Friday, March 27, 2015

C.S. Lewis : Mythmaker and Apologist of the 20th Century by Chris White

C.S. Lewis

The late British Theologian John Stott has said of C.S. Lewis, “He was a Christ-centered, great-tradition mainstream Christian whose stature a generation after his death seems greater than anyone ever thought while he was alive, and whose Christian writings are now seen as having classic status.  I doubt whether the full measure of him has been taken by anyone”.

That Stott would say his stature seems greater today than ever is a classic understatement when you consider that his books continue to sell in the millions, Hollywood films have been made based on his life and The Chronicles of Narnia, and that there is literally a C.S. Lewis industry that centers on conferences, lectures, and books that interpret his life and work.

When the Hollywood film version of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe was released (2005), Christianity Today magazine noted the similarities between C.S. Lewis and Elvis Presley:


"At first glance, C. S. Lewis and Elvis Presley seem like polar opposites. But a closer look will show that these two cultural icons have a lot in common.
Like Elvis, C. S. Lewis had been a soldier. Both men came to fame on the radio. Both men's homes (Graceland and the Kilns) have become pilgrimage sites. Both left behind estates now valued in the millions. And both rose from relative obscurity—Elvis, a Mississippi truck driver, and Lewis, a tutor at Oxford—to become larger-than-life figures profiled in books and movies and beloved by legions of adoring fans. Like Elvis, even after death, Lewis remains a superstar."

So who is this man behind the books and why is he important to Christians today?

The Early Years

Born Clive Staples Lewis in 1898 to Albert and Florence Lewis in Belfast Ireland, Lewis disliked his name and as a young boy insisted his family call him “Jacksie.” In adulthood he was known as Jack to his friends and associates and in the publishing world he stuck with the ever-so-popular convention of his day of reducing his name to his initials .

By his own reckoning, two things in childhood were to influence the entire direction of his future life.  First was the rain and fog that were constantly present at their home in Ireland.  His parents feared that he and his older brother Warren would get sick and die if they played outside in the wet and so they spent much of their childhood in the house.  This led to voracious reading and lots of imaginative play.  As young as age 7, Lewis and his brother were writing children's stories about imaginative lands and animals.  One such book in print today is called “Boxen”.  This was the precursor to the later and more well-known children's series “The Chronicles of Narnia”.

His second great childhood influence was the death of his mother from cancer when he was 10 years old.  The loss of his mother in the prime of her life and his father’s subsequent grief, left Lewis functionally bereft of both parents for the remainder of his formative years.  Lewis's father never truly recovered from his grief and withdrew emotionally from both his sons.

Lewis and older brother Warnie both attended boarding schools.  Although there is nothing extraordinary about this since it was a very common practice in the day, neither of the boys had loving parents to come home to that would be a balance to that world.  This made the boarding school experience for Jack seem for the most part cruel and sadistic. 
Lewis and brother Warren

Although Lewis grew up in a Christian home, the traumas of his childhood combined with the influence of some of the atheistic teachers he had led him to abandon his faith by age 13.

Young Adulthood

Having prepared for University through private tutoring and attending college prep schools, Lewis won a scholarship to Oxford University at age 18.  This was interrupted by the outbreak of World War I (supply year).  Lewis enlisted in the army and was an officer at the front until he was wounded in France in the final year of the war.  During his officers training he met “Paddy” Moore who became a close friend.  Both Moore and Lewis promised to care for each others parents should they be killed in the war, and in the final month of conflict, Paddy Moore was killed.  The following year, Lewis set up a household back at Oxford with Mrs. Janie Moore and her daughter Maureen.  Many have supposed Lewis’ relationship with Mrs. Moore was possibly beyond just caring for an old war buddies mother.  This is largely because Lewis concealed the nature of his living arrangements from his father for many years which begs the question, if he was being so honorable why was this a secret?  I believe the answer is found in Lewis’ journal which was published under the title “All My Life Before Me.” 

