, then we must never avert our eyes from those elements in it which seem puzzling or repellent; for it will be precisely the puzzling or the repellent which conceals what we do not yet know and need to know” (p. 34).

The section on the glory of heaven is deeply thought-provoking. Just one quote from it:

“The sense that in this universe we are treated as strangers, the longing to be acknowledged, to meet with some response, to bridge some chasm that yawns between us and reality, is part of our inconsolable secret. And surely, from this point of view, the promise of glory, in the sense described, becomes highly relevant to our deep desire. For glory means good report with God, acceptance by God, response, acknowledgement, and welcome into the heart of things. The door on which we have been knocking all our lives will open at last.”

I’ll try to be a little more brief with the remaining ones.

“Learning in War Time” addresses students who wonder if they should be working toward their chosen professions while the war is on, whether doing so is “like fiddling while Rome burns.” Lewis brings this into the larger question of whether “creatures who are every moment advancing either to Heaven or hell” should “spend any fraction of the little time allowed them in this world on such comparable trivialities as literature or art, mathematics or biology” (pp. 48-49). His answer is yes, and he goes on to explain why.

“The work of a Beethoven and the work of a charwoman become spiritual on precisely the same condition, that of being offered to God, of being done humbly ‘as to the Lord'” (pp. 55-56).

“An appetite for [knowledge, beauty, the arts] exists in the human mind, and God makes no appetite in vain” (p. 56).

“Why I Am Not a Pacifist” was given to a pacifist society in 1940. Lewis explains that while “war is very disagreeable,” there are just causes for war (for instance, what would have happened if no one had stood up to Hitler?) and there are Biblical examples affirming war. He then goes on to explain why Jesus’s command, “”But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also” (Matthew 5:39) is not a justification for pacifism. Lewis says the text “means exactly what is says, but with an understood reservation in favour of those obviously exceptional cases which every hearer would naturally assume to be exceptions without being told” (p. 85). One example he proposes is when one witnesses and attempted murder, tries to help, and is knocked away by the assailant. No one would think this verse meant to stand back and let the murderer have his way. But in a case where “the only relevant factors…are an injury to me by my neighbor and a desire on my part to retaliate,” we’re to mortify that desire.

“Transposition” was probably the hardest for me to grasp. The basic theme is that it is hard to take something very complex and put it into simple forms: for example, a pencil drawing or even a painting of a landscape may be beautiful and give us an idea of the actual scene, but it is not the same. The actual scene has elements which can’t be expressed in limited resources. We face the same problem with trying to explain spiritual things when there is so much more to them, so much that we won’t even grasp until we’re transformed in heaven.

“Is Theology Poetry?” answers the question “Does Christian theology owe its attraction to its power of arousing and satisfying our imaginations? Are those who believe it mistaking aesthetic enjoyment for intellectual assent, or assenting because they enjoy?” While Lewis concedes that Christianity has some poetical or metaphorical aspects to it (indeed, one can hardly describe spiritual truths without some kind of metaphor), the metaphor is not to be mistaken for the reality. He also discusses that Christianity can make room for science and reason and makes some pretty good points against evolution.

“The Inner Ring” is about what we would call the inner circle in our day and the fact that nearly every group has one. It may not be bad in itself, but “our longing to enter them, our anguish when we are excluded, and the kind of pleasure we feel when we get in” (p. 149) can  lead us into temptation. If you’ve read That Hideous Strength, the third in Lewsis’s space trilogy, this was exactly what drew Mark Studdock further and further into an evil organization, which he didn’t recognize as such because he was so blinded by his ambition to be included.

“Membership” deals with the idea that though we need solitude sometimes, we are created as part of the body of Christ. Religion seems to be “relegated to solitude,” or made a private affair, by a society which then keeps one so busy that there is little time for solitude, and the busy-ness of “the collective” takes the place of true spiritual friendship. As one who likes time alone, this sentence convicted me: “The sacrifice of selfish privacy which is daily demanded of us is daily repaid a hundredfold in the true growth of personality which the life of the Body encourages” (p. 167). He is not saying at all that one should never have privacy or solitude, nor is he saying that we lose our identity when we become a member of the Body of Christ, but rather that is where we find our true identity. The following paragraph stood out to me:

“The infinite value of each human soul is not a Christian doctrine. God did not die for man because of some value He perceived in him. The value of each human soul considered in itself, out of relation to God, is zero. As St. Paul writes, to have died for valuable men would have been not divine but merely heroic; but God died for sinners. He loved us not because we were lovable, but because He is love” (p. 170).

