April 17, 2007


Simply Lewis: Reflections on a Master Apologist After 60 Years (N. T. Wright, march 2007, Toustone)

There are two constant powerful refrains throughout Mere Christianity. First, faith matters more than feelings; faithfulness to the high and hard standards of Christian behavior matters more than doing what you feel like at the time. Lewis was swimming against a strong tide of popular romantic existentialism, a tide running even more strongly in our own day.

He was not, of course, opposed to feelings; but he knew, and it comes as a relief to our generation to be reminded, that if you go with the flow of feelings you will be inconsistent, unfaithful, lacking in all integrity. To realize that we don’t have to float out to sea on that strong tide, but that we can and must swim against it, is challenging but also liberating.

Second, you can understand falsehood from the standpoint of truth but not the other way around, just as someone who knows light can understand darkness but not vice versa: Thus you can understand sexual perversion once you know the norm; “good people know about both good and evil: bad people do not know about either”; “virtue brings light; indulgence brings fog.” (Incidentally, I don’t know whether it’s Lewis or his republishers, but I am puzzled that such a great writer should have been so indiscriminate and seemingly muddled with his use of the colon and semi-colon.)

So to the four different sections of the book. I rate the third (“Christian Behaviour”) as the finest; the first and last (“Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe” with its moral argument for God, and “Beyond Personality,” the closing pieces on the Trinity and on regeneration) as fascinating though in some ways problematic; and the second (“What Christians Believe”) as, worryingly, the most deeply flawed. [...]

The third part of the book, titled “Christian Behaviour,” is the most professional, and there is a reason for that. As well as teaching English literature, Lewis had at one stage taught philosophy. He knew his way round the classic discussions of the virtues and vices and how they operate. He also submitted himself to regular, serious spiritual direction, and as well as knowing the intellectual framework of behavior, both classical and Christian, he was deeply alert to the nuances of motivation and action, able to articulate moods and behavior patterns that for most people, in his day and ours, remain a mystery.

I suspect that one of the great appeals of his book, then and now, is that it gives one a grammar of everyday morality, enabling one to understand and speak a highly useful and indeed mellifluous language most of us didn’t know existed. Some of his moral discussions are small classics.

He is superb on generosity. He sticks a small but sharp pin into the system of usury on which the entire modern world is based. He is fascinating and fresh on sex (though of course even more deeply unfashionable today than then); and his reflections on marriage, despite his bachelor disclaimers, are worth pondering deeply (especially his final comments about it being important for the man to be in charge of what he calls the couple’s “foreign policy”).

He is clear and challenging on forgiveness, spot on in his analysis of pride and its centrality, and shrewd and helpful on the fact that charity is not an emotion but a determination to act in a particular way, and that to our surprise we find that when, without any feeling of love towards someone, we act as if we loved them, we discover that the feelings bubble up unbidden, so that we end by feeling in reality what before we had merely determined to do.

At this point, of course, we come up against Lewis’s implied soteriology, and I suspect that others have challenged him on this point. Several times he insists, effectively, on the priority of grace: We can’t save ourselves, but God does it, takes the initiative, rescues those who couldn’t rescue themselves. But equally often he speaks as though it’s really a matter, as with Aristotle, of our becoming good by gradually learning to do good things, and with Jesus coming alongside, and indeed inside, to help us as we do so. Salvation, and behavior, are caught by infection, by our being in Christ and his being in us.

I suspect that Lewis never really worked all this out; and I suspect, too, that the outsider looking in doesn’t need to, either. I know that’s heresy in some circles, but I think it’s important that we are justified by faith: not by believing in justification by faith, but by believing in Jesus Christ. Obviously a clear understanding of justification would help a great deal, but I don’t myself regard that as the first thing to explain to a potential convert. Sufficient to draw them to Jesus.

-AUDIO LECTURE: Mere Christianity (Peter Kreeft, Third Presbyterian Church - 3/25/04)

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 17, 2007 10:36 PM

"He sticks a small but sharp pin into the system of usury on which the entire modern world is based."

That to me, is much more problematic than any flaws in "What Christians Believe."

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at April 18, 2007 9:03 AM

Few things would be of greater benefit to society than enforcing usury laws.

Posted by: oj at April 18, 2007 10:41 AM

Sola gratia, sola fide, sola Christus; all else is commentary. While Lewis' apologetics are among the best of the 20th century, you still need to pick up a Bible.

Posted by: Gideon at April 18, 2007 12:21 PM

"usury" is nonsense.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at April 18, 2007 1:20 PM

No, it's evil.

Posted by: oj at April 18, 2007 1:49 PM

I clicked through the link and ordered Mere Christianity from Amazon. I've been wanting to read it, my library did not have it and there was the solution. Thanks. Hopefully, Amazon gives you credit for purchases that originate from your site.

Posted by: kb at April 18, 2007 3:30 PM

Yup, thanks! & enjoy....

Posted by: oj at April 18, 2007 4:37 PM

Having read the review, I began to wonder if the author remembered that "Mere Christianity" was not intended to ever be a foundational theology. It was meant to be an introduction and general survey. Lewis took some parts of theology out of the realm of the intellectual; here is an intellectual upset that he did it wrong.

Posted by: Jay at April 18, 2007 7:35 PM