Lewis, like many people of his generation, was receiving a living allowance from his father to help him make ends meet.  Concealing such an arrangement would prevent his father from discontinuing it at an inopportune time.  Lewis would have been able to conceal this quite easily because he lived in England while his father, a fairly reclusive man, lived at the family home in Ireland.  Although it was a complex and stormy relationship at times, Lewis supported and cared for her until her death 33 years later.  This is utterly consistent with his character.  C.S. Lewis valued and retained lifelong friendships with many people.

During the remainder of his twenties, Lewis's life consisted mainly of finishing university, trying to write poetry for publication, and trying to support his adopted family on his meager allowance for college and the funds he could make tutoring.  At age 27 he became part of the faculty of Magdalan College at Oxford.  The following year he published his first book of poetry and by age 31 he begins his return to the Christian faith.

The conversion of CS Lewis was fairly undramatic.  He renounced his faith as a young lad and tried to live consistently with this view for many years but found himself constantly being troubled by God.  At 31 he decided once again he believed in the existence of God but said he would never become an enthusiast.  When he was 33, he had a long late-night discussion about Christianity with his friend J.R.R. Tolkien himself a devout Roman Catholic.  The next morning he and his older brother Warnie set out for the Whipsnade Zoo.  When he got in the motorcycle side-car he did not believe Jesus Christ was the son of God, but when they reached the zoo he did.  That's it.  His conversion happened while riding to the zoo!

One of the great ironies of C.S. Lewis is that for all intents and purposes he is regarded as a saint in the evangelical world.  However, Lewis was certainly not an evangelical himself at least in the American sense.  He did not subscribe to biblical inerrancy or Christ’s substitutionary atonement. He also believed in purgatory and baptismal regeneration.  Lewis was by denomination an Anglican, but probably why he is popular with Christians of many denominations is that he never emphasized denominational distinctives.  He boiled things down to the essentials that have been believed by Christians throughout all time.  This approach is what is behind the title of one of his most popular books Mere Christianity.

For the next 31 years, C.S. Lewis quietly taught college students and wrote his many books and essays which presented and defended Christianity to the World War II generation.  His early publications drew next to no attention at all.  Sales were lackluster and Lewis was even having his manuscripts returned or turned down.  But then he wrote a book called The Problem of Pain in 1940 which dealt with the existential problem of how a good God can allow suffering in the world.  In 1940, England was in the darkest days of World War II and this was a topic that resonated with many people.

One of the early readers of that book was the director of religious programming for the BBC and he approached Lewis about doing a 4 part series for broadcast on the basic beliefs of Christianity for the common man.  Lewis enjoyed the task and the audience enjoyed him.  His 4 part series was extended to a total of 29 shows and next to Winston Churchill, C.S. Lewis was the most recognized voice in England at the time.

Hear one of Lewis's broadcasts on the BBC 

It is said that broadcasting actually shaped Lewis’ writing style quite a bit.  He had to speak in short, crisp sentences that were easy to listen to and understand.  This in turn made him a better communicator in print.  After his stint with the BBC, his writings became more well-known and there was greater demand.  This launched him as a popular writer on Christianity for the lay person.  Another innovation in this era that helped Lewis’ career was releasing books in paperback.  Having them in this inexpensive format meant his works would be purchased by a wider reading public.

He also frequently wrote on social issues for magazines and newspapers published in England.  Two of his books: Present Concerns and The Screwtape Letters are both compilations of this work.  Lewis was also a public speaker and lecturer.  It is important to remember that Christianity was not all he talked about.  His main expertise was that of late Medieval English literature.

Get "Mere Christianity" audio or print book for free here 

During the late 1940’s and 1950’s Lewis became very popular in the United States.  He was featured over 8 times in Time magazine and even appeared on its cover.  The perennial appeal of Lewis was the gravitas he had as an Oxford don, yet able to write on religious subjects with such clarity and humor.  One of the fruits of his popularity as a writer was the large amounts of letters he received.  Lewis felt it was an important part of his calling as a writer and a sacred obligation to answer every letter he received.  Lewis himself burned the letters he answered and so collections of his extant letters are very one-sided.  When he grew wealthy through his writing, he gave away by his brother’s estimation nearly 70% of his income to needy people.  He never upgraded his wardrobe, his home, or even bought a car.  He was a thinker and writer and though celebrated he himself never cared to live like a celebrity.