“On Forgiveness” begins with Lewis wondering why believing in the forgiveness of sins was put in the Creed of his church, when it seemed that would be obvious and go without saying or without need of reminder. But he discovered that believing in forgiveness is not so easy to do and does need frequent reminding. Too often when we come to God for forgiveness, what we really want is for Him to excuse us.

Forgiveness says, ‘Yes, you have done this thing, but I accept your apology; I will never hold it against you and everything between us two will be exactly as it was before.’ But excusing says ‘I see that you couldn’t help it or didn’t mean it; you weren’t really to blame.’ If one was not really to blame then there is nothing to forgive (pp. 178-179).

Too often we “go away imagining that we have repented and been forgiven when all that has really happened is that we have satisfied ourselves with our own excuses” (pp. 179-180).

And he reminds us that the same forgiveness we seek from God, He commands us to show to others. It is in this essay that his famous line comes from: “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you” (p. 182).

On “A Slip of the Tongue,” Lewis shares that one day in his prayers he inadvertently mixed up the “temporal” and the “eternal.” Though it was just a slip of the tongue, he did realize that too often that is exactly what we do.

“I mean this sort of thing. I say my prayers, I read a book of devotion, I prepare for, or receive, the Sacrament. But while I do these things, there is, so to speak, a voice inside me that urges caution. It tells me to be careful, to keep my head, not to go too far, not to burn my boats. I come into the presence of God with a great fear lest anything should happen to me within that presence which will prove too intolerably inconvenient when I have come out again into my ‘ordinary’ life. I don’t want to be carried away into any resolution which I shall afterwards regret. For I know I shall be feeling quite different after breakfast; I don’t want anything to happen to me at the altar which will run up too big a bill to pay then…The root principle of all these precautions is the same: to guard the things temporal.”

“This is my endlessly recurrent temptation: to go down to that Sea (I think St. John of the Cross called God a sea) and there neither dive nor swim nor float, but only dabble and splash, careful not to get out of my depth and holding on to the lifeline which connects me with my things temporal” (p. 187).

“Our temptation is too look eagerly for the minimum that will be accepted. We are in fact very like honest but reluctant taxpayers” (p. 188).

“For it is not so much of our time and so much of our attention that God demands; it is not even all our time and all our attention; it is ourselves. For each of us the Baptist’s words are true: ‘He must increase and I decrease.’ He will be infinitely merciful to our repeated failures; I know no promise that He will accept a deliberate compromise. For He has, in the last resort, nothing to give us but Himself; and He can give that only insofar as our self-affirming will retires and makes room for Him in our souls. Let us make up our minds to it; there will be nothing ‘of our own’ left over to live on, no ‘ordinary’ life” (p. 189).

“What cannot be admitted—what must exist only as an undefeated but daily resisted enemy—is the idea of something that is ‘our own,’ some area in which we are to be “out of school,” on which God has no claim. For He claims all, because He is love and must bless. He cannot bless us unless He has us. When we try to keep within us an area that is our own, we try to keep an area of death. Therefore, in love, He claims all. There’s no bargaining with Him” (p. 190).

This is so convicting to me, because that is precisely my tendency, to keep some area of my will for my own, to fear what He might ask. Even after, as Lewis said, “daily or hourly repeated exercises of my own will in renouncing this attitude…it grows all over me like a new shell each night” (p. 192). Thankfully “failures will be forgiven; it is acquiescence that is fatal…We may never, this side of death, drive the invader out of our territory, but we must be in the Resistance” (p. 192).

One of the things I appreciate most about Lewis is that he “could…swiftly cut through anything that even approached fuzzy thinking,” as Sheldon Vanauken wrote. Plus he so often hits the nail right on the head: in the last essay I had the feeling my innermost thoughts had been found out. I came across a blog post a few weeks ago where the blogger, whose views I would probably generally agree with, mentioned several areas where he differed with Lewis. So far I haven’t found the differences he mentioned. The only one that stood out to me in this book was that he would take some parts of the Bible as symbolic that I would take to be literal. But I think if we are regularly feasting on and meditating on God’s Word, we can read with discernment authors with whom we might not agree on every little point. Lewis has a way of writing that delineates the truth clearly and precisely (even though his intellect is so far above my own) in a manner that is easy to understand. And I can’t think of any writer whose work make me long for heaven more. This book will definitely be reread at intervals through the years, especially the first and last essays.

