Sunday, December 18, 2005

CSL: Translator and Smuggler

The timing is right to remind ourselves that C.S. Lewis was far from perfect. I have serious disagreements with Lewis about several vital theological doctrines. But, to be fair, we must remember how Lewis viewed his evangelistic task.

Position: Christian Layman

Lewis was not a theologian by vocation. He never claimed to be. He was a college tutor, university lecturer, and literary historian, first at Oxford, then at Cambridge. He made his living in the fields of philosophy, medieval and renaissance literature, and English language and literature. In sharp contrast to his popular Christian books, the themes of his university lectures include, “The Good, and its position among the values,” “Some Eighteenth-Century Precursors of the Romantic Movement,” “The Prolegomena to Medieval and Renaissance Studies,” and “Elyot, Ascham, Hooker, and Bacon.” From his position as Christian layman he does not hesitate to criticize clergy and purposefully teach what he considers to be the ancient, orthodox doctrines of Christianity. Lewis sees dire consequences for the future of the church should these clergy continue to mislead their flocks. He says, “Missionary to priests of one’s own church is an embarrassing role; though I have a horrid feeling if such mission work is not soon undertaken the future history of the Church of England is likely to be short.” Although Lewis was never ordained, his commitment to “mere Christianity” compels him to reluctantly enter the mid-twentieth century theological fray.

Method: Praeparatio Evangelica

After his conversion to Christianity in 1931, Lewis made his commitment to evangelism unequivocal. He tells his audience at Westcott House: “woe to you if you do not evangelize.” He did not approach lightly his personal responsibility to evangelize: “My feeling about the people in whose conversion I have been allowed to play a part is always mixed with awe and fear.”

Lewis sees himself primarily as a pre-evangelist. He works to prepare the way for the proclamation of the Gospel. He attempts to remove doubts, reveal contradictions, and “undermine . . . intellectual prejudices.” He maintains,

Mine are praeparatio evangelica rather than evangelism, an attempt to convince people that there is a moral law, that we disobey it, and that the existence of a Lawgiver is at least very probable and also (unless you add the Christian doctrine of the Atonement) that this imparts despair rather than comfort.

Lewis pursues his evangelistic goals through methods best described as “smuggling” and “translating.” When he realizes that reviewers did not recognize the subtle Christian imagery in his first science fiction novel, Out of the Silent Planet, he writes,

But if only there were someone with a richer talent and more leisure, I believe this great ignorance might be a help to the evangelization of England: any amount of theology can now be smuggled into people’s minds under cover of romance [romantic, imaginative literature] without their knowing it.

Reflecting upon the importance of imaginative writing for apologetics and evangelism, he says, “I thought I saw how stories of this kind [fairy stories] could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralyzed much of my own religion in childhood. . . . Could one not thus steal past watchful dragons? I thought I could.” He adopts this subtle “smuggling” as one way to pre-evangelize. Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Till We Have Faces evidence this approach.

Lewis argues that the typical individual living in post-Christian England does not understand the traditional language of Christianity. The content of the Faith needs to be made understandable. To Christian apologists he charges, you “must translate every bit of your theology into the vernacular.”

Speaking to a church in which theological liberalism and apostasy were rampant, Lewis stresses that Christianity must be preached primarily because it is true, not because it is good for marriages, families, culture, or any other pragmatic purpose. When a man is preaching the Gospel, he is preaching “objective fact.” The historic, orthodox Christian Faith must not be altered just because certain doctrines do not comport well with contemporary scientific opinion. Being “slaves of fashion” is especially dangerous for clergy. Lewis charges that both liberal and orthodox theologians of his time make basic Christian doctrine obscure:

Our business today is to present that which is timeless (the same yesterday, today, and forever) in the particular language of our own age. The bad preacher does exactly the opposite: he takes the ideas of our own age and tricks them out in the traditional language of Christianity.

“Any fool,” Lewis writes, “can write learned language. The vernacular is the real test. If you can’t turn your faith into it, then either you don’t understand it or you don’t believe it.” The Problem of Pain and Mere Christianity are examples of this approach.

Audience: Those Outside

Because Lewis sees himself as a layman working to communicate common Christianity through methods best described as apologetic and pre-evangelistic, he is often at pains to emphasize the importance of keeping theological controversy behind the closed doors of the church. He makes no attempt to hide his own theological convictions, and he believes doctrinal disputation to be important for clarification and defense of the faith.

He is writing primarily to those outside of the church. “Our divisions should never be discussed except in the presence of those who have already come to believe that there is one God and that Jesus Christ is His only Son,” he argues. So, he continues, “I think we must admit that the discussion of these disputed points has no tendency at all to bring an outsider into the Christian fold.” Outsiders must be presented with the basic Gospel and challenged to make decisions and take actions based upon this information.

In 1958, Dr. Norman Pittenger wrote “A Critique of C.S. Lewis” for the Christian Century. In this article he accuses Lewis of writing in Miracles that miracles violate the laws of nature. He criticizes Lewis’s interpretation of Jesus’s claims of deity in the Gospel of John, his emphasis on the transcendence of God, his claim that men are sinners, and not “caring for” the Sermon on the Mount.

Lewis’s response, “Rejoinder to Dr. Pittenger,” serves to further illustrate Lewis’s design for his Christian writings. Lewis charges Pittenger with misunderstanding why, and to whom, he is writing his Christian books: “He [Pittenger] judges my books in vacuo, with no consideration of the audience to whom they were addressed or the prevalent errors they were trying to combat. . . . But I was writing ad populum, not ad clerum.” Lewis writes to materialists, naturalists, and atheists. He directs his efforts toward those who reject supernaturalism and misunderstand traditional Christian terminology. “I was writing for people who wanted to know whether the things could have happened rather than what they should be called; whether we could, without absurdity, believe that Christ rose from the emptied tomb.” If an unbeliever responds to plain language, then “vulgarity must be endured.” Lewis admits that he may not always be completely accurate theologically, and his style of communication may not be perfect, but he is working for the conversion of “storekeepers, lawyers, realtors, morticians, policemen and artisans.”

Yes, he was far from perfect, but we can still learn much from CSL.


Anonymous said...

Is there anyone today who addresses the culture as effectively as CSL did? I can't think of anyone who does.

Shortly after my conversion I read Mere Christianity. In it he made the comment that one should make sure you are under the roof of Christianity first, then pick a room that suits you best. That was great advice - one of many great statements in that book.

After reading and re-reading many of his books, the only thing that really bugs me about him is the constant platonism in all his books (the idea that this world is only a shadow of the architype in heaven). An example is in the Last Battle where Aslan closes the door on Narnia. The inside of the barn looks just like Narnia, but fresher and brighter. Going up the hill the Professor (I believe) remarks that Plato was right after all. Do you know what influenced Lewis in this regard? Was it the "Medivial Platonists" mentioned in the Space Trilogy?


Bradford Mercer said...


I agree. The Abolition of Man is particularly prophetic in its insight.

From a young age, Lewis was drawn to a Medieval worldview. He detested modernism, with all of its attendant "isms": Determinism, Naturalism, Materialism, Marxism, Freudianism, and on and on. Human beings are not machine-like cosmic accidents. He was drawn to Plato's conviction that ultimate reality is more like mind or spirit than matter. He was also draw to Plato's ethics and his cosmology. See Reflections on the Psalms, The Disgarded Image, and "De Descriptione Temporum." In my humble opinion, Lewis does at times lapse into an unhealthy syncretism.