Although a bachelor most of his entire life, he had a two to three year marriage to Joy Gresham, an American woman who came to the Lord through his writings.  Lewis married her shortly before her death and this is the subject of a movie called Shadowlands.  Joy Gresham had two son’s whom Lewis adopted and raised after her death.  Douglas Gresham is still living speaks very warmly of the love and Christian witness of C.S. Lewis to him and it being the central reason he is a Christian today.

In Lewis’s own words he said that he was destined to be a writer and academic because he was so utterly uncoordinated, he couldn’t make a living at anything else.   Lewis never considered himself a great writer, but did feel his writing was his best and only real contribution he could make to the world.  In fact, Lewis was part of a literary self-improvement group called the Inklings for most of his writing career.  They would meet Tuesday mornings at an Oxford Pub called the Eagle and Child and on Thursday nights at Lewis’offices at Oxford.  The membership was informal and flexible but the mainstays through the years were Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.  It should be noted that this was not an mutual admiration society.  Lewis himself was criticized for his evangelistic writing and the Chronicles of Narnia in this group.

Lewis was a life-long smoker and drinker of beer, wine, and spirits.  While frowned upon by most evangelicals in the United States, this was a normal part of his context in England.  He was once asked in a letter from a child in the United States why he smoked since he was a Christian.  His reply was that he had smoked for so long, that to quit would require him to spend too much of his time thinking about not smoking and this in turn would leave little time to think about God.  Thus, he felt it might be more honorable at his stage in life to keep smoking and keep his focus on God. He died of cancer a week before his 65th B-day on November 22, 1963.  Because it was the same day of President Kennedy’s assassination, his passing was almost unnoticed even though he was a widely known writer.

Why is C.S. Lewis important to the Church today?

  1. First and foremost, he is an example of creatively sharing the faith in a way that is meaningful to modern man.  Lewis did not dwell on evidence for the existence of God so much as he dwelt on the philosophical problems of mankind and how Christianity answers them.  People respond more to what’s on their heart than convincing arguments.  This is partly why C.S. Lewis’s writings sell as widely today as they did when he was living. 

  1. He is also an example how Christians best influence their culture.  Many Christians invest huge amounts of energy into political action because political power has a top-down effect on culture.  But culture is influenced more profoundly by the arts and sciences.  These connect with both decision makers and common people alike.  Lewis focused his art of writing towards the culture in a variety of ways and did it well.  Christians are going to have a greater influence in America not through democratic politics but when the best books on any topic are written by Christians, when the best films and music are written by Christians, when the best art is produced by Christians.

  1. He focused on the universals of Christianity, not the small intramural differences between Churches.  Most denominational distinctives are only important to those within them but are pointless to an outsider.  Lewis was concerned that the essentials be clear for all people of all ages.  This was Mere Christianity.

-although a bachelor his entire life, he had a two-three year marriage to Joy Gresham, an American woman who came to the Lord through his writings.  Lewis married her shortly before her death and this is the subject of a movie called Shadowlands.  Joy Gresham had two son’s whom Lewis adopted and raised after her death.  Douglas Gresham is still living speaks very warmly of the love and Christian witness of C.S. Lewis to him and it being the central reason he is a Christian today.
-Lewis’ entire library and the wardrobe that inspired “the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” are located today at Wheaton College near Chicago Illinois.

C.S. Lewis said himself, the best way to know an author is not to read their biography or autobiography, or even an introduction to their works.  Just jump in and read what they have written first and then read other works about them.  Having read nearly the entire corpus of Lewis's work there are very few of his books I wouldn't recommend.  However, let me make a recommendation based on the category of reader you are:

Category 1 "Never read any of his books but want to now"---for you I would recommend starting with his fantasy The Lion, Witch, and Wardrobe.  It is technically a children's book but it is very engaging, humorous, and presents the truth of the gospel in a unique and disarming way.  Next I would read Mere Christianity which is a basic explanation of essential ideas of the Christian faith.  Then I would read The Screwtape Letters.  This entire book is written from "a devil's" point of view and so you the reader are supposed to listen to his advice and do just the opposite.  It is actually a very clever book and gets you thinking.