(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

No Mere Mortals

Some years ago I read a book someone loaned to me about a Christian man in a Communist country. In his culture, respect for elders was taken to extremes. His and his wife’s lives were severely impacted by the mercurial demands of his mother, but they never felt they should deal with it in any way except to try to please her. It was particularly hard when they all had to live together for a time. In the end he said the Lord used it to smooth some of his rough edges, like a pebble that has been worn round and smooth by being tossed and bumped around in a stream. I wish I could remember the book title or author’s name, because I would love to revisit this book. (By the way, I am not suggesting that mothers-in-law should act that way or that adult children shouldn’t sometimes have some frank discussions with their parents, but this was how this man felt led in his time and culture.)

Around that same time, there was a lady at the church I was attending who, I am sad to say, really rubbed me the wrong way. Unfortunately, that says more about me than it does about her. She was not mean or unkind. I won’t go into the details about what I found so irritating, but I had just about decided that the best way to keep positive thoughts about her and to keep peace in my heart towards her was just to avoid her as much as possible. Then one January, our ladies’ group at church drew names for “secret pals” from others in the group: our primary duty to our secret pal was to pray for her, but we were also encouraged to send notes and small gifts through the year. Guess whose name I drew. Yes, that particular lady. I was tempted to put her name back and draw another, but I decided that was petty, and this woman was one whom I was supposed to especially pray for that year. And praying for her did help. I began to understand a little of why she acted the way she did (for instance, she sometimes seemed to come across as a know-it-all. You almost couldn’t bring up any subject without getting her input and suggested actions. But she was a very intelligent woman, and in her mind she was helping, not “showing off.”)

I don’t remember exactly when those two incidents happened in relation to each other, but in my mind I connected them, and began to think of my “secret pal” as a sandpaper Christian, one designed to smooth off some of my jagged edges.

Though I have moved away and lost touch with that particular lady, it seems like I almost always have one or two sandpaper acquaintances in my life. Again, that is a sad commentary on me more than a reflection on them. I admit sometimes I wonder who is sandpaper to them, but God reminds me that’s His business, and He is working with each of His children to help them grow more Christlike.

I am often discouraged by my lack of love and my abundance of irritation towards people, and it is a frequent matter of prayer. In a quote I saved but can’t find now from a sermon by David Martyn Lloyd-Jones from I John, he makes a distinction between liking and loving and says we are to love people we might not necessarily like, and that helped some. Biblical love, after all, is not just a warm fuzzy feeling. Verses about “forbearing one another in love” help, as does the reminder that God loves them in their imperfections as much as He loves me in mine. Sometimes I have felt that tolerating or forbearing was the best I could do, but God calls me to more. They are His dear children for whom He died, and He wants me to love them as much as I love myself, and even more – as He loves me. A tall order that can only be accomplished by meditating on His great love.

I just started reading C. S. Lewis’s Weight of Glory recently, and one section in the first essay of the same title really helped along these lines. After discussing what our future glorification in heaven means, he writes:

“It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbour. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to …remember that the dullest and most  uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner—no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbour he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat—the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.”

I would disagree with what I think he is saying about the sacrament – I believe it is symbolic and representative and doesn’t contain any glory in itself. It is a wafer, not Christ’s actual body, meant to put us in mind of His body torn for us. But Christ does indwell a fellow child of God.

No mere mortals. No ordinary people. Future glorified saints. Fellow citizens of the household of God. Sons and daughters of the King. These are the ones with whom we have to do. May we treat them accordingly. And may we treat those who are not yet in the family of God as if we are eager for them to be.

Beneath the cross of Jesus
His family is my own—
Once strangers chasing selfish dreams,
Now one through grace alone.
How could I now dishonor
The ones that You have loved?
Beneath the cross of Jesus
See the children called by God.

~ Keith and Kristen Getty

And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. Matthew 25:40

Love each other

Book Review: On Stories and Other Essays on Literature

On StoriesSomeone recommended On Stories and Other Essays on Literature by C. S. Lewis some time last year. I asked for and received it for Christmas, but then set it aside when I entered a number of reading challenges for this year. But something in How to Read Slowly touched off a train of thought that reminded me of Lewis’s book, so I was happy to pick it up recently. Then realizing it could qualify for Carrie’s Narnia Reading Challenge for July made me push a little harder to try to get through it by the end of the month.

Nineteen of Lewis’s essays were compiled for this book by Walter Hooper, one of his biographers, his private secretary for a time, and eventually the literary executor of his estate. The last selection in the book is a transcript of a discussion recorded with Lewis and two colleagues. Many of the essays were previously published in magazines or in Lewis’s books: others had been unpublished until this book. Some are Lewis’s thoughts on fiction, science fiction, writing for children, etc., while others are critiques of other writers’ work (Dorothy L. Sayers, Rider Haggard, George Orwell, Tolkien, and others).

There is no way to really review a book like this, so I am just going to share some observations.

I hadn’t known and was fascinated to learn in Hooper’s mini-biography which introduces the book that in Lewis’s time “the most vocal of the literary critics were encouraging readers to find in literature almost everything, life’s monotony, social injustice, sympathy with the downtrodden poor, drudgery, cynicism, and distaste: everything except enjoyment. Step out of line and you were branded an ‘escapist'” (p ix). I’m glad Lewis not only stepped out of the box but succeeded and made it okay to enjoy stories as stories.

Lewis states many times in various essays that he did not write the Narnia series or his science fiction trilogy with morals or symbolism in view, as many people in his time and since have thought. They started with certain pictures in his mind (a faun carrying an umbrella) and developed from there. “Never…did he begin with a message or moral, but…these things pushed their own way in during the process of writing” (p. xv). He says in the transcript at the end, “The story itself should force its moral on you. You find out what the moral is by writing the story” (p. 145).

Reepicheep and Puddleglum the Marshwiggle were his favorite characters (p. xi).

He decried the kind of fiction where “the author has no expedient for keeping the story on the move except that of putting his hero into violent danger. In the hurry and scurry of his escapes the poetry of the basic idea is lost” (p. 10). Of course he had no problem with putting the hero in danger, as you know if you’ve read Narnia or the Space Trilogy: sometimes that’s a necessary part of the plot. But if that’s all the story is, it might be enjoyable to some, but there’s no deeper meaning.

He also believed that the “marvels in a good Story” should not be “mere arbitrary fictions stuck on to make the narrative more sensational” (p. 12). In other words, the story itself should be intrinsic to the “world” in the story. A story about pirates should  have a different feel and problems than a story about giants and dragons. The plot shouldn’t be such that it could be stuck into any setting.

He quotes Dorothy L. Sayers as saying, about the assumption that she wrote to “do good”: “My object was to tell that story to the best of my ability, within the medium at my disposal — in short, to make as good a work of art as I could. For a work of art that is not good and true in art is not good and true in any other respect” (p. 93).

When asked what he thought of a certain book, he replied, “I thought it was pretty good. I only read it once; mind you, a book’s no good to me until I’ve read it two or three times” (p. 146).

I found his thoughts on critiques and book reviews quite interesting in “On Criticism” and in his answering of some criticisms of his work in “On Science Fiction.” Then to see/read him “in action” critiquing other books was enlightening. He didn’t pull any punches, but he wasn’t mean or belittling, and he complimented and praised the good while sharing honestly what he thought was bad. He made a strong case for truly evaluating what was good and bad and not deeming a book bad just because one doesn’t like a particular genre.

He thought The Lord of the Rings would “soon take its place among the indispensables” (p. 90). He was right. 🙂

I didn’t look up every word I didn’t know in this book, but I should have, especially with a dictionary app at hand on my phone. I eventually started doing so partway through the book.

Though Lewis has such a wealth of knowledge, I found him very readable and not hard to follow for the most part. I’d love to have sat in on one of his classes.

And here are some of my favorite quotes:

“It might be expected that such a book would unfit us for the harshness of reality and send us back into our daily lives unsettled and discontent. I do not find that it does so….Story, paradoxically enough, strengthens our relish for real life. This excursion into the preposterous [speaking here of The Wind in the Willows] sends us back with renewed pleasure to the actual” (p. 14).

“No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of fifty – except, of course, books of information” (p. 14).