Category 2 "I've read a couple but I think I might want to read some more"---if you are in this category read God in the Dock which is another longer and more detailed apologetic work and read the Space Trilogy.  I know its hard to envision Lewis doing sci-fi but this works and of course in true fashion the stories explore other important themes of morality, the meaning of life, and the existence of God.  Lewis afficianados will also enjoy the clever tie-in between this trilogy and The Chronicles of Narnia.

Category 3 "I am thinking of making a pilgrimage to the Kilns"---you, of course, are the deeply committed Lewis reader.  If you haven't read Til We Have Faces you should.  Lewis was fascinated with Norse tales and this was his attempt at this genre.  Not knowing a thing about Norse literature I couldn't say whether it was a successful attempt, but having read the book it is a gripping story.  Definitely read Pilgrim's Regress and All My Life Before Me.  Both give great insights into the formation of Lewis's early life and thoughts. 

By the way, if the Kilns and Oxford are an impossibility for you, there is a delightful spot in the United States for the C.S. Lewis fan at Wheaton College near Chicago.  The C.S. Lewis Library contains Lewis's personal library, writing desk and the Wardrobe that inspired the unique portal into Narnia.

Information about Lewis collection in Illinois here

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Tears of St. Lawrence of Rome (d. 258) by Chris White

Perseid Meteor Shower

Every August my wife and me enjoy laying on a blanket in our backyard to observe the night sky and the beautiful celestial event called the Perseid Meteor shower.  This event lasts for several nights (which is nice because Oregon summer nights are not always clear) and is quite dramatic to watch as brilliant streaks of light are seen as the evening sky is covered with “falling stars.”  I was surprised to find that this event is also known as the ‘tears of St. Lawrence’ because the meteor shower coincides with his feast day in the liturgical calendar of the Catholic church.  If it is axiomatic that tears cleanse the soul, the story of St. Lawrence’s tears brought cleansing of a different sort to his adopted city of Rome with his martyrdom.  Here’s how it happened.

Although Lawrence (aka Laurentius or Lorenzo) received the crown of martyrdom in Rome, he was born in Spain.  Although some of the story of his beginnings which are supplied to us by a man from antiquity named Lucio Morinco are legendary to some degree, they are not completely unbelievable and are all we have about his early life: “ St. Lawrence was a son of the duke of Spain whose name was Orenzo.  His mother was called Patience.  As an infant, the devil took him away from the cradle and placed him in the midst of the forest hoping he would perish there.  During that time the bishop who later became Pope Sixtus II was preaching in Spain.  Providence directed his path in such a way that he found the child which was lying under a laurel tree.  He took the child, and nourished him and gave him the name Laurentius (because of the laurel tree).  In Italian he was known as Lorenzo and in English, Lawrence. When he became an adult having many skills and aptitudes, he came with his master to Rome where Sixtus was eventually elected pope and made Lawrence archdeacon of the city. 

In some ways, this story brings more questions than it answers (such as how do we know his parents names if he was a foundling) but it does establish that Lawrence had a relationship with Pope Sixtus II that was close and familial and the laurel tree is a portent of the future, for the crown of laurels was the victor’s prize in Greco-Roman culture, and Lawrence was proven to be a champion both in his ministry and martyrdom.  It also follows the paradigm of Jesus’s life where the devil attempted to destroy him as a child and was only successful in his adult life through the agency of corrupt government.  Such would be true of Lawrence in the end.