On the topic of frightening elements in children’s literature, he agreed that “we must not do anything likely to give the child those haunting, disabling, pathological fears against which ordinary courage is helpless,” but to withhold “the knowledge that he is born into a world of death, violence, wounds, adventure, heroism and cowardice, good and evil…would be to give children a false impression and feed them on escapism in the bad sense. There is something ludicrous in the idea of so educating a generation which is born to the Ogpu and the atomic bomb. Since it is so likely they will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making destiny not brighter but darker. Nor do most of us find that violence and bloodshed, in a story, produce haunting dread in the minds of children…Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end of the book…I think it possible that by confining your child to blameless stories of child life in which nothing at all alarming ever happens, you would fail to banish the terrors, and would succeed in banishing all that can ennoble them or make them endurable” (pp. 39-40) (emphasis mine).

On The Lord of the Rings: “Here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron; this is a book that will break your heart” (p. 84).

“‘But why,’ some ask, ‘why, if you have a serious comment to make on the real life of men, must you do it by talking about a phantasmagoric never-never land of your own?’ Because, I take it, one of the main things the author wants to say is that the real life of men is that of mythical and heroic quality” (p. 89).

“The value of myth is that it takes all the things we know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by the ‘veil of familiarity.’ The child enjoys his cold meat (otherwise dull to him) by pretending it is buffalo, just killed with his own bow and arrow. And the child is wise. The real meat comes back to him more savory for having been dipped in a story…If you are tired of the real landscape, look at it in a mirror. By putting bread, gold, horse,apple, or the very roads into a myth, we do not retreat from reality: we rediscover it. As long as the story lingers in our mind, the real things are more themselves. This book [LOTR] applies the treatment not only to bread and apple but to good and evil, to our endless perils, our anguish, and our joys. By dipping them in myth we see them more clearly” (p. 90).

I love that – that by seeing truth in stories we sometimes see it more clearly than we otherwise would have.

If you like Lewis or like literature, I highly recommend this book to you.

Chronicles of Narnia Reading Challenge

(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

Book Review: Mere Christianity

Mere ChristianityI first read Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis some seven or so years ago and tried to write a review, but ended up mainly just listing quotes, which is not a review. It wasn’t hard to read or to follow — for the most part Lewis’s thinking was actually pretty easy to track, and he writes in a logical, almost conversational style rather than like a theology textbook. It was more a matter of there being too much to take in and process and too many goods things to share to reduce it to anything like a review. I read a quote by Elisabeth Elliot (which I neglected to keep track of) something to the effect that she could understand Lewis by reading him through the first time, but needed to read him again to be able reconstruct his arguments. I feel the same way. I’m thankful The Cloud of Witnesses Challenge sponsored by Becky at Operation Actually Read Bible spurred me to pick this up again. I feel I got much more from it this time, maybe just because of a second reading, maybe because of several years of (hopefully) maturing in the meantime, maybe because our church has been talking about “Coffee Shop Apologetics” on Wednesday nights using some of Lewis’s material here and there.

It is interesting to read how Lewis came from an atheistic background and what the Lord used to convince him that Christianity was the truth. Although this book is not his “testimony” per se, he does touch on his own personal journey to faith.

The book is divided into four sections: “Right and Wrong as a Clue to Meaning in the Universe,” in which he argues for Christianity and why it is the best solution to universal moral and logical dilemmas, then “What Christians Believe,” “Christian Behavior,” and “Beyond Personality: Or First Steps in the Doctrine of the Trinity.” Originally the various segments were radio talks in the 1940s which were then tweaked to better fit written form.

I have many more places marked than I can possibly share here. Goodreads has a list of several quotes from the book, some you’ll recognize as classic Lewis. One of my favorite quotes about love comes from this book. Here are a few others hat stood out to me:

From the chapter “We Have Cause to Be Uneasy”:

For the trouble is that one part of you is on His side and really agrees with his disapproval of human greed and trickery and exploitation. You may want Him to make an exception in your own case, to let you off this one time; but you know at bottom that unless the power behind the world really and unalterably detests that sort of behaviour, then He cannot be good. On the other hand, we know that if there does exist an absolute goodness it must hate most of what we do. This is the terrible fix we are in. If the universe is not governed by an absolute goodness, then all our efforts are in the long run hopeless. But if it is, then we are making ourselves enemies to that goodness every day, and are not in the least likely to do any better tomorrow, and so our case is hopeless again. We cannot do without it, and we cannot do with it. God is the only comfort, He is also the supreme terror: the thing we must need and the thing we most want to hide from. He is our only possible ally, and we have made ourselves His enemies. Some people talk as if meeting the gaze of absolute goodness would be fun. They need to think again. They are still only playing with religion. Goodness is either the great safety or the great danger -according to the way you react to it. And we have reacted the wrong way.

From the chapter “The Practical Conclusion”:

[The Christian] does not think God will love us because we are good, but that God will make us good because he loves us.

From the chapter “Social Morality”:

I may repeat “Do as you would be done by” till I am black in the face, but I cannot really carry it out till I love my neighbor as myself: and I cannot learn to love my neighbor as myself until I learn to love God.

From the chapter “Sexual Morality”:

We may, indeed, be sure that perfect chastity-like perfect charity-will not be attained by any merely human efforts. You must ask for God’s help. Even when you have done so, it may seem to you for a long time that no help, or less help than you need, is being given. Never mind. After each failure, ask forgiveness, pick yourself up and try again. Very often what God first helps us towards is not the virtue itself but just this power of always trying again. For however important chastity (or courage, or truthfulness, or any other virtue) may be, this process trains us in habits of the soul which are more important still. It cures our illusions about ourselves and teaches us to depend on God. We learn, on the one hand, that we cannot trust ourselves even in our best moments, and, on the other, that we need not despair even in our worst, for our failures are forgiven. The only fatal thing is to sit down content with anything less than perfection.

From the chapter “The Great Sin”:

Pleasure in being praised is not Pride. The child who is patted on the back for doing a lesson well, the woman whose beauty is praised by her lover, the saved soul to whom Christ says, “Well done,” are all pleased and ought to be. For here the pleasure lies not in what you are but in the fact that you have pleased someone you wanted (and rightly wanted) to please. The trouble begins when you pass from thinking, “I have pleased him; all is well,” to thinking, “What a fine person I must be to have done it.”

That was immensely helpful to me. I don’t know if anyone else experiences this, but sometimes when you receive a compliment, then you feel a rush of pleasure, that feel guilty for that pleasure and feel you need to redirect the attention to the Lord, and in trying to do so sound awkward and overly pious. For that reason, when someone, say, sings a solo in church that I enjoyed, I try to tell them it blessed my heart rather than just “I enjoyed your song this morning.” Though I mean the same thing by both sentences, the second one makes people feel awkward and self-conscious. This thought did help me to understand it’s not wrong to feel pleasure in pleasing someone else or accepting a compliment.

From the same chapter:

Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call “humble” nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is a nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who tool a real interest in what you said to him….He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.

From the chapter “Charity”:

Good and evil both increase at compound interest. That is why the little decisions you and I make every day are of such infinite importance. The smallest good act to-day is the capture of a strategic point from which, a few months later, you may be able to go on to victories you never dreamed of. An apparently trivial indulgence in lust or, anger to-day is the loss of a ridge or railway line or bridgehead from which the enemy may launch an attack otherwise impossible.

From the same chapter:

Nobody can always have devout feelings: and even if we could, feelings are not what God principally cares about. Christian Love, either towards God or towards man, is an affair of the will. If we are trying to do His will we are obeying the commandment, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God.’ He will give us feelings of love if He pleases. We cannot create them for ourselves, and we must not demand them as a right. But the great thing to remember is that, though our feelings come and go, His love for us does not. It is not wearied by our sins, or our indifference; and, therefore, it is quite relentless in its determination that we shall be cured of those sins, at whatever cost to us, at whatever cost to Him.

From the chapter “Hope”:

If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and to help others to do the same.

From the chapter “Faith”:

But supposing a man’s reason once decides that the weight of the evidence is for [Christianity]. I can tell that man what is going to happen to him in the next few weeks. There will come a moment when there is bad news, or he is in trouble, or is living among a lot of other people who do not believe it, and all at once his emotions will rise up and carry out a sort of blitz on his belief. Or else there will come a moment when he wants a woman, or wants to tell a lie, or feels very pleased with himself, or sees a chance of making a little money in some way that is not perfectly fair: some moment, in fact, at which it would be very convenient if Christianity were not true. And once again his wishes and desires will carry out a blitz. I am not talking of moments at which any real new reasons against Christianity turn up. Those have to be faced and that is a different matter. I am talking about moments when a mere mood rises up against it.