Read the Scriptural requirements for Deacons here

So, while most of us at least partially understand who the pope is, what is an archdeacon?  The office of deacon (in the original language of the New Testament “diakonos” or servant) originates in the early church (Acts of the Apostles chapter 6) as a second layer of leadership devoted largely to practical acts of service on behalf of the church.  The efforts of the deacons were to free up the Apostles to concentrate their efforts on prayer and teaching the church in the truths of the gospel.  Since the church of Rome was very large and known for its organization, no doubt the role of archdeacon was one of oversight over the many deacons assigned to serve throughout the city.  Deacons in the city of Rome were also known to assist the bishop in his liturgical functions, teach new converts in preparation for their baptism (catechumens) and finally to distribute charity to the poor through a network throughout the city.
St. Stephen was the first deacon

Rome would have tolerated Christian doctrine out of diversity, but because the church was well-organized and hierarchically constituted, it needed to be destroyed.  The Decian persecution of 249-250 was where the Roman government first recognized the organized church was truly a threat to them. This later persecution under Valerian began as the result of an epidemic.  All persons were ordered to offer sacrifice to the gods on behalf of Rome to bring protection to the city.  Christians refused to participate for obvious reasons and this started the backlash.

The Rome authorities held forth that anyone found to be a Christian will be executed and will endure the seizure of their property to the benefit of the Imperial state treasury.  In the background of this persecution is another reality: the emperor was badly in need of funds to pay the Roman army and so he had a greater interest in the “seizure” part of the persecution than he did in mass executions.

Because of this, most rank and file Christians were ignored, but Christian leaders, influential personalities, and Christians known to be wealthy were directly sought out by the government.  They would have fewer victims but definitely more riches with this approach.

From the moment of Sixtus II’s election as pope, Lawrence his archdeacon was always by his side. Lawrence worked day and night, busy running to and fro with great zeal for his office and for doing good to those within and without the church of Rome.  He was well known to the people and some even called him ‘the angel of Rome’ because of his many acts of mercy and charity.

 Eventually the Pope’s location was discovered and he was arrested in the persecution.  As Lawrence watched his spiritual father undergo the indignity of arrest, his eyes were filled with tears.  He was sad not only for the loss of his shepherd and mentor, but also because he would not have the honor of dying together with him.
Pope Sixtus II

 Pope Sixtus consoled him with these prophetic words:  I will not leave you or abandon you son, but there are more difficult tests reserved for you.  Because I am already old, I will receive an easy test, but because you are young you will face a more difficult test from the tyrant.  Do not cry for in three days you will join me.

A classic poem on the Life of St. Lawrence

Sixtus quietly recommended that Lawrence distribute all the treasures of the church to the poor so that they who would not fall in the hands of the persecutors.   The holy deacon, enthusiastic about the prediction of the martyrdom and that he will soon be gaining glory did not waste any time.  He rounded up all of his assistants and distributed all the wealth of the church among the poor according to their needs.

Lawrence distributing "treasures" to the poor

Saint Ambrose, who provides us with many of the most credible details of Lawrence’s story, explains that the church did accumulate gold and silver in the form of beautiful chalices, plates, and accessories for their worship services.  Although some churches still met in homes, the church was also in the stage of development where they were also beginning to build buildings and it was quite natural for the faithful who had means to want to furnish them with beautiful accessories.

Ambrose tells us that the church did not give away the church treasure as liturgical implements but would melt them down and distributed the gold and silver as the need warranted.  The view was taken from the Old Testament when the Babylonians came and plundered the Temple in Jerusalem.  They took the implements of gold and silver that were intended for use in worshiping God and used them idolatrous purposes (something for which God would judge that nation for at a future date).  The thought of the church was if they were going to be plundered by the government, better to melt the gold down themselves and give it away for good purposes.

Beyond that idea, the church also felt that although beautiful things are a wonderful adornment to their worship, the more beautiful adornment is that of good works.  Sometimes, even if there was no threat of seizure, the church would still melt down its precious metals to redeem someone from slavery or to help Christians in a time of famine to be able to purchase food.

St. Lawrence is so awesome he has his own Facebook page. Like him here!

Getting back to St. Lawrence, upon taking leave of the pope he went to the home of a noble woman by the name of Ciriaca.  Her home is where the church’s treasures were stored and it was also a distribution center for the poor and for Christian pilgrims needing assistance.  During the persecution, Ciriaca hid Christians and church leaders in her home which eventually was found out by the authorities in a later time and led to her own martyrdom.

In today’s Rome, the church of Santa Maria in Domenica at the top of the Coelian hill is built on top of the site of St. Ciriaca’s home.  This church is also known as “the Navicella” because there is a fountain in the front of the church in the shape of a ship.  It is from this point that centuries ago St. Lawrence made haste to give away the treasures of the church.