Now Faith, in the sense in which I am here using the word, is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted in spite of your changing moods. For moods will change, whatever view your reason takes. I know that by experience. Now that I am a Christian I do have moods in which the whole thing looks very improbable: but when I was an atheist I had moods in which Christianity looked terribly probable. This rebellion of your moods against your real self is going to come anyway. That is why Faith is such a necessary virtue unless you teach your moods ‘where they get off,’ you can never be either a sound Christian or even a sound atheist, but just a creature dithering to and fro, with its beliefs really dependent on the weather and the state of its digestion. Consequently one must train the habit of Faith.

From a second chapter titles “Faith”:

And, in yet another sense, handing everything over to Christ does not, of course, mean that you stop trying. To trust Him means, of course, trying to do all that He says. There would be no sense in saying you trusted a person if you would not take his advice. Thus if you have really handed yourself over to Him, it must follow that you are trying to obey Him. But trying in a new way, a less worried way. Not doing these things in order to be saved, but because He has begun to save you already. Not hoping to get to Heaven as a reward for your actions, but inevitably wanting to act in a certain way because a first faint gleam of Heaven is already inside you (emphasis mine).

From the chapter “Nice People or New Men”:

But we must not suppose that even if we succeeded in making everyone nice we should have saved their souls. A world of nice people, content in their own niceness, looking no further, turned away from God, would be just as desperately in need of salvation as a miserable world – and might even be more difficult to save.

For mere improvement is not redemption, though redemption always improves people even here and now and will, in the end, improve them to a degree we cannot yet imagine. God became man to turn creatures into sons: not simply to produce better men of the old kind but to produce a new kind of man…

If what you want is an argument against Christianity (and I well remember how eagerly I looked for such arguments when I began to be afraid it was true) you can easily find some stupid and unsatisfactory Christian and say, ‘So there’s your boasted new man I Give me the old kind.’ But if once you have begun to see that Christianity is on other grounds probable, you will know in your heart that this is only evading the issue. What can you ever really know of other people’s souls-of their temptations, their opportunities, their struggles? One soul in the whole creation you do know: and it is the only one whose fate is placed in your hands. If there is a God, you are, in a sense, alone with Him. You cannot put Him off with speculations about your next door neighbours or memories of what you have read in books. What will all that chatter and hearsay count (will you even be able to remember it?) when the anaesthetic fog which we call ‘nature’ or `the real world’ fades away and the Presence in which you have always stood becomes palpable, immediate, and unavoidable?

There were a very few places I disagreed with him. In “The Perfect Penitent” he thinks the theory “about our being let off because Christ had volunteered to bear a punishment instead of us” is a silly one and says he doesn’t understand the point of punishing an innocent person for a guilty one, though he says he can understand it better in terms of paying a debt. I’m not sure how he could have missed the teaching that God’s just letting us off the hook would be a violation of His justice and righteousness, and Christ’s innocent death satisfied that justice (Romans 3:24-26). In “The Practical Conclusion” he says “a Christian can lose the Christ-life which has been put into him, and he has to make efforts to keep it,” which I would disagree with very much. When we’re saved we are born again: we don’t get unborn. Our spiritual life may get weak and sickly with neglect, and we do need to nurture that life and mature in it, but we don’t lose it. Then in “Counting the Cost” he says that God said in the Bible that we are “gods” and “He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, dazzling, radiant, immortal creature…which reflects back to God perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness)”. I’m not quite sure how to take him there. Both Psalm 82:6-7 and John 10:34-36 have the term “You are gods,” and, frankly, I am not quite sure what is meant in those cases, either. The Bible talks about us becoming one with the Father and Son and becoming partakers of the divine nature, but we don’t become Deity like Christ is. I don’t think Lewis is saying that we do – I am just not sure what he is saying. If you’ve read his Space Trilogy, you know he portrays the mythical gods and goddesses as some kind of created being more powerful than humans but not like angels, either. Perhaps all he is talking about it what we’ll be like in glory: perfected yet still less than God the Father and Jesus Christ. And in “The Practical Conclusion,” he says that three things that spread the “Christ-life” to us are baptism, belief, and communion (the Lord’s Supper). I would say only faith does: the others are matters of obedience and blessing, but they are symbolic and not life-giving in themselves (see the outline for “Why We Know Baptism Does Not Save.”)

Much more could be discussed, on these points or others in the book. Despite those few caveats mentioned, I feel this is a valuable book and one of those Christian classics that everyone should read at least once, probably several times over.