While Sixtus was being led to his execution, Lawrence followed him saying “Oh holy father, do not abandon me;  I made good use of the treasures that you’ve entrusted to me.”
Upon hearing this, the soldiers immediately arrested Lawrence and brought him to the tribune Partenio who questioned him about these treasures and where they were being kept.
Eventually this information was brought to the emperor Valerian who wanted to meet with Lawrence.  He demanded that the treasures be brought to him and so Lawrence shrewdly requested three days that he could make a ‘proper accounting of them’ before turning them all over to the emperor.

Over the next three days, Lawrence went to all the people who had received his gifts and asked them to gather at a certain place on the following day.  When he reported to Valerian, all the poor people were gathered.  “Here,” as Lawrence pointed to all the poor, sick, crippled, aged, and ragged of the city, “is the treasure of the church.”
Lawrence before the Prefect of Rome

The emperor was enraged and stunned, but Lawrence pointed out that according to scripture, these truly are the trophies and wealth of the church.  This led to Lawrence being given the sentence of death.

The emperor informed Lawrence that he knew he was ready to die for his faith, but it was not going to be an easy and painless death by the sword.  In fact, he was going to be a burnt offering himself.  But it would be even more horrific because he would be roasted on a lower temperature over a longer time.

Although it was not as common a torture as it became in the Middle Ages, the tradition is that Lawrence was cooked while still alive on a Roman gridiron.  Imagine a large barbecue grill with legs high enough to build a cooking fire underneath.

Lawrence on the gridiron

 There are two traditions related to this event.  One is that fuel used to burn Lawrence was copies of the Bible which had been seized from the church.  The other one is that Lawrence asked his tormenters to flip him over because he was done on the backside.  Neither of these details are likely to be true, but they have been a part of the story so long that it would be unthinkable to leave them out.

Get a great downloadable book on St. Lawrence here

The execution in such a brutal way was shocking even to the Roman people who watched blood sport for entertainment. Several senators who came to watch this horrid spectacle were converted on the spot by Lawrence’s grace and prayers for the salvation of the lost while undergoing intense suffering.  They took his body and gave him an honorable burial.

Lawrence came into the presence of Christ on August 10, 258 AD.  It was his death that marked the death of idolatry in Rome.  While it wasn’t outlawed until the next century, the injustice of persecution and the steadfast witness of St. Lawrence and many others in the face of government sponsored violence put its practice into sharp decline that very year.
St. Lawrence outside the walls church in Rome

And so the tears of St. Lawrence, seen in the night sky of August, are not the tears of sadness but tears of joy that can only come when you realize God has used your life, every bit of it, to make His name hallowed on earth even as it is in heaven.

Ambrose.  On the Duties of the Clergy Book II.   26 Feb. 2015

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Frend, W.H. C.  Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church.  (Cambridge : James Clarke, 2008)
Kirsch, Johann Peter.  “St. Lawrence”  The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 9  (New York : Robert Appleton Company, 1910)  20 Feb. 2015
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“Lawrence, Roman Martyr”  Encyclopedia of Ancient Christianity.  Angelo Di Berardino Gen. Ed.  (Downers Grove : Intervarsity Press, 2014)
Martina, Fr. Sergio.  The Papal Basilica of St. Lawrence Outside the Walls and its Saints.  Dina Saliola trans.  (Roma : Prima Edizione, 2012)
“St. Laurentius”  Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature Vol. 5.  McClintock and Strong Eds.  (Grand Rapids : Baker Books, 1981)
Saint of the Day: Lives, Lessons, and Feasts.  Foley and McCloskey O.F.M. ed. & rev.  (Cincinnati : St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2001)
Schaff, Philip.  History of the Christian Church Vol. 2.  (Grand Rapids : Eerdmanns, 1910)
Ubodi, Flavio.  St. Lawrence Deacon and Martyr (between history and legend).  A.M. Barnido and Norberto Mariani trans.  (Rome: Basilica St. Lawrence Fuori le Mura, 2008)