(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

Book Review: The Great Divorce

the-great-divorceI first picked up The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis some years ago when I found it on sale in a bookstore. I wasn’t sure what kind of divorce the title was talking about, and the description on the front about a bus ride from hell to heaven seemed really weird, but it was Lewis and it was on sale, so I got it. But it sat around for all these years unopened. The TBR challenge of reading things that have been unread on our shelves spurred me to work this book in this year.

Lewis explains in the preface that the title and concept came in response to William Blake’s book The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Lewis explains that there can be no such marriage.

“We are not living in a world where all roads are radii of a circle and where all, if followed long enough, will therefore draw gradually nearer and finally meet at the centre: rather in a world where every road, after a few miles, forks in two, and each of those into two again, and at each road you must make a decision. Even on a biological level life is not like a river but like a tree. It does not move towards unity but away from it and the creatures grow further apart as they increase in perfection. Good, as it ripens, becomes continually more different not only from evil but also from other good.”

“Evil can be undone, but it cannot ‘develop’ into good. Time does not heal it.”

To illustrate some of those fork-in-the-road choices as well as the opposite directions of heaven and hell, Lewis developed this fantasy of a group of people on a bus ride from hell to visit heaven. When they arrive, they are surprised to find that they are transparent and that contact with solid objects is painful (“It will hurt at first, until your feet are hardened. Reality is harsh to the feet of shadows.”) They are called ghosts, whereas the inhabitants who come to meet them are called Solid People or Spirits. Most of the people decide not to stay for various reasons, despite the Spirits encouraging them to put away whatever is holding them back and enter into joy.

The cleric who does not believe in absolutes refuses to believe in them still: “For me there is no such thing as a final answer. The free wind of inquiry must always continue to blow through the mind, must it not? ‘Prove all things’…to travel hopefully is better than to arrive.” The Spirit speaking with him, a friend he knew in life, responds, “If that were true…how could anyone travel hopefully? There would be nothing to hope for.” The artist prefers his painting to reality. “Every poet and musician and artist, but for Grace, is drawn away from the love of the thing he tells, to the love of the telling till, down in Deep Hell, they cannot be interested in God at all but only in what they say about Him.” The overbearing wife wants to continue “managing” her husband. The mother who has developed motherly love into idolatry would rather take her son from heaven back to hell with her than lessen her focus from him to love God. “Mother love…is the highest and holiest feeling in human nature,” she says, and is told, “No natural feelings are high or low, holy or unholy, in themselves. They are all holy when God’s hand is on the rein. They all go bad when they set up on their own and make themselves into false gods.” The man who lives for manipulating people with his self-pity is told, “Did you think joy was created to live always under that threat? Always defenseless against those who would rather be miserable than have their self-will crossed?”

But a few are willing to have their besetting sins taken and killed, and they grow more “solid.”

“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened. ”

“Good beats upon the damned incessantly as sound waves beat on the ears of the deaf, but they cannot receive it. Their fists are clenched, their teeth are clenched, their eyes fast shut. First they will not, in the end they cannot, open their hands for gifts, or their mouth for food, or their eyes to see.”

Lewis, or the narrator, finds George MacDonald, someone he has greatly looked up to and learned from, who then becomes a guide and teacher for him, similar to Dante and Virgil in The Divine Comedy.

Lewis assures in the preface that he is not writing to propose anything about what heaven might be like: he is simply using this scenario as a vehicle to discuss truths.

There are a few similar themes as are found in The Last Battle, the last book in the Narnia series written about 10-11 years later: the idea of moving “further up and further in” and the effusive joy of heaven.

I don’t know if Lewis believed in a purgatory or if he was just using the idea of the dead getting “second chances” to illustrate that many of them would not take it. The Bible says in Hebrews 9:27 that “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment,” so I would have a problem with this book promoting the idea of purgatory, but I think the whole second chance scenario is just part of the plot device.

One character in the book says, “Hell is a state of mind – ye never said a truer word. And every state of mind, left to itself, every shutting up of the creature within the dungeon of its own mind – is, in the end, Hell. But Heaven is not a state of mind. Heaven is reality itself. All that is fully real is Heavenly. For all that can be shaken will be shaken and only the unshakeable remains.”  Again, I don’t know if the idea of hell being just a state of mind was part of Lewis’s own philosophy or if it was just the nature of it in this as a fantasy, but the Bible does speak of hell with literal terminology.

Overall this was quite a fascinating and thought-provoking read.

